Within minutes it becomes apparent that Charlie Sheen was born to do comedy. Bring up a film he's not proud of, and he immediately says, "I'm sorry." If you specifically mention The Big Bounce—his recent caper comedy with Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman—and say you enjoyed the film, he retorts, "Was your chair facing the screen?" in a perfectly dry deadpan.
Yet Sheen didn't originally seem destined for a career making people laugh. The son of revered actor Martin Sheen and brother of Emilio Estevez, his early success came in movies such as Platoon and Wall Street—serious dramas that the actor carried on his young shoulders admirably. There were hints of humor interspersed throughout his resumé; films such as Major League and Hot Shots proved he could laugh at himself. But even in those movies Sheen was usually the straight man, the quiet observer of the absurdity surrounding him.
Then came a time when Sheen the tabloid fixture overshadowed Sheen the actor, an unfortunate occurrence considering the beautifully nuanced work apparent in his early work and films such as Eight Men Out and Lucas. But in 1999 a different Sheen emerged from rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse and began a new life on- and off-screen. It all began with a small performance in the role he was literally born to play—himself—in the offbeat comedy Being John Malkovich. Shortly thereafter Sheen took on his first television role, filling the considerable absence left by Michael J. Fox, on the sitcom Spin City. In his two seasons as Deputy Mayor Charlie Crawford, Sheen not only did some of his best work alongside a standout ensemble but also snagged a Golden Globe Award in the process.
Today he is happily married to actor Denise Richards, with a brand new baby daughter less than 2 months old. He recently headlined the hit film Scary Movie 3, another manic comedy in which his talent for wry delivery was on ample display. And he has a new television show, Two and a Half Men, which was recently picked up for its second season on CBS. The series stars Sheen as a commercial jingle writer who finds himself reluctantly sharing his bachelor bad with his neurotic brother (Jon Cryer) and 10-year-old nephew (Angus T. Jones). One of the few bright spots in a season of flops, the comedy has given Sheen not only a weekly showcase for his comedic talents but also a sense of stability in a fickle business.
Back Stage West: You seemed to start your career in dramatic films like Platoon and Wall Street—
Charlie Sheen: Yeah, what happened?
BSW: Do you know who it was who first realized you had a gift for comedy?
Sheen: Well, it sure as hell wasn't me. And I guess that's the good news. It's interesting, because the comedy I was really successful in, I wasn't trying to be funny in. Not having been asked or required to do physical comedy, broad comedy, that's where I sort of lucked out. Even a film like Major League, I'm not trying to get laughs. I'm just stuck in a ridiculous situation. But I give myself some creditability because people could see I was a ballplayer. Even a film like Hot Shots, a big spoof comedy, I didn't really do anything. I just played it straight. I'm not saying it's easy to play it straight; you have to commit to a certain level of suspension of reality. But I just borrowed from Leslie Nielsen.
I think I got my first taste of comedy doing a small part in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I was driving down to San Diego with my dad—we were going to do a charity two-on-one basketball game against Michael Jordan, who was a rookie at the time. And I knew that I had to do this scene after we got back, so I brought [the script] with me. I was asking my dad for his advice on how to play it, and we read through it once then, and I said, "OK, let's start working on it." And he said, "We're done." I said, "But we haven't even started." He said, "We're done." I said, "But I didn't do anything." He said, "Exactly." Keep in mind I'm 19 at the time. He said, "Just do exactly what you just did." So that was a real lesson there as far as not overthinking, not overacting, just committing to the truth and letting the rest carry itself.
BSW: I'm assuming having an in-house acting coach didn't hurt your career?
Sheen: It didn't hurt at all. But then there are other moments, you know. For example, I'm in the middle of a terrible film called The Chase—it was a really good script, we didn't have enough money to do it right. I had come home for a couple of days, and he was driving me back to the airport, and I said, "I'm having a hard time, I'm stuck in a car. How the hell do you generate anything interesting from scene to scene stuck in a car?" And here I am, waiting for the great acting words of wisdom, and he looks over at me and says, "I don't know, that's kind of a tough one." And that was it. So there are times when I get no advice from the master and other times when I do.
BSW: You're also the master of the double-take—
Sheen: You know, most good double-takes are a mistake. It's the planned double-take that actors usually get caught doing. If it's a double-take on the first take that you haven't quite found in a rehearsal, those are the ones that work. Nic Cage is an old friend of mine, and he and I used to talk, and I said, "Nic, how do you play those moments when you're at a table in a restaurant and you've got to look up and you've got to find somebody but you don't want to find them immediately so you kind of gaze and then you locate them?" And he feels that some of his worst acting is to try to locate them. He says his approach to that moment, as small and silly as it sounds, is to find the person immediately. Just to give you an idea of how sometimes it's the little things we feel we get busted acting.
BSW: Was it a forgone conclusion from birth that you would be an actor?
Sheen: Probably. I just didn't know it. I thought I had a career as a baseball player. But then when I got to baseball camp in Miller, Mo., my freshman year in high school I saw the type of talent, I saw the level of commitment, I saw the size of the player, and I just knew that it wasn't going to happen for a living.
So being a high school dropout there weren't too many jobs that were accepting people with those credentials. So I went on a few auditions that first summer out of high school, and I got the jobs. It was like something was calling my name, you know?
BSW: Did you have any kind of acting training?
Sheen: Sort of, in my own way. My brothers and friends and sister and whoever else we could wrangle, we'd been making Super-8 movies since I was 5. So we weren't just like shooting the countryside; we had plots and special effects and good guys and bad guys. We were trying to emulate what we were watching my dad do on all the sets we grew up on.
BSW: I just have to ask, how did you end up with that brilliant cameo in Being John Malkovich?
Sheen: I think it was written for Kevin Bacon, and I don't think he wanted to do it. I was in rehab at the time and I got the script late one night. I had to go to sleep, and a lady on the nightshift read it and said, "You've got to be in this movie!" It makes the story more interesting if I tell you who she is, but then I feel like I'm breaking her anonymity, because she was working at a treatment facility. You know what? She'll read this, and she'll know exactly who she is. Anyway, I read it and I loved the script and I thought the part was just kooky enough. I loved the silliness of Malkovich having a problem and coming to me. And truthfully, I saw it as an opportunity to get off the hill for a couple of days. So that's why I did it. And my stunt double for years had been working with Spike Jonze on commercials and said he was just a super guy and was going to be a big star and I should work with him. So I did. He hasn't called me again since, but that's all right.
BSW: They let you leave rehab to shoot a movie?
Sheen: They sent somebody with me. I didn't leave AMA, you know, I got permission. Shot it and went back. Then was thrilled at the reaction. Again, the type of scene where I didn't feel like I did much, but I think sometimes just showing up in a role like that is all you have to do.
BSW: Who came up with your nickname—The Machine—in that film?
Sheen: Very bizarre. The writer, Charlie Kaufman, he came up with it. And that's bizarre because in all my partying, that was my nickname. My friends used to love to call me that. When I read it in the script, I thought, "That's a little strange." And I don't think he ever heard it from anybody else. I think he just came up with it. And I was like, "This is another sign."
BSW: I noticed for a while you were credited as Charles Sheen—
Sheen: Yeah, I tried that for about an hour, and the amount of heat that I caught was unbelievable. There's a columnist, Marilyn Beck and Cindy something, and the two of them launched into this litany about who did I think I was, blah blah blah. And it wasn't like I changed my name to Hyram Schwartz. I just took out an "I" and added an "S." I figured Laurence Fishburne did it, and Rick Schroeder did it. So I changed that back quickly because it just didn't fly. As for why, it was just another stupid, vodka-inspired moment. I just thought, "Oh, this will shake them up."
BSW: Why did people take such offense to it?
Sheen: Who the hell knows? Probably a really slow news week. But that's all right because I think Charlie is more accessible, I think it's friendlier. I don't know, it just sounds better.
BSW: I've noticed you're very frank when discussing your past, and I wonder if that honesty has ever come back to haunt you?
Sheen: Well, you know, I have to be accountable for what I've done, but at the same time I've got to move forward and focus on today and the future, and as much as there's a certain disdain I have for my past, I have to recognize it for its value. I have to see that it is part of a journey that led to today. But what I don't do anymore is, I don't discuss in detail. And I find, by doing that, I'm not incriminating others or implicating others, and I can gloss over stuff while still maintaining some integrity and responsibility about it.
And I'm having fun again. I don't know who said that success the second time around is so much sweeter, but they had to have experienced it or they couldn't have come up with that.
BSW: So you appreciate your success more these days?
Sheen: Oh, God, absolutely. Not just because of where my head's at and where my life's at but because of how fickle and unforgiving [the industry is] and how in an instant things change. Suddenly life is one way and a career is one way, and you turn around and it's not. It's bizarre because when I was coming up, myself and my peers, the media didn't have the influence that they have today. You couldn't launch a career through the hype machine; you had to have a little bit of talent, some pretty good relationships, and a lot of luck on your side. Today if certain personalities have the hype machine behind them, they'll have that big maiden hit and then survive six or seven bombs. In my group, a few of those in a row and not only were you no longer at the top of the list but it seems like they really took it personally. I did a film called Terminal Velocity, which was a disaster. It was a great script, a little misguided in its directorial efforts. Not to talk money, but I get to a certain point and the film comes out, and Monday after a Friday opening, my quote is in half. It's in half. And you look at some of these guys that come off of two I Spys and a Son-in-Law and they're still getting 10, 12, 15 because the hype machine keeps them in the flow.
BSW: Because this is such a tough business, did you ever think about leaving?
Sheen: Well, I'm done after this show. I'm not kidding. I always wanted to retire at 40, and, God willing, the show keeps me on the air for six or seven years—that's only a few years after my desired projected retirement date. And I just don't think you have to work your whole life. I really would like to travel and pursue some education and give something back. I'd love to just broaden my intellectual horizons, maybe go to college.
BSW: Was Two and a Half Men written specifically for you?
Sheen: It was written with me in mind. I met with Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, our creators, and they pitched me the idea. It sounded pretty good, and they asked would I commit to it, and I said not without a script. A week later, the script showed up, and they had my voice. And at the end of the first act, I knew that I had to do this project.
No one else was committed to it yet, but they promised that they wouldn't surround me with a bunch of clowns. And they didn't. They handpicked and took chances on a lot of people, and we got really lucky that it was a rare blend of perfect chemistry. Everybody from Angus T. Jones to Holland Taylor to the amazing Jon Cryer to Marin Hinkle, Melanie Lynskey and Conchata Ferrell—there's no holes on that infield. It's really strong.
BSW: Is working on the show as fun as it looks?
Sheen: Certain moments, yeah. But it's a lot of work. I'm in every scene and that gets to be a little wearing and tearing. It's just hard for me to memorize that much stuff, you know? My favorite part sometimes is the drive home. And not because it's over, but I just finally get a moment to reflect on the stuff that worked, the stuff that didn't. There's a creative calm about it, that I left something good behind. And it's also cool that we don't get a chance to over-rehearse, so we discover a lot of stuff in front of the audience, stuff that maybe didn't work so well during the week is suddenly gangbusters on show night. But it's a very specific medium. There's no improv, there's no room for dialogue experiments. You can experiment with delivery, you can experiment with timing, but it's so specific you've got to stick to the page. And to do that, you've got to memorize it.
BSW: Did you hesitate to do television or worry about how it might affect your film career?
Sheen: I think I have a slight advantage because I did movies for so long. The thought of working for nine months and then for another three with a wife and a new baby is just not that intriguing right now unless Scorsese shows up with something amazing, and thus far he hasn't. I shot the pilot and went to Vancouver to do Scary Movie 3, and I remember waking up one morning having gone to bed at 11 and getting up at 4 and just thinking, "You know what? This ain't me anymore." It's not like I was waking up to go do the next brilliant Tarantino film. It was fun to do that movie, and it was great to finally work for Miramax, but it doesn't get dark there until 10. Why couldn't we start at 9, when people can think?
And I don't look at television as a place I wound up. I'm thrilled to be here. There are things about it for me that are much more challenging than film. It's a lot more vulnerable, a lot more exposed. There's no place to hide out there onstage in the middle of a sitcom. It's a real opportunity to be courageous every week, to walk through certain fears and to not be afraid to be foolish. I go to films, especially comedies, and I'm thinking, "All right, I'm sitting here for an hour, and they haven't had a joke as good as what we had in the cold opening."
People talk about "your brilliant decision to do television," and it may appear like that, but I'm pretty much just going with opportunity, with what's available at the time. I get offered a lot of indies and a lot of sort of odd stuff, but it isn't odd enough or good enough to want to commit that much energy and time to. This hiatus, there was talk of doing the Monty Cliff story. What an amazing opportunity! I had a psychic, years ago, when I was 16, tell me if I ever played Monty Cliff I'd win an Academy Award. So I got that hanging over me, right? But that type of role can't be impersonated, it has to be inhabited, it has to be embodied. And so I just knew in my heart there wasn't enough time. I'd have to lose 30 pounds, I'd have to work with a voice coach for two months, I'd have to work with effects makeup to look like him pre and post accident. I'd have to sit and study and spend a tremendous amount of time with people who knew him. Because I didn't want to do just a bad impersonation of him, which is what it would be. It wasn't even really an offer, but there was serious interest, and it's hard to let something like that go, and then at next year's Oscars I'm going to see the guy that did it, and hopefully he killed it, and know that I had to be realistic about it.
BSW: Is there any advice you might be able to impart for other actors out there on surviving in this business or waiting for a big break?
Sheen: There's an expression in my fellowship, around the AA community. And they say, "Don't leave five minutes before the miracle." Meaning, when it feels like this is an absolute waste of time, don't cash in your chips for a short game. Don't give up. That's the beauty of this country, of this industry. There is ample opportunity for all shapes, types, and sizes. It's like Billy Bob Thornton as a waiter and some exec telling him, "You're not good-looking enough to be an actor," and that just fueling his fire. And I can just imagine Billy Bob at the podium, holding the Oscar, thinking of that clown. "I guess I'm good looking enough to be up here, buddy." So I would just recommend to not lose sight of the dream. It's like Han Solo tells Luke Skywalker, "Never tell me the odds." That's sort of how you have to look at it. If you think about the fact that the majority of your union is unemployed at any given time, well, that's fine. That doesn't have to be you. If you've got a gift or you think you have a gift, stay committed: Do workshops, do videos with your friends, do creative things that keep that fire—or at least that pilot light—lit. Study. If you can't afford it, form a group. And just stay on target. And just know that it's not all about talent; there's a little bit of luck involved. And for a lot of these people out there—I won't name anybody like I used to—but there's a lot of luck involved. BSW