In Stella Days, Martin Sheen plays Daniel Barry, a priest sent to a rural Irish parish in the 1950s, after spending most of his life in Rome. Movies.ie caught up with Sheen on his recent visit to the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival to talk movies, family and The Amazing Spider-Man.
How does it feel to be back in Ireland?
MS: Well, it is one of the most comfortable places on earth for me. I love coming here, it’s really the one place I don’t make any plans – unless plans are made for me, if I am working or promoting something – when I come on my own, which is often, I just rent a car and head out in whatever direction I fancy, and whatever happens is fine. I have never made a reservation or an appointment, I just show up and they look after me. That’s been going on for almost 30 years now… Longer actually, I first came here in 1973, next year it will be 40 years.
How did you get involved with Stella Days?
MS: Well it’s been a journey of about 7 years. I came here in 2003 to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday. She was born May 22nd 1903 so in 2003 she would have been 100, she died in 1951 at the age of 48 so she was long since gone. She had 12 pregnancies, 10 survived; there were nine boys and one girl. I was the seventh son, and we began losing the older lads down the line and we lost the brother I was closest to growing up; my brother Alfonso. We were separated by about a year and a half. I thought ‘No more funerals, let’s get together for a celebration’ so I called all the lads together with my sister Carmen, who lives in Madrid. We all gathered in Borrisokane – my mother’s village – and we had a wonderful mass celebration there and a three-day hoopla with the family. At that time a local fella gave me a book called Stella Days, which was a memoir of the time and place, and of this man, the parish priest, who was a real film buff and he opened the first cinema in northern Tipperary, and it was in Borrisokane. I read it in passing but Jackie [Larkin], unbeknownst to me, got interested and bought the rights for Newgrange Pictures and contacted me a while later and said ‘If we could get this done as a film would you be interested?” and I said ‘I’d be delighted!’. I didn’t give it much thought because there was no script and there was no production in place, so we would talk about every three or four months and she would say ‘We’re getting close now! We have a script, will you read it?’. This went on for seven years [laughs] and we got to be good friends, and sometimes she would get very close to a production and it would fizzle. Finally, I had just finished The Way and she called me and said ‘We’re very close and will you be free in October and November?’. ‘ I Will’, I said, because we were going to premiere The Way in Spain, and that’s what happened. We logged on for that period and we did it.
What drew you to the character of Fr Daniel?
What I loved about Stella Days, it was a priest who was reawakened to his humanity and less about his vocation, but about his person-hood. He had lived an honest life and he was motivated by love, but there was a missing link, in that it didn’t begin by choice, he felt that his choice had been foreclosed as a child. He found himself and he realised that he had lived an honest life, so he could go on. There was talk, as the script developed over the years, about him leaving the priesthood and I said ‘No, let’s not ever let him leave because that’s the easy way out’. Ireland, particularly in the last year, year and a half, has gone through this horrible revelation of the abuse and my point was not to pile on, if you will. There is certainly no excuse and no hiding the fact that these abuses occurred and it’s horrible and we need to make restitution and start by acknowledgement. I think that has happened in Ireland, I don’t know if it is satisfactory to everyone. My point was to understand more the cultural unity between Church and State, Church and community, and that there were an awful, awful lot of very good and decent people who served in religious life and they oughtn’t be denigrated because of the actions of the few. At the same time we wanted to explore the interior life of one of these men and I think that that was well done. I think it was fair. He was forced to examine his vocation and his life, and realised, almost in spite of the cultural problems, that he still managed to live an honest life, a loving life. He loved his priesthood and he was fulfilled by it. It wasn’t easy and it needed some further depth of examination and it made him a better priest, a better man.
What was it like filming in your ancestral home of Tipperary?
It was not unlike The Way in that it was a very low budget, independent feature and a local story and made in the place where it happened. It was very gratifying because I had just come from Galicia, making this film in my father’s home, so I felt I had completed that connection to my heritage, and then I came to Ireland and completed this one in my mother’s village. It is absolutely astonishing that I would bring both countries together in that way with a film.
The way this came together for you it is quite incredible. How did it feel?
MS: In a sense I felt that I had completed a personal mission in both of my parents’ homes and it satisfied something deeply personal with me. I wasn’t just playing a part; it was playing a part of myself.
Both Tom in The Way and Fr Daniel in Stella Days go through spiritual journeys, what draws you to these kind of characters?
MS: You are right that there is a lot of similarities between the characters. They are carrying such burdens and they are not able to reflect safely. I think that, like all really honest roles, that they explore a level of my own humanity and offer me an opportunity to explore, in a way, my own personal character in a public fashion. So often our work is about private pain going public and I think every artist really understands that in a deeply personal way. It’s covered though, every artist uses their sense memory, every artist has their store… Well every human being has their store of memory, a reservoir of all things that they have experienced, for good or ill. As artists we have the privilege to go in there and explore some of that stuff. If we didn’t do that, we might have to go to a therapist or something [laughs], but we are allowed to go in there and conjure up some of those, sometimes painful, experiences, but they are honest. They are very much a part of who we are, what we stand for, where we come from and where we hope to go, what hope we have for the future. They remind us that we have grown since that initial deposit in the reservoir. So that’s why it is important. I think all artists, when they get an opportunity to explore those areas – which is rare in films. The big studio films are rarely about an examination of self, they are about all things external, they are about special effects and machoism and edginess and all of these film techniques that are lost on me these days.
What was it like putting on the costume of a priest every day for Stella Days?
MS: I can’t remember ever wearing a hat in a film. I remember in Badlands Terry [Terrence Malick] wanted me to wear a hat in a scene and he took me to a store over in Colorado when we were filming, and had me try on a few hats. Finally he said, ‘I hope you won’t take offence to this Martin, but when you put on a hat your IQ drops considerably’ [laughs]. So I have never worn a hat in a film since then. So with this film I thought ‘Ah the 1950s, men still wore hats.’ John Kennedy kind of nixed the hat when he became President, it became very fashion conscious not to wear a hat. There were four actors that I really loved growing up, they were Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracey, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart and I adored these men. Growing up with films in the 1940s and early 1950s, watching these guys work was just absolutely satisfying to me as a young boy. That was the kind of actor that I wanted to be, and they all wore hats in films. For this part, I thought of Spencer Tracey because he played so many priests and he was Catholic, and he wore a hat, so I thought ‘This is my Spencer Tracey homage. I am going to wear a hat’, so I did [laughs]
There are a lot of films coming out that are celebrating cinema, like Stella Days, Hugo and The Artist – why do you think these movies are coming out now?
MS: I hadn’t thought about that. I hadn’t really thought about our film as being really connected to cinema in that way, but I guess you are right. I thought it more about a guy who is made to re-examine his vocation and his humanity and that was the core for me. You are quite right though; he was a real cinema buff. That was kind of an added feature to his character that I loved.
How does it feel to be involved with The Amazing Spider-Man?
MS: Oh, that! [laughs] It has really come down to, and not just me but for a lot of guys my age who have been around as long as I have, you either get offered small parts in big pictures or big parts in small pictures. I love playing the big parts in small pictures because it is about what we do for a living, but you get paid far more to play a small part in a big picture [laughs] so Spider-Man permitted me the luxury of doing Stella Days because it was such a big pay day. I loved it, it is very rare these days that I am on a set where there are so many people fussing over so many things. There are like, 200 people on the set and they are all very engaged. I had very little to do, but it was great working with Sally Fields, she is one of my favourite people in the whole world.
What was it like filming in 3D?
MS: They had a camera… I have never seen the likes of this camera before; it looked like a big box, with a lot of electronic equipment attached to it. They would play the scenes back on the set and put on the glasses and they are looking at it in 3D right there!! It’s amazing! I had never seen anything like it! They are all so skilled; there are so many skilled positions that were not there before. When I was in the business, if there was a crowd scene there were a lot of people there. Now it is projected on green screen and they replicate it. I am not used to that, but it is such a luxury to do those films, to be fussed over [laughs].