Hollywood royalty came to Dubai this week when the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) honoured Martin Sheen with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Famous for such movies as Apocalypse Now and the television series The West Wing, the veteran actor spoke candidly about his films, family and faith.
Congratulations on the award – how does it feel?
Well, somebody had to get it! [Laughs] And they had to be alive, right? I’m delighted because it’s a reflection of how the community views you and that’s what’s so gratifying.
What personal or professional ambitions do you have left to realise?
My life has become, over the past 30 years, a bringing together of all the fragmented pieces. I was an actor here, an activist there, a husband here, a father there. I didn’t have a clue who I was. So I brought everything together and the centre of this focus was my return to Catholicism. Although I’d been raised Catholic I came back to a far different church in the 1980s. It was a church of activism and involvement, where we were not interested in saving people’s souls but saving [our] souls by serving others. I embraced social justice and a non-violent peace advocacy. I’ve found a way to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. Put them together and you’re balanced.
You have four children, all of whom are actors whom you’ve appeared with on-screen. Which has been the most memorable experience?
The last thing I did was really the best thing. It was called The Way, the film I did with my son Emilio [Estevez] in Spain. It actually started with his son, who began working as my assistant while I was doing The West Wing. We went to Spain, trying to organise a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, because my father was Spanish and from near there. We stayed at a refuge for pilgrims and that night at dinner, my grandson met his future wife. They’ve been together ever since, for 10 years. Emilio would visit him there, became more interested in the pilgrimage and started to conceive of a father-son story. A father losing his son and finding himself. I love the movie, it’s my favourite thing.
How do you deal with all of the press intrusion when it comes to another of your sons, Charlie?
Well, with Charlie, his stardom, celebrity and lifestyle is very different from mine – he’s a lot younger and has more energy than I do! He’s hard to keep up with at times but we’re no less supportive; his journey is just different to ours. I do his show, of course, and play his father on Anger Management – and that’s a very good time for us to work and laugh together. It keeps us very connected.
Let’s talk about your activism.
Nope, pass. I have no interest whatsoever [Laughs]. OK, of course I have an interest in politics. But I don’t have the kind of faith in politics for being an instrument of change. Change comes from the people, the grass-roots level, particularly those who have suffered or been oppressed. We’re just now “celebrating” – and I use the word consciously – the legacy of Mandela. He suffered more than 27 years to understand that the only way to achieve what he did was through transcendence. That’s the realisation that all of the great leaders have given us, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Malcolm X as well.
You’ve played the presidents John F Kennedy and Jed Bartlet – should you have run for office?
I’ve been an actor all my life and I’ve never wanted to be anything else. But, yes, I have been lucky to play some of my heroes including JFK and Bobby Kennedy along the way.
You’ve been married 52 years this month – what’s the secret?
I’m only responsible for half! [Laughs] Really I was lucky enough to marry someone I adored. She was also determined to live an honest life and it took me a long time, about 20 years into our marriage, to realise that was the only reason to live. Neither person should look for the other to make them happy, that won’t work. You’re only responsible for loving each other and telling the whole truth, all the time. There’s a great freedom in that, when you trust another with your exterior and interior life; then you nourish each other.
Martin Sheen, it’s been a pleasure, thank you very much for your time.
[Laughs] No, no, I’m not done with you yet. I have lots more wonderful advice for you, young lady!