Anne of Green Gables lovers, rejoice. There’s a TV movie adaptation of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel starring Martin Sheen coming your way. For the uninitiated, Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908 and one of nine books Montgomery wrote in a series, is the heartwarming story of Anne Shirley, a spirited orphan who moves in with Marilla (Sara Botsford) and Matthew (Sheen), two kindly siblings living on Prince Edward Island. They wanted a boy to help with chores, but due to an error, they get Anne (Ella Ballentine), who changes their lives.
Filmed in spring 2015, the movie aired in Canada in February. Since then, the cast has reunited to film TV movie adaptations of two more books. U.S. audiences now get to see their first effort, which airs on PBS Thanksgiving night. EW spoke to Sheen about the Anne of Green Gables sequels, what he thought of PBS’ beloved 1985 miniseries, working with the farm animals, and more.
On his first encounter with the story of Anne of Green Gables
I read my kids one of the books when they were all very small and we were still living in New York, so that was like in the mid-’60s. It was not the first book. I didn’t read the original until I was asked to play it. That was a real treat because I didn’t know the intricacies of the relationships that she healed and nourished and this old childless couple, these old bachelors, have grown very complacent in their old age and they’ve kind of given up on any hope for a family, particularly a child. They were looking for a boy so they would have someone to do the heavy chores around the place, and here comes this girl who takes them in a totally different direction because she takes them inside themselves and they begin to realize, oh my, this is what we’re missing, and they come to adore her and they come to create a family. We’re encouraged to adopt animals, and we’re encouraged to adopt babies, and the idea is you’re going to get far more than you give if you go outside yourself and welcome someone who has nowhere else to go. That resonates today and is really very important for us to hear again the story of inclusion, because God forgive us, but we just elected a tyrant.
On getting involved with the movie
My son Ramon, who is a producer — we used to have a company together when I did The West Wing — kinda keeps an eye out for stuff he thinks I would be good in, and he saw this script a long time ago and brought it to me and said, “You know, I think you’d be really good in this and it’s a wonderful production and you oughta think about doing it,” and I said, “Eh, I don’t know.” I just sort of… I didn’t respond. And gradually he kept encouraging me. He said, “You’re really going to miss something if you don’t look at this thing. At least read it.” I said okay. I was doing Grace and Frankie and I just read it one day on the set when I was just sitting around, and I thought, “Oh my god, he’s right. There’s no vulgarity, there’s no violence, it’s very humane, it’s a wonderful character.” I said, “Of course. Why not? What’s the matter with me?” and I couldn’t be happier.
On his character, Matthew
He’s a shy old guy and he’s lived his life in the shadows, but he’s not stupid. He’s a wise old owl, he’s just not engaged the same as a lot of people are. And Anne lights a fire under him. He’s able to see himself in different ways and value himself and others now much differently because of her.
On Richard Farnsworth, who played Matthew in the beloved 1985 miniseries
He was wonderful. He was an American actor who was a stuntman to begin with, then he became an actor. He was more the character than I am. He was more of an introvert. He was really a very shy man. He was very, very good. He was very famous, too. He had the character far better in hand than I did. I made him more of an extrovert, more outgoing, more chatty. His interpretation was far more faithful to the book than mine. He was far better than I was as far as his authenticity to the real guy. Also, he was a brilliant stuntman and he worked with horses in movies for most of his life. And so he had the horse and the buggy and all the animals, it was like second nature. With me, it was a trial.
On working with Ella Ballentine and Sara Botsford
I adore [Ella]. She’s much different now. She’s grown up. She’s 15 now. She’s maturing into a beautiful young lady. We had great fun working together and it was a reunion to get back together with her. We did the [first one] early last year, so almost two years, and here we are. She’s an extraordinary talent. She’s not really a redhead. It was always difficult for her to have her hair colored all the time. She couldn’t get used to it. She just finished shooting and she’s already got her hair back to the way she likes it. She’s remarkable. And she’s very funny as well. We have great fun on the set and she’s got a great sense of humor. She’s a joy to work with.
[Sara, Emma, and I] work a lot together in most of our scenes. I miss them already. I had a great time with them. I knew [Sara] from The West Wing. She did an episode of The West Wing very early in the series. She played John Spencer’s [character Leo McGarry’s ex-]wife. So I knew her. I didn’t have a chance to do much work with her on The West Wing but I knew what a great actress she was and a sweet lady.
On filming a scene in which he chases a pig and falls face-first into the mud
The good thing is that you only have to do it once. The substance that they used was a concoction made up mostly of oats and I wanna say sorghum. It looks worse than it was. It was very sticky and took a while to get off. It was no problem. I don’t look forward to doing stuff like that, but it’s a challenge, and once you accept it, it’s worth it. Just stay focused and get it done the best you can and then it’s nice to see that it works. I couldn’t catch [the pig]. He was a little thing. I didn’t have to chase him much. He just fled back to his mother. She was in the barn. He had a wrangler; there was a guy controlling him, and all the animals. A wonderful family up there called the Bishop family: Tom Sr. and his son and his son’s wife. They do horse shows and they have a ranch and they do a lot of stuff with horses and animals. They provided the animals and the chickens and the horses and all that. They made it look easy. I’m not sure [what the pig’s name was]. I called him Abner [in the movie]. I’m not sure if that was his real name. The horse’s name in the script was Henry, and the real horse’s name was Harry, so he [changed] Henry [to] Harry so he wasn’t confused when we gave him orders.
On Lucy Maud Montgomery’s granddaughter Kate Macdonald Butler, who was an executive producer
[She was] very, very happy with it. I did some publicity with her down in New York when we were filming. She was very, very happy with what we were doing.
On the sequels
We just finished doing [the second and third one] two weeks ago in Canada. [The first movie is book one], and book two and three are to follow. I just got back from filming the second and third one with the same cast. I’m a little older and a little more frail and the little girl’s grown up a little bit and Marilla’s gotten a little older and we’re all back to square one, which is wonderful. They have a special day in Canada called Family Day and Anne of Green Gables, which is a Canadian classic, played this past Family Day in Canada. And it caught the attention of PBS because it was so successful in Canada, and they picked it up. And then the Canadian Company, [Breakthrough Entertainment], made two more. I would hope that PBS will pick it up.
On whether more books in the series will be adapted
My character dies in the third book. Unless I came back as a ghost or in a flashback, I won’t be required. I had a wonderful funeral. I enjoyed my funeral. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to be a part of it, unfortunately, but I don’t know. There’s so little entertainment for young people these days that doesn’t involve a lot of language and sexuality and innuendo and violence that it’s a natural. It’s so clean and so wholesome, it stands out on its own. I just hope that people will respond to that.
Anne of Green Gables airs on PBS at 8 p.m. ET on Nov. 24.