Martin Sheen on The Way, and an apology for George W. Bush
HH: Joined now by actor Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
MS: Thank you so much, Hugh. I’m delighted to join you.
HH: Now I know what media junkets are like as you’re out and telling people about this fascinating movie, The Way, but I don’t know that you have any idea they’ve booked you onto a conservative talk show host.
MS: (laughing) I knew exactly what I was doing, and I’m delighted to join you.
HH: You’re very kind. I’m very glad to have you here, and I am thrilled about this movie. I think we may share an affection for pilgrimages. And would you tell people about The Way at the very beginning, so people get out and see it next week?
MS: Yes, of course. You know, it was inspired by my grandson, Taylor. He and I were in Spain in 2003, he was working for me as an assistant on The West Wing. And during our break that summer, we went to Spain, and we tried to do the Camino in two weeks. It just wasn’t enough time, so we rented a car, and we drove the pilgrimage route. And along the way, he met his future wife in a refugio in Burgos, which is one of the main stops. And that inspired me to really want to further investigate this ancient pilgrimage. And so I prevailed upon Taylor’s father, Emilio, my son, and he got interested, and he ended up writing this really terrific story, and he wrote the father role, the leading role, for me.
HH: It’s remarkable. I read the press clips on it.
MS: It’s a deeply connected family situation here.
HH: Yeah, it’s 180 miles, roughly, the length of this. It’s over a thousand years old.
MS: No, no, it’s 500 miles. It’s 800 kilometers.
HH: I thought you covered only about 180 in the filming?
MS: No, no. We covered the entire Camino…
MS: …from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees all the way across to Galicia, Santiago. And then we went on to Murcia, which is at the end of the Iberian Continent by the sea.
HH: How long did this take to film?
MS: It took 40 days and nights, which is somewhat Biblical, and it played right into our theme, you know? I think the best way to describe pilgrimage is with the old saying, you know, it’s an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. You know, you’re required to do a physical journey, and to carry all your belongings. And along the way, you begin to get rid of some of the belongings, because as usual, you’ve overpacked. And as that happens, then the transcendent journey starts. You begin to go inside, which is the true pilgrimage, and you begin to get rid of some of the baggage that you’ve accumulated over the years, you know, like people, we’ve kept hidden in the dungeons of our hearts. We’re punishing people we feel have not been properly punished for how they treated us in our lives, and how they ruined our lives. And gradually, we begin to let all this negativity you, you know, our hatreds and angers, and envies and animosities. All of that negative darkness, we begin to free from the dungeons of our hearts, and we begin to become our true selves. That’s the image of pilgrimage, and in fact, that’s what happens to a great many people along the way. And it’s just quite exciting to see that unfold, where people become free.
HH: If I understand this right, the movie centers on the father has lost his son.
HH: And there’s no greater pain in this world than that. And so I’m curious as to how you access that grief, and whether or not that was a very difficult part of the making of the film, or whether it was fairly easy for you.
MS: Well, nothing is really easy. The idea for an actor is to make it look easy, you know, but we call carry our own personal pain, you know, and when we go to work, it’s, as a writer, a dancer, an actor, a composer, singer, whatever it is, we sometimes have to go to that well and conjure up some very private pain that must now go public for the purpose of our conveying the necessary emotion through the character.
HH: Has it yet be seen by any fathers who have lost their sons?
MS: Oh, well, you know, we’ve been on pilgrimage across America. We’re in our 23rd city, our 6th week in a bus, and we’ve prayed with upwards of maybe 35,000-40,000 people. We do Q & A’s afterwards, and we had the most extraordinary experience at Virginia Tech University.
MS: We detoured our bus from Atlanta to Blacksburg, and played the film to 3,000 students at Virginia Tech, and it was the most extraordinary experience. There’s no place in America that suffered a more grievous loss in the last few years than Virginia Tech. And so since our film is basically about healing, we felt we needed to go there, and to a place of great healing. And their response was just unbelievable.
HH: Well, tell people about it.
MS: And yeah, there were a lot of people in that audience that had lost children. And as you know, there’s a monument there, there’s a memorial right in front of the theater where we played on campus, and it was a deeply moving experience. Yeah, there’s a lot of loss there, a lot of, not just fathers and sons, but mothers and daughters were lost there. And we joined some of those people in remembering their children. So yeah, that was the most extraordinary response, yeah.
HH: And so Martin Sheen, what is it doing to those parents? And what is it doing to you to interact with those parents?
MS: Well, you know, they have come through the darkest, most unbelievable experience. And yeah, as a parent, and if you’re a parent, you can sympathize as well. There’s no greater loss. You can’t even imagine it. So our film is a reflection of healing. It’s about healing. It’s about going from loss to healing. And it basically says that the best way to do it is through community. You can do it alone, but it’s not necessary, and it’s no complete. You really need community. And our film celebrates that very, very much.
HH: Now The Way also makes use of the pilgrims who are actually en route along the way of St. James when you were filming this. How so?
MS: Well, we encountered quite a few of them. Some of them just walked on camera while we were filming, and so Emilio said wait, cut, cut, would you guys like to be in a film? And he would just include them. So all the pilgrims you see on camera are real pilgrims except the speaking parts. And we carried a lot of release forms with us, in a lot of different languages, including Korean. And believe it or not, there’s a great number of Koreans on the pilgrimage. And they appear in the film as well.
HH: When you did it with Taylor, before the movie was made, with your grandson, are you able to stop being Martin Sheen? Or do people around the world know you, and therefore relate to you as a movie star, and President Bartlett, and all that stuff?
MS: (laughing) Well, you know, it annoys Taylor unendingly, even now. He’s on tour with us, with us wife, you know, Julia, who’s mother’s name, incidentally, is Milagros, which is miracle in Spanish. So yeah, it’s a bit annoying to me, because he’s so shy. And he’s not, I mean, you know, he’s my grandson. He’s my son’s son, and he’s grown up in this business, and watching his father and grandfather and uncles, all of them in the business. But it’s the last thing he wants to do, and so yeah, it’s a bit annoying to him. Sometimes, someone will stop me on the street, and Taylor will keep walking.
HH: Did the movie change your Roman Catholic faith at all, Martin Sheen?
MS: Well, it strengthened it. You know, I’m a practicing Catholic, and I intend to keep practicing until I get it right. But I reconverted. I don’t know if you knew that.
HH: No, I didn’t.
MS: I had kind of fallen away through the 70s, and I came back in 1981. So the last 30 years of my life have been the most rewarding, the happiest, and the most committed, because I came back to a totally different Church. I hadn’t realized what changes had been made during Vatican II, and the option for the poor, and the embrace of non-violence and social justice. And so that made me feel committed to peace and social justice issues. And so I often say that Mother Teresa drove me back to Catholicism, but Daniel Berrigan keeps me there.
HH: Now did you celebrate Mass at the Cathedral at St. James?
MS: Oh, yes. In fact, you’ll see we were allowed to photograph the Mass, and the blessing afterwards, this famous blessing called the Botafumeiro, which is an incense, huge incense thing that is flung from floor to ceiling, and it just is a delightful tradition that has been going on since the Middle Ages. But there is what they call every day at Noon o’Clock, there is the Pilgrim’s Mass, where all the pilgrims that have arrived that day gather in the Cathedral, and they attend this Mass. And it’s a very, very special occasion.
HH: When we come back with Martin Sheen, we’ll continue to talk about his brand new movie, made and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. It’s called The Way. It is in theaters everywhere across the United States next week. And the early reviews of it are that it is an extraordinarily moving, deeply enriching experience. But of course, I’ll talk a little politics with Martin Sheen as well. Do not worry. That will come.
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HH: Martin Sheen, Bernard Cornwell, among many other authors, have written about the Way of St. James in his Sharpe series. I’ve been to pilgrimage Churches – the four in Rome, St. Paul outside the road, St. Peters, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran. I’m just wondering, have you ever made a pilgrimage to a pilgrimage Church other than St. James?
MS: Well, yes. I’m a devotee of the Holy Mother, so I have been to most of the renowned apparition sites. I’ve been to Guadalupe in Mexico City, and to Lourdes in France, to Fatima in Portugal, to Garabandal in Spain, to Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia. So yeah, it’s…
HH: Why do you go to those places, Martin Sheen? I find that fascinating.
MS: Well, you know, when you go there, any one of these places are so special. There’s just something going on there that…it’s mystery, isn’t it? You know, you have to believe, and even if you don’t believe, it doesn’t take long before you realize something special is happening here. I mean, for example, in Medjugorje, people go through in the pilgrimage, in the middle of the day, saying the Rosary. There’ll be 50 or 60 people walking up the street. They could be from all over the world. They’re coming with their pastor or some lay leader. And they unabashedly pray openly, walking to the site, surround the apparition mountain and the Church, and it’s just, it’s astonishing. And it’s done with such absolute fervor, and it just seems everyone is just very natural about what they’re doing. There’s no, no one’s shy about it. No one’s embarrassed. It just allows for that, and that’s the feeling I had with Lourdes in France. You know, my wife is not Catholic, and she and I went there together a few years ago, and she got into the spirit of it, and she insisted that we march in the procession that night. She bought candles, and we sang, and said the Rosary with 25,000 other strangers.
HH: Are you a devotee of the Rosary, Martin Sheen?
MS: I’m sorry, what?
HH: Are you a devotee of the Rosary? Do you say it often?
MS: I do as a matter of fact, yeah. And I’ve become known as the Rosary dispenser. I have a habit of leaving them in places, and with people along the road, yeah. It’s a sacred icon. Whether you believe or not, people are inclined to accept it. I’ve never been refused if I’ve offered someone a Rosary, particularly someone who’s going through a hard time, or particularly lost, you know. It just is an icon. You keep it in your pocket. It just evokes a presence.
HH: I’ve got to ask you. This is because I always like to ask things you don’t get anywhere else. Are you a devotee of the joyful mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries or the glorious mysteries?
MS: (laughing) Well, I’m afraid that the sorrowful mysteries are my favorite, but only because I know them so well.
MS: And they’re all on Friday.
MS: So they’re the easiest ones to remember, but relate to the suffering. Each bead, I conjure up somebody I know, a relative, a friend, somebody in public life, or somebody going through a difficult time. And I just put their name on it, and I just ask the Holy Mother to be present to that person.
HH: Did you pray for President Bush when he was in office?
MS: Of course I did. I prayed that he wouldn’t go into Iraq, for Heaven sakes. You know, I prayed that he would pay more attention to non-violence, and to finding other means for achieving a goal and not hurting anybody.
HH: A lot of attention was paid to your “white-knuckled drunk” comment back then. Do you regret that at all?
MS: Do I regret it? Yeah, of course. Yeah, I could have…you know, he regretted some remarks that frankly, I was glad to hear, when he said bring it on, upon reflection, towards the end of his term, he said that that was not an appropriate response. And yeah, I would do that. If I saw him, I would apologize and ask him to let me off the hook for that.
HH: Now the current president, who is closer to your politics than mine by a lot, is using many of the same instruments, including last week the assassination of al-Awlaki in Yemen.
HH: And I don’t even like the word assassination, the killing, and of course, bin Laden. What do you as a practitioner of non-violence believe about those actions?
MS: Well, obviously, you know, I think my public record would speak for me for non-violence. I believe in the non-violent Jesus. So I would personally be not in favor of such actions. I can’t know the whole picture about why or how that decision was made to do that. It seems to now have become policy, you know, with these drones. But I have to focus on a different side of that. There are always a lot of innocent people that are slaughtered in these attacks, that really have to give us pause. I believe in the seamless garment. I support pro-life, and I’m against the death penalty, as well as any violence. You have to ask the old question, you know, what comes first? You know, who dies first, the assassin or the assassinated? And it’s the assassin, because in that true sense, you have to be dead before you can kill.
HH: Yeah, it’s fascinating to me, because…
MS: Some part of humanity has to have already been killed, you know?
HH: You are consistent, and I’ve always known that about you across your political positions from that non-violent Catholic perspective, and the Dorothy Day perspective. There are a couple of books out there like The Triple Agent and The Looming Tower that describes the enemy that is opposed to the United States, this radical Islamic jihadism, by no means, anything like the entirety of Islam. But what do you think, given that we know from those books people are trying to kill us, that we do about that?
MS: Well, you know, Hugh, I don’t have the answer for anybody. I can only speak and judge myself. I wouldn’t, I have a lot of friends in the military, and some in the government that are supportive of these policies. I can’t fault them. For my own part, I wouldn’t be comfortable approving of such action. But I know we live in a very violent world. I just do not choose to participate in that aspect to try and make it safer, or more human, or less violent. I can only speak for myself. You know, all of the issues that I have participated in, and, how should I say, issues that I have embraced, nothing that I ever stood for has ever gotten any better, you know? There are more nuclear weapons now than ever. There are more homeless now than ever. There are more poor people. There’s more violence in the world than when I started, I don’t know how many years ago, to oppose it. So I don’t have any illusions about changing the world. In fact, the only one that I have ever managed to change along the way, and that just marginally, is myself.
HH: Martin Sheen, it’s a great pleasure to have had you. Congratulations on making another fantastic movie. I hope we have another chance to talk more about faith and politics down the road a little bit. The road that you want to go learn about next week, America, is The Way, Martin Sheen’s new movie, directed and written by his son, Emilio Estevez.
End of interview.