Martin Sheen 'wept with joy' at The West Wing reunion
Reunions aren’t always what they are cracked up to be. While pure nostalgia can raise hopes and excitement when a cast congregates to bring a beloved project back to life, the results of the reunion rarely match the creative heights of the original. Which is what made HBO Max’s recent The West Wing reunion (titled A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote) such a delight.
While the original plan was for the cast to do a simple reading of the season 3 episode “Hartsfield Landing,” those plans quickly changed as creator Aaron Sorkin reimagined the NBC drama as a stage production, ingeniously choreographing the episode in an empty theatre. The end result acted as something of a remix of the original TV airing, and one which many viewers found even more powerful that the initial incarnation.
One of the people so moved by the event was the president himself… or at least the man that played fictional president Josiah “Jed” Bartlett. “I just wept with joy when it was done,” said Martin Sheen of The West Wing reunion when he called into EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109) to discuss his role in the recently released Princess of the Row (available now on VOD).
In the below excerpts from the interview, the man who played the most popular fictional president in pop culture history shared his feelings about getting back together with his West Wing castmates, another episode that deeply impacted him personally, and surviving the epic behind-the-scenes struggle of making Apocalypse Now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, like everyone else, I watched The West Wing reunion on HBO Max. I have to tell you, after everything we've put up with over the past four years, just seeing a president, even if it was a fictional president, who believes in basic human decency was a nice change of pace. What was it like getting together with The West Wing gang again?
MARTIN SHEEN: It was sacramental, to coin a phrase. We have stayed in touch, but we of course have not been able to gather in person during the pandemic. So this was organized at a theater downtown under such strict COVID-19 protocol. Although the experience was limited in how much we could socialize with each other, the fact that we could play together was absolutely satisfying in very, very personal ways. We have not played together in almost 15 years. We've done a few podcasts here and there and some reunions just to sit and talk a little bit, but this was very special, because we have not played together since this time.
You know, originally it was billed as a reading of the episode, so we were told “You don't have to memorize anything, just bring your scripts,” and we would just read the scenes. Well, that lasted about three minutes. Everybody showed up knowing every single line. And then, you know how important that is with Aaron Sorkin. He writes like a composer composes a composition. You're given certain notes to play, and he knows when they're not being played and so does everyone else. You had such a wonderful composite of players. And so, that's part of it. We were back with our instruments in the orchestra. Each of us had a moment to shine. But together, it was just extraordinary.
I just wept with joy when it was done. It took two days, and we filmed it in an empty theater. And when we arrived, it was like a crime scene. There were all these yellow tapes forbidding entrance into this section and that section. You had to use that toilet. You couldn't hang out here. You couldn't leave that. You couldn't touch a cup of coffee. And you had to go straightaway to be tested. We were tested twice a day, once before we started, and then once afterwards. So within three days, I had six tests. All of us did. They were so genuinely concerned about keeping everyone safe. There were 84 people involved in the production, and there was not a single positive COVID test. Everyone went through it safely. Thank God.
I loved the staging of it. As you said, it felt so natural, almost like it had always been a theater production. What was it like doing it in that environment on a stage?
There wasn't a moment's hesitation, because we realized that as soon as you see Snuffy Walden on the guitar doing the theme with strings only, it was an homage to the show. There were no trumpets. There were no percussions. It was just strange. It was so soft. It was like a memory. And it was like a play so that it worked with minimum sets, a desk, a chair, two chairs if necessary, a door, a stairway, and lighting. But it was done with the dialogue, with the people, with the interplay between the characters. That's what worked.
And it was so satisfying that I went back and looked at the original episode. I'd basically forgotten how powerful it was. It was a reminder that it was one of the better episodes, I think, that we ever did in the seven seasons. Everyone had kind of an equal part to contribute. But there was drama and comradeship and humor — Charlie and CJ going at it was so funny and sweet in the middle of this pending doom with China and the confrontation in the South China Sea. It was just amazing how it worked as a play. You know, Aaron started as a playwright. He wrote A Few Good Men, so he's a very capable dramatist.
It's interesting hearing how you went back and watched the episode. Did it take you any time at all to get back into character as Jed Bartlet, or did it just come right back?
Well, it's like remembering a poem or Shakespeare. Once you do a Shakespearian play, the lines come so well. Whether they're verse or poetry, they come so well. And that was what this was like. It just fit. Each moment came through a chamber that responded naturally. And when I saw the end result of the one we just did, and then looked at the old one, I preferred the one we did in the theater, because it was more about focusing on the emotional, the spiritual life, the relationships, rather than depending on, “Oh, that's the White House set! Oh, that's the Oval Office! That's the front gate!” and so forth. It was the people. It became like a deeply personal memoir. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. And obviously no one's stopping anyone on the street these days with COVID and everything, but before that, were people still stopping you and asking you to run for president? I'm sure you've been getting that all the time over the past 20 years, right?
Well, yeah. A lot of people were encouraging me to get into political life, but I had to remind them, you can't misinterpret reality for fantasy. I'm an actor. I'm playing a president. I've played a lot of different characters. This one struck a chord in the American culture, which is very, very gratifying, but you can't misinterpret an entertainment value for a public service.
You can't blame us though. I mean, It's a pretty good fantasy, Martin. And sometimes the fantasy is more appealing than the reality, if you know what I'm saying.
Yeah, but you know, a great many of the storylines came from real stories. We had advisors going back as far as the Eisenhower administration. There were stories pulled up from all these different administrations and couched in different characters in our show.
One of my favorite episodes, I don't know if you remember it, but I think it's called “In Excelsis Deo” and was a story of a Korean war veteran who was found dead on the streets of Washington, a homeless man. They discovered a calling card in his overcoat, and it had Richard Schiff's character's name on the card. So they thought he was related, and they called him. He ended up going to this man's funeral at Arlington, and it was a Christmas story. And so, the background was children coming to the White House, and they were singing “Little Drummer Boy.” And we were organizing this military funeral at the Christmas season.
That's a very powerful story, one of my favorites. It struck a chord with me because I had a brother who's deceased now who was a Korean War veteran, a Marine. He's not buried at Arlington, but we did have a military funeral for him. He died in 1981. But he was my oldest living brother who was one of my first heroes. And so, I related it to him personally. And, in fact, this was similar to many of the stories that we did on The West Wing. As I say, there were consecutively running together different storylines, touching different characters, that were based in reality. For me, it was a personal, emotional journey with that veteran story.
Years ago, I watched Hearts of Darkness, the fabulous documentary on the rocky production process for filming Apocalypse Now. You replaced Harvey Keitel, there was a typhoon that destroyed the sets, Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper were not exactly seeing eye to eye, you even had a heart attack! Can you just describe what making that movie was like, in both sickness and in health?
Well, to coin a phrase, it was the very best of times and the very worst of times. But it was our times, and I'm glad we got through it. It was very difficult, but if what you believe is not costly, then you're left to question its value. So it was tremendously valuable to me. The film basically brought my career to the fore internationally. So for that, and for Francis having put me in it, I'm always grateful.
If you tell me beforehand what was in store for me, I would have very gladly passed, but I have no regrets in that it took me on a very public and private journey that would have happened, I think, somewhere at some time on something else. So I was just as a comfortable having it happen as it did. But again, I wouldn't choose it. But then, we don't always get to choose how we're going to grow or what's going to make us grow.
Entertainment Weekly's Ultimate Guide to the West Wing is available now.