On Movies: Sheen family odyssey promoting 'The Way'

At their bus stop in Philadelphia: (from left) Emilio Estevez, producer David Alexanian, and Martin Sheen.
At their bus stop in Philadelphia: (from left) Emilio Estevez, producer David Alexanian, and Martin Sheen. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 09, 2011

Emilio Estevez calls what he and his dad are doing "an old-school whistle-stop tour" - traveling North America to promote The Way, their heartfelt Spanish odyssey. "Louis B. Mayer used to put the actors on a train and send them across the country and they'd stop in at all the screenings and premieres. It's a throwback to that."

Except that Martin Sheen and his oldest son are going from city to city on a "mad, crazy 50-foot-long bus," as producer David Alexanian, who's along for the ride, puts it. Not a musty Greyhound, mind you, but a luxuriously appointed hotel on wheels, formerly rented out by U2 and Stevie Nicks.

"We love traveling on it," says Estevez, who stopped - along with Sheen, Alexanian, and their small crew - to camp at the Rittenhouse Hotel last week. They've been on the road since late August, and Philadelphia is their 22d stop. "It's like this wonderful womb. We all climb inside, and there's this sense of security, but there's also this sense of camaraderie that we get out there."

The Way, which opened at the AMC Neshaminy, AMC Plymouth Meeting, and AMC Loews Cherry Hill this weekend (and expands to more theaters Friday), is a true father-son collaboration. Sheen stars as a California opthalmologist whose well-ordered life is upended when he receives news that his estranged son (Estevez) has died in a hiking accident.

Sheen's Tom flies to France to identify the body and arrange for the cremation. But instead of returning home, Tom decides to complete the trek his boy had begun: traversing the fabled Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, snaking from southwestern France through the Pyrenees and ending in Santiago, Spain. The route's 480 miles weave through cities and towns, and span diverse terrain. The pilgrims, or peregrinos, display their passports, their compostela, with pride. Innkeepers stamp the pages, marking the stages along the way.

In the film, Sheen's character meets up with a trio of fellow pilgrims: a portly Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), an Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt), and a Canadian divorcee (Deborah Kara Unger). In addition to the gear in their packs, each carries a personal load of woes. Like any good road movie, The Way is not about the destination - it's about the experience of getting there.

"It's about the journey inside, the transcendent journey," Sheen explains. "Consider this metaphor: The pilgrims are walking, and they realize that they've overpacked, and they start getting rid of stuff, but after a few days you can't give it away. All the other pilgrims are doing exactly the same thing. . . .

"So, they're leaving things like books along the camino - a lot of books, they've all brought books . . . . It's like these wayside libraries in all these different languages along the path.

"And then they begin to let go of the stuff inside. The journey really begins when they start to let go of all the negative things that they've been carrying."

Sheen, who is 70 now, exudes a contagious sort of good cheer. Looking in a mirror before a photographer gets ready for the shoot, the veteran star quips, "Is my hair askew?"

He ribs Estevez and Alexanian for the time they spend on their laptops and smartphones, as the Way bus zooms along the interstates.

"I'll be sitting up with Dave Hooper, the driver, and that's the best seat in the house, you can see everything," Sheen declares. "But then I look back and all of you are on computers or cellphones, tweeting and twanking."

Twanking. He should copyright the word right now.

Sheen, Estevez, and Alexanian have been stopping in movie theaters and concert halls through the Southwest, the Midwest and the South to show their film, to talk about The Way, and to field questions and comments from what they are happy to report have been enthusiastic crowds.

One would think, given the inordinate amount of media coverage accorded another of Sheen's sons - Charlie Sheen, that is - that his name, and his very public battle with drugs, would come up from time to time at these Q&A sessions.

"Zero," says Sheen.

"You're standing there in front of 3,000 university students who you'd think would feel entitled to ask about Charlie," Estevez says. "He's been addressing that demographic very much so, and strongly. But there has been nothing. Not a word."

Adds producer Alexanian: "The only people that do bring up the subject, not surprisingly, is the tabloidy TV shows. And they think they've got their finger on the pulse of what people care about - but in reality, they don't. Because we know."

Sheen and Estevez have only had supportive things to say about the trouble-plagued Charlie.

The Way, of course, isn't the first time that writer/director Estevez - who still pursues acting, and has a family sports film in development in which he plans to star - and his father have collaborated. They worked on Bobby (2006), an ensemble piece set on the eve of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, and on The War at Home (1996), about a Vietnam vet haunted by the traumas of war.

Father and son live close by, just north of Malibu, Calif., and Estevez would show Sheen drafts of The Way screenplay as he worked on it.

"I adore this guy," says the star of Apocalypse Now, of Badlands, of The Departed, looking over to the bearded, blue-eyed Estevez. "He's my closest friend, and he wrote this for me, it's the best part I've had since I can't even remember how long.

"I know you don't want to hear this" - he nods in the direction of his son again - "but it is the best thing I've done. I'm so proud of it, and I can't stop bragging about it, as you can clearly see.

"I've been saying that if this was the last one, I'd be fine with that. It couldn't get any better. That's the way I feel about it.

"And I know he doesn't want to hear that, because he thinks I'm tempting the fates, or some such nonsense."

At which point Sheen grabs at his chest, and gasps, as if he's in the throes of a dire seizure.

Then he lets loose with a laugh.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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