- 21 Nov 06
Martin Sheen has starred in at least two of the greatest films ever made, survived a massive heart attack, found God, and campaigned tirelessly for social justice in the Third World. Now, he’s gone back to school, studying Philosophy and English at (of all places) the NUI in Galway. Jason O’Toole meets him for his only Irish print interview.
Martin Sheen has starred in some cinematic masterpieces like Apocalypse Now and Badlands. He is one of America’s most prolific actors but, unfortunately, there is a downside to this: Martin admits to making more than his fair share of turkeys.
“I am proud of just a handful of films. I would say 90% of it was basically trash. I did it for the money, and most of the stuff I did was a great source of embarrassment to me,” Martin confesses when we first meet at the aptly named Presidential Suite in The Westbury Hotel, Dublin, for this interview. The 67-year-old Ohio-born actor, who has played the President of America four times, points to the suite’s title and lightheartedly says: “Perhaps they should call it: The Former Acting President’s suite!”
Martin describes Apocalypse Now as being “both a career-changing experience as well as a personal voyage” because it helped him to face his own “darkness and inhumanity”. After suffering the near-death experience of a heart attack on the film set in the Philippines, Martin gave up his excessive drinking and returned to his Catholic faith. “I had to come clean of that. I had to find myself. That was a long and very painful journey, which accumulated in my return to Catholicism,” he explains.
Apocalypse Now took up 15 months of Martin’s life and, after it finished, he spent the next four years focusing on inner contemplation. Eventually, Martin emerged re-invigorated from his new-found belief in religion, and determined to have a positive influence on society, particularly with human rights issues. When he’s not making films or television shows, Martin can be found campaigning on a wide variety of social, political and humanitarian issues. He has set up a foundation to help the poor in Third World countries, and he frequently visits deprived areas to help “shine the press light” on horrible conditions. In fact, Martin has been arrested 65 times for his involvement in many radical campaigns in America, including stances against nuclear weapons and the invasion of Iraq.
The West Wing star shocked the show-business world when he decided, earlier this year, to move to Ireland and become a student. He regretted never undertaking a third-level education, and decided to live out his “romantic fantasy” of returning to his mother’s homeland to study at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Since arriving in Ireland, Martin has repeatedly turned down requests for interviews, insisting that he wants to keep a “low profile”. In this – his first and only interview with the Irish print media – Martin Sheen talks candidly to Hot Press.
JASON O’TOOLE: Instead of studying here in Ireland, you could be off in Hollywood acting today...
MARTIN SHEEN: I don’t know about that! I don’t get big pictures these days.
Why did you decided to come to study in Galway?
I guess it is a romantic fantasy. I guess that’s the best way to describe going to school in Ireland. It has been on my mind for many years. I kept putting it off and, finally, when the West Wing series ended, I thought I had a window of opportunity. I don’t know how much time I have left (laughs), but I am truly enjoying it. As I say, it is a great adventure. I come here a lot. I have been coming here since 1973. My mother’s from here, I’ve lots of Irish relatives and I adore all of them. I see them quite often. I’m captivated by the country – the spirit of the country, the people. I have never had a bad day in Ireland. It just awakens a sense in me that (pauses)… it nourishes me in ways that no other country does.
How are you finding student life?
I’m not an ideal student. It’s a great adventure and I’m enjoying it. The only regret I have is that I didn’t do this 50 years ago. But it’s really great, and the people in Galway and at the university have been very supportive. I feel right at home – in fact, I am at home.
What subjects are you studying?
I’m studying Philosophy, English, Earth and Ocean Science, and Computers because I never worked with computers before. So I have a full schedule and I’m enjoying it immensely. I have no background in science at all - in fact, I haven’t been to school since I finished high school nearly 50 years ago. The old brain is being cranked up and it’s not on full throttle yet. I’m very grateful that the National University of Ireland allowed me to come study. I’m not a great student, unfortunately, but I’m inspired. I know now why people go to school when they are young – the energy and the focus is so enormous. I came because I work for a lot of environmental organisations in the States – I do a lot of documentaries, a lot of voice-overs. I try to expose a lot of the destruction of the environment, in the hope that people will begin to wake up and help repair it. I thought it would be a good idea if I knew something about what was happening with global warming, so that’s what inspired me to do it. Almost two years ago I visited NUI and toured the Ryan Institute, which is doing a great deal of research, and they invited me to come back.
You are quoted as saying, “I love being Spanish as much as I love being Irish – and I really love being Irish.” Does that really sum up your identity?
I do really love being Irish. When you have parents from two different cultures, you’re bound to carry both equally. You might favour one over the other at one time or another but, basically, you have to be balanced with them. That was simple in my case because they are both so much alike: they are both Celtic tribes. I visited my father’s place in 1969 and I visited my mother’s village in 1973 for the first time, and they were both very similar in their structure, their colour, their people, their character. The cultures were very, very close. Land was very important, family was very important and you had all the personalities in a community integrated. Both cultures had such similar basic accommodation. They were family-orientated, they were peasant-orientated, they were land-orientated, they were Celtic people and their personalities were such that you could switch one for the other. They are very easy to identify with. I’m comfortable with both cultures.
You took your stage surname from the Rev Fulthan J. Sheen. You obviously had a lot of admiration for the man?
No, I had a fascination with him when I was a boy. He had a prime-time, half-hour television series every Tuesday night. He would appear and give a lecture on television. He was the first tele-evangelist, basically. He was the Auxiliary Bishop of New York and he was on television for years and years. He was a very powerful, very popular figure. He was also somewhat conservative but I didn’t have a clue, at the time, about what his politics were. I just thought of him as being this great actor. He was this great figure on television and I just thought, “Oh, my God! This guy is really powerful.” I thought of him as an actor giving a performance. So when I decided to use his name – and I met him as a result – I felt it suited me, you know. I took Martin from a guy I’d known when I first came to New York who was very helpful to me, Robert Dale Martin. And I took Sheen partly because it sounded Irish, and partly because this guy had inspired me as an actor – not as a churchman.
Apart from being so prolific as an actor, you spend a lot of time working on human rights issues. How do you have time for a personal life? It seems to take up a lot of your energy.
It does. Anyone gets tired, you can only do so much, but I really don’t separate the human rights work from any other part of my life.
What initially sparked you to get involved with charitable work?
I came from a very large immigrant family. My mother, as you know, was Irish and my dad was Spanish. They were very poor. I had to start working when I was very young. I was nine years old when I started caddying at a local golf club, a very exclusive club. I saw the effects of racism, and I felt the barriers between rich and poor. I would work for people who were pillars of the community; you know, the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians – the powerful ones. There were no blacks or women amongst them. And they were not heroic people, it’s sad to say. So I learnt as much from them, about what not to do. I didn’t aspire to be anything like them. I respected them as human beings, but I felt sure that was not what I wanted to become: wealthy or privileged in any way because I knew that was the death of the soul. Instinctively, I knew that and most of the kids I grew up with knew that. They didn’t want to become those guys they worked for. There was nothing about them that was inspiring.
Caddying must have been a strenuous job for a child?
When I was about 13, I organised a strike and formed a caddy union because the wages were very low and the work was very hard. We were children. Today, it would be called child labour. We were all kids, and we were working for these wealthy people. Those bags were heavy. If you were big enough, strong enough, skilled enough, you would carry two of them and make $4.25. This was in the mid-1950s. I knew a love of work. I struggled to make a living. All of us did – all my brothers, nine boys and one girl. All of the boys in front of me had caddied and it was just a natural progression. When I became strong enough to carry a golf bag, I joined the ranks of the caddies. I became, basically, a professional caddy, and I did it until the age of 17, when I left home. I had other little jobs, but that was the steady one. From early spring to late fall, that was what we did. We would save our money, in the summer particularly, and it would help our dad with the tuition. We went to an all-boys Catholic high school. We needed books, you had to wear a tie, and we had to dress a little more snappy. So that all helped him. He was a factory worker and he didn’t make a lot of money, so we all had to pitch in. That was my upbringing.
I read you have been arrested 70 times?
No. I have only been arrested 65 times. I am almost up to my age (laughs).
What motivates you to participate in humanitarian work?
Well, the Gospel, primarily, motivates my human rights activities. The command of the Gospel is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, house the homeless, to visit the imprisoned, to do justice, and to love, and to walk humbly. That’s the command of all the Gospels. And I think that the only way you come to know yourself is by serving others. I don’t know a better way, otherwise it is self-service, service to a company for profit. So much growth happens within you when you’re involved in peace and social justice work, because it takes you into areas that you would not normally go. And you touch people that you would not normally touch: the marginalized and the poor and the disenfranchised. You’re dealing with people who suffer on a daily basis, and who are left out. They have no voice, so you have to be a voice for the voiceless. But you grow in so many ways, if you’re willing to take the risk. It is risky, it is going to cost you something, and you’ve got to take it personally. If it’s not personal, it’s impersonal, and if it’s impersonal, who cares? You can’t idly stand by, you can’t elect not to do it once you are informed about what’s going on. You have to take a stand, otherwise you become part of the problem. My whole adult life, I’ve been involved in various peace and social justice issues, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The only regret I have is that I didn’t get involved earlier. I was never arrested for anything involved with social justice until I was nearly 45.
Why so late?
I keep asking myself that question. It is just basically fear. You don’t want to suffer the consequences.
Can you remember your first time being arrested?
Yes. We were fighting against the establishment of ‘Star Wars’ which was an effort by the Reagan administration to place nuclear weapons in outer space. We placed our bodies at the doors so the employees on the project couldn’t get through, and I remember being terribly frightened by what was going to happen. The police captain came and I remember Fr. Bergin offering the New York police to come and join us in our protest. They said, “No. You have three minutes to get out of here,” and I thought, “Gee, what’s coming down now?” It was the scariest moment of my life, and the happiest was when it was over because I had done everything I possibly could. I’d done it non-violently, I’d even done it joyfully – and now I had to pay the consequences, which was a little while in jail and personal humiliation. It turned out that I met one of my heroes in the Paddy Wagon - if you will pardon the expression, that’s what we call them in New York. This young fellow was arrested with us. When we got to the police station he was collecting everyone’s summons, and he came to me and offered to represent us in court. I asked him how he planned to do so, and he explained that he was a criminal attorney.” “Oh,” I said, “but you were arrested with us.” But he said he believed in the cause. That was a very risky venture, because lawyers have to be careful of their criminal records. And he did represent me, and we became very close friends. He’s like a brother really.
You have been arrested while protesting against The School of the Americas, which is a military base that trains Latin-American soldiers. You have been involved in demonstrations against the base since 1998. Can you explain a little about this?
Fr. Rory Brogues founded the SOA Watch (The School of The Americas Watch). He is a priest who has served in Central and South America, and saw first-hand the effects, in those Third World countries, of the military that were trained at Fort Benning, and how those tactics - including death squads - were used on their own people. He awakened us to that reality, and focused on getting attention on that programme at the base. So we would gather there every late November around Thanksgiving, and protest, and try to break into the base – trespass, to be arrested and thrown off. So, yeah, I went there several times and was arrested there. It’s now been re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute For Security Co-operation.
Were you very disappointed when George Bush Jnr got re-elected?
Oh, God, yes. But he wasn’t re-elected, or elected in the first place. He stole both times! He did. People are well aware of the electoral fraud in 2000, but there is also huge evidence that it happened again in 2004. I have a theory that this administration, George Bush and his people, I think they all hate each other. They despise one another, because they look across the table at one another and they see projected the very worst part of themselves. There is no one there that inspires them to be better than that. To grow, to challenge, to be inventive and awaken some moral sense within them. There is no humanity in that group. They are anti-human.
You have been very vocal in your criticism of American foreign policy, particular with the invasion of Iraq. Not many American celebrities have been as outspoken as you. Why do you think this is?
Anybody courageous enough to speak out against the war was publicly humiliated and, sometimes, punished. It was very costly and still is. Now the country is finally waking up, and they are comparing it to Vietnam. The Administration refuses to acknowledge that they’ve provoked a vicious civil war, and it is going to cost them in the mid-term elections. It has also cost 2,800 American lives, 600,000 Iraqi lives and countless others in Afghanistan. We saw it coming. There is the old adage, “Choose your enemies well, for he is what you will become.” It’s just common sense. I think all war, all violence, is a reflection of despair, and we have showed a tremendous amount of arrogance and ignorance. I believe that arrogance is ignorance matured. This became obvious to all of us about this administration – they didn’t listen to anybody, they had no set true form of diplomacy, it was always force.
Politically speaking, do you feel America is not in great shape?
We don’t have any truly courageous leaders in our country at this time. There are some starting to emerge but, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, there was very, very little public opposition to the invasion, or the war, or the administration on any level. Now we have come to realise that they have been spying on us, intercepting e-mails, watching people who are basically being patriotic by showing the country its dark side, by saying, “Hey, we are better than this!” You don’t have to go to war just because you can. There is such a thing as diplomacy. Thank God, it is starting to change. People are waking up. More than 65% of the American public now disapproves of the war, not before time. I think 62% of the British public disapprove. I think Blair is in trouble – he is finished. Bush is in trouble – he’s finished. And so are many of the Senators and Congressmen who supported the war.
Have you ever considered running for public office?
No, no, no, thank God. I’ve never had any interest in entering political life. I am happy being an actor. I’m very lucky to have made my living – all my adult life – as an actor. I hope to continue with acting but, right now, I’m a student and I’m able to do it because I made my living out of acting. I have a great interest in public service, but no interest in politics per se, and I think there’s a big difference. We have people who are very interested in political power, but have very little understanding of true public service. That’s what’s been lacking in our country over the past five years.
You must have a very supportive family, particularly your wife, Janet. You have been married since 1961, which is very unusual for a Hollywood actor.
Well, we weren’t married in Hollywood! We were married in New York (laughs). I never thought of myself as a Hollywood actor per se. I’m just an actor, you know? I never identified with one coast or another really, it was just what I did, whether I was on stage or film or TV, it didn’t matter.
You have done a lot of political documentaries, particularly about former Yugoslav states and Third World countries, so it really does seem that the film projects you choose are politically motivated. Is this a fair assessment?
I would do those type of parts exclusively if I could. If all the roles had some human rights or social justice theme, I’d be more than happy to get involved. We hoped that we could raise some awareness with these films.
Is it true that you donated your fee from Gandhi to Mother Theresa?
Not all to her. I split it up three ways. A third apiece to Mother Theresa, to the American Service Friends Committee - who are the Quakers, they are anti-war - and to Concern, which started here in Ireland.
Did you get to meet Mother Teresa?
Yes, I did. I met her a couple of times. The first time was during the height of the first Gulf War, when my attorney called me up during the war and said, “I am going on a peace mission to Rome to meet Mother Teresa.” And his idea was that he wanted to take the case of the war to The Hague and get a ruling on it there, but you can’t go as an individual. You have to go as a nation, and the only nation that unilaterally opposed the war, and offered both sides mediation, was the Vatican, which is actually a nation. The Pope is the head of a nation, so his idea was that he would represent the Vatican against the war at The Hague pro bono. He thought this was the way to get the message out about war not being a good idea. John Paul II was the only internationally-recognised government leader who really opposed the war and offered to mitigate. So off we went to meet Mother Teresa, and it was a profound incident in my life. A sister brought us in and told us to sit down. We were sitting there in the church, and suddenly a door burst open and there she was. She had the dimensions of a child, she was tiny, and you could look over the top of her head. I felt uneasy, like I had to get smaller. I thought she was ten feet tall, didn’t you? I broke into tears when I saw her.
You actually cried?
Oh, God, everybody does. To see her is to realise “My God! It’s for real.” You can see it. You can see the light. You can feel the power. We spent about an hour and a half with her talking. Joe explained his mission and she said she’d never heard of the World Court. This is Mother Theresa! And he said, “Oh, yes, Ma’am. It has been around for a while and they litigate between countries.” And she looked off wistfully and asked how could The Hague enforce its judgment. And Joe said, “No, they couldn’t. It would be a moral victory. They have no power of enforcement.” She was captivated by the idea and she said yes, she would take it to the Holy Father. That was a Wednesday and she took it to the Vatican on Thursday, and she asked us to come to the early mass on Friday. When we arrived to meet her, the news greeted us that the war had ended in the Gulf that day. It was February 1 to 2, 1991.
You have described Martin Luther King as being an inspirational figure for you. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet him?
I helped organise a benefit for Martin Luther King back in ’65. It turned into such a huge event because Sammy Davis Junior got involved and made sure it was going to happen, and invited everyone on Broadway to get involved and participate. There were people like Barbara Streisand. It was this huge night on Broadway, I think it was the Majestic Theatre, and Reverend King came. I was backstage – I wasn’t performing, I was just helping people get chairs to sit down and wait their turn to go on – and King was standing right beside me. I was stunned by how small he was. He must have been 5ft 5”, no bigger. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t 10ft tall. My consciousness started to get to me: “Go and get the blessing! Go shake his hand. This is a man you love. He is your hero. Go and talk to him.” But then I thought, “No. Don’t bother the man. He doesn’t want to be bothered. He’s tired. He’s just waiting for Sammy to come off stage to say goodnight, and then he’ll go out the backstage door.” I was torn. There was nobody between us, there were no bodyguards, and I’m looking at him and I’m torn: “Go. No. Go. Don’t bother the man. Yes, bother the man.” And I didn’t. I regret that. I wanted to shake his hand, but I didn’t want to bother him, so I let it pass.
You helped set up a charitable foundation, the St. Carlos Foundation, in 1984, which primarily sends volunteers to Hispanic Third World countries. But, after meeting an Irish priest in 1991, you decided to branch out into the Philippines to help the homeless. How did this come about?
I have always found that wherever I went in the Third World, I would go to the darkest and most depressed area, and I would find an Irish man or an Irish woman doing the work of the Gospel. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned. Those NGO’s called me and asked would I tour the Philippines, to shine the press light on the terrible living conditions people were forced to endure. Fr. Shay Cullen, a Dublin Columban missionary, took me to the Payatas garbage dump, where I witnessed the plight of 5,000 families searching the garbage for scraps to live on. It was totally unimaginable. I had noticed over the years the introduction of disposable diapers, and they add an extra, horrible danger to the people who live in these garbage heaps. The stench alone is enough to make you retch. It is so heartbreaking to see these people living in these horrible conditions.
It sounds like a living hell?
This is right out of Dante’s Inferno. I think you have to taste and feel poverty up close, otherwise you can’t imagine what it’s like. After this tour I thought to myself, “If I lived here, what would I want at the end of the day?” Naturally, it would be a bath. I appealed to the board of St. Carlos to build a house of refuge – a water centre, a bathhouse. It has now become a community centre, not just a bathhouse. They serve one full meal a day, and they also buy school equipment, uniforms for the children, so they can go to school. I can come and go, but Fr. Shay has been there for over 30 years. Fr. Shay runs PREDA, this organisation that rescues young people primarily from the jails, from the sex trade and helps to rehabilitate them. He has saved the lives of thousands of these poor children, and he’s helped jail some of the world’s most evil paedophiles. What he’s achieved is nothing short of a miracle.
Do you feel Apocalypse Now portrays an accurate depiction of the Vietnam War?
Yes, I do. Most of the critics panned Apocalypse Now when it was originally released. It really struggled to find an audience, until the Vietnam veterans passed the word on about how good the film was. For them it was, at that time, the only Vietnam film that came close to the real thing – which was insanity. And it was their support of the film that brought people back for a second look. When you ask an American how many people were killed in Vietnam, they would probably estimate about 55,000 - they think of the war as this thing that happened to America. They don’t think about the two and a half million North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians – as well as Australians and some Koreans – who died in the Vietnam War.
What would be your favourite Martin Sheen movie?
It would have to be Badlands. I remember reading the script and thinking, “This is – without doubt – the best script I have ever read.” I had reservations about doing the movie because the protagonist, Kit, was only 19 years old, and I was 31! They looked at 10 or 15 different actors for the part. Eventually, I got a phone call from Malick (the director) and he offered me the part and it suddenly dawned on me that I was being offered the role of my life. I actually wept with joy when I got that part. It had a profound effect on me because it was a realisation of a dream – a dream that I never thought would happen to me.
What type of music do you listen to?
I adore Frank Sinatra. I would know the lyrics to most of his songs. He would be my favourite crooner. I love the classics, stuff like Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. I would listen to Dylan a lot, probably most days of the week. I actually like U2 too.
What are your future plans?
I have no plans. I am going to finish the semester in NUI and, hopefully, go home by Christmas. I need to get back into the family and get caught back up in things. When I came here I just shut down the shop, left home (laughs) and I’m not doing anything. I have no projects lined up. Not a single thing.