It’s hard to believe that, with an acting career that spans five decades and multiple genres, there are some movies Martin Sheen has struggled to get made. 2011’s The Way, a family collaboration with his son Emilio Estevez and grandson Taylor Estevez, was only completed after Sheen mortgaged his home to provide the bulk of the financing. The West Wing actor has also been holding out hope for one project in particular, which is, unfortunately, not a sequel to the Aaron Sorkin series that introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. (Nor should anyone hope that the erstwhile President Bartlet is finally going to run for office.) Sheen’s latest role in a small-screen adaptation of Anne Of Green Gables was far easier to come by, but is no less charming. The A.V. Club spoke to Sheen at the Television Critics Association summer press tour about passion projects, families, popes, and The West Wing, though we stopped short of asking him to teach us that famous jacket flip.
The A.V. Club: Anne Of Green Gables: The Good Stars is such a sweet, unassuming movie. How did you end up working with director John Kent Harrison?
Martin Sheen: Well, it’s a whole trilogy, but I had been offered the first one [2016’s Anne Of Green Gables] when it was only the one. There was no talk of doing a second or even a third. I had read a couple of [L.M. Montgomery’s] books to my kids when they were young, and one of my kids, who’s now 50 and has a production company with another one of my sons, said, “This offer has come along and your agents are kind of ignoring it and I think you ought to pay attention to it.” He knew that I was fond of Montgomery’s story, and so he insisted I read the offer. And I did, and I said, “Thank you for being a backstop on this because I would have let it go.” He said, “I think you ought to do it. You’d have some fun and it isn’t demanding. You can do it in a couple of weeks, and it’s Canada and you love the wilderness and all.” So I’m grateful to my son Ramon, because he handed it to me and said, “You’re making a mistake if you don’t seriously consider this.”
AVC: I read several of these books growing up, and there’s something really comforting about seeing these stories on TV again. What do you think makes them such classic stories?
MS: It’s the family. When Anne [played by Ella Ballentine] comes into the Cuthberts’ lives, she allows them to have a last glimpse at what a family is like. This little girl—it’s not an accident that she had red hair, because she’s on fire. So there’s the image of fire reigniting our lives and lighting a new way for Matthew [Cuthbert, Sheen’s character] and Marilla [Cuthbert, played by Sara Botsford]. Anne is responsible for us getting to experience what having a family would have been—what we missed, we got in the last inning. It’s very gratifying. I love doing it. I love those two dames with all my heart. In the time we met, we’ve been the gang of three, and it’s just so gratifying and so much fun. We laughed from day one, and we were just reunited here.
MS: Yeah, that [premiered] at the Toronto Film Festival. That is the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. Emilio wrote it and we produced it. It’s a whole family affair. In fact, we mortgaged our house to finance it.
AVC: I have to say, putting up your house to make a movie with your son makes you an exceptionally great dad.
MS: [Laughs.] Well, we had a partner in Spain, but they could only put up about a fourth, so we put up the rest to make it. It all started because Emilio and his son—my grandson, Taylor, who was my assistant at the time—we were considering doing the Camino De Santiago. We didn’t have enough time because we had to get back for the next season of The West Wing, and my sister, who lives in Madrid, suggested we drive it because we didn’t have time. So we drove it and we got to Burgos, where we were invited to join a pilgrims’ supper that night. The suppers are all family style, and there was this beautiful young lady serving food into people’s plates. And as she went along, she looked across the way [at Taylor], and she invited him to go out for a cigarette. And he did. And they’ve been together since that moment. I’m not joking.
AVC: And this was all before you ever started filming?
MS: Yes, they got married and lived there for nine years. So Emilio would go visit, and gradually, he began to write about it. The first script was a comedy, but it didn’t work. He kept thinking, “I lost a son on the Camino,” but figuratively speaking. And that became the theme and what the final script was about—the actual losing of a son.
It’s the most gratifying thing, even today. Just the other day I was in Vancouver and a family came up to me on the street and said, “You’re the guy in The Way.” They said they had done Camino De Santiago because of that movie. And that happens so often in the United States and Canada because the Camino is not that well-known in other countries, more in Europe. But the number of people has increased exponentially since the film was released and people are still watching it on Netflix and they buy the disc and they send us the cover to sign. So it’s ongoing. There’s a The Way website, and we get these encouraging, very, very rewarding messages from people who have done the Camino and had a life-changing experience.
AVC: So would you say it’s more gratifying to be recognized for that than for playing the president of the United States?
MS: More than anything else, because I was a member of a team, and granted, it was a wonderful team, but this was personal. It was family. [Emilio] wrote it for me. He directed it. He played in it. We worked on the script—I didn’t write, but I would make certain suggestions and he would include them. My real name is Ramón Estévez. My dad was a Gallego—he was born less than 50 kilometers from Santiago, in a little village along the Portuguese border. So I knew that area and I felt we would honor it, so we dedicated the film to my father. That was the Francisco at the end, did you see it? So yeah, it was deeply gratifying. You only get one of those really and you’ve got to just embrace it.
AVC: You have played a real or fictional president three times, as well as a couple of White House officials. Are you drawn to those leadership roles?
MS: It’s really just worked out that way. I’m obviously—I think I’m known as a liberal democrat and Hispanic and a practicing Catholic, but I never really went out of my way specifically to play a president or any kind of leader. It just kind of fell on me, and I enjoyed it, but as I say, I didn’t make it happen. I was just brought along as a member of the team. Specifically, the West Wing team when I started, there was no first family. It was not going to be about the president per se, it was going to be the presidential staff. I only appeared in the ending scene. And when I signed on, they said it would be at least four episodes out of the season, which meant about one every four or five episodes, and that’d be it. And I said absolutely. The only requirement was that I not play another president while they were on the air. But what were the chances that I would get another job as a president? So I did it, not expecting anything, except to appear every few episodes. But people wanted to know more about who was running things from the Oval Office.
AVC: The extension must have been nice, but what else made you stick with it?
MS: The story that [the writers] wanted to tell was not politics as usual. This was about an administration that was extremely serviceable, cultured, and honest—forthright and moral, and that was very clear in the pilot. And I had a sense that they were going to come back and they did. So I signed on for however long they were going to be on the air, and we had seven seasons. When we were in our last year, there were negotiations with another network to go there after we were finished. I agreed to be a former president with a portfolio so I could be like Jimmy Carter or someone, and the only thing I asked for is that he be given a chair at the University Of Notre Dame. [Laughs.] And they said you’re on. I was going to be a useful diplomatic or moral force for whomever the new president was. And they agreed to that.
Then unfortunately, in December of 2005—we had just quit at Christmas and done the first half [of the final season]. Then we were going to come back in January to do the second half of what would be our last season on NBC, but knowing that we would probably be picked up by this other network. So we were all in negotiations, and then unfortunately John Spencer passed away very suddenly and then John Wells, the producer, just pulled the plug and said, “That’s it. We can’t go any further with this. We’ll let it sit there.” In fact, a Republican was supposed to win.
AVC: That’s right! But then the writers and producers decided that after John Spencer’s death, to have a Republican win would just be too depressing of an ending to the series.
AVC: I see where they were coming from now.
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, so we had a Democrat [played by] Jimmy Smits come in and take over. So it was very interesting. But we never went beyond that, of course.
AVC: People would probably write in President Jed Bartlet if they could, but you’ve always said you’d never actually run for office.
MS: When I was doing The West Wing, there was a considerable amount of interest in my going—specifically there was a Senate race and a possibility of a race with a vice president candidate. And I really addressed them very clearly and very succinctly in short order, and that is, you cannot confuse credibility with celebrity. I was a celebrity. This is not what I do for a living—politics. I play politicians, as well as working class or clergy or whatever, and you mustn’t be confused by what you’re seeing on television because that’s not who I am. So I always ended it.
AVC: Not everyone has that kind of awareness. What do you think of the recent crop of actors and musicians who say they’re eyeing Capitol Hill or the White House?
MS: For anybody that goes into it, I would hope they would have a deep compassion for humanity and that their whole focus would be to serve, not to be served, and I think we need far more of that. So yeah, that’s just my suggestion. I hope you know what you’re getting into because it’s about service.
AVC: Circling back to your recent projects, you’ve been a part of another “chosen family” on Grace And Frankie.
MS: Oh, you watch that?
MS: I have not really seen it. It’s just really, really hard to watch myself these days. When I see an image of me, like in [Anne Of Green Gables] The Good Stars, I’m glad it’s about Anne. Something very pleasant to respond to. I have a totally different image. My ego is far too big to be satisfied with the way I look and sound. So I kind of stopped. I think the last time I actually saw something I did on purpose was The Departed. I was still doing The West Wing at the time, so I had dyed hair and I was a lot slimmer and more presentable. It’s real hard when you get to be my age and my shape.
AVC: I don’t think anybody likes watching or hearing themselves. Even just on an answering machine—or voicemail nowadays—I always hated hearing my outgoing message.
MS: Because it didn’t sound like you.
AVC: So maybe it’s like that.
MS: Yeah, I know, but we still have to go out there and sell ourselves. But I have seen a couple of episodes of Grace And Frankie—and I was roped into going to see a public screening for the third-season premiere. It was interesting. I had no idea. I love the opening. I didn’t realize they had “Stuck In The Middle With You” as the theme song. With the wedding cake design. I thought it was very funny.
AVC: Between Good Stars, The Way, and Grace And Frankie, family seems to be one of the themes you’re most passionate about.
MS: I don’t go out of my way to act very much. I did for The Way, of course. And The West Wing and Badlands. They all called for really deeply long-term commitments, and it was not going to be a financial gain. It would be a spiritual gain. An emotional gain. But when my family gets caught up in something—Emilio has a film he finished out in Cincinnati about the homeless [and the Occupy movement] called The Public. It took him seven years to make it, and six to finish The Way. And I’m watching him go through this agony of getting people to try to put some dough in and then not control him and try to make a decent film in three weeks, and I’m thinking, “Oh, my god, I could never go through that.” But there is one project, now that we’ve finished the fourth season of Grace And Frankie, that I promised myself that I would work on. I wrote the screenplay from a book that we’ve owned the rights to for many, many years.
AVC: Is it An Artist And The Pope?
MS: How did you know about that?
AVC: [Laughs.] I did a little research.
MS: How do you know about that? [Laughs.] Honest to god. Yes, it’s An Artist And The Pope by Curtis Bill Pepper. It’s about Pope John XXIII.
AVC: That’s the one.
MS: How did you know about that? You’re not leaving the room. Close that door! [Laughs.] Honest to god. Who would know about this? Because no one has seen the script.
AVC: It’s out there, if you know where to look.
MS: Honest to god. Well, I got the rights and did a screenplay, but it’s done under my real name. I optioned it 20 years ago under my real name, so I wouldn’t draw any attention. I wrote it under Ramón Estévez. And I’m going to start [shopping it around] with Netflix. No one, not my agent, no one has read the script. Emilio and I are the only ones because I wanted to tell Netflix, “You are the first and only ones to read the script. So if you’re interested, I’d like to develop it with you. If you’re not, I’m going to pass, and that’s the end of it. But I’m carrying the script. You’re not going to make another copy of it.”
AVC: What kind of movie is it?
MS: It’s the story of one of the greatest popes of the 20th century—maybe in the Catholic Church. John the XXIII was the most heroic in hundreds of years because he was the first to change the church, and in doing so he changed the world. He started Vatican 2, which changed everything. He was elected in 1958, and died in ’63. He only had those five years to do this work, and he was the most engaging, extraordinary man. He was called “The Peasant Pope.” He was from Bergamo in a remote area in the mountains in northern Italy.
And not too far away in another village was a younger man, Giacomo Manzù, who became a renowned Italian sculptor. Manzù did the medals for the Rome Olympics in 1960, and he did one of the doors of the Salzburg Cathedral. He was a very famous sculptor, and in the early ’50s, there was a commission that went out from the Vatican to find an artist who would finish the doors of St. Peter’s, because as you’re walking into the Basilica, the doors on the left were never completed. They were just straight. There’s nothing on them. The other doors are all covered with religious icons and so forth. This one is just flat.
So they put out a commission particularly with Italian sculptors, and this man, Giacomo Manzù, won the commission hands down. Everyone said you’re lucky to get him. But the Vatican was reluctant because they were so conservative. He was a communist. He was divorced. And he was a former Catholic—he had no use for the church. He had a run-in with Pius XII, who admonished him for his work as a Catholic artist. Well, that didn’t sit well with Manzù, so he was done with the Vatican. Done with the doors. He wasn’t going to do them. And here comes Johnny-go-places.
AVC: That would be the pope of the title?
MS: Yes, Giovanni XXIII, whose name was Angelo Roncalli. He was a very holy man, but he was not pious. He was very human. There was such a shift in the Vatican because the old guy, Pius, came from an aristocratic family and he made all of his relatives dukes and so forth of the Vatican, which you can do. John came in, he saw his brothers the day he was coronated and the day he died. They came to see him when he dying and that was it. And they remained peasants and he remained poor and he was just this extraordinary man.
So the commission went out to find an artist to do the official sculpture of John, and Giacomo was asked to do it by some mutual friends he had with John XXIII—they said the new pope wanted him to help the church connect with the outside world. So Manzù and John, they became friends, and one of the first things John did was show his desk and the window where he speaks to the world. Took him into the bedroom and Manzù said, “This is where you live?” And he said, “Yeah, and this is where I’ll die. And by the way, when I’m dead, you’ll come and do my death mask, will you?” And he said, “What?” That’s who this guy was. And they became very, very close friends.
So this is the story. That’s all it is. There are no car chases. There’s no nude scenes. It’s just this relationship, and this artist who came to more fully realize himself because of this one man who transcended all of the religiosity and power in the Vatican.
AVC: What first drew you to the project?
MS: I had a friend, Michael Parks, who made a film in Rome for John Huston called [The Bible: In The Beginning…], and he played Adam. Michael was an old and dear friend of ours, and he met Manzù while he was filming. Then while working on The Cassandra Crossing with Sophia Loren and her husband, Carlo Ponti—I asked Carlo, because he’d produced The Bible, if he knew Manzù and if I could meet him.
My family went out to Manzù’s studio and house, and we spent the whole day with him. At the end of the day, he gave us a copy of Curtis Bill Pepper’s book. The following year, I worked with Marlon Brando [on Apocalypse Now], and we became friends, and I said to Marlon, “You know who John XXIII is?” “Oh, I love him,” he said. And I said, “Would you consider playing him?” “I will,” he said.
So I bought the rights. And later, we had Robert De Niro in mind to play Manzù. Over the years, it just would sort of come up and then dissolve again. Marlon got ill and left us. And Bobby had too big of a career for us to try and catch him. So I finally let it go. Then, a year and a half ago, I had open heart surgery. And during my convalescence, Emilio encouraged me, he said, “You’ve got to write the screenplay.” The author of the book died, so we had to go through his daughter, but we got the rights back, and then I wrote the screenplay from the book.
AVC: Let’s hope you don’t have to put another house up to get this one made.