The good son
FILM:After Charlie Sheen’s very public struggles with his demons, older brother Emilio Estevez comes across as the responsible face of the family business. He’s just directed his father, Martin Sheen, in The Way, set on the Camino pilgrimage in Spain. He tells DONALD CLARKEabout directing dad, hating the Brat Pack and getting his own wild times out of his system early on
POOR OLD Emilio Estevez must feel particular pressure to be a good boy. When we meet, during the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, his brother, Charlie Sheen, has yet to undergo complete professional implosion, but the star’s antics are already threatening the integrity of the family business.
At the time of our interview, neither Estevez nor his dad, Martin Sheen, are commenting on Charlie’s decline. A few week’s later – as chemical meltdown loomed – they were allowed talk about little else.
At any rate, Estevez, actor, director, official face of the 1980s, is coming across like the perfect son. This endlessly polite, ingenuously good-humoured professional has just directed his dad in a spiritual soap opera called The Way.
“That was a real pleasure,” he says, looking at the poster. “Because, though he’s a star, my dad hasn’t really had the chance to be at the centre of a movie for ages.”
The film follows a conservative eye doctor as, following the death of his son, he gains wisdom walking the pilgrimage route – usually referred to simply as “the Camino” – that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Along the path, accompanied by pilgrims from all nations, he learns to broaden his horizons and break free of various prejudices.
The journey held particular significance for the Sheen family. Martin – who entered the world as Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez – is the son of an Irish mother (born in Tipperary) and a father raised in Galicia.
“Some years ago, my dad made a trip to Ireland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his mother’s birth,” says Estevez. “But he spent too much time in Ireland. Ha ha! He wanted to do the Camino as well. My son was with him. They went to Spain and rented a car, but realised they hadn’t time to walk it. They drove and my son met a gal, fell in love with her and married her. He moved there. So I lost my son on the Camino, but also gained a daughter.”
More mature readers – those in denial, at least – will read that paragraph with some astonishment. Can Emilio Estevez, once the very spirit of eager youth, really have a son old enough to marry a Spanish lady (and some years ago, at that)?
To Emilio’s regret, he is, for many film enthusiasts, still a member of the ill-named Brat Pack that brought a defiantly post-1960s class of youth – ambitious, materialistic – to such Reagan-era entertainments as St Elmo’s Fireand The Breakfast Club. Heck, he was so tied in to the spirit of the age that he was even married to Paula Abdul for a spell.
Have a seat, old-timers. He is now an unlikely 48.
“I thought it was disastrous,” he says, recalling the Brat Pack tag. “Because I had worked so hard to not be labelled. I had problems with being a parenthetical actor. I was Martin’s dad. I was Charlie’s brother. Later I was Paula Abdul’s husband. Oh no. Now, it’s the Brat Pack. You get very tired of those labels.”
Though born in New York City, when his father was still a struggling young actor, Estevez was largely raised among the palm trees and speedboats of Malibu. All of Martin’s four children – the bonus answers in our trivia quiz are Renée and Ramon – have gone on to become actors. It’s rare to find a thespian who views a child’s advance into showbusiness with unalloyed enthusiasm. Such people know how tough the business can be.
“He was not that keen,” Estevez agrees. “He encouraged us not to go into the business. ‘Go to college. Get a degree. Have something to fall back on.’ But that was never what I was into. I always wanted to tell stories. I was always in the back garden with a movie camera. I knew that I wanted to have something to do with the business. I had a passion for acting, but actually making films was where I wanted to be.”
Unlike his brother, Estevez seems to have got his impulses towards dissoluteness out of the way at an early age. He explains that, during the 1980s and 1990s, he was working too hard to have time for serious party-going. He does, however, admit that, when just 14, he did go a tad wild while staying with his father on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. If he fancied a period of derangement then that famously chaotic shoot – taking place over several centuries in the Philippines – was surely the place to be.
“It was legendary. It was absolutely outrageous. I was a bad boy in the Philippines. I was 14 and I was out late at night – really misbehaving. At one stage some members of the crew took my mother aside and said: ‘Get your children out of here.’ There was no supervision.
Lawrence Fishburne and I would get in what they called a Jeepney and go to Manila for the weekend. Marcos was in power. Martial law was in effect. It was madness. I don’t know what my parents were thinking.”
Anyway, he survived and prospered. In 1983, alongside fellow Brat Pack members such as Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon, he had a hit with Coppola’s The Outsiders. The Breakfast Cluband St Elmo’s Firefollowed.
Somewhere in this period, he had to decide what he was going to call himself. Charlie had elected to take his father’s stage name. The rest of the siblings stuck with Martin’s original Spanish handle.
“Things had changed so much. In 1958, when my dad started out, one of the larger ethnic groups was the Puerto Ricans, and they really were dumped on. People said to him: ‘Look, you don’t look Puerto Rican, but that could hurt you.’ By the time I came along, in 1980, it had changed. I had to make the choice. I did want to change my name, but my dad said: ‘Don’t do it.’ I thought: this is who I am. To this day, people wrongly think my brother and I have different mothers.”
One can understand why Estevez is wary of the Brat Pack label. The term, always uttered with an ironic sneer, is now used in virtually every article setting out to characterise the 1980s as a time of big hair, bigger shoulder pads and even bigger mobile phones. But he did some very decent work in those years. Alex Cox’s Repo Man, a terrific cult drama co-starring Harry Dean Stanton, remains one of the era’s key films. Sadly, Cox, always at home to a rant, has recently taken to badmouthing Estevez in the press. He has claimed that, while attempting to put together a sequel, he had “difficulty raising money with Emilio Estevez, because his career hadn’t been very illustrious”.
“That script was hysterical,” says Estevez. “But recently Alex Cox has been tearing me apart in the press. He has been saying just very unkind things. I thought about that. If I am asked about the film on this trip, do I even utter his name? I prefer not to repeat the things he’s said. Because they are just ghastly.”
To be fair to Estevez, though it is true to say his acting career hasn’t blossomed, he has, over the past decade or so, worked hard as a director. He was behind the camera for episodes of such TV shows as The Guardian, CSI: NYand Cold Case. Five years ago his film Bobbyattempted to construct an epic multi-narrative around the death of Robert Kennedy.
Regarding his home life, he has been contentedly partnered with one Sonja Magdevski since 2006. He spends his free time running a winery and, like his Spanish grandfather, tending fruits and vegetables.
The Wayfeels like the most personal of his personal enterprises.
Over the course of the shoot, both he and his father had their own revelations about the state of the universe.
“You realise at the end that the idea of isolation doesn’t work,” he muses. “It doesn’t work for a man and it doesn’t work for nations. You have to be a citizen of the world.”
Yes, he’s a very well-behaved lad. Dad is right to be proud.