When you talk about movies, you often talk about the actors you grew up watching. Except, that doesn’t apply to Martin Sheen. He’s had such a long, prolific career that nearly every generation has seen his work. In that, he’s like the Amitabh Bachchan of Hollywood.
Except, the numbers are even more mind-boggling: Sheen has nearly 250 credits as an actor (over a hundred films, and over a hundred TV shows; Bachchan is just shy of 200).
And while he’s the first to admit that some of it is “forgettable”, he’s done landmark films too – from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Over a phone line from Los Angeles, he talks about his career, the elusive Oscar, why he doesn’t like the current dominance of superhero films in Hollywood, and why he’s glad his grandchildren will never see some of his work.
Nearly 250 credits as an actor. Yet, that Oscar seems to have eluded you.
Well, I won’t say that I have no interest in that (the Oscars), but I don’t know how to go about it. I’ve had an extremely successful and satisfying career. I’ve made my living from it, and spent all of my adult life doing the thing I love the most; I’m still doing it. Beyond that, I don’t have any control over it.
But an actor with a career spanning nearly 60 years is rare in Hollywood.
Yeah, I guess they don’t live that long (laughs)… I’m still at it. You know, most of the stuff is forgettable. Frankly, I’ve often accepted parts for the financial exchange. I won’t deny that. My grandchildren are not aware of most of the stuff I’ve done, thank heavens. But every now and then, I did get something of substance. And those are the ones that still have some value – films like Gandhi, Apocalypse Now, Badlands (1973), Wall Street.
You did Wall Street with your son Charlie. You continue to work with him on a TV show. The world has seen his phenomenal rise, and then the problems. How do you see his life as a father?
I adore him. But I wish that he would have not had so much success so young. He couldn’t process it, he didn’t understand it; and he became an object rather than a person. When you get success so young, you don’t have a chance to become yourself; you become the image that is being projected. And he’s not the only one. Many young stars become public objects too soon.
There’s a new wave of superhero cinema in Hollywood, and you’ve been a small part of it (as Uncle Ben in The Amazing Spider-Man; 2012). Are you a fan of the genre?
It’s clever film-making, and the studios depend on it to make profits. But I find it very hard to relate to. The only Spider-Man movie I ever saw was the one I was in. I find all this green screen stuff over the top; I’m hoping it’ll run its course.
Back in the ’90s, you were the voice of the villain Sly Sludge on another superhero animation series, Captain Planet.
Oh wow, that played in India? I had no idea. That’s amazing to me. In fact, I think Tom Cruise was a part of that for a bit when it started [Cruise was set to voice Captain Planet, and then dropped out].
Several veteran actors shifted to direction. But you directed just one film (Stockade; 1990).
I’m proud of having done it; but I don’t want to do it again. I enjoyed the process on set, and the interaction with the actors, but then there’s post-production, budgets, promotions. Directing one film took me two-and-a-half years; and that’s about average. I can’t give one project that kind of time.
What made you take up a film on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy (Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain)?
I was very aware of the tragedy when it occurred (in 1984). It’s 30 years on, and I realise there are many young people now who weren’t born then. And it might be a good idea to remind them of the price of greed and irresponsibility when lives are at stake. Besides, this was an opportunity to show a western CEO (Sheen plays Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson) who was charming and who projected this image of caring for people, when, in fact, he was only concerned with profits. It’s similar to a lot of CEOs even now, who are looking for ways to extract profit from developing countries.
Did the India seen in western films change post Slumdog Millionaire (2008)?
Well, your country is the biggest filmmaker in the world. So, we are intrigued by it, and familiar with it. The image of Indian culture isn’t new to us. There was Gandhi (1982) years ago. Slumdog did have a powerful effect here, as did Life of Pi (2012). I also find Bollywood films fascinating. The singing and dancing is a lot like what we had with MGM musicals in the ’30s and ’40s.