Hollywood star Martin Sheen combines acting with his social activism
In the film Bhopal: Prayer For Rain based on the Bhopal gas tragedy, which claimed thousands of lives on December 2 and 3 in 1984, Martin Sheen plays the much-hated Warren Anderson, the callous CEO of Union Carbide. Sheen chats with us about the challenges of playing such a character, his political stance, his impression of changed India and more. Excerpts from an interview with the revered actor, whose movie releases on December 5:
Q. Were you required to do a lot of homework for this role?
A. Actually, I was aware of this tragedy even before the film came to me. The script is so powerful, honest and accurate that I was compelled to take it up. It is a very honest portrayal of the tragedy. I remember very well when this happened and had read about Warren Anderson’s trial about 29 years ago. I am glad that a movie has been made on the tragedy as it will
Q. You have been a social activist for the most part of your life. Was it a challenge to play Warren Anderson who, seemingly, wasn’t concerned about the lives of the people working in the company?
A. It is a classic case of how sometimes the lives of people in developing countries are looked at. The portrayal of Anderson is just apt; here’s a company CEO from the Western world, who has little regard for their lives and his despicable attitude towards the employees working in the company. He was not an easily detectable villain. He was this charming man who projected a good personality. But the fact is that he remained callous and didn’t acknowledge or take responsibility for the lives that were lost in the tragedy. He hid behind a shield. This film portrays him just as he was. Unfortunately, he was the kind of man who was not honest enough to even express regret or sorrow. But as we say this, one must remember that those workers didn’t have the backing of a union and had no protection of any kind. This also reflects on the corruption at the government level. So the government at that time is also partly responsible for this massive tragedy.
Q. You came to India to shoot for the film after almost three decades. What kind of changes do you see in the country, culturally and otherwise?
A. I had come to India in 1981 during the movie Gandhi’s shoot. I had stayed here for six weeks and my stay had a powerful effect on me. I was, at that time, deeply moved by the people’s poverty. And then for this film, we shot in Hyderabad five years ago. I see a much different India today. I see a far more vibrant, progressive India which truly reflects what India is today. I was totally impressed, except for the traffic (laughs). Crossing the streets here is still scary. I am really fond of Indian culture as it is deeply humane and there is deep regard for community and family. The biggest treasure that you people have is the bond you share with your loved ones as well as others. Yes, poverty still exists, but as Mother Teresa once said, “Spiritual poverty is the worst.” The United States has spiritual poverty and I think that’s a bigger deal.
Q. In spite of being politically active, you have never stood for elections. You once said, ‘Don’t mistake a celebrity for credibility’. Is your stand still the same?
A. Yes it is. I don’t think a celebrity gets automatically qualified to do public service. I don’t really have political ambitions. I support Democrats and smaller groups that work at the grassroots level. These are the people who effectively bring about changes, and I feel motivated to work with them.
Q. You have a family full of actors. Who’s your favourite one?
A. (Laughs) I am never going to answer that.
Q. You have directed only one film. Any plans to direct more?
A. Not really. I directed Cadence along with Charlie (Sheen, his son). I prefer acting. I am simply an actor and hope to get opportunities to continue doing that.
Did you know?
Martin Sheen was greatly influenced by the late actor James Dean who is considered the icon of ‘teenage disillusionment’