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Estevez and Sheen believe ‘The Way’ resonates with Notre Dame’s faith and community

Maija Gustin | Monday, September 19, 2011

Father and son team Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen have been on a pilgrimage of their own in the last month, promoting their new film, “The Way.” The movie, written and directed by Estevez and starring Sheen, began its journey in California several weeks ago and will end with a benefit screening for The Walkabout Foundation on Oct. 5 in New York City. The Walkabout Foundation provides heavy-duty wheelchairs to people in need in third-world countries with undeveloped roads. Though their bus tour takes them to all parts of the country, one stop was non-negotiable — Notre Dame.

Sheen, who was honored with the Notre Dame Laetare Medal in 2008, had never been to a home football game. In an interview with The Observer, Estevez said, “So we had the Oct. 5 date, and then I said Sept. 17 is when Notre Dame plays MSU, so we need to be there on the 17th. So whatever date we leave, whether it’s Sept. 1 or August, whatever, you pick it, we need to be at Notre Dame by the 17th.”

It’s not just about the football, though. Both Estevez and Sheen felt strongly that their film needed to play before the Notre Dame community.

“We think you guys get it,” Estevez said. “We think that you guys will get the themes of the film … This campus celebrates faith and community, and that is really what the movie is all about.”

David Alexanian, the film’s producer, is quick to point out that “The Way” is a spiritual film, which doesn’t necessarily mean religious.

“The film, though set on a very important religious landmark, isn’t very religious,” he said. “It’s spiritual.”

Sheen added, “We didn’t want to hit you over the head with it … but if people are open and receptive to the transcendent nature of pilgrimage, it has a double wallop you know, because it becomes deeply personal.”

Sheen, a vocal Catholic activist, won’t deny that his own religious beliefs did influence the film.

“I love it. I’m nurtured and I identify myself with the demands of the faith because I was raised Catholic, and then faded away and then came back 30 years ago,” Sheen said. “But I came back to the church of social justice, of people and social justice, activism … So the last 30 years have been by far the most difficult in my life because of the commitment to social justice, but equally the happiest because I believe that if something is of value, it has to cost you something.

“There’s no way I could separate that identification from myself, that immersion in my own faith, but I don’t expect to save the world or anybody in it,” he added. “The only reason I do it is for myself. I’m the only one that I can change. I’m the only one that I have any influence over and that’s difficult enough. I have to change, if anything. I do it for myself because I cannot not do it and be myself.”

In this respect, Sheen’s role in “The Way” as Tom, a lapsed-Catholic ophthalmologist who does not understand his son Daniel (played by Estevez) and his desire to travel the world, seems out of character. At the beginning of the film, Daniel has decided that he will not finish his cultural anthropology PhD so that he can experience the world’s cultures first-hand. Tom is disappointed in his son’s decision and even more concerned that Daniel is about to fly to Europe to complete the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tom receives a call that his son has died in an accident at the beginning of his pilgrimage and so he flies to collect the cremated remains of his son. He decides in a moment of revelation that he will continue his son’s journey on the Camino and scatter the ashes along the way.

The Camino is an ancient pilgrimage throughout northern Spain and ends in Galicia at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are rumored to be buried. Hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage every year, often setting aside more than a month to complete the route. The pilgrims travel only with a single backpack and a walking stick and stop at important sites along the way to get a Camino passport stamped. Countless people within the Notre Dame community have completed or are currently in the process of completing the Camino.

Tom’s story in “The Way” is one of deep personal and spiritual growth. The man at the end of the film is much more like the man who plays him — a generous person with a desire to live a full life. Estevez said of the role he wrote, “By the end of the journey [Tom] becomes fully awake … and I think embraces the life his son had talked about that he never fully understood while the son was alive.”

The estranged relationship between Tom and Daniel is clearly not a reflection of that of Sheen and Estevez. What is abundantly clear when the two speak together is the real admiration they have for the other, both as artists and as people. Estevez credits his father for helping develop the story.

“We worked together on this.” Alexanian added. “Here, you have people who deeply care about each other and have deep respect for each other and also deeply know each other, so the film benefits from that … I witnessed it every day. Martin pulled out Emilio’s best and vice versa.”

While “The Way” is about the reconnection between Tom and his son, it is also about Tom’s reconnection with the rest of the world, with a community that exists outside himself. Sheen praised Notre Dame once again for its own sense of community, one that is both strong and contagious.

“I think that Notre Dame is really that shining city on the hill,” Sheen said. “I heard Notre Dame described as more of a community than a university. You live your faith, but the community here is one of extraordinary humanity, and it vibrates with what I would call an enviable joy … You can’t walk on this campus and not be included and swept up, brought along.”

Ultimately, it is this sense of community that Sheen, Estevez and those involved with “The Way” want to put forward. Sheen said that his hope for what audiences will get from the film is that they would feel welcome to experience this journey vicariously with the actors.

“You don’t have to go to Santiago, you don’t have to go to Jerusalem or Rome or Mecca for pilgrimage,” Sheen said. “You do have to go inside, you know, for transcendence, to find yourself … What pilgrimage says is basically that you have to do the journey — no one can walk in your shoes, no one can carry your load. And you can be sure that if you go out there and you commit to doing it, you’re part of a community.”

Sheen ended by confirming his belief in the importance of community.

“So you must do it alone, but you cannot do it without community,” he added. “And that’s a reflection of Notre Dame, too. You can do it alone, but you can’t do it without community. And you don’t even want to do it without community.”

“The Way,” is about a personal journey as well as a communal one. It is Tom’s story, but it also is the story of his son, the people he meets along the Camino and all of the pilgrims who travel the Camino every year. Friendships, family, religion, spirituality, perseverance and the power of will are all central to “The Way” and remain potent messages for the Notre Dame community and the world community at large.

“The Way” will continue its bus tour of the U.S. en route to New York City for the Walkabout benefit. The film opens nationwide Oct. 7.