Charlie Sheen: Guns n’ Neuroses
Charlie Sheen is a train wreck. He has melted down very publicly over the course of decades. In this interview from the August 1990 issue of Movieline magazine, Lawrence Grobel asked Sheen about his troubled youth. It turns out that Sheen was going down a bad path long before he found fame and fortune in movies like Red Dawn, Platoon and Wall Street. In a line that borders of prophesy, Sheen told Grobel “Me and AIDS got famous at the same time.” Grobel paints the portrait of an angry young man struggling to set things right.
By the time he was in kindergarten, Charlie Sheen, the third son of actor and activist Martin Sheen, was appearing in his family’s home movies. Five years later he was watching Francis Coppola direct his father in Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. When he returned to his home in Malibu he and buddy Chris Penn began making their own war movies with super-8 cameras.
At 12, his father let him play second base in an actors’ baseball game–Charlie and shortstop Al Pacino turned a half-dozen memorable double plays. While his oldest brother Emilio (who used his family’s real last name, Estevez) was making his first feature, Tex, Charlie was busy getting busted by the police for marijuana possession and illegally charging merchandise from stolen credit card receipts. Failing to graduate from Santa Monica High, Charlie decided to follow in the family business, and landed his first acting gig in Grizzly II: The Predator in 1984, followed by parts in Red Dawn, Lucas, The Wraith, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Boys Next Door. Then came his breakthrough to stardom, in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).
The world seemed to open up for Charlie Sheen, and he took to boozing and sex at a time when both were becoming unfashionable: “Me and AIDS got famous at the same time,” he has said. He fathered a child with his old high school girlfriend, and — somehow–managed to survive sowing his wild oats to make more films, including Wall Street, Eight Men Out, No Man’s Land, Young Guns, and Major League.
Sheen, who has completed four new films–Men At Work, Cadence, Navy SEALS, and The Rookie–recently ended his engagement to actress Kelly Preston. He used the $2 million he received for appearing in two Japanese TV commercials to invest in a Malibu restaurant called Anthony’s. He drives a black Mercedes 560 SL convertible, carries with him his book of poetry which he hopes to publish, and prefers doing interviews at one of his favorite hangouts, the Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood.
Q: You’re 24 now–no longer a teenager. Will the transformation to young adult on screen be a smooth one?
A: People have always thought I was older than I was. When I tell them I’m 24 they say they thought I was 30. But the films I’ve got coming out are going to bridge the gap. The characters I play in Men At Work, Cadence, Navy SEALS, and The Rookie are young adults.
Q: Let’s talk about those projects. Of the first three, which of your performances are you most satisfied with?
A: I think Cadence will be the best performance, one that will generate the kind of attention I’m hoping for. Men At Work will show a different side, get a few laughs. And with Navy SEALS, audiences will see me as a kind of hero. I haven’t played too many heroes lately. I get to play a guy that’s very red-white-and-blue.
Q: Your brother Emilio wrote and directed Men At Work. Did you take advantage of your relationship with him to give him any grief?
A: One day I showed up on the set and I told him that the night before, me and Kelly were at Sizzler’s, some guy was trying to take our picture, I took his camera and destroyed it, then we got into a fight and I decked the guy. This was all bullshit, but Emilio bought it– hook, line, and sinker. During the day he was always coming up to me and asking, “Did you hit him with a right or a left?” When he was setting up a big master shot involving 12 cast members, I pulled a movie set police officer aside and said, “When they call ‘Action’ can you pull into the scene and arrest me?” So we do the scene, the cop car pulls up with the blinking lights and the look on Emilio’s face is like: we didn’t rehearse this. The cop gets out, asks if I had gotten into a fight the night before, and then arrests me for assault and battery. He handcuffs me right there, with the cameras still rolling. Emilio is sold completely, yelling “Wait a minute, this is my lead actor!” The cop put me in the car and drove me away. Everybody was stunned. A few minutes went by and I came back around the block with the handcuffs dangling, laughing. Emilio was like: “You just wait, pal!”
Q: You went from that film to Cadence, which your father directed. Different atmosphere?
A: Yeah. Nine days into production Gary Busey totally melted down and we had to fire him.
Q: What went wrong with Busey?
A: This was after his motorcycle accident. He was taking a lot of brain medicine, just to function, and he was a total basket case. I felt sorry for him, but the sympathy kind of ran out when I realized, how dare he bring this to a production that took better than five years to get going? Busey just totally fucked us. He didn’t know his lines. We had a meeting that night to discuss the problem, but Busey got ugly, he threatened my fiancée Kelly–he threatened to have her banned from the set because she looked at him wrong, or something. It was like, he was going to ban Kelly from my set? Okay, Gary, you are on the next flight back! I’ve never seen my dad angrier. I didn’t want Dad to hit Gary and kill him. That’s what we were worried about. So we basically fired Gary to save him. My dad stepped in and played the role.
Q: You use the royal “we” when you speak of the picture. Other than acting, what’s your involvement?
A: I took an 80% pay cut to do it, but I own 30 percent of the negative.
Q: As soon as you completed Cadence, you flew to Virginia Beach for Navy SEALS, which is being hyped as another Top Gun. Is it?
A: We should be so lucky to have it be a Top Gun type of movie. We don’t have any jets. But we haven’t seen contemporary warfare in the Middle East in a film. It’s pretty action-packed, pretty tense, unless they completely fuck it up. It was the toughest film I’ve ever worked on, the script fell apart during production and we had to rewrite the last 50 pages. We’d stay up until four or five a.m. with a seven o’clock call, just creating the next day’s work.
Q: Then there’s The Rookie, a cop movie which your co-star Clint Eastwood directs. What’s he like?
A: He’s totally cool. I’m terribly starstruck with the man. The guy’s one of my heroes growing up as a kid–and I got to work with the guy! Goddamn! I was blown away. I don’t take this shit lightly.
Q: With your father and your brother now actor-director hyphenates, do you see yourself directing a feature by the time you’re 30?
A: Funny that you would mention that because I kind of had 30 as the target year to do it. I’m not going to star in my directorial debut because that’s when you get into problems.
Q: You actually started making home movies at a very young age, didn’t you?
A: When I was about five, my dad bought us this super-8 movie camera, and we got the bug of creating these two or three minute shorts. Then I got into it pretty heavily with Chris Penn, who I’ve known since the third grade. Chris always had the most guns, and I’d bring the blood, and we’d take it from there. When I was 16 I was the cinematographer on Nobody’s Heroes, a Vietnam epic which Chris wrote and directed. He had already done Footloose and had money, so he brought special effects people, and we blew the shit out of Valencia.
Q: A lot of your teenage aggression seems to have been triggered by your going to the Philippines when you were 10, when your father was making Apocalypse Now. How long were you there?
A: For eight months. I had my eleventh birthday in the Philippines. It was a pattern that Dad established when I was growing up. We’d go on location because he didn’t want to split the family up. By the time I was twelve I’d seen three-quarters of the planet.
Q: Is that when you had your introduction to weapons?
A: Yeah. I fired my first automatic weapon when I was 11, with blanks, but still, it kind of planted the seed that this is pretty cool and a lot of fun.
Q: You also got to observe Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall at work. Any memories?
A: Brando seemed like a pretty regular guy. I was aware that he was huge and felt kind of sorry for him being that big and all. He did these mind game things that to this day I can’t figure out. We would watch fascinated as he’d do things as simple as drawing a square with his hand and a circle with his foot.
Q: And Duvall?
A: The clearest memory that I have of Duvall is when a friend of his was babysitting me, Ramon, and my sister Renee. Out of nowhere, the door flies open and Duvall comes running through the room stark naked, waving his arms above his head, screaming at the top of his lungs. Exits out the back door, never to be seen again that night.
Q: How clear is your memory of your father’s heart attack during that film?
A: I was stateside when we heard about it and we went back immediately. He looked pretty bad. He was always very athletic, and to see your Pop with a cane, looking ten years older, it was a shock. He was 36. You talk bravery, you talk courage, it doesn’t get much heavier than the old man’s.
Q: Has he always been your main role model?
A: My dad was kind of a mentor when I was growing up, and still is. If he were a carpenter I’d probably be banging nails now. He’s more like a brother now, but he was a father for a long time. Mom was always kind of a mediator. Dad would put me in the shit and Mom would drag me out of it.
Q: Let’s talk about some of that shit, which were mostly your high school years. Did your problems begin when your parents gave you a BMW for your sixteenth birthday?
A: That was the beginning, getting the car, which I had begged them for. Suddenly L.A. was like this open door. School? See ya! Thinking back, I should have just got a Mustang. I hate BMWs now.
Q: Is that because the one you had broke down and you wound up getting arrested?
A: When I was 16, me and my friend smoked a little pot, and we fell asleep in the car with the radio on. We woke up and the car’s dead. My friend walked home but I slept in my car. I woke up to a badge tapping on the window. They had got a call that someone had passed out drunk and was blocking traffic. So when he says “license and registration,” I opened the glove box and all my dope, pipes, rolling papers popped out. It was pretty bad. Then he tells me to step out and I was carrying this knife in an ankle holster, and I had this beautiful ivory inlaid billy club. I tried to tell him if there was ever a riot I wanted to have some kind of a weapon. He didn’t buy it. So he handcuffs me and searches the entire car. I said to him, “Listen, could you just bust me for the weapons and not the pot, my parents are going to freak out.” He says, “No, no, that’s part of the lesson.” It was like the Moral Police. We get to the station and it’s my mom’s birthday, of course. My parents bail me out. She’s pretty cool about it, and Dad is not. He doesn’t say a word, which is a lot worse than someone yelling at you, at least then you know what’s on their mind. He’s not looking at me, not talking to me. So we get in the car and go directly to church, and it ain’t Sunday. He figured he’d put me into the house of God and make me feel some serious guilt. That was about it. The judge was a friend of my mom’s and nothing ever came of it.
Q: The next time the police cuffed you was due to a credit card scam you and your friends pulled off. How did that happen?
A: I had about a four-day crime spree before I got arrested. We got credit card receipts from the trash of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I told the manager I left a term paper in the lobby and he let me look through the trash. I got all these receipts and we’d call up stores in Westwood and ask if they took phone orders. Then we’d order things like televisions, Walkmans, jewelry, watches, and say “I’ll send my son in to pick it up.” So we’d go in and collect the loot– and they’d say, “You want your shit gift-wrapped?”
Q: How’d you finally get caught?
A: Our downfall was a Photo and Sound shop in Santa Monica. I went to hit it, and the manager of the one that my friend had hit in Redondo Beach was in the Santa Monica store warning his boys to watch out for a scam–as I’m calling! That’s how the whole thing came tumbling down. One of my best friends got picked up in this store, and he told the police that a black guy gave him $50 to go in and claim the goods. They kind of bought it, but when I called him that night and talked to him about it on the phone, his mom was on the other line. She hangs up, calls the cops. I’m standing in front of my art class, second period, senior year, when two cops walked in. They said “You are under arrest for credit card forgery.” I was 17. I had to find an angle. I got to the station, and indicted my friend and gave them all the receipts and told them everything. I just didn’t want to get into any more trouble. It was totally despicable and highly illegal, but hell, we gave it a shot.
Q: And how did your parents react?
A: My mom was very cool. She paid for the items. My dad was in Canada shooting The Dead Zone. I had to call him up and tell him. He was pretty cool about it and said, “We’re going to have a long talk when I get home.” One of those four or five week talks. They thought I was headed for a life of crime. I said, “Look, this is my first run, it doesn’t quite warrant continuing. I was a complete failure.”
Q: Is it true that your father caught you cheating on a final exam?
A: He sure did. I bought the answers on my biology exam the day before the test for ten dollars. I got 100% on the final. I really fucked up! The school had caught wind of it and I was trying to create this defamation of character case against the school itself. I confided in my mom that I actually cheated, but she was going to support me anyway. That’s how my dad found out. I had to personally write a letter of apology to every head of every department at every school across the nation. That’s what it seemed like. And I wound up failing and learned a valuable lesson about cheating. It’s like lying, it’s eventually going to come out.
Q: With this failure and your other low grades, you needed an English class to pass your senior year and graduate, and you attacked your teacher before the exam?
A: I didn’t physically attack her. Almost. It was the day of finals, and there was a lot of shit riding on this test: I needed a C- to pass the course, and if I didn’t get it I’d be off the baseball team. And because I didn’t have a pink slip–a note from my parents because of my absence the day before–she wouldn’t let me take the test. So I pretty much melted down in front of the whole class. I took the actual test, which was pretty thick, and I rolled it up into a ball and fired a strike in the middle of her forehead. It knocked her glasses off. She stood there staring at me, and in the middle of my rage I said to her that she was lucky I hadn’t killed her yet. But I didn’t see that as a death threat.
Q: And there went your graduation?
Q: So, instead of summer school you became an actor?
A: I was very nervous about failing miserably as an actor, but the first audition I went on was the first job I got. It was an awful film, Grizzly II: The Predator, but I got a trip to Budapest out of it and learned more there than I did in a semester in high school.