Sheen talks shop at MFS screening

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Multiple Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actor Martin Sheen spoke Saturday at the Malibu Jewish Center about his new movie “The Way” in a wide-ranging Q&A. Interviewed by Pepperdine University professor Ed Larson, Sheen recalled what it was like to be directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and lent insight into how he channels emotion from his own past into his characters on the screen. Photo by Julie Ellerton / TMT

Local Martin Sheen did a lengthy Q&A Saturday at the Malibu Jewish Center after screenings of the new films “Young Adult” and “The Way,” put on by the Malibu Film Society. “Young Adult” star Charlize Theron did not show for the scheduled appearance.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

The prop truck was packed, a long day of filming in the books, when Emilio Estevez came rushing up the Spanish hillside and shouted at a group of actors, among them his father, Martin Sheen, to grab their gear. Estevez had framed a lovely panorama of the sun setting over the Pyrenees, a unique angle, and as the weary actors attempted to get into character before the dying light gave out, one sputtered, “What’s our motivation?” The young director, absorbed in the moment, turned with a look of surprise. “To give thanks and praise, of course.”

Such is the mission of Estevez’s new film, “The Way,” as recounted by Sheen Saturday at the Malibu Jewish Center. The film played in a double feature with the new Jason Reitman dark comedy, “Young Adult,” as part of the Malibu Film Society’s third annual “Awards Screening Series” held in the run-up to the awards season in January and February.

The evening had been billed as a double dose of Hollywood heavyweights with Q&As with Sheen and actress Charlize Theron of “Young Adult,” which has garnered early Oscar buzz. But Theron begged off with a case of food poisoning, despite the efforts of publicists who were reportedly leery of offending the estimated 30 to 40 Academy and film industry guild voters who showed up expecting to hear Theron speak.

Sheen picked up the slack with an enlightening Q&A following a screening of “The Way,” written and directed by his son Estevez. Sheen stars in the film as Tom, a cranky American doctor who arrives in Europe to collect the remains of his son, who has died while hiking a historic 800-kilometer pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago. Instead of returning, Tom, in a moment of inspiration, decides to hike the pilgrimage in his son’s memory. He is joined by an eccentric cast of fellow pilgrims, each of whom carry personal burdens, but who heal collectively on their long journey through Spain.

The film is a deeply personal work, connecting three generations of the Sheen family. Sheen and his grandson, Taylor, drove the Camino in 2003 while on break from filming “The West Wing.” They stopped for the night at a bed and breakfast in the Spanish countryside, and sat down to dinner with their hosts.

“Suddenly a beautiful young girl came in serving. She was the youngest daughter of the innkeeper,” Sheen said. “Taylor looked at her, she looked at him. They’re still looking at each other, because they’re married.”

When Estevez journeyed to Spain to meet his new daughter-in-law, he became fascinated by the Camino de Santiago, Sheen said, and conceived the idea for what would become “The Way.” With no takers from the major studios, Estevez and Sheen borrowed money to film and distribute it themselves.

Shooting in 2009 in 40 days and 40 nights. “It was very biblical,” Sheen said. They crisscrossed much of the ancient 800-kilometer Camino in the process. (Sheen had to jump into a river for one scene because his stunt double, who was a horse riding expert but a poor swimmer, refused to do the scene.)

This year, they drove across the U.S. in a bus promoting the film in small towns and universities. The journey ended in October after 14,000 miles and 54 venues.

“The Way” is dedicated to Sheen’s father, who hailed from Spain. When asked by an audience member how he prepared himself to play a father who must bury a son, Sheen answered by way of a personal story.

In 1974, his father died suddenly in Ohio. Shortly before the funeral, his sister was hospitalized in New York with a serious illness. Sheen flew to New York to be with her, missing his father’s funeral. As a result, Sheen said, “I never had this opportunity to mourn my father, whom I adored.”

Five years later, while filming a TV mini-series called “Blind Ambition” based on the life of disgraced Watergate figure John Dean, Sheen had a moment of inspiration.

“It was John Dean, in a three-piece suit with his coiffed hair. He was handcuffed and arrested and thrown in this Washington, D.C. jail, and it was a toilet,” Sheen said. “In the book [Dean’s autobiography], he walked into the cell and just came apart. He wept uncontrollably.”

Before doing the scene, Sheen, whose real name is Ramon Estevez, took a magic marker and wrote the word “Ramon” on the cell wall. He instructed the cinematographer to say the word when they started the scene.

Returning in his three-piece suit, Sheen walked up to the camera, turned around, and when the word was spoken he “just dissolved, I let it all out.”

“My father was the only person that ever called me Ramon,” he said. “I hadn’t mourned him, I didn’t get a chance. I did it in that scene.”

Sheen said he used the same methodology in “The Way” for his role of a grieving father.

“For me it was something deeply personal. The thing about all art, I think it has to be personal. If it’s not personal, it’s impersonal. If it’s impersonal, nobody cares. And you know when it’s personal.

“That’s the emotional well that every artist has. So I hate to imagine the pain that a parent would endure.”