Miguel Cullen talks to Emilio Estevez about his new film which features his father on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela
In Emilio Estevez’s 2006 re-creation of Robert F Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby, filming was set to start in the surviving Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, scene of the senator’s murder. The problem was that the hotel was being bulldozed at the same time. It was only after Estevez had shot some hasty scenes on location and moved on to a set that he found out that it was his own father who had ordered the demolition.
The cross purposes of Estevez and Martin Sheen — who had been asked by Ethel Kennedy to get the site razed – characterise their typical, contradictory father-son relations. On the one hand Sheen – Catholic, honourable and a cult figure – is a perfect role model. On the other, that same success – and here his connections on LA City Council – have caused serious headaches for his son.
The Way is Estevez’s latest directorial release, and stars his father. It tells the story of a father (Sheen) who loses his son (Estevez) and walks the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in a ourney of grief and posthumous father-son bonding. When I put it to Estevez that in it he has reconstructed his own value to his father, he smiles benignly, unpiqued.
“You know what?” he says: “I’ve written my own eulogy. That never crossed my mind.” When we meet in the Soho Hotel in London Estevez is every inch the laminate movie star. Anxious waiting room exchanges about uncooperative A-listers and frantic PR exhortations “not to mention Charlie” had prepared me for the worst. Embalmed-smooth cheek bones, eyes like two blue marbles, glossed chestnut hair and an anonymous navy ensemble completed my introduction to the high life.
Estevez, best known for his 1980s movies The reakfast Club, Young Guns and St Elmo’s Fire, could have had a different career if it hadn’t been for a man called David Blum. He was the author of an infamous article in the June 10 1985 issue of New York magazine called “Hollywood’s Brat Pack”. This coined the future identity of a group of actors that would be their millstone. Catty descriptions of Estevez, Rob Lowe, Sean Penn, Demi Moore and Judd Nelson roaring around LA in open-top jeeps abounded.
Estevez’s take on his youth is different. He describes a nomadic existence. In 1976, during the Filipino monsoon season, a young Estevez went to stay with his father for Apocalypse Now.
“It was madness,” he says. “I was 14 years old, in the Philippines, unsupervised, unleashed. I was wreaking havoc. The fact that my parents allowed Laurence Fishburne and I to get in a Jeepney and go to Manila for the weekend, check into a hotel... you know this is during martial law – President Marcos – and there we were, two 14year-old boys on a weekend in Manila like a couple of sailors on leave.
“I drank a lot, lost my virginity. It was dreadful. That was the Philippines. At one point some of the crew members pulled my mother aside and said: ‘Get your children outta here.’ And so I did – I got out. And the following year my father got sick, and I went back. Yeah, it was strange.” The Way sees Sheen play Tom, a Californian optician who is playing a round of golf when he receives news of his son’s death in the Pyrenees. He then travels to St Jean Pied de Port, France, to identify Daniel’s remains. He chooses to cremate the body and complete the Camino his son was on, while sprinkling his ashes along the way. On the Camino he picks up a selection of lost souls seeking salvation: Sarah, a cynical Canadian recovering from an abusive relationship and a traumatic abortion; Joost, a clownish Dutchman seeking to lose weight and save his marriage and an insufferably verbose Irish writer called Jack, seeking to recover from writer’s block. Tom suffers these fools in silence, until he makes one memorable drunken outburst. Tom’s anger at his bereavement bubbles over and the steel behind Sheen’s benevolent exterior shows as he lashes Joost for being a Dutch druggie and Jack for being a credit card-funded sham artist.
The dialogue is intelligently written. Estevez explains: “I try to write dialogue that I thought was real and I was writing for very smart, quick-witted characters. Tom doesn’t suffer fools, but he is more thoughtful than some of the other characters – that again has to do with his age.
“I wanted the three other pilgrims to be emblematic of parts of Daniel – and for him to become emblematic to Sarah, Jack and Joost in many ways that he could never be to his own son. He would learn more about his son in death than he ever did in life. And ultimately what I wanted to create as a dynamic was The Wizard of Oz: Joost is the cowardly lion, Sarah is the tin man, and Jack is the scarecrow. Instead of Oz they’re off to Santiago de Compostela.” On the actor’s wrist is a multicoloured rosary. I ask him if he is a Catholic like his father.
“I’m in the middle of my journey of discovering what it is and how I connect to it,” he answers. “But I’ll tell you something: after and during filming The Way I stopped using the word ‘coincidence’. There were too many events that happened that were just providential. They were miracles. The crew were like ‘woah. there is some strange eerie glow around you and we seem to have this charmed shoot’. And you got to a point where you couldn’t deny it.
“For instance, in northern Spain it rains the whole time – but it rained twice. We were warned that shooting between September and November we would probably be delayed and we would never make our schedule, and the two days it rained we were shooting interiors.
“There were just things that would happen that were... they were gifts. A train would pull up in the middle of a shot and 40 tourists would get off and they would walk through it and the assistant director was losing his mind, screaming and yelling, and I would say: ‘Hang on, this is a gift. How do we utilise this?’ “My son went on the Camino in 2003, met a young lady in Burgos and fell in love. They got married in the town itself.” The cathedral?
“No, in the Casa Rural where they actually met, just outside the town.” Estevez, who has been married to Paula Abdul, engaged to Demi Moore and served as Tom Cruise’s best man, has been on a learning curve since that article in New York magazine. He is arrogant, of course – who wouldn’t be? – yet other less typical attributes on show are a laid-back way of trailing sentence endings and his famous laugh. There is a varnish, subliminal yet apparent in his every move, that dilutes his effect, as if he is talking through a medium.
Martin Sheen, with serious roles in films like The Departed and Apocalypse Now, has cemented his place among the serious actors of his generation. Estevez can emerge as a comedy figure, best known for his spoofs in Men at Work, which he directed, and his funny act as a jock in The Breakfast Club. At the same time he is, as the eldest son, very close to his father, in looks and in their attitudes of matured responsibility. The Charlie Sheen debacle may have seen Estevez grow in that respect, in his own way outpacing the man who won three Golden Globes and earned television’s highest salary.
Estevez mentions that he likes Pedro Almodóvar, and I ask him about a line the director uses in one of his films: “Success has no taste or smell, and once you get used to it it’s as if it didn’t exist.” “Pedro said that?” he asks. “I don’t know how I feel about that. I’m not sure if you ever get used to it. It’s something you can taste, and it is tangible, when it goes away, when it returns... I’ll get back to you.” The Way goes on general release next Friday