In Oct. 2010, the father-son acting duo of Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez were walking from their hotel to the main square in Santiago, Spain, to see the pope. As the pair moved toward the site where Benedict XVI would celebrate Mass, they were stopped by a French pilgrim looking for directions to El Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage path stretching hundreds of kilometers between France and Spain. Little did this pilgrim know, but she had asked exactly the right people. A year earlier, Sheen and Estevez had spent months in the region shooting The Way, a film that Estevez wrote and co-produced, and which tells the story of a father who chooses to walk the camino shortly after his son’s death.
The actors had walked much of the camino themselves, while filming, and Estevez and producer David Alexanian had spent several months traveling the road by car to meet with hotel and restaurant owners and town officials in preparation for the film. In short, Estevez knew the way.
“I said, yes, you make a left and cut through a park, and go down a hill, and you’re going to start seeing signs,” Estevez said in an interview with America and other members of the New York press. Sheen looked at his son with surprise. Estevez recalled his father asking: “What are the odds that a year after we wrapped you’d find yourself here in Santiago giving another pilgrim directions?”
Actually, they were pretty good. Especially, if one considers the connection the men felt to the camino and the respect they both hold for a road that has significant history for Catholics and for their family, as well. During an earlier road trip along the camino Sheen and his grandson Taylor (Estevez’s son) stopped for a meal at a restaurant where Taylor met the woman who would become his wife. And Sheen’s father, to whom Estevez dedicated the film, was from Galicia, Spain, the region that calls the city of Santiago de Compostela its capital.
During the filming, the men made a definitive effort to respect the road and the pilgrims who walked it, while also inviting many of them to serve as extras. The crew was minimal, and they dressed as the pilgrims, filmed from behind bushes on the side of the road and carrying gear on their backs. Their goal, Estevez said, was to capture the true spirit of the camino. “We wanted to honor every region, and we wanted to honor every stop,” Estevez said. “So when real, true pilgrims saw the film they’d say ‘I recognize that.’”
In the film, the character of Tom, played by Sheen, meets a diverse group of strangers, which Estevez likens to the band of travelers in “The Wizard of Oz.” While on a shared path, Tom learns about his son and about himself, alongside the others who struggle to make peace with their own journeys.
Sheen affectionately described the small group of characters as “knuckleheads.” But, as Estevez pointed out, they’re no more knuckleheaded than the rest of us. “We are these beautiful wonderful disasters, all of us,” he said. “That’s the first step: acknowledging that you’re this beautiful wonderful mess, and yet that’s how we connect to one another….. If there’s a theme in the film [it is]: How about being ok with exactly who you are? How about being comfortable in your own skin? Being exactly this wonderful beautiful mess that we are, because God loves us no matter what we are and who we are. Why don’t we love ourselves in our imperfections?”
The image of the loving Father is central to the film, which feels Catholic with both a big and small “C”, and for the most part avoids being preachy or overbearing. The character Tom is a widower who has lost his son, and in his grief, he makes the decision to walk the camino, which Sheen pointed out is an unusual choice for a professional man of his age. “He doesn’t have much left to grow from,” Sheen says. “He embarks on a journey that is going to change his life, of course, but it also allows him to become the father to these other needy people that he was never able to be to his son. In that sense it is transcendent to himself and his own freedom.”
The film sparked a real-life father-son journey for Sheen and Estevez. They traveled on a cross-country bus tour together, screening “The Way” to more than 30,000 people, most of whom, they say, have reacted positively to the story and to the portrayal of the camino. Estevez’s son Taylor has served as tour manager, and Alexanian, the co-producer, has also taken part in conversations with the audience. “Many people said, ‘The film has inspired me because it’s led me to believe that it’s never too late.’” Alexanian said. “[Tom] gets to know [the character of] Daniel better in death than he ever did in life.”
Working together revealed new aspects of the actors’ real-life relationship, too. Sheen, 71, has played a number of famous roles, from Captain Benjamin L. Willard in “Apocalypse Now” to President Josiah Bartlet in “The West Wing,” but he said that his role as Tom was “by far the most rewarding of [his] life.” In fact, he says he loves bragging about the film. “We’ve done projects that you have to go out there and sell, and everybody knows that you’re doing it because you want the project to be successful, but you’re not passionate and you’re not enthusiastic and you’re not really honest about it,” Sheen said. “This one, I can’t stop talking about it…. He [Estevez] wrote it for me, it’s a gift.”
The praise is not lost on Estevez, who at 49, still acknowledges taking pleasure in his father’s approval. “We all want our parents' approval, from the time we bring home that cigar box covered with glued-on noodles on the first day of kindergarten,” he said. “To create something that [my father] is so proud of is something that I’m extremely proud of, and I feel like, OK, I brought home another cigar box covered with noodles, and I got an A and I got the approval from my folks.”
Estevez said the importance of family was instilled in him as a child, as he traveled with his siblings and his parents to movie sets, sometimes for films that provided less-than-ideal roles for his father. “I watched him accept a lot of jobs that I knew were gigging, paying the bills.” Estevez said. “He said yes to projects he shouldn’t have, because he was driven by economics. He made sure there was always food on the table and a roof over our head, but that meant taking a lot of jobs that were not career moves.” Estevez felt that creating the role of Tom for his father was a way to offer him a chance at a role he could truly enjoy. “I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this is a brilliant actor that we haven’t seen enough of playing these types of roles,” he said. “From page one, I said we need to remind the world what an extraordinary talent he is.”
And while he shared his son’s enthusiasm for the role, Sheen, whose return to the Catholic faith has been well documented, at first balked at the fact that his character was a lapsed Catholic. But Estevez insisted. “If he is already devout, where is the change? Where is the journey?” Estevez said. “I said, ‘Let’s have the film be used as a tool so that people can look and say, here’s a guy that had a crisis of faith and had this horrible thing happen that opened up his world again, and he not only has a conversion but he becomes a citizen of the world again.’” Sheen agreed the trait should stay.
Tom begins his journey with expectations of quickly obtaining his son’s ashes and returning home. However, the path he ends up on includes a number of unexpected turns and detours, a fact of life Sheen can identify with. “Every day it happens to me,” he said. “I get up thinking this is going to happen and something else happens. If you’re aware, you give thanks and praise for all those wonderful accidents that make up a life.”
While “The Way” is about a literal pilgrimage, added Sheen, a trip to Santiago or Rome or Jerusalem isn’t necessary to change one’s life. “You have to go into your own heart,” he said. “You have to go on an honest journey to try to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. I think that’s what all of us are trying to do, is to live a balanced life.” Ideally, Sheen said, a pilgrimage will take you out of your comfort zone. “[It] takes you to a place where you have to trust that the next step is going to land on solid ground, but if it doesn’t there will be someone to prop you up. So you trust your fellow pilgrims.”
Along the camino, the refugios, or hostels, often contain shelves of books in many languages, which people have left behind in order to lighten their packs on the road. Everyone has a tendency to overpack, Sheen said, but this unpacking can be not only a physical comfort but a spiritual one, as well.
“As you begin to let go of the material baggage then you begin to reflect on the interior baggage, and you begin the transcendence, the descent into yourself,” Sheen said. “As St. Teresa of Ávila tells us, in order to become free and to become ourselves we have to open the dungeons of our hearts and let go of all those people and those things that we’ve been hanging on to…. We’re hanging on to resentment, judgment, anger, jealously…. As we begin to descend in there and have an honest look at the baggage we’ve accumulated, we begin to let it all go and we become ourselves.”
In the end, Sheen said, it is important to remember that we are all on the same journey. “You can’t have anyone walk this walk for you,” he said. “But you don’t have to walk it alone.”