Making films with one son whilst the other has a very public meltdown can’t quite faze Martin Sheen, as Paul Byrne discovers.

It can’t be easy, watching your child falter. Especially when your child is Charlie Sheen, who has become the media’s #1 car crash over the last six months.

For Martin Sheen, it’s an all-too familiar sight, having struggled through addictions himself in the 1970s – most famously going Method on one of his own meltdowns in a hotel room for Apocalypse Now.

For the father looking at the son, it’s a case of been there, done that, and he recognizes that it’s a disease, not a rollercoaster ride. And Charlie is going to have to want to get off that rollercoaster ride before his family can truly help him.

In the meantime, Martin has got another son keeping him busy, Emilio Estevez having moved on from his Frat Pack days, acting in such movies as St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, to directing with 2006’s critically-acclaimed ensemble hit Bobby, and now, The Way.

In the latter, father and son share some screen time, Martin Sheen playing Tom, an American travelling to France to recover the body of his estranged son, Daniel (Estevez), who died whilst hiking the ‘El camino de Santiago’ from France to Spain.

PAUL BYRNE: Most people in this business try to avoid working with their families, but you seemed to have embraced it down through the years…

MARTIN SHEEN: It’s the most fun, you know. With The Way, having my son write it, direct it and star alongside me in, playing my character’s son, that’s just perfection to me. It doesn’t get any better than that for me.

Is it not a little difficult, taking direction from your own offspring?

Yeah, there were times when I struggled with that a little. My sense memories would kick in, and I didn’t think my son should be telling me what to do [laughs]. But I adore him. A reporter once asked me about Emilio, and I said, ‘Oh, I have known him all of my life’. And the guy said, ‘Now, you mean you’ve known him all of his life’. And I said, ‘No, no, when he arrived, I was 21, and I thought, ah, he’s the guy I’ve been waiting for all this time. He’s arrived!’. I just thought of him as a companion, as a little brother really, and that’s the way our relationship has been all our lives.

You were five or six when you fell in love with this line of work, right?

That was when I first began going to movies, and I knew then – and I know this sounds ridiculous – that if I didn’t become an actor, I would never be happy. And I was right [laughs]. It wasn’t something my father was too crazy about. He had put aside a few dollars each week, for me to go to college, but I wanted to head to New York and give theatre a try. That became, at times, a bitter dispute between us.

You began The West Wing in 1999, when the Democrats were in the White House, with Clinton, and then Bush and the Republicans arrived in 2001 – which made your President Jed Bartlet the White House chief much of America wished it had during those troubled years that followed.

Well, the great thing is, we’ve got someone even better in the White House today, thank God. Maybe it was wish fulfillment, or maybe it had a little something to do with our show proving it didn’t have to be this one way, but, either way, it’s such a joy to have someone in power that you can truly believe in. And be proud of when you travel around the world, from Ireland to Australia, from Japan to Paraguay.

You’ve always been something of a social justice campaigner, having been arrested 67 times along the way for your troubles…

Yeah, I’m trying to keep up with my age. I have a little work to do, as I’m 70 now. Having said that, I really don’t expect to influence that many people. All of my social justice activism has been for myself. You do it because you cannot not do it…

Yet you’ve never been tempted to run for office?

Well, the Democrat party did approach me at one point, when I was still doing The West Wing, wondering if I’d be interested in running for the senate, in my home state of Ohio. I was deeply flattered, but I’m not qualified, and I let them know that straight away. I could never stand for public office because then I would be responsible to a constituency and not my conscious. There’s a big divide between celebrity and credibility.
Did Bill help you out at all during those early years?

Absolutely. He was a big fan of the show, and he brought us into the White House, to get a feel for the real thing. He used to take the show on the road with him, watch it in Air Force One. And later on, when he was out of power, he became a roving consultant for us, letting us know if the layout of the room was right, stuff like that. Not many shows have a US president as their set designer.

The name on your birth cert is Ramon Gerardo Antonio Estevez, and you come from good Spanish-Irish stock, right?

Yeah, my dad travelled to the US from Spain with his brother, Alfonso, where he met my mother, who had travelled from Ireland, and they were married in 1927, in Ohio, and they had 12 pregnancies – ten survived; nine boys, one girl. And I was the seventh son. It was a busy, noisy, wonderful household, and the family motto was, ‘First up, best dressed’ [laughs]. There was a clothes bin there. We didn’t have much money, but we never felt it, you know. Even when my mother died – I was almost 11 at the time, in 1951 – my dad was able to raise us on his own.

You’ve described the effect of your mother’s passing on your family by saying, “The wind just left our sails”. I’m guessing money must have been even tighter then too…

All my older brothers had become caddies, at a private club in Dayton, and I joined the family business when I was nine years old. Which may explain my love for golf, but, having said that, I won’t be a member of a private club. I resent that sense of entitlement of a private club.

You’re also a deeply religious man – inspired somewhat by your near-death experience on the set of Apocalypse Now, when you suffered a heart attack, alone in a little cottage on a volcanic lake up in the Philippines…

That was a turning point, yeah [laughs]. It was very early, on a Saturday morning, and I had to crawl through the road. I really believed I was going to die, and I was kind of okay with it – I had no fear, which surprised me – but then I thought of my young kids, and my wife, Janet, and I just pulled myself back from the brink. I started to eat the grass around me, just getting myself back into reality. On the hospital bed, my wife whispered to me, ‘It’s only a movie, babe’, and that catapulted me onto the road to recovery. And that also sent me on a quest to find out what this life was all about. It was a few years later, in ’81, in Paris, when I was talking to Terrence Malick, a very devout man, and he gave me the one book that really was the final step that I had to take – The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky. That’s pretty much when I rejoined the Catholic faith…

Amongst other things, you stopped drinking – you’ve been a member of AA since the mid-1980s – which must make it very difficult to witness Charlie’s behaviour right now…

Yeah, Charlie is dealing with profound problems, and his addiction, and it’s been tough on all of us. You never get used to it. If he had cancer, how would we deal with him? Well, he has another disease, and we lift him up, we pray for him, and we’re there for him. But he’s an adult, and he needs a lot of help on a lot of different levels.

He knows we’re all here from him, and we just hope that he comes back to us. We love him, and he knows that…

The Way hits Irish cinemas on May 13th