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When actor Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez get together, they tease each other — mostly about Sheen being a "windbag" because he likes to talk. But they're also sentimental and supportive about the journeys they take together.
Their most recent journey was the new movie The Way, written and directed by Estevez.
Estevez plays the son who dies soon after he begins a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago — a 500-mile route across northern Spain that's been traced by pilgrims for more than 1,000 years. Sheen plays the father, Tom Avery, who decides to walk the Camino himself, sprinkling his son's ashes along the way.
Sheen tells NPR's Melissa Block that Estevez wrote the movie specifically for him.
"He knew a lot about me that I'm not always willing to admit about myself," Sheen says. "So he had to kind of rein me in along the way."
A Trusting Process
Sheen says he put a lot of trust into Estevez's writing and decisions — even if he wasn't always comfortable with the process.
"He was very specific in assuring me that there was a long way to go, and we didn't have to have all of the emotional wallop in the first scene — and that the character would eventually develop and become himself, and that I had to trust him in that journey," Sheen says. "And I did. Not always comfortably, but I did. He assured me at one point that this character would never have voted for Jed Bartlet [the character Sheen played on The West Wing], and I got that point."
Part of Estevez's challenge as director was to instill patience in Sheen.
"He has an extraordinary lust for life, and he wants to sit down and eat the entire elephant at every meal, at every seating," Estevez says. "And I said, 'Man, eat this elephant one bite at a time. And if you trust me on that, the character and you will be fully awake and fully evolved by the end of the journey.' "
So how does the character Tom Avery start out? He's withdrawn, solitary and angry. He's lost his son, and he's a widower — alone in the world.
"He's lived a very, very isolated life. He's an ophthalmologist, but he doesn't serve the community, he belongs to the country club," Sheen says. "But that's his evolution — and like all pilgrimages, you start off with a lot of things you think you'll need along the way. And as you begin to go along for a few days, you start getting rid of some of the stuff. You realize you've overpacked and you don't need it. And as you go on, you begin the inner journey, the transcendence. As you are going along, you begin to listen to the inner voice, and you begin the transcendence, and you begin to open up the cells where you've kept all of your hidden secrets in the darkness. You start letting go of your judgment, your envy, your anger, all the people that have wronged you all the years of your life are locked up in the dungeons of your heart."
Estevez says that as the director, he didn't teach Sheen these revelations.
"This is his Camino experience," Estevez says.
Keeping Sheen In Character
As far as reining in his father, Estevez teases that Sheen — who is a talker — doesn't know his punctuation.
"We talk about the use of a period versus the use of the comma. And I think you've just been the recipient of the missing period," Estevez tells Block as Sheen laughs boisterously. "Feel free to jump in at any point and slap him."
But in all seriousness, Estevez says his challenge during the filming was to keep Sheen in character.
"My father's never met a stranger, and so he loves to jump into crowds and loves to shake hands," Estevez says
One day, Estevez says, there was a labor demonstration on the set, and workers marched through with bullhorns. And Sheen jumped into the crowd, taking about 30 or 40 pictures, and shaking everybody's hand.
"It was like he was running for some high office in Spanish government," Estevez says. "It was my job to rein him in and stay in character as much as possible. [His character] is a guy that lands in Spain and all of a sudden begins to speak Spanish. He's not everybody's friend. So I had to remind him of this. But it was a challenge because I had to ask him to not be himself, and that's difficult. It's difficult to ask of anybody."
Estevez says that as difficult as it was to ask Sheen to not be himself at times, he also wrote the role to celebrate Sheen — whom he has admired since he was little.
"[While] most kids would take their bikes and go to the local store and buy a comic book, I would buy TV Guide, and I'd bring it home and I'd scour it, top to bottom, looking for any mention of my father," Estevez says. "I was so immensely proud of him, and I would delight when I would find his name in the guest cast list of some rerun. Whether it's Mannix or Columbo or something, I would just delight in that.
"But I also understood at a very young age that he had a family to support, and there were many opportunities that he didn't either take or get because he wasn't making career moves, he was making economic decisions based on a family to feed. So I wanted to create a role for him that was as close to who he is as a man, as an actor, as a human being, and celebrate him in a way that maybe he's never been celebrated before in his career."
Sheen says he didn't hesitate to take on the role. But he admits he was afraid of letting his son down.
"The only anxiety I had playing it was that I would displease him, that somehow I would not be up to snuff," Sheen says. "But he assured me along the way that I was doing exactly what he had written."
Estevez says he had similar worries.
"And yet, the interesting thing is that I was feeling that same anxiety. I did not want to disappoint him either," he says.
The Spiritual Journey
While the film depicts a pilgrimage, Estevez makes the distinction that it was a spiritual film, not a religious film.
Sheen talks openly about his faith as a "practicing Catholic," and he says he'll "keep practicing till he gets it right."
Meanwhile, Estevez calls his personal views on religion "a mystery."
"I have yet to declare myself, but I think that the film is a reflection of where I'm at in my spiritual life, which is I'm on a path," Estevez says. "We didn't want to assault the audience with religion. It's a spiritual journey. Our movie's not anti-anything, and I think oftentimes, if a film has a religious agenda, you are going to alienate somebody ultimately. And we don't. We invite everyone to experience this film."
Sheen chimes in: "Unfortunately, so often, religions, vis-à-vis dogma, separate us. But spirituality unites us in our common humanity, and that is, I think, the major theme of the movie."