Martin Sheen’s family baggage

Looking for traces of the prodigal son in dad’s road trip with Charlie’s older brother

Martin Sheen’s family baggage

David Alexanian

There was no getting around it: Charlie Sheen was the elephant in the room. For a journalist sitting across from Martin Sheen— still a picture of presidential power and grace at 71—it seemed rude to even mention the cocaine-fuelled, hooker-loving prodigal son, especially with Charlie’s well-behaved older brother, Emilio Estevez, sitting next to him on the hotel couch. In the thick of a 55-day bus tour, they were in Toronto to talk about The Way, a film Estevez wrote and directed for his dad. But considering that Sheen plays a father who is estranged from his grown son—and travels to France to retrieve his ashes after he dies in a solo hiking accident—a question about Sheen’s younger son losing his way could not be entirely off topic. Even if it’s best saved for last.

The Way is the fictional tale of Tom (Sheen), a widowed California doctor, whose only son, Daniel (Estevez), is killed by a freak storm in the Pyrenees on the first leg of the Camino di Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, a 700-km trek across Spain from the French border that travellers have been taking for some 1,000 years. Originally planning to collect his son’s remains and promptly fly back home, Tom decides instead to lash the box of ashes to his son’s backpack and take the journey for him. Along the way, he hooks up with a carnival of eccentric travellers—including a sarcastic Canadian chain-smoker (Deborah Kara Unger) who plans to quit at the end of the road; a stout Dutch stoner (Yorick Van Wageningen) struggling to lose weight while eating and drinking his way through Spain; and a mouthy Irish author (James Nesbitt) trying to walk off a case of writer’s block.

Estevez, 49, says he was inspired to write the movie because “I’d lost my own son on the Camino—not tragically, but I lost access to him.” His son, Taylor, now 27, was a 19-year-old working as Martin’s assistant when the two of them took a car trip along the route of the pilgrimage. And that’s where Taylor met his wife, at a small-town bed and breakfast. “At the pilgrims’ supper this woman walks in and he was smitten,” says Estevez, explaining that her parents ran the B & B, and the couple has been living there for years.

The filmmakers shot documentary-style with a tiny crew, using actual pilgrims for all the non-speaking roles, and saddling Sheen with a 40-lb. backpack. At one point in the story, his pack falls into a river, and he jumps in after it. The scene was Sheen’s idea, and he performed two takes in the icy water after a stuntman tried it once and rejected it as too dangerous.

The Way is, after all, about baggage, physical and emotional. “Pilgrimage is structured so it takes you out of your comfort zone,” says Sheen. “You pack all the things you need and soon you realize it’s too heavy and have to start unpacking. Then the transcendence starts on stuff you’ve packed in your interior life, and you begin opening those closets and cells and dungeons and letting all the people out you’ve been punishing all your life.”

Given his character spends the trek secretly mourning his son, it seems fair to ask how he tapped his own family life. “That’s one of the artist’s secrets,” he says. “All of us have a repository of emotional life. We have a licence to explore that private pain and bring it public, but only for the purpose of playing a character. It’s called emotional memory. I do it all the time. This one is very difficult because it’s so deeply personal and painful.”

Finally, the Charlie issue is broached, albeit in a backhanded fashion, by asking Sheen how often questions about his “other son” are raised on the press tour. “And who might that be?” he says, blue eyes twinkling mischief. Estevez interjects, saying his brother’s name was almost never raised. But then he adds, “We don’t fault you for asking. It would be almost odd if you didn’t ask.”

Finally, Sheen boasts that Charlie is, in fact, “a big fan” of The Way, and surprised him by showing up on the red carpet for the AARP premiere at the Movies for Grown Ups Film Festival in Los Angeles. So would Martin ever want to join his two sons on the Camino trek? The actor laughs. “I fantasize about doing it myself,” he says. “Alone, without a camera or phone.”

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