By Steve Newton
Working for a newspaper for over 30 years does have it perks. Like that time in 1997 when I got got flown to Beverly Hills so I could hang out with a bunch of other entertainment journalists and listen to Martin Sheen talk about being in Spawn.
Man that guy was cool.
BEVERLY HILLS—Martin Sheen may just be the happiest guy in Hollywood. It sure seems that way when the veteran actor, a week shy of 57, struts spryly into a Beverly Hills hotel room to chat about his latest film, Spawn. After circling around to warmly introduce himself to each member of the media, the extroverted film star cheerfully warns of the “hot air” he’s liable to blow off in the next little while, then helps himself to a coffee and grabs a seat. As the assembled journalists lay their various tape decks on the table in front of him, he quips: “All these for me? Wow. I needed electronics.”
Sheen’s informal approach to kicking off his daylong round of interviews is infectious, and his enthusiasm for the film he’s promoting—though he continually claims he hasn’t seen it yet—is obvious. “Do I get away in the end?” he teases. “There must be a big crowd as I come out, celebrating that evil won again, no?”
“No” is right. In Spawn—a $43-million film based on the best-selling comic book by Canadian maverick artist Todd McFarlane—there’s little applause for Sheen’s character. He portrays Jason Wynn, the nefarious government agent who murders colleague Al Simmons (martial-arts expert Michael Jai White). After being sent to Hell, Simmons makes a pact with the devil and returns to the land of the living as Spawn, a vengeful supernatural warrior with the ability to transform himself into an array of shapes and textures.
Directed by Mark Dippé—a former visual-effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic—Spawn is packed with state-of-the-art 3-D computer animation. At one time there were 21 companies working worldwide to complete digitally enhanced work for the film.
Considering its built-in audience of Spawn comic fanatics, as well as devotees of the Spawn animation series that premiered on HBO last May, the film is likely to pack in its fair share of youthful action fans—including those disgruntled Batman fans grieving the Dark Knight’s recent transformation into burlesque hero in Batman & Robin. Sheen himself caught wind of the sizeable Spawn buzz from his own comic-loving grandson.
“Last summer a couple of the kids were over at the house,” he explains. “I was growing a beard for the movie, and my grandson Taylor said, ‘Why are you growing a beard, Grandpa?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m doin’ this for a film called Spawn.’ He almost fainted! He backed up and said, ‘You’re in Spawn? Aw, wow man!’ I said, ‘What do you know about Spawn?’ and he said, ‘It’s only the best comic book in the world. But don’t tell Mom I read it. It’s too out there.’
“So I came to realize that this extraordinary cult was out there, and it was not confined to children. I discovered that it was a lot of older people, too. I was in Washington last week, and I was just walking down the street, and these two guys followed me and they said, ‘We work at this place called Other Planet, we’ve got Spawn all over the place, and we sell your doll.’ So I went to the store and signed autographs.”
Having a doll (aka “ultra-action figure”) created in your image may seem like the ultimate ego boost to some folks, but Sheen regards his plastic embodiment—complete with rocket launcher and removable gas mask—with a chuckle. “Some friends in New York heard that I was gonna be a doll,” he relates, “and they said, ‘Oh, now you’ll be in the microwave, and people will find you at the side of the road, dogs chewin’ you.’ ”
As it turns out, the real flesh-and-bone Sheen—or at least his stuntman—suffers some well-deserved physical abuse during Spawn’s frantic 90 minutes. There isn’t any actual nuking of the double-crossing Wynn, but he gets fried pretty well, and Sheen—who had already experienced close calls in flaming stunts on the sets of Badlands and the TV series Ghost Story—wasn’t sure about giving fire a third shot at him.
“I would never do that again,” he says of Spawn’s burning scene, “because I’m terrified of fire—it’s my number one fear on the set. But I accepted it as a personal challenge to confront my worst fear, so I did it. I haven’t seen the film, but I’m sure you can tell that I’m rolling around in it, and it got scary at one point, ’cause it wouldn’t go out and it came under me, and I felt the heat of it. I wasn’t the least bit in danger, but you couldn’t prove that when you’re in there, you know.”
With his ink-black hair and mascaraed beard, Sheen cuts a fairly fiendish figure on the screen, so there are no tears shed when Wynn takes his licks. Sheen’s previous baddie role—as power-mad politician Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone—proved how effectively he could portray villains out to rush Armageddon.
“I remember drawing on some well-known political figures who were prominent at the time,” reveals Sheen, “but acting, I think, is far less putting things on than taking things off. So you show your dark side, you show your ego—I got plenty of that going around, there’s no problem getting in touch with that. You just have to be courageous enough to show your worse side. And as artists you kind of get the licence to go in there like [throwing up his hands], ‘I’m only acting here, not here to stay, just passin’ through.’
“So I might go in behind Jason Wynn in this case, but I’m sayin’ ‘Hey, here’s a part of my heart.’ [He furtively opens the lapel of his blazer.] You don’t know what it is; you don’t know where it’s coming from. Then I say, ‘Hey, look at this part of my heart. Didn’t know that was there, did you?’ That’s what artists do—they explore and suss out some truth and reflect it through the culture. It’s a lot cheaper than therapy, you know.”
Spawn creator McFarlane was only too happy to host Sheen’s affordable self-psych session on the movie set. He feels that having the “cagey veteran” in the lineup helps balance out the younger blood of White and costar John Leguizamo, who donned heavy makeup to portray corpulent hell-spawn Clown.
“A guy like Martin Sheen brings a kind of legitimacy to the movie,” says McFarlane. “When you talk to older people about your movie and you go ‘Oh, it’s got this guy and this guy,’ when you say ‘Martin Sheen’ then all of a sudden they go [gasps] ‘Ah, a real movie.’ So he brings that thing where now I can talk to my parents and they’re like, ‘Oh, if Martin Sheen’s in it, it must be good.’ ”
The inclusion of the Sheen name won’t mean that cinephiles with a fondness for Apocalypse Now will be racing out to see Spawn, of course. McFarlane, who created the dark hero while in high school in 1978, is fully aware of the effects-heavy film’s cinematic ambitions.
“It’s just cool,” he says, “and that’s the extent of it. It’s rock and roll, the volume’s up, and it’s not politically correct—it’s just a cool thing to look at. It’s just nice to watch and see all the bizarreness and just walk outta there and go, ‘Hey, how about the Mets?’
“But I think the movie will succeed because we translated the attitude of it [the comic book], and that attitude will basically scream out to those that have no idea what Spawn is, but are living in a country and a society where everything has to be sugary-sweet and polished and palatable to every single person. This is rough, it’s got edges to it, and people are hungry for something like that. So even though Spawn might just be a crumb to them, it will be a delicacy if they’re starving for these kinds of attitudes.”