We chatted with Martin Sheen about his role in the upcoming film "12 Mighty Orphans."
The award-winning actor known for his roles in Apocalypse Now and The West Wing has been filming in Fort Worth, Texas, for the new movie based on a real-life high school football team.
Cowboys & Indians: We’re looking forward to seeing you in 12 Mighty Orphans, the true-life story of the legendary Depression era high school football team — The Mighty Mites — from a Fort Worth orphanage. You play Doc Hall, the hard-drinking but right-thinking doctor at the orphanage. What was there about this character that made you think you wanted to play this guy?
Martin Sheen: Well, it wasn’t just the character as much as it was the whole theme of the movie, that forming of a community. I love community. I’m always looking for community. Because I think the only thing we achieve by ourselves is loneliness. Not that you can’t be lonely in a crowd. But I think that to realize ourselves, we have to trust others. And that we serve ourselves best when we serve others first. That’s community.
C&I: The real Mighty Mites actually became inspirational figures at a time when many people felt worn down and beaten down by the Great Depression. The movie appears capable of providing its own sort of spiritual uplift.
Martin: When I first read the script, well, admittedly, there were strong elements of sentiment. And I thought, “Oh, no. We’ll never get away with that.” But then I thought, “They’ll be positioned in such a way that they won’t get in the way of the community.” Because as I read a script, I try to visualize it on the screen and say, “Where is the focus there?” And, wow, I thought that if I can care about that group of young boys and follow their journey, with this adult supervision, then it’s worth it.
C&I: Do you remember a scene that sort of sealed the deal for you?
Martin: I got to the point where they’re on their way to Amarillo for a big game, and there was one shot, a throwaway shot. And yet, it was the whole film for me. There was a shot of a young boy running along the side of the bus in some rural area of West Texas. And he’s holding up a sign, a homemade sign, with the numeral 12. And that got me. And I thought, “Yes, this is the kind of film I want to do.” I want to be a part of that community that would evoke an emotion like that. So that even an old fart like me could still be moved by the caring sentiment of a young boy running alongside a school bus, cheering on kids that are just a few years older than he was.
C&I: You come from Irish and Spanish ancestry. In your approach to acting — maybe even in your approach to life — do you find that there are days when the Irish manifests itself more than the Spanish in your personality? Or vice versa?
Martin: Yeah. I’ve worked in both countries. I love both countries. I love my heritage. My parents were my heroes, and I’m very, very close to both sides of the family — my dad’s side, which is Spanish, and my mother’s Irish side. I went to school in Ireland for one semester, which was quite an adventure. But I can never separate them, and I wouldn’t want to even try. I don’t think it’s possible. It’s like, I’m Catholic, and I could no sooner separate myself from my heritage than I could from my religion or my conscience.
C&I: But wouldn’t you agree you lean a tad more to the Irish side while playing Doc Hall?
Martin: [Laughs] Yeah. He’s decidedly more Irish. He has a bit of a drinking problem, poor devil. That’s not to say that couldn’t be part of the other half as well. But I think he had a sense of the orphan in himself. The Irish, I think, in a real deep part of their character, love being the underdog. And that’s part of why he respects the boys’ coach, the Luke Wilson character, leading the boys in this seemingly impossible quest. The Irish tell a story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven. And he asks to be let in, and St. Peter says, “Of course. Just show us your scars.” And the man says, “I have no scars.” And St. Peter says, “What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
And that’s so Irish. It’s hard to even think or imagine an Irishman, or an Irish woman, that’s not fighting for something. We don’t have to know about it, but that’s part of their life, the fight. If you’re not fighting, you’re not alive, you don’t stand for anything. We can’t trust you, because there’s nothing that you’ll go on the line and fight for.
Photography: (Cover image) Laura Wilson/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics; (Illustration) Jonathan Fehr
From our May/June 2021 issue