By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
It's interesting that he saw it as unfamiliar territory, I say, as some people may assume he's playing some version of himself.
"How? Why? Based on what?" Sheen snaps, talking over me before I've finished my sentence.
From the character's conspicuous excess, to the general theme of a 40-something man broken and then rejuvenated by crisis, there are more than a few similarities one could draw between Charlies Swan and Sheen. There's a scene in which Swan's car tips over Mulholland and has to be towed out of a stranger's pool — an echo of the 2009 incident in which Sheen's Mercedes was mysteriously found in a nearby ravine. There's a hilarious scene in which Swan asks a Russian cab driver to help him score drugs, the punch line of which I won't spoil here, which clearly nods to Sheen's notorious party-by-any-means-necessary proclivities.
In hindsight, I should have reminded Sheen that when his dad asked for guidance about his character in Apocalypse Now, Roman's dad said, "He's you. He's whoever you are." Instead, I let Coppola play diplomat.
"There's very little corollary between the specifics of the story and Charlie's life," Coppola says. "But when an actor brings his life and his experiences, and he's dealt with a breakup, [he's] had experiences that echo what's in the material, that's a great virtue to be able to bring those experiences and put it on the screen. So I say, yeah, it's very much Charlie, because as an actor, that's your job, to bring those feelings and your life experience to it."
Sheen's, er, life experience made casting him look like a gamble. "Financiers, insurance companies, did not like the insurance profile," Coppola admits. "But they're based on dumb — not facts, perceptions. We just had to not have insurance, which was fine." Taking a page from the film on which they met, Sheen and Coppola put up personal collateral to secure the budget.
But Sheen was still hesitant, and it was only when it got to the point that they would lose a tax credit if they didn't start shooting immediately that Coppola was finally able to push him in front of a camera.
"I came over here one night to sort of nudge things along," Coppola remembers. "I had this brown velvet suit that was my personal suit, and Charlie had this fedora. And part of the image of this character is he wears these aviator tinted shades with the fedora." Coppola took a photo of Sheen in the suit, the hat, the shades, showed it to him and said, "This is the guy." As if to say, you don't have to worry about pulling it off — you already are.
What did the photo make you understand about the character? "Just how other people saw him," Sheen says. As opposed to how he actually is? Sheen nods, slowly. "Like our lives."
This was Sheen's first acting gig after "the meltdown." Today, Sheen says, "It was a challenge that came at the perfect time. I can't describe why I say that. But I think any other time, it wouldn't have happened."
Coppola reaches over to light the cigarette dangling out of Sheen's mouth, using an antique lighter that Sheen had given him. "You like that fucking lighter, don't you?"
They start chatting about other gifts Sheen has given Coppola, including an ashtray that was used in the film. They're masterfully avoiding the topic that we were just on the brink of broaching, by essentially doing what Sheen's character does in the film: seeking refuge in beautiful, fanciful objects in order to avoid dealing with the substantive, the messy, the uncontrollable, the real.
On Apocalypse, Sheen's dad faced his demons head-on. The first scene of the movie includes footage of an actual drunken breakdown Martin Sheen had on-camera. In a blitz, he smashed his hand through a mirror and continued to perform, refusing medical attention while film rolled. As Martin Sheen put it, he couldn't stop, he was too intent on "facing my worst enemy — myself." Eleanor Coppola's footage of this unfolding on-set, seen in Hearts of Darkness, with Sheen naked and wailing before the camera, is startling, terrifying, uncanny — as Eleanor describes it, "Anything could happen. They were inside somebody." His subsequent heart attack put things in perspective: "I just knew that if I wanted to live, it was my choice," he has said. "If I wanted to die, that was my choice, too."
Was Charlie Sheen's own "meltdown," his "off-script" embrace of total transparency, a worshipful son's wan attempt to retrace the steps of his father, in search of the knowledge and catharsis on the other side? Though Charles Swan doesn't include anything as literally naked as Martin Sheen's breakdown, I ask Charlie Sheen if playing a man in crisis so recently after his own crisis gave him any kind of new perspective about what he had himself gone through. He seems confused by the question.
"My life is so much bigger than any job I've ever had," he says. "I can separate, obviously, because I'm not fucking crazy. It just —"
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!