Martin Sheen talks about art and life

Martin Sheen at SMUMartin Sheen described himself as someone who “grew up with a picket sign in my hand and a desire for some measure of justice” to an overflow audience of SMU and high school students at the Turner Construction Student Forum Feb. 5. The actor and activist visited SMU to speak in the Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.

“I never was comfortable unless I was at least a little bit uncomfortable,” Sheen added. “There’s nothing worse than peer pressure, even for old guys like me. We don’t want to be outside the community. We want to be loved. We want to be accepted. We never really take responsibility for ourselves or get to know ourselves…. So I’ve always, always tried to be uncomfortable.” Read more.

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Of all the different roles you’ve portrayed, which one do you identify with the most?

One was a lunatic and the other was a criminal. The lunatic was in Apocalypse Now, and the criminal was in Badlands. I wouldn’t say that I identified with them personally – or maybe I did more than I should – but I think those were the best performances I ever gave. That was thanks to the directors, Francis Coppola for the first and your own Terrence Malick for the second. He’s from Austin.

How have your personal politics affected your portrayals of the many political roles you’ve portrayed, and how have the subjects of your films affected your personal politics?

I’m not sure that I have any personal politics. That is to say, I don’t really have a great deal of interest in politics per se. I have a great deal of interest in public service and in public servants, but politics is a different animal. I think most of the great work that has been done in our country has been done by the grassroots and by nongovernment organizations and by great people who have inspired other people to rise up and make demands.

It goes all the way back to the Constitution. Remember, when the lads came out of that long, hot summer in Philadelphia with the Constitution, they didn’t win any plaudits from the people. The people said, “Oh well, that’s terrific, but what about us? What about our rights?” And so they went back and drew up the Bill of Rights, but that was not the original idea. That’s a very American kind of thing. The people take responsibility. I wish to God they’d taken more of it these last seven years, but never mind that. The bottom line is I’m involved more in a radical, grassroots kind of activism than in the political agenda.

As an accomplished actor, what do you think your greatest challenge has been so far?

Staying sober. Yes, really. It’s one day at a time for me. There’s a phrase I use that I try to live on a daily basis, and that is to “unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh” – in other words, to try to be the same person inside that I am outside. And to just be as human as I possibly can.

In 1965, you supported César Chávez and the United Farm Workers movement. Did you find it difficult to get work after that?

Not as a migrant farm worker, no.

In the news, we hear about how youth and adolescents are influenced by celebrities. How do you want those groups to be influenced by you and the characters you portray?

I don’t think I’m relevant, honestly. I’m too old. I don’t think I have any influence in that way. Maybe I did in the past, I don’t know. But I’ve never thought of myself as being responsible for other people’s behavior. I was only responsible for my own, which was outrageous. When I had my moment of clarity and got sober, my work went into activism and social justice. I wanted to have an influence on myself. I was the only person I could change, and that was hard enough.

You talk about your own issues with smoking and alcoholism, which was a recurring theme on “The West Wing” with various characters. Can you talk about how those personal themes came into the show?

It was a little like Aaron Sorkin was eavesdropping on our private conversations, wasn’t it? John Spencer was a dear, dear man and a great actor, and we were both in the program (Alcoholics Anonymous). The producers didn’t think it was a good idea to have the president be an old drunk. It was better that the chief of staff have that problem.

Aaron Sorkin keeps his ear to the ground. He’s got this great sense of patter, and he loves politics. He’s a real political animal, but he’s also a very, very gifted writer. There were a lot of issues I had to deal with as Bartlet, on the show, that personally I was appalled by, like the death penalty. We had people on the staff who went back to the Eisenhower administration, who had worked in the White House and had stories. Of the four or five stories we had going on at once in any given episode, you could be almost certain that at least half of them came from some real incident in some administration between Eisenhower and Bush. And some of them were extraordinary.

What did you like best about playing Jed Bartlet?

There were some things I loved about playing him. He had such humanity. There were so many personal traits that we shared – like, for instance, I can’t remember anyone’s name. I’m Catholic, so they made him Catholic. I love Notre Dame, so they made him a Notre Dame alumnus. I loved those things.

At what point in your career did you realize you’d become an established actor?

You know what? It doesn’t really make any difference how much success you’ve had: You’re only as good as your last job. You’ve heard that, I’m sure. “What have you done for me lately?” None of that has changed, really. I never really feel that I can rest comfortably and say, “Well, I have a certain reputation, and I ought to be able to work off that.” And honestly, I never gave as much to my profession as I did to other aspects of my life.

To be honest, I never really trusted the career thing. I came out of the Fifties, so James Dean was my idol, and he didn’t seem to hustle a career. He just did great work and everyone ran after him. So I always had that image that if you did great work, everyone would follow you, and that was not the case. Of course, later I learned that James Dean hustled. He was insecure and desperate and read for jobs and ran after parts. But I was married and a father when I was 21, and I got involved in so many other things along the way, and a career was only part of what I was doing with my life. And I’ve come to understand that you can’t separate any part of yourself from any other part. I couldn’t be an actor today, and a father tomorrow, and a grandfather or husband or brother later on. I had to be all those things all the time, in every situation. So what I am right now is all of these things – the whole person.

What motivates your interest in activism?

Both my parents were immigrants and had very difficult struggles. I come from a very large family, and my father was a factory worker who couldn’t join a union. I grew up as a caddy. So I’ve been an old radical way back from the bottom of the heap. It was a natural progression. I grew up with a picket sign in my hand and a desire for some measure of justice. I’m so sentimental about it, but I never was comfortable unless I was at least a little bit uncomfortable. You know that feeling? It’s like Bob Dylan sang in “Positively 4th Street”: “You just want to be on the side that’s winning.” Apply that to politics, to religion, to education: “You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”

There’s nothing worse than peer pressure, even for old guys like me. We don’t want to be outside the community. We want to be loved. We want to be accepted. So we never really take responsibility for ourselves or get to know ourselves. We only get to know ourselves when we get stamped and approved and accepted. So I’ve always, always tried to be uncomfortable. I know I’m not on the side that’s winning, and it’s OK, because lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.

You’ve been successful in so many areas and have had such staying power in our culture. Do you have any advice for students about being successful in their own lives?

I will just say to you that my world is fading, and yours is before you. I’m just trying to stay out of your way, because look what (my generation is) handing you. It’s disgraceful what we’ve done to the environment and to our country. It’s such a disappointment. I’m sorry about that. It’s that awful thing we grew up with in the Cold War: When all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. You have to grow beyond the culture of the previous generation. You have to take the things that work and apply your own initiative and your own vision. With the world we’re handing you, my generation needs to get out of your way, because you’ve got a lot to do. We didn’t do very well. You’ll do much better.