“I must look a fright,” said Martin Sheen, who very much did not.
Buttoning his shirt sleeves and smoothing his signature shock of graying hair, the actor had emerged from a bunk bed on a fully kitted-out bus that made a brief stop on its way into Washington. The 71-year-old Sheen hadn’t been napping. “I’ve been reading a book a woman gave me in Atlanta,” he said as his son Emilio Estevez prepared him a cup of coffee. “A lovely lady.”
For the past six weeks, the duo have been traveling the country — most often on a bus emblazoned with an advertisement for their new movie, “The Way” — in the hopes that a story-driven, spiritually themed movie with no special effects or marketing gimmicks can connect with audiences.
Written and directed by Estevez, “The Way” stars Sheen as Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist whose son Daniel (Estevez) dies in a freak storm just as he’s beginning to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the centuries-old pilgrimage route from France to northern Spain that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
When the grieving, un-devout Tom travels to France to pick up his son’s remains, he impulsively decides to finish the journey himself. As if in “The Wizard of Oz” by way of St. Christopher and Rough Guide, Tom meets three unlikely companions, each walking the path for his or her own reasons. What ensues has less to do with literal religious conversion than with inner transformation — suffused with transcendence, red wine, a controlled substance or two, and plenty of hip, sardonic humor.
Starting in August, Sheen and Estevez embarked on a pilgrimage of their own, visiting college campuses and theaters throughout the country — not as mendicants but moviemakers whose personal and professional journeys have become intertwined and irrevocably changed by the film.
For Sheen, a practicing Catholic whose father grew up near Compostela, “The Way” allowed him to realize — at least partially — his longtime goal of walking the Camino and represents something of a comeback in the kind of leading role he doesn’t get offered anymore. For Estevez, the film marked a return to his Spanish roots and the area where his son, Taylor, got married and lives. (Sheen suggested Estevez write about the Camino after visiting the area with Taylor in 2003.)
What’s more, “The Way” may prove that the enlightened, globally conscious humanism he favors can succeed in a world dominated by empty spectacle and R-rated raunch. Estevez has directed films reflecting that sensibility before, but they never found big audiences: His 1996 directorial debut, “The War at Home,” barely got a release in theaters, and “Bobby” (2006) received uneven reviews and little box office business. “I was criticized for being overly optimistic and too earnest,” Estevez says now. “But I don’t know how else to be.”
If Estevez has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood — as a teenager, he was part of the “Brat Pack” generation of actors that helped define coming-of-age films in the 1980s — his father never had one at all, at least by his lights. “We live in Los Angeles, but we’re not part of Hollywood,” he said. “I never knew how to make it happen.”
Estevez broke in. “But, if I may, I was watching you do things that were anti-Hollywood,” he insisted. Recalling that Sheen withdrew himself from being considered for an Emmy for the TV movie “The Execution of Private Slovik” in 1974, Estevez noted, “You’ve always been a revolutionary and kicked Hollywood in the teeth when you had those opportunities to allow your ego to be celebrated.”
Estevez wrote “The Way” in part to give his father the spotlight that has eluded him in recent years. “I adore him, and I’ve always seen him as a movie star,” Estevez said. “I got tired of him not being considered with that class of actors like Douglas and Pacino and De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, all the guys he came up with.”
With the exception of some teenage rebelliousness by Estevez, he and his father have always been close: They live 200 yards from each other in Malibu, Calif., and Estevez talks to his mother, Janet Templeton, every day. (Sheen and Templeton will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in December.)
Even in the midst of Charlie Sheen’s most troubling behavior this past year, he has remained connected to the family, which includes two other siblings, Ramon and Renee, both actors. “He’s never separated himself from us; we won’t allow it,” Martin said of Charlie. “Never, ever.”
“He showed up on Friday at the AARP screening” in Los Angeles, Estevez said, smiling. “We weren’t certain he was going to make it.”
“It was a blessing,” Sheen said. “A mighty blessing.”
Sheen, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, returned to the church in 1981. “I came back to Vatican II,” he explained. “So I was very happy to become involved in peace and social-justice issues. . . . I’ve often said that Mother Teresa drove me back to Catholicism, but Father Daniel Berrigan keeps me there.”
Did Estevez have a conversion experience on the Camino? “I’m a work in progress,” he said, adding that “The Way” provides as accurate an expression as any of where he stands. Nodding toward his father, he said: “He would love it if I became a devout Catholic, and I don’t rule out the possibility. Now, having done the film, I’m open to the possibility of everything.”
As the bus narrowly navigated cramped Georgetown streets, Sheen looked out the window at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “That’s where we stole John McCain’s bus!” he shouted, recalling an antic episode when he and his fellow “West Wing” cast members mistakenly took the wrong vehicle to a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. As Sheen and Estevez disembarked, Estevez asked someone to point him toward M Street. “That’s where we filmed ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’ ” he said absently. “Man, that was 25 years ago.”
With that, Sheen and Estevez grabbed their bags and began wheeling them up the block. Their movie may be a finished product, but for the men who made it, the myriad journeys that brought them here are far from over.
“The Way” opens in area theaters Friday.