As you sit with the ever-genial Emilio Estevez, it's hard to recognise him as the smouldering heartthrob from Brat Pack movies like The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire. These days, the 49-year-old actor-writer-director looks the spit of his 71-year-old dad, Martin Sheen—whom he actually played as a younger version in The West Wing—and that's not something he minds at all. Even if he seems nothing like his hell-raising younger brother, Charlie Sheen, despite a family resemblance, he has a close relationship with him too. He directed and co-starred with his brother in 1990's Men at Work and 2000's Rated X.
That Estevez, the eldest of Sheen's five children, has retained his original family name is pertinent to his new film, The Way, which in many ways traces the family's roots. Set along The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), which terminates near where Martin's father Francisco Estévez was born, it follows Sheen's spiritually devoid ophthalmologist as he embarks on the northern Spanish pilgrimage started by his late son. (Estevez is seen in flashbacks.) Along the way he gathers some unlikely, though ultimately lovable friends: a Canadian divorcee (Deborah Kara Unger), an Irish author with writer's block (James Nesbitt) and a goofy Dutch pothead (Yorick van Wageningen). Ultimately, we feel as if we are going on the journey with these characters, who were inspired by Dorothy's companions in The Wizard of Oz.
Estevez had been trying to make a follow up to his 2006 film, Bobby, set on the day of the murder of Bobby Kennedy. “I wanted to follow up with another big-cast interior film, another L.A. story that would be part of a trilogy—but this fell into my lap. My son Taylor lives in Spain on the Camino and during my visits there I'd get glimpses of pilgrims walking through. My father, who in 2003 had driven and walked the Camino with Taylor—when Taylor met his wife and never left the place—said, 'Let's go and do a movie there'. I was resistant since the religious pilgrimage wasn't something I was connected to. Yet my grandfather is from Galicia where the Camino ends and my aunt had also been in Madrid for four years. In the end, it all came together very quickly. I wrote a draft in January and a year later we had the film in the can.”
For Emilio to direct his strong-willed father in such an intimate project could have been difficult. But after juggling so many high profile actors in Bobby, Estevez knew exactly what to do.
“Smart directors cast actors you don't have to direct,” he says. “You're happy to get out of their way when they're doing a great job and that's largely how I directed Martin. I knew better as a kid growing up to stay out of his way,” he chuckles, “but I think because we're so close I also know all of his trigger points. There's always the danger of taking him to a place where he's not comfortable, of course, and there were times when Martin fought me and I fought back. Not to take anything away from his performance, as he has such a quiet dignity throughout the film.”
Initially, I had spoken to Estevez at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival when he was in the throws of editing. The film then premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to the Dublin Film Festival where Sheen has a huge following as he spends a lot of time in Ireland and even holds an honorary arts doctorate conferred on him by the National University of Ireland. (He has dual American-Irish citizenship because of his Irish mother and Emilio maintains his father has inherited his jovial personality from her.)
After its early screenings, The Way, however, was deemed too long to be released in America. So Charlie stepped in and funded a new edit after which Emilio and Martin took off in a bus marketing the film in 35 locations around the US. The experience brought the father and son closer than ever. Not that they weren't already close given that they have long lived next door to each other in Malibu.
How important was it to go back to their Spanish roots via the film? “More important than we thought,” Estevez concedes. “My father's always felt a tremendous connection to Spain and has had some measure of guilt that in 1958 he changed his name because it was not popular to have a Hispanic name in showbiz, especially if you didn't look Hispanic and he certainly doesn't. He looks more Irish. When I started in the business 30 years ago, he said, 'Don't do it, you'll regret it', and we went back and forth on it. I said, 'This is going to make it more difficult.' Back then, in 1980, agents and managers kept telling me nobody was going to connect to this name and that it would make it more difficult and perhaps it was. But I'm certainly proud of the decision now, especially in the context of what we discovered while making the film.
“There we were in Galicia retracing the steps of my grandfather while over the years back home in Malibu I've become a microfarmer and a vintner as he was. Together with my fiancé [Macedonian writer Sonja Magdevski], I make wine and grow vegetables on an acre of land and we have transformed the property over the past five years. I never understood why I felt I must do this. While we were shooting the film my sister sent me an ancient black-and-white photo of my grandfather standing in his Spanish vineyard and looking very, very comfortable. I'd never seen that photo before and it all coalesced in that way.”
Estevez maintains he has never been happier with his life, and given his current comfortable demeanour, there's no doubting he is.
The Way is released in cinemas April 26.