Monday, December 8, 2014

Martin Sheen

“I’ve accepted the age that I really am, and there’s a great sense of freedom in that”

By Ankita R. Kanabar

(This interview has been published in the December 6, 2014 issue of Super Cinema)

Does Martin Sheen need any introduction? What does one really say about a veteran like him, when his films like ‘Badlands’, ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Final Countdown’, and ‘The Departed’ among many others, have already spoken volumes about his brilliance. But the fact that he gets into details even during this interview, is a testament to the amount of detailing he puts in every character. His character of Warren Anderson in ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’ – which released recently, on the 30th anniversary of the incident - is no exception. Since the film is based on a real-life tragedy, a lot of research went into it, he says. Considering his elongated body of work and years of experience, it’s endearing how his voice still brims with child-like excitement when he talks about his craft. In an extensive chat, Martin Sheen talks about ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’, his character and how he enjoys being an actor much more now than he did when he was young!   

Were you instantly inclined towards doing the film when you read the script of ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’?
Yes, because when I read the script, I remembered this enormous tragedy very well. The effects seemed to grow day by day and week by week, after the initial leak. Thousands and thousands of victims have multiplied over the years. The ground water is still contaminated, and we’re still looking for justice. We shot the film five years ago when it was the 25th anniversary of this incident, but it needed a lot of adjustment and refinement, with the music, editing, additions and subtractions. So, it took a long time to get what it is now. We’re still hoping that it’ll have an effect on the youth and people concerned about the environment and human rights.

As an actor are you more emotionally involved, when you’re playing a real-life character than when you play a fiction character?
The incident happened for real and because Warren Anderson was really responsible, there’s a lot more emotional involvement. Also because, he was alive when we did the film, he only died a few months ago. When we were doing the film, I specifically tried to reach him to tell him that we’re doing this film which is critical of the position he took, and asked him to come forward but he never responded. When he died, the reports suggested that he died in Florida, in late September this year. We wanted to make sure he had an opportunity but he did not accept it. He was hiding ever since the incident. He couldn’t find the courage to come forward, at least to say, how sorry he felt. Unfortunately, he hid behind the corporate shield, and ran like a coward. He was a charming and well-educated man with great charisma. But he was selfish. The company was on the verge of withdrawing from Bhopal, and he wanted to stay and see if it’s profitable. It was greed which was motivating his concern for people, and his energy as the CEO.

And what is more challenging? Essaying a real-life character or a fiction character?
It’s hard to say, but in either case, whether it is fiction or reality, you still have to be honest. You still have to play from the heart. Whatever character I’m given to play, it’s like being given a license to explore certain behavior which might seem repulsive to me or I may not even approve of. But, as an actor, I’ll still do it, and teach the audience what to do and what not to do in a certain situations. We actors are forbidden to be dishonest when we play a character, especially a real-life character. When I played Anderson for example, I had to be this very charming, charismatic man who seemed to care about everyone. I had to be this very amiable character, which he wasn’t in real life. In portraying him, I had to take the responsibility for portraying every aspect of his character. Ideally, I love to play heroes, and I want people to like me in a film, but sometimes it’s far more important to be honest and show the darker side of our nature.

Was some of the reality or Warren Anderson’s character diluted a bit in the film?
I wanted to portray him honestly. I didn’t want him to be seen as a dark man who did these things on purpose. He thought he was being honest, and so many of us do think we are being honest when we are only concerned about ourselves. We don’t see the suffering of others. But when you are in a position of responsibility, you have to go farther than your own self interest. So, his true colours showed when he fled, he didn’t speak up and he didn’t offer help at all. The problems have now gone into another generation, and still haven’t been addressed. The compensation hasn’t yet reached these people. Nobody has agreed to clean the ground water, or the poisonous land, and people continue being affected. It’s an ongoing tragedy, and it’s the hope of our film that people become aware of and some changes take place.

You visited India to shoot ‘Gandhi’, and you shot ‘Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain’ here about five years ago. How different was the experience both the times?
I came to India for the first time to do a role in ‘Gandhi’ in 1981. I was travelling with my son Emilio, who was 18 at that point of time. We shot in New Delhi, Mumbai and Porbandar and that’s when I was overwhelmed by the Indian culture. It had a very profound effect on me. It led me to a great source of personal satisfaction. I became a catholic during my visit here, because I was so moved with the spirituality of India. The whole culture was alive with heights and the depths of human existence. There was such great energy, compassion and love. There was also so much poverty that it overwhelmed me and changed my life. I wrote about it in my memoir, with my son Emilio. We have a memoir together which was published last year called ‘Along the way’. I’ve written about my experience in India in it. Then, I came back to India, to Hyderabad five years ago, to do ‘Bhopal…’, and I found the country has so many great successes with the internet and with the business and tourism. So I saw a much a different India, and a very ideal community in Hyderabad. There were Hindus, Muslims and also Christians and they were all meshed together. I’d never been in a city with such diversity. Every instance was a new adventure, and I found it very fascinating. So, I love your culture and I’m very grateful that it had such a profound effect on me. I have a feeling I will come back to India again (smiles).

Over the years has your process as an actor changed?
Most artists do have a process, which is very personal. But the older I become, the less anxious I get. Now I’m less concerned about how I look. I’ve sort of accepted the age that I really am, and there’s a great sense of freedom in that. To not be worried about how people are going to perceive you, just do the work and enjoy the process. I’m so fortunate to continue to do what I love the most. To make a living as an actor is rare, so I’m very happy about it. I’m looking forward to playing parts that are more close to me, doing characters I care about and would like to see explored. Emotions come easier as you get older, at least for me. You’re more sensitive, and there’s something just so comforting, emotionally.

So are you enjoying work a lot more now than when you were young?
Oh yes! I was so anxious when I was young. When you are young and self-possessed, you have all these concerns about whether or not you’re taking the right step. But as you grow, you begin to see a wider picture. You slow down in a lot of ways. You are closer to your spiritual and emotional life. So then, you even approach your character much more confidently, I would say, it’s more fun now than it was when I started, and it was great fun when I started. I’m 74 now and I just finished doing a series for Netflix with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. It’s a situational comedy called ‘Grace And Frankie’. The average age of the four of us is 74 and it is the first time on television that you see old people really playing their age. It’s not a young person pretending to be old. It’s a funny series of couples who have been married for 40 years; they have children and grand children. And then suddenly there’s a crisis in their life which changes everything. They become so human, vulnerable and loving. It’s been such a satisfying experience. I indeed enjoy work a lot more now, and I look forward to continue acting, till I possibly can. 

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