All About Actors

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Where: his dressing room (Belasco Theatre). 5 pm.

       Last Saturday evening, I was walking along 44th Street when I passed by a group of people standing in the middle of the street. The center of attention was a very attractive man dressed all in black. I did a double take when I realized he was Martin Sheen.

I introduced myself, and we talked for a few minutes about me and All About ACTORS. After we set up the interview, I started to walk away and said, “I’ll see you next Saturday, Mr. Sheen.” He called back “Martin! You call me Martin!”

I was taken aback by the gesture, since no actor before had ever told me to call him by his first name upon an initial meeting. I turned back around and yelled out to him, “Yes, sir!” When he heard that, he laughed and threw his hands up in mock defeat.


Sitting down for a chat with Ramon Estevez, who most people recognize better by his other name, Martin Sheen, you learn that he is a passionate man about all aspects of his life. Lots of actors throughout Hollywood history have changed their names in order to escape the professional trappings of an ethnic name, but Sheen created his show business moniker in order to preserve his heritage.

"I'm Spanish and Irish. Why would I want to deny it? I love it, and I’ve always loved my name. But I grew up in the Midwest, and people are not used to Fernando or Juan or Ramon. When I started going to school, they started calling me Ray. I despised being called Ray. I felt somehow my name was taken away, and it was Americanized. My name is not Ray or Raymond. My name is Ramon.

"And when I came to New York in '59 and started looking for jobs, people only heard a Spanish name. They’d see my face, and they couldn’t put a Latin flavor to my mug. But after months of frustration just trying to get people in the casting office to pronounce my name and trying to start a career, I decided that I would keep my name--which I have always done—and I started using Martin Sheen around the latter part of 1959.

"But I’ve never changed it officially. It’s still Ramon Estevez. My driver’s license is Estevez, our marriage license, all official contracts and stuff. It’s a good blow to the ego. When I see my name in print, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s not me.

"I would never change it, and I’m very proud of my kids for using it. Emilio, Ramon and Renee kept it, but Charlie felt when he started out he didn’t want to be compared to Emilio. His real name is Carlos Estevez, and he mentions it all the time in interviews.”

Speaking of his children, Sheen has nothing but praise for his sons and daughter and their decision to follow in their father’s professional footsteps.

"I adore them. They’re my best friends. They’re fellow actors, and to work with them is the greatest gift because it’s sacramental. It’s just magnificent. I worked with each of them individually, and I worked with Charlie and Ramon together on a film I directed called Cadence. That was the best experience of my life.

"I think one of the reasons we’re so close is because we were kind of spun out there on our own for so long. We traveled to so many strange places, and they saw me do so many low-budget independent features for no money. They’d seen me and my wife doing so many things to keep the family together that they understood that that was where the strength was. It wasn’t in success. It was in the effort. God doesn’t ask us to be successful, only faithful.

"So as long as I was honest in trying to keep us together and inspiring the community as a whole, as well as each individual in it, they did the same for me and each other. They look after each other very well. We have a lot of disagreements, differences of opinion about a lot of things, but we just love each other. We know that the other person is always there. We have three grandchildren now, and it’s great blessings. Not without problems in relationships, but with great love.”


The decision to study acting or not to study has been a defining decision for every young actor who comes to New York. Those who did will usually say it is a must, while those who did not will usually say it is a waste of time. Although Martin Sheen never attended any acting school, he does have some firm beliefs about the learning process.

“Sure I think you should study, but I don’t think anyone can teach you how to act. You have to have an instinct for it, and you have to have an innate kind of ability. That’s God’s gift. No one can give that to you. And if you have an instinct, you’re going to be right 80 percent of the time. There’s that 20 percent you’re not going to be right,” he says, laughing. “No matter how good your instinct is! So you have to have good teachers to help you see that.

"Now though I did not have a specific formal training, I did belong to a workshop when I first came here called The Actors Co-op, which was a little group of actors that met up on 50th Street and 8th Avenue. I did spend two and a half years at The Living Theater, and I spent a lot of time over the years at the Public Theater with Joseph Papp. I think of a director as a teacher, and I’ve worked with Francis Coppola and Terrence Malick and a number of other very powerful teachers. These people had an influence on me that provided enrichment and an inspiration that I’m very lucky to have.”

Another one of Sheen’s most major influences was someone whom he had never met—James Dean. Back around the time of his earliest movies such as The Subject Was Roses, and especially Badlands, Martin Sheen was being called “a new James Dean.” When reminded of this, a “You’ve got to be kidding” look comes across his face.

"People comparing me to him? No! There was no comparison. James Dean changed lives! And my life was never the same after I saw him. He was just the most powerful thing imaginable. He broke through the envelope, and he was a kid! He was astonishing, and he was only 24 years old! God knows what his potential was! Which we’ll never know.

"There are a lot of people that are actors now because of James Dean. A lot of them are actors because of Marlon Brando. Another hero of mine. A lot of people influenced me and still do. I have great love for Jimmy Cagney and Spencer Tracy and Montgomery Clift, but Dean just tore the roof off the house. He made the light shine in places that you wouldn’t have known existed. It was like a car wreck,” Sheen exclaims, clapping his hands together for emphasis. “You heard clear, and you saw clear. He was a genius, and nobody’s come near that since.”


Martin Sheen has recently set aside his primary status as a movie and television actor to return to the Broadway stage in The Crucible, which is the inaugural production at The National Actors Theatre. He hopes to return to the company soon again and finds an invigorating challenge in the differences between the two types of acting.

"Stage acting is a very energetic, very demanding, physical, spiritual and emotional work. Film acting is all of these things as well with one added dimension, and that is behavioral. The trick in film it seems to me is not to act. The camera does the work, and the director does the work. You have to have a very powerful interior life.  

"People don’t say they heard a good movie. It’s visual. They see it. So if I can say something with my heart and my head and my eyes, then I don’t have to say them with my mouth. Film is very mystical and sometimes very powerful because the camera can photograph what you’re thinking. Onstage you not only have to think it, you have to say it. And in saying it, you have to push it out there so the folks in the ten dollar seats can hear you,” he laughs.


No matter which medium he works in however, Sheen does not like events such as The Oscars or The Tonys, where actors are rewarded based on popularity or for supposedly outperforming one another.

"I just can’t get behind the awards type of behavior. I’ve never been comfortable with it. I was nominated for an Emmy a couple of times, and I pulled my name. There were times I asked them to pull my name, and they wouldn’t.” Sheen chuckles a bit. “They ended up giving me two of them, but I didn’t approve.

"The whole point of acting is to be a member of a community. So to separate that and give prizes to someone who is better than someone else, and you encourage that kind of behavior, is against the purpose for being an actor in the first place. And that’s what our culture so nourishes all the time—competitiveness. That’s what destroys the arts, and I think we have to be cooperative, not competitive.”


While there are a lot of celebrities who give their time and money to favorite charitable causes, no other actor seems to be more devoted, sincere and determined to stand up for humanitarian rights than Martin Sheen. The stories of his countless arrests and all-night vigils spent sleeping on the streets to protest nuclear testing or to defend the homeless are well-documented, and to hear him explain his reasoning behind his beliefs is mesmerizing.  

"I have a very deep faith, and I have a commitment to work for peace and justice. So I find myself involved in a lot of issues which include the environment, abortion, the homeless, the elderly, people with AIDS, and the farm workers and refugees. That’s the only way that I can truly identify myself. It’s something that I don’t separate from the rest of my life. I take whoever I am as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother, a Catholic, an activist and an actor to everything I do. Whether it’s a performance or my yoga or this interview or I’m at a demonstration or doing a film or at mass or whatever, I take that whole complete person to that thing at that time, and that’s who I am.

"So I don’t think of it as ‘causes.’ I don’t use that phrase. It’s just an expression of what I do and what I focus on as being important in my life. I don’t ask other people to do it, and I’m not interested in success. That’s not important. It’s to be faithful. To do it. If there’s a million people starving, and you have food for one, feed the one. Don’t throw your hands up in discouragement and say, ‘Well, what good is this going to do?’ What good it will do is you keep one of the million from starving. You think you’re only successful if you feed the million? No! That’s God’s work. Your work is to do what you can with what you have. Whatever gift you have been given, you have to share it and give it back.

"But I don’t think of myself as being any different than anyone else. I’m no different, I promise you. I’ve got a bad temper and a big ego. I’ve got a lot of righteousness in me.” Sheen shakes his head and snickers, “and a lot of shit in me that I know I dislike. There’s a lot of things about me I find totally embarrassing, but if I were to tell you what I try to do with my life in a sentence I’d say, ‘I try to unite the will of the spirit with the will of the flesh.’ That’s why I’m very rarely ever pessimistic about anything because I see always the light and the darkest of places in myself.

"It’s just like how do I know that a man is lying? Because I’m lying, and it takes one to know one. So rather than calling him a lying bastard and blaming him for all my problems, I’ve got to look inside and say, ‘Martin, you’re a lying bastard. Now what are you going to do about this?’ The first and most important thing you have to do is love yourself for being a lying bastard, and you begin to change. You become a loving, lying bastard, and after a while you become a loving human being and the lying bastard dies because you loved it to death. So I’ve tried to work on myself and love the darkest things about me that I despise. I’ve tried to cherish and hold them because they’re me.

"Then when I look at my fellow man who I may find hard to get along with, I still see a measure of myself in that person. I say, ‘This guy’s got a temper.’ Well, I’ve still got a temper. I haven’t loved that temper to death yet.

"This works as well for the good as it does for the derogatory stuff. Whatever you see in anyone that you have admiration for is really a quality within yourself because if it didn’t exist in you, then you couldn’t identify it. If I look at someone and say, ‘That’s a decent person.’ How do I know that? Because I’m a decent person, and I will see reflected out there, for good and ill, all the things that are inside me.

"So, all the very limited things that I do and become involved in are because I cannot not do them and be who I am. I have all these beautiful people in my life, but I only live with me. That’s the only person I see when I look in there,” he says pointing to a mirror with a contented look on his face. "I have to love that man, and all the things that I despise about him must be loved if they’re going to change. Nothing will change if you hate it. Hatred is a dark force, and it will destroy you. Love is the only thing that changes anything.

"That’s why love is the only reality, and everything else is second to that. I know that that’s a fact. It’s why we’re here. Why the world goes around is love, not hate. Love.” Sheen repeats his last word again, breaks into a big smile and exclaims, “Well, that’s the end of my lecture!”

As we have witnessed so many times in the past, it would be very easy for someone like Sheen to develop a holier-than-thou attitude because of his religious convictions. Yet he has no interest in being preachy or judgmental of others. It is probably hard to find a more caring human being than this man who we call Martin Sheen. AAA


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Monday, 15 July 2024

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