At 16, I was incredibly shy to the point where I couldn’t speak. I was afraid to speak. I feared being ridiculed. I always hated reading in class. And as a result of being so nervous about reading aloud in class, I would stumble over my words and stutter. It was so painful. So I became even shyer and more withdrawn and more introverted. In many ways, I kind of lost my voice.
I was always a storyteller, and that was my refuge. I would hide behind a camera and tell stories as a filmmaker in the backyard with an old 8mm movie camera. Or I would write a short story or poem or journal and sometimes even a play. I was always comfortable in that space but never comfortable as myself.
My parents were struggling artists. My mother was and still is an artist and got a scholarship to The New School in New York, while my dad [Hollywood icon Martin Sheen] was given a bus ticket and $200 from the priest and sent to New York to pursue a career as an actor. And that’s where they met. So they understood when I said to them that I want to be an actor, I want to be a filmmaker, I want to write. They saw themselves in my passion to do this work.
I grew up on the sets of Apocalypse Now and Badlands. But I was very quiet on those sets. I was watching. And when you are watching directors like Francis Coppola directing, you are like, Oh my God, I’m really just better off keeping my mouth shut. You want to be invisible. But I got to know what everybody did on set. There’s Vittorio Steraro, this extraordinary cinematographer lighting the scene, there’s the director of The Godfather taking the actors through their paces – and there’s Marlon Brando! So I knew what a privilege it was to be there, as mad as it was. Hearts of Darkness, the film about the making of Apocalypse Now, was wild. But what was not caught on film was 10 times the madness. It was absolute insanity. I will never forget it.
How do you separate what you read about yourself versus how you really feel about yourself? Because you have to be incredibly thick-skinned to not be affected by it
I would tell my younger self not to take myself too seriously because I was a brooding young man. I took myself very, very seriously. If I look at pictures of myself at 14, 15, 16 years old, I wasn’t smiling a lot. And there didn’t seem a whole lot to smile about. I still consider myself a serious person but I realise all of this is fleeting, that this is a brief moment in time in the history of the planet and the world. I also realise it’s a very important moment. We are at a very critical tipping point. So I’m mindful of my place on the planet.
I grew up in a very progressive household. My father has been arrested 69 times for nonviolent civil disobedience and he has predominantly focused on three issues – homelessness, anti-nuclear and immigration. As a boy and as a young man, I would watch him on the news – oftentimes they would only cover the protests because he was going and he was drawing attention to the issue. Or I would sit next to my mother as he was carted off in handcuffs, reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the top of his lungs looking out of his mind. I was embarrassed as a young man. I understood fundamentally why he was doing it, but did not understand on a spiritual level until I started working on my new film, The Public – which takes place in a library and deals with homelessness and mental illness. I screened it for my dad and he was in tears. I said, ‘I paid attention. I understood. I listened to you – and God bless you’. I thanked him for another lesson I didn’t realise I was learning.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
I never spent a full year in school because my parents insisted we stay together. Any production company that hired Martin Sheen had to provide six tickets because the family was going to come. If it was in the United States, we would get in the station wagon and go – whether it was West Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado or Arizona. We would get relocated to whichever public school was there and enrol for a couple of months so we were always the new kids. It was like being in the circus. I look back at that period of my life and see there were a lot of lessons I was being taught – but only with distance and having children of my own do I realise they were lessons. I regarded them as inconveniences back then.
The Brat Pack was an easy way to categorise a bunch of young actors who were essentially just starting out – but also to dismiss them as being privileged or entitled and not knowing how to handle their fame. Which may have been the case to a certain extent. Some of those actors are no longer working or are struggling. But there were only really two movies that had a similar cast. I only worked with Molly [Ringwald] and Anthony Michael Hall once. Think about George Clooney and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt – they’ve worked together 20 times more than we did.
I was not always out partying, I was too busy writing. In 1984, on the set of St Elmo’s Fire, I had a compact portable computer which weighed 40 pounds and was writing Men At Work in my trailer. So I was always thinking beyond waiting for the phone to ring for the next job or next audition. I wanted to be proactive, self-generated, self-propelling and create my own work. I looked at acting and being part of successful films as a means to an end. I always considered myself a writer first.
My romantic life, whether it was successful or not, produced two amazing children who are now 33 and 35. At a very young age, I might add. So would I do it again if I knew that the result would be these two extraordinary individuals who have enriched my life and made me a better person, a better actor and a better man? Absolutely. Even with their mother, who I don’t get along with at all.
The Public is who I am. This movie represents everything I believe in about the world. It’s how I see the planet. It is how I view humanity
There’s no freedom to fail now. It is a different world to when I first became famous in terms of social media and gossip. When you fail it’s viewed as some spectacular fall. How do you separate what you read about yourself versus how you really feel about yourself? Because you have to be incredibly thick-skinned to not be affected by it. And the comments sections below articles are brutal. They make you want to swallow a fucking bullet.
I would tell my younger self that it is OK to be attached to the outcome. People say, ‘It was an honour just to have made this film’. No it’s not – you want people to see it otherwise you might as well be at Speakers’ Corner standing on a box playing all the roles. If you are not attached to the outcome, why the fuck do it?
If you want to know how I view the world, look at my last three films – look at Bobby, look at The Way and look at The Public. If that doesn’t tell you who I am, then I don’t know what else to say. Those movies are representative and emblematic of how I see the world. As a young man, my dad would say to me that what you do as an actor, as an artist, isn’t who you are. At the time I agreed with him. But I disagree with him fundamentally now, because of how this latest movie came together and what it represents. This movie is who I am. This movie represents everything I believe in about the world. It’s how I see the planet. It is how I view humanity. I’ve been preparing to do this movie my whole life. There was my father and his activism, my love of libraries – my first big role in The Breakfast Club even took place in one – so it’s an amalgamation of different aspects of my life. My younger self would see my latest movie and understand me.
The Public is out in cinemas in January