The acting legend talks Badlands, Apocalypse Now, James Dean, Elvis – and his worst movies with Rob Garratt
Here’s a shocking fact: Martin Sheen has never been nominated for an Oscar. Crazy really, when you take a look back at his peerless résumé, which has not only spanned five decades, but said something meaningful throughout them all. There was his breakout role as renegade killer Kit in Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut, Badlands, inspired by the ’50s serial killer Charles Starkweather. His generation-defining part as Captain Benjamin L Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (1979), a dark portrait of the US-led war in Vietnam of the ’60s and ’70s. Sheen took on the consumerist ’80s in Wall Street, and gave the noughties a vision of an ideal president with Josiah Bartlet in long running US TV drama The West Wing. And at 73 he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
While he’s not picked up an Oscar, the shelves of his awards cupboard must be creaking, with a Golden Globe, several Emmys and a string of awards from the Screen Actors Guild. Sheen recently added to that overflowing collection with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the tenth Dubai International Film Festival – where we caught up with the actor, ever suave in a dark shirt, tie and jacket, lounging around in Madinat Jumeirah’s Koubba Bar. He couldn’t have been warmer and more accommodating – told we had just five minutes with the legend, Sheen flapped away his minders repeatedly, demanding more questions and giving us a good 15 minutes with the legend before we finally (and reluctantly) excused ourselves. Here’s how it happened.
Hello Martin. Time Out? I know your magazine – I did an interview [for Time Out London] many, many years ago. Good on you.
We hope it was a good read? [Laughs] I think I’d left the country before it came out – which was probably to my advantage!
You don’t read a lot of your own press, then? You know what, I don’t. It’s none of my business – I’m here for obvious reasons, celebrating this award at this festival, my first time in Dubai. But also I’m bragging about the film I’m most excited about, from  which I did with my son [Emilio Estevez], The Way. And also I’m bragging about a film I did this summer [to be released in 2014] with your fellow Englishman [director] Stephen Daldry, Trash.
Tell us about it. It’s [adapted from] a wonderful book, [by] a young guy, a British schoolteacher [Andy Mulligan] who taught in a British school in Manila. He doesn’t identify the country but I’ve lived in the Philippines and I knew where it was. It’s the story of these three destitute children, young boys who live on a trash heap in the Third World, and they find [some] treasure one day, and now we’re off and running.
It’s unbelievable, and I got to play the missionary that ran a mission where they come to eat and learn, and I fell in love with your man Stephen Daldry. He’s just incredible – he did Billy Elliot, so he has a hand with children. And these are kids who have never acted, didn’t have a clue what it was about. He took them almost off the street. It’s a real pleasure to hear you talk so passionately about your work. What keeps you enthused after nearly six decades in the business? I was lucky enough to find something very young that I loved and was deeply personal. I knew even as a child. Even though I couldn’t indentify it was such, when I was four or five I knew something, I had this sense of myself, and I didn’t know what it was until I started going to the movies around the age of six years old. And gradually it began to dawn on me: ‘Oh, you’re one of them! No problem.’ I just instinctively knew it, and also [I] realised it was the thing that would make me happy, and if I didn’t pursue it I would be unhappy – and I knew that from the beginning. I never wanted to be anything else, never tried to be anything else, embraced it, and I’ve been lucky enough to have made my living all my adult life.
There was a great collage of some of your greatest on screen moments played at the awards ceremony. How do you feel looking back at those ‘greatest hits’? It’s hard looking at the younger stuff. I was 32 when I shot Terrence Malick’s first movie, Badlands. [In] Apocalypse Now I was 36, I turned 37 on that – I was on that film almost a year and a half. And it’s hard to watch that stuff because you can’t go there again. Frankly, I prefer to see the older stuff. They showed a scene when I was playing Uncle Ben [in The Amazing Spider-Man], I had the white hair, and I put on a few pounds, I was obviously older – I prefer that, because that’s what I see when I look in the mirror now. I don’t see that guy from Badlands and Apocalypse Now.
Do you miss that guy? I don’t miss him, no. Because it was part of the journey, it was one stop along the journey. I couldn’t take that with me any more than I can go back and get it again. You have to let go of it, it doesn’t belong to you anymore.
There are so many notorious stories surrounding the creation of Apocalypse Now. Was it really as chaotic as people say? Yeah. It was pretty chaotic, and it was really a reflection of our own craziness, my own included. As a group of Americans living in a Third World country and trying to force something, which was reflective of what the United States was trying to do in Vietnam. In a much, much smaller scale that’s what we were trying to do. Francis [Ford Coppola] talked about that himself.
Are you still in touch with Francis? I don’t have a day to day relationship with him, but we’re still cordial, sure.
Badlands celebrated its 40th birthday this year. Do you think it would be possible to get a movie like that, or Apocalypse Now, made today? They might be [made today], but they wouldn’t be made the same way. Apocalypse was done without blue screen – we were in the choppers, we were in the jungle, all those scenes were shot on location and you got what you filmed, there was no adjusting it in postproduction. It was there. And that made it that much more difficult. So if you were to try to do that today, I think it would be more costly, and it would be, gosh, I think it would be far more difficult.
Cinema has evolved a great deal since those days... So have we!
...but do you think it’s been for the better or worse? It’s hard to tell. Each generation produces people who reflect the times we live in, and I think both of those films said something about the times we lived in. The ’50s was Badlands, the ’60s was Apocalypse Now – I think – and they reflected a part of my culture that I lived through, and was very, very much a part of. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s, I knew who Charles Starkweather was, I knew that image that he projected. James Dean was my hero. He made all the difference in our lives, not just in actors’ lives, but everyone loved James Dean – just like they did Elvis. Those two guys were icons and no one got near them until [Bob] Dylan, in that status and had that effect on the culture. They transcended the whole thing of what an icon really was. An icon transcends even generations, just everything; those two guys had a profound effect. They affected me, and I was reflecting that in some of the work I was doing, particularly on Badlands.
So those are your ‘greatest hits’... are there any movies you regret doing? Most of them! Most of them were awful, I did them for obvious reasons.
Really? Are there any that stand out to you? They stand out on their own! I don’t have to name them! Maybe in my life I’ve done... maybe a dozen [movies] that I’m really proud of. And they were the costliest ones, the ones that I didn’t make any dough from, and they cost me in a lot of ways. By costly I mean they force you to grow up, and to accept your responsibility for your talent and your life, to do an honest portrayal. And [that’s] the difference between doing a job you’re obviously doing for the dough. I think it’s real clear the work I did that was personal, and honest, and the [work] I did for the dough.
And if you could only be remembered for one movie? I only want to be remembered best for five minutes, that would do me. But if you want to remember a film, that would be The Way. The one my son [Emilio Estevez] wrote and directed. We borrowed the dough, we did in Spain, the pilgrimage on the El camino de Santiago. You really should see it. Is your father still living?
He is. Are you close to him?
Relatively. See it with him – you’ll only know why you’re watching it [then]. It’s a father-son story. It’s a wonderful film, and it’s deeply personal, and it was very costly because we couldn’t get anyone interested in doing it. And I dare not say it’s a transcendent film, or a spiritual film, but that’s exactly what it is. Almost by choice, because the journey is physical, outward, but the real journey is in, an inward journey, and it’s very, very powerful.