Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Father and son find similarities along 'The Way'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Martin Sheen dances an impromptu waltz with a surprised, and soon-to-be-swooning, hotel employee passing in the hallway.

He sails into a conference ballroom and, with a firm handshake and gentle eyes, greets a stranger and asks where's he's from, the gregarious grandfather's expansiveness filling the antiseptic space with warmth.

One of his small traveling team is celebrating a birthday, so Sheen waits for the congratulatory patter to settle before serenading the young lady with a sweet rendition of "Happy Birthday," sung in the style of Frank Sinatra.

Such is the charm and generosity of Sheen. Nobody is a stranger, everybody has a story, and Sheen wants to hear them all. And he's got more than a few of his own to share.

His oldest son, Emilio Estevez, trails in his wake, smiling and shaking his head, as if, despite having seen this act undoubtedly played out thousands of times over decades, he's still amused and touched by his father's ability to imbue a crowd with his good-natured spirit.

Tempering that natural charisma could not be an easy task, and it's one that fell to Estevez in directing his father in "The Way." In the film, Sheen plays Tom, a buttoned-up doctor who has recently lost his son to a tragic accident in Spain.

Tom originally travels to Spain to retrieve the remains of his son, Daniel (played by Estevez), a free spirit who died while traveling the Camino Santiago de Compostello. Moved by the memory of his son, Tom eventually finds himself on the legendary trail of pilgrims, where he meets fellow travelers and comes to a greater understanding of himself. But it is a slow journey for the country club doctor with a narrow worldview and a lack of tolerance for others.

The character of Tom represented a significant departure from Sheen's public persona and how he carries himself in his private life.

"First thing he does when he meets someone is he says, 'Hey, where are you from?' " Estevez says of his father. "Tom wouldn't do that. He's a country club guy, not in the world. So I was always fighting against him. I had to say, 'Look, this guy is not you. So you can't jump into a crowd and shake everybody's hand. You have to be more reserved. You'll get there. By the end of the movie, you'll be awake, you'll be fully realized. But until then you have to trust me that we're going to pace your character out in a way that makes sense and allows for evolution.' "

As with most actors, and people, Sheen admits he naturally wanted to be loved, so adjusting his personality for the character proved problematic.

But Estevez found a way to speak in a language "The West Wing" star could understand.

"Would this make any sense to ya: This guy wouldn't vote for Jed Bartlet," Estevez told Sheen, referring to the beloved fictional president from "The West Wing."

"And I got it," Sheen said. "That always stuck in my brain. How could you not vote for Jed Bartlet and be a person? You moron."

Sheen's grandson and Estevez's son, Taylor Estevez, is largely responsible for inspiring "The Way." While on a trip to the legendary Camino Santiago de Compostello with Sheen, Taylor met a young lady named Julia. As Sheen tells it, the two young people started staring at each other, and they've been staring at each other ever since. Taylor returned to the States and told his father that he was moving to Spain. And his decision provided the jumping off point for the tale of separation and reunion in "The Way."

The movie tells of a son who pulls his father out of his shell and closer to a greater understanding of his true self.

Through a series of flashbacks, Sheen starts seeing the world through his son's eyes.

The physically demanding film, the shooting of which spanned the entire Camino, marks the third time that Estevez has directed Sheen.

Despite having been on board with the idea for the film, Sheen said he was hesitant to take the role. Estevez and Sheen had little luck when they initially shopped the script to investors. Sheen humbly submitted that he did not have a name big enough to carry a film and suggested to Estevez that he pitch the film to Harrison Ford or Michael Douglas.

The man who has appeared in more than 200 TV shows and movies offered to take a smaller part, but Estevez would not hear of it. He had written the part for his father, he said, and without Sheen, he insisted there would be no movie.

"So for me it was a very great gift of love and affection and of confidence," Sheen said.

It seems generosity of spirit runs in the family.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986