Talking the walk


INTERVIEWS: Martin Sheen swaps Camino stories, family ties and spiritual truths with PETER MURTAGH

MARTIN SHEEN IS big into the Camino. And why wouldn’t he be? His latest film, The Way, is set on the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. And then there’s the family connection with the actual Camino: the Estevez family comes from Galicia, not too far from Santiago. So far The Wayhas been screened at film festivals in Canada, the US, Ireland and Malta, and it has been well received, especially by Sheen and Camino aficionados.

Sheen and I meet in Dublin. At 70 years of age, he remains the handsome star of The West Wing. There seems to be an inner calm about the man (despite obvious paternal angst over his son, Charlie) and he is unfailingly polite.

“The Camino is a reflection of our everyday life,” he says, “it’s an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. You are gonna walk, you are gonna endure some suffering, some discomfort. And in that lies the possible opening, the necessity to depend on the community. You walk alone, we must walk alone, we come in and we come of life alone. But the journey is with community.

“The Camino is a perfect metaphor for that; you bring all of your brokenness, all of your darkness, all of your joys, your sadness, your faith, your anxieties, your past and hopes and your failures – all of it you are carrying on your back and gradually, we become less and less encumbered about why we started out with, what you carry, because you are much lighter by the end.

“Most of the pilgrims come to the end of the journey and realise that the reason they did the whole journey was different at the start from when they ended. But whatever the personal motivation is, it’s never the same by the end. If you finish it, it’s a big personal journey into yourself.”

At the Dublin screening, Emilio Estevez described the film as “a love letter to Spain”. Whatever about Spain, it is full of amour for the Camino; it is shot beautifully – the scenery and narrative capture the essence of what appeals about the pilgrimage, its camaraderie and spirituality.

The Waytells the story of Tom Avery (Sheen), an ophthalmic surgeon in California, who has a tense relationship with son, Jack (Estevez). The son eschews the materially successful life lived by his father, in favour of a more people-centred existence, much of it spent travelling the world. Their relationship is one of mutual incomprehension bordering on antipathy. The atmosphere is not good as Tom sees his son off at the airport, bound for Spain where he will walk the Camino.

Some days later as he plays golf, Tom gets a call from the gendarmerie in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, where the Camino starts for most people, to say that his son has died in a storm in the mountains. Distraught, Tom flies there, learns a little about the Way of St James, and, baffled but wanting to understand, decides to cremate his son’s remains and walk the Camino on his behalf, scattering the ashes as he journeys the 800km to Santiago.

“I’ve done [sections of the Camino] three or four times on location, the first one in a car, then playing it and so forth. But I long to do it,” he says. “I have a fantasy to do it and to take as long as it takes and not be in any hurry and just trust what might come and not have any agenda.”

The day after the Dublin screening of The Way, Sheen and I sit in on a showing of Stella Days, his new film, directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and written by Antoine O’Flatharta. It’s a gem of a film. In it, Sheen plays the starring role, that of a middle aged, liberal-minded priest in depressed 1950s Borrisokane in Co Tipperary. His efforts to bring a little gaiety into the lives of his parishioners (by way of creating a cinema) run up against pokey-minded conservatives, in the form of a local politician on the make and a self-aggrandising bishop.

What comes across strongly in Stella Days, and with the delight of The Wayfresh in one’s mind, is how playing a priest seems to sit so very naturally with Sheen, whose Catholicism is central to his being. “I was raised Catholic, my parents were devout Catholics,” he says. “My mother [who was from Borrisokane] had family rosary most nights in the house, I remember growing up. But when something is given to you, it’s not unusual to let it slip through . . . I loved the church and the faith. But it wasn’t really something personal, it wasn’t costing me anything.

“I came back at 40 [when he had a heart attack] . . . It’s always a crisis that brings you back. And we begin to ask those two fundamental questions, if your gonna reflect on your life and take serious responsibility for it: who am I, and why am I here? And you reflect on those. I damn near died; I had the last rites.

“I started going to mass again but it was out of fear and apprehension that I would die . . . and so it was another four years that I actually committed to come back. I came back to the Church of Vatican II, which I didn’t have a clue had gone on in my absence.”

Does that church still exist? “Of course it does!” he says with passion. “It’s the church of service, of human rights, of service, it’s the church of Mother Theresa; you may not see it as clearly in the West but you see it in the Third World. And you see it in the ghettos of the First World. In Los Angeles I’ll take you to third-world America. “We all yearn for the sacred, we are always looking for a transcendence; some people go about it with drugs or alcohol or sex or power or ego, whatever, and when they prove not satisfying and we come to our senses, we begin to realise that there’s another costly journey. It has to cost you something; if something worthwhile doesn’t cost you something, you are left to question its worth. And so I decided to go on that journey and, you know, I’m still at it.”

He didn’t say it but I expect he’d like to go on the Camino with Charlie. I know who would benefit most.

The Way