Sheen’s new film mirrors his life

Rebecca Cusey Contributor
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Actor Martin Sheen may be an advocate for any number of far-left causes, but he has become something rare in Hollywood (and outside of it as well): a man who is motivated by principle rather than expediency. He advocates for causes dear to the hearts of Tinseltown leftists: against the Iraq war, against fur, for mandated higher wages for workers and more government spending on drug addiction treatment. However, he also is unapologetically against abortion and euthanasia, positions that win him no love in the studio halls. In his personal life, he has been candid about his past struggles with alcoholism, his mental breakdowns, and his failures as a father. Yet, he and his clan quietly supported son Charlie Sheen through his erratic behavior earlier this year.

When I sat down with Sheen, his son Emilio Estevez, and producer David Alexanian to discuss their deeply personal movie “The Way,” opening Friday, it was a chance to learn more about the man some still wish was president in real life, not just in “The West Wing.”

“I think the film, the story, the script, the character for him [for Sheen] is the closest he’s ever been able to play to who he is as a man, as an actor, as a human being,” Estevez mused.

Sheen plays Tom, a lapsed Catholic who travels to France to collect the body of his adult son (Estevez), the victim of a hiking accident. When Tom discovers his son had been traveling an ancient pilgrimage route, he resolves to finish the journey. Walking the Camino del Santiago through France and Spain to the cathedral said to hold the remains of Saint James, Tom scatters his son’s ashes along the way. Unexpectedly, he begins to connect with other pilgrims along the route, each driven by a need they cannot explain to seek quiet and transcendence in an ages-old tradition.

“We have all these devices to keep us connected, but in truth we’ve never been so disconnected,” explained Alexanian. “And I think we more than ever need to shed those things and spend time on some sort of pilgrimage, whether it’s in your heart or simplifying your day here. They’ve been doing this sort of thing for over 900 years for a reason. We as human beings over time have become too wound up and we need to become unwound.”

Considering that it focuses on such a deeply religious journey, the film feels remarkably non-mystical. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” the travelers vary in their level of devotion. The priest fighting brain cancer speaks of faith easily, but the jovial Dane only looks for the next party along the road, the bitter Canadian woman wants to fight everyone, and the worldly author looks for a cure to his writer’s block. The only thing they have in common is their discomfort with the odd task they have undertaken. That is enough. They become a mobile community, a small band.

With gorgeous shots of France, scrumptious and stimulating dinners in Spain, and the charm of a modern Gypsy campfire, the film will make you want to go on holiday through Europe. However, it offers something more: the suggestion that pleasure alone is not the goal of a meaningful trip, but that an outward journey only exists to reflect an inner one.

Sheen described the effect: “The second stage of the pilgrimage begins, the transcendence, the inner journey, where you begin to let go of your own negativity and darkness and you come to grips with this one you have not made peace with, you let them out of the cell of your heart. You begin to let go of judgments and envies and anger and resentment and all the negativity that keeps us from being human, keeps us from being free and knowing ourselves. That’s the real pilgrimage. That’s what lasts.”

For the Sheen-Estevez clan, however, the pilgrimage links closely to family. Estevez wrote the screenplay and directed the film for his father but also for himself: so that he could have a chance to spend time with his own son.

“The cycle has been completed in a sense,” Sheen said, explaining that his father, Estevez’s grandfather, grew up in Galicia, Spain, near the Camino before immigrating to the United States. When Sheen took his own grandson, Estevez’s son Taylor, to explore the Old Country and travel the Camino, the young man fell for a local girl, married her, and moved to Spain.

It only goes to show that even for a star like Martin Sheen, the road twists in ways he never saw coming.

“The Way” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, drug use, and smoking.

Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.