Watching Martin Sheen address thousands of young people at We Day on Oct. 30 at the MTS Centre, it was hard not to see President Jed Bartlet up there. Commanding and inspiring, his passionate delivery recalled that of his unforgettable TV character from The West Wing.
Judging from the roar of approval, it hardly mattered most of the kids in the audience don't know him from Aaron Sorkin's award-winning drama. They probably don't know him from Apocalypse Now or Wall Street or The American President, either. But the Hollywood legend wasn't there to talk about his acting career. He was there to talk about his activism. "Acting is what I do for a living," he told the 16,000 kids in the crowd. "Activism is how I stay alive."
While most grown-ups are familiar with Martin Sheen the actor, they might be less familiar with Martin Sheen the activist. A tireless and vocal advocate for social justice for decades, Sheen has been arrested more than 60 times for public protests and acts of civil disobedience. He is now a regular speaker at We Day and an ardent supporter of Free The Children, the charitable and educational force behind it.
After his speech, Free Press reporter Jen Zoratti caught up with Sheen, 73, to talk activism, the parallels between We Day and The West Wing and what it means to "change the world."
FP: We talk a lot about "changing the world." I'm wondering what that means to you, to change the world?
SHEEN: For my own part, frankly, I don't know what that means. I know what the concept is -- and the world certainly needs changing -- but I don't know how we affect it. I can only assure you that we change each other. I can't have an affect on you or her or anybody that I know, I can't change that for the better and know it. I might, but there would be no way to prove. The only thing I can assure you of is the change in myself. I can only control myself. I'm the only person I've ever changed -- and that wasn't easy. And it's still not easy and I don't look forward to it because change means facing your shortcomings, your imperfections, your laziness and all the things that cause such inertia.
FP: It's uncomfortable.
SHEEN: Very, very uncomfortable. It's a whole lot easier to lay back and say, 'Didn't I do something a long time ago?' and keep going. But we have to accept the cup as offered, not altered. Because that's the only way we grow. It has to cost you something. Sometimes it has to be painful. If it doesn't cost you something, then you're left to question its value. That's the bottom line. So this is a very valuable energy, a very valuable organization, Free The Children.
FP: Kids today are often portrayed as very apathetic. But you see events like this, and you realize that isn't always fair. What do you think is the antidote to apathy? What inspires kids to realize they can indeed be the change?
SHEEN: I'm inspired by young people. Young people are the future. They own the future, we do not. We've already had our time. We're waning. They're just waking up to possibilities. The old Hebrew adage comes to mind for me: He that hath offspring giveth hostages to the future. We can only hurl our hopes, our dreams, our children if you will, into the future. They have to come to grips with whatever they find there. We can make it better for them. We can give them a cleaner environment. We can give them more hope and sustain their efforts for good. But I think the real changes that have to be made and sustained are coming from them. So if we, in any small way, can encourage them to stand up, step out and start going. That is the maybe the best -- and maybe the only -- thing we can do, is to just encourage them to keep doing what they're doing. Because it's their world, their future and we made a mess of a lot of things and we can't fix it. It's up to them.
FP: I'm wondering if you see any parallels between the idealism that made The West Wing so great and We Day?
SHEEN:: That's interesting. I think we did have that idealistic image of a president. It was a parallel universe, mind you; we were dealing with a very conservative administration for the most part when we were on the air. And people were inspired by us. We didn't always know it, you know. We didn't know how long we were going to last, but I think we did have an affect, yeah, particularly on young people. So that was very, very gratifying.
To step from there, most of the kids don't know me from that -- they know me as Uncle Ben from (The Amazing) Spider-Man and that's fine (laughs). If that gets me in the door, that's fine. But yeah, The West Wing was a very satisfying experiment about idealistic government. It focused on Do The Right Thing, and that's its own reward. But it's gonna cost you. It'll cost you.
Anytime you do something that's important, it's going to cost you. Otherwise, you have to question its value and its importance. The Irish tell that wonderful story about the guy who arrives at the gates of Heaven and asks to be let in and St. Peters says, 'Sure, just show us your scars,' and the man says, 'I have no scars' and St. Peters says, 'What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?' We have to help young people to find something in their lives worth fighting for. And it all starts here with We Day. They'll find something, I promise you. Each individual child in this audience has found something -- maybe from the person next to them, maybe from the person onstage, who knows? Maybe from the teacher who brought them. Maybe the book they carry out and read later. But something's going to inspire them. They're not the same as when they came in.
FP: Can you recall your first act of activism and the first time you felt you were part of something big?
SHEEN: (Laughs) I don't know how big it was, but it was certainly big to me. I'd been active, yeah, on a lot of issues in the '60s, civil rights of course, and against the Vietnam War, but everybody was doing something then. It was required. Then things kind of calmed down in the '70s and in the '80s. I began to get reinvigorated and re-involved because of my involvement with Catholicism. I was reintroduced into the Catholic church, but into the church of activism and into the church of service. I don't even know how to help someone else save their soul; I only know that I should try to save mine and the best way to do that is to help other people find shelter, get food and clothing and have equal rights and their needs satisfied. So that's what activism is for me. But I didn't have any illusions about it. If it led to change in myself, that was fine and that was wonderful, and that happened in a lot of ways.
I forgot your question! What did you ask me?
FP: Your first act of activism.
SHEEN: Oh yes! Let me tell you about my first actual arrest for that. I've been arrested for other things, but we won't go into that. But the first protest I went to that I was arrested for non-violent civil disobedience was against the implementation of nuclear weapons in outer space. It was a program called Star Wars that the Reagan administration was trying to achieve. It's insane, to put nuclear weapons in outer space and point them at the world... And so, I protested there and I was arrested and it was the happiest day of my life. Because I had shown up for a demonstration against some great evil. I was arrested and treated like most people are treated who are arrested, kinda shabbily, and I was elated because I'd done everything I could possibly do, I'd done it non-violently, I'd done it joyfully, and I was willing to pay the price. It was in June of 1986, and it was the happiest day of my life. I embraced it and it led to a whole lot more.
To do it in a joyful sense is very important. It's one thing to be screaming and yelling, but it's another thing to just bring your presence. For me, (protesting) is a very quiet, very prayerful, spiritual business and it's very non-violent and very often it's funny. It can be very humorous. Don't take yourself seriously. Take the issue seriously, but not you. You're not going to change anything. You can show up and do what you can do and keep walking. You'll pay a big enough price, don't worry.