brilliant Shooting a film in his mother’s native Tipperary “meant the world” to actor Martin Sheen. He talks to Tony ClaytonLea about movies and his love of Ireland. Photographs by Kevin Abosch.
or an actor who has worked with some of cinema’s bestknown directors, Martin Sheen is low-key and modest. In fact, considering this man has a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame and has been the recipient of Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Emmy awards, you could go so far as to say that Sheen is the epitome of humility. There are, then, no signs of airs and graces when Cara meets up with him; Sheen was in Ireland a few months ago promoting Stella Days, a small movie with a big heart that focuses on a parish priest in 1950s rural Ireland, his love of cinema, and how a changing society brings about pivotal adjustments in the lives of various people. As Fr Daniel Barry, Sheen brings his customary sophistication to the role and, as a staunch Roman Catholic, a degree of gravitas. But there is an even more personal reason for Sheen leaving, albeit temporarily, Hollywood and its blockbusters – Stella Days is set in the locality in which Sheen’s Irish mother was born. “My mother, Mary-Anne Phelan, was from Borrisokane,” explains Sheen, looking dapper and bright-eyed in a room on the
first floor of Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. “She had long left Ireland before the time that the movie is set in – and she died in 1951 in America.” The story of how Sheen became involved with Stella Days unfolds. “I was in Ireland in 2003, May 22, in order to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday. My mother had twelve pregnancies – ten survived, nine boys and one girl. We’d been losing the older members of the family, and in 2002 I lost the brother I had grown up closest to. I wanted to gather the family around for a celebration of life rather than grief, and so my son Ramon and I organised a family reunion in Borrisokane. “We had a wonderful three-day celebration, and while I was there, a gent by the name of Michael Doorley presented me with a book, a memoir, of this priest who was revered in the community. I guess you could say he was an intellectual and film buff, and he was determined to bring a cinema theatre into northern Tipperary.” Doorley had, apparently, no intention of wanting to turn his book into a movie, says Sheen. “He just gave it to me, a nice little book of local history, as a gift. I tucked it away, I recall, but at the same time, the
producer of Stella Days bought the rights to the book, and thought it would make a wonderful film. Even at the time, she had asked me would I be interested in being in it; then the screenplay came about, and then the director [Thaddeus O’Sullivan] came on board. Over the years we’d be in contact, updating each other as to how the funding for the movie was progressing. Finally, in 2010, it all came into place.” Working on the movie in the locale of his mother’s birthplace, says Sheen, “meant the world to me. Before starting work on Stella Days, I’d just finished making The Way in Spain, with my son Emilio, and it culminates in Galicia. Now, my father was a Galician, and so between those two movies I reconnected with my parents. I’m happy to say that neither movie came about with any aforethought – they just evolved quite naturally.” It was an extraordinary revisitation, he says, of his parents’ heritage, in both Spain and Ireland. “I was just delighted. They were both incredibly satisfying to do.” Of course, Sheen is at a time in his life – he celebrated his 72nd birthday on August 3 last – where he can dictate his workload, yet he gently bemoans the lack of