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Martin Sheen gets political with new film

His latest movie “Echelon Conspiracy” sees the man best known for his 7-year stint on “The West Wing,” at the heart of a modern electronic surveillance conspiracy.
/ Source: Reuters

In a career of more than 45 years, actor and social activist Martin Sheen has played many a president and political character.

His latest movie “Echelon Conspiracy,” which opens on Friday, sees the man best known for his 7-year stint as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet in TV’s political series “The West Wing,” at the heart of a modern electronic surveillance conspiracy.

Sheen, 68, talked to Reuters about his latest role as a U.S. National Security Administration director, his activism that has led to numerous arrests, and what he’s been up to since his fictional White House term ended in 2006.

Reuters: The premise of “Echelon Conspiracy” — out of control electronic surveillance that was set up ostensibly to protect the nation from terrorism — is pretty scary. Were you aware of such a system before taking the part?

Martin Sheen: No, I had never heard of it. It’s not so far from unimaginable with the pervasive spying that’s going on in our lives. I was in London a few weeks ago and everywhere you look there is a (street) camera. I know it’s about crime prevention and catching traffic violators but at the same time, it’s like paranoia.

Reuters:  You’ve been politically very active over the years. Is that why you took the role?

Sheen: It didn’t hurt ... But with my age, the offers frankly get a little lean. I’ve tended to be far more independent, and I don’t really have a lot of intimate work relationships in Hollywood. I’ve never made a friendship because I thought I could get a job. I’ve always been shy about that ... There are people in the business who love film making and are brilliant at it. But they are not involved in the reality of the outside world very often.

But take someone like Sean Penn ... He is the best actor of his generation and he is very politically savvy and very much involved in social justice. He is a genius as an actor and he is equally invested in (social) culture. I don’t have near the impact, the range or involvement that Sean does.

Reuters: Without being flippant, have you been arrested lately?

Sheen: I think the last time was last year at the Nevada nuclear test site. I was headed over to a Greenpeace demonstration in Washington next week against the use of coal — there is nothing clean about coal and it is making a horrible impact on the environment. But I had to pull out because I have a previous engagement to speak in Calgary the next day and if I am arrested, there is a chance that I couldn’t get there in time.

Reuters:  The last season of “The West Wing” wing posited the audacious idea of electing a Latino politician (played by Jimmy Smits) as president. Now we have the first African-American with President Barack Obama.

Sheen: It is absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t tell you if Obama was inspired by “The West Wing.” I know he was a fan of the show. How much it influenced him, I don’t know. The reality is far more difficult than the fantasy, although these shows don’t hurt to tell people about possibilities.

Reuters:  You have played so many presidents on screen, including President John F. Kennedy in a 1983 TV mini-series. Which real life presidents do you most admire?

Sheen: There are three in my lifetime that I was greatly inspired by — Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In a way, (“The West Wing’s”) Jed Bartlet was a mixture of those three. We tried to project a liberal, Democrat, happily married man with children. He symbolized the very best part of the American character. He was a man willing to risk severe consequences by being true to his principles.

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Sheen: My mother is from Tipperary, I am an Irish citizen and I am very close to the Irish. I went to accept an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland at Galway ... I had never gone to college and I always had this fantasy about doing it. So I cleared my schedule and enrolled in August 2006 for one semester and studied earth and ocean sciences. It was one of the great times of my life. I was the oldest freshmen in the country!

I hope to do a film there this summer called “Stella Days”. It’s a true story about a local parish priest who established the first cinema in the town.