Inside the Mind of Charlie Sheen
Charlie Sheen lives in a big yellow house on a T-shaped intersection in the middle of a fake neighborhood in a gated community off Mulholland Drive. When I arrive there on a Saturday afternoon in January, I am intercepted in Sheen's driveway by a security guard, a friendly, not intimidatingly large man who asks me to come with him into the garage to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
This is a first for me. I scan the five pages of legalese, in which the undersigned — me — is referred to as "the Employee." To what extent, I wonder, will signing this document impede my ability to do my actual job of interviewing Sheen and his childhood friend, Roman Coppola, about their new movie, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III?
Larry Solters, Sheen's personal publicist, materializes to allay my fears. The document, he says, is not about Sheen and his associates trying to control the story I'm here to write. It's about them trying to prevent me from selling a story to TMZ about anything I see inside the house. Standing in the security office built off Sheen's garage, under one of those posters you see in breakrooms advising workers of their fundamental rights, I sign away my right to profit off my visit with Charlie Sheen.
Solters is an old-school guy, a second-generation publicist whose clients have included The Eagles and Guns N' Roses. His first publicity coup was issuing a press release stating that Led Zeppelin had been "denied the right" to play Shea Stadium. The story was false — but it made the papers.
Sheen, Solters says, hired him about a year and a half ago, which would be summer 2011, which would be shortly after the period described on Sheen's Wikipedia page under the subhead "Meltdown."
That section does not include details about Sheen's 30-year struggle with substance abuse, his 9/11 truther activism, the time he accidentally shot fiancée Kelly Preston, or other assorted legal issues, reported incidents of domestic violence, and general mischief. It mostly includes the "bizarre statements" Sheen made in TV interviews and on Sheen's Korner, a web video airing of grievances, which Sheen produced for a few days in March 2011 after losing his job, the highest-paid acting gig in television, as star of CBS' Two and a Half Men.
It took only days for Sheen's apparently off-the-leash antics to galvanize a certain kind of attention. In a long essay published by the Daily Beast on March 15, no less a sage than Bret Easton Ellis canonized Sheen as the icon of "post-Empire": "Charlie Sheen doesn't care what you think of him anymore, and he scoffs at the idea that anyone even thinks there's such a thing as PR taboo. 'Hey, suits, I don't give a shit, you suck' is what so many of the disenfranchised have responded to."
But the new world order didn't last long. On April 2, 2011, Sheen took his "act" on the road, launching a tour called "My Violent Torpedo of Truth: Defeat Is Not an Option" at Detroit's Fox Theatre. He delivered what one critic described as "the overwritten, faux-biblical preaching of a self-anointed Messiah who views himself as the most truthful person in the universe" — and was booed offstage. By July, FX had signed Sheen to star in a new series, Anger Management, and by September, he was at the Emmys making nice with his former co-stars.
Is that all there is to a meltdown? Was there ever a solid to melt?
"They hired me when things were really calm and easy," Solters jokes. "I mostly do music, but they couldn't figure out what to do with him, so they figured, give him to the rock 'n' roll guy." Solters, apparently, is not the guy you hire to babysit a man who can't control himself, to wrangle a self-styled outlaw and subdue him into playing the game. He's the guy you hire to sell a brand built on incorrigibility, when the problem is the product.
A few minutes later, Roman Coppola drives up in a scuffed-up black Cadillac. He, like Charlie Sheen, is 47 years old. Two days earlier, he was nominated for his first Oscar, for co-writing Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. His sister, Sofia, won an Oscar for her Lost in Translation screenplay in 2004, when she was 32; his father, Francis, won his first Oscar for his Patton screenplay in 1971, when he was 32.
Coppola enters Sheen's house through the garage; he is not asked to sign anything. I follow as he walks past a framed dollar bill signed by a super-producer three weeks after Sheen was fired from Men ("Charlie, you are the winner. Warmest, Mike Medavoy"). He turns into the kitchen and beelines to a deluxe espresso machine.
The right side of the double-wide fridge is plastered with drawings apparently done by Sheen's kids (he has five, four of them under age 10). The left side is covered with Ziploc bags containing what appear to be mementos of nights spent with other celebrities. There's a crushed pack of American Spirits in a bag marked "Sean Penn," pot residue in the bag labeled "Dogg," and a cigar stub in a bag with Roman Coppola's name on it, marked August 8, 2011. That was the night Sheen, after much prevarication, finally agreed to star in Coppola's movie.
Coppola, Solters, another publicist, and I gather around a round wooden table, waiting for Sheen — I've been told he could appear at any time. Meanwhile, Coppola and Solters discuss Sheen's role in promoting the movie, which opens theatrically February 8 and already is available via cable video-on-demand. Coppola stresses that it's very important that Sheen talk about the movie in interviews and on talk shows, because Sheen has access to an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to an independent film.
Solters likes the narrative. "He's got the very commercial Anger Management, but then he's an artiste, he's got the independent film. It's a much better story than 'Sheen's Korner Meltdown.' "
The independent film in question happens to be pretty good. Charles Swan follows the title character, a rock-star graphic designer and dandy played by Sheen, as he suffers through a breakup, procrastinates on an album-cover assignment, and commiserates with other wounded men (played by Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray). The film's nonlinear narrative drifts between dreams, memory, and a skewed present, painting a fractured portrait of an adult man mired in adolescent fantasy. It's a gently self-lacerating satire of entitled masculinity, literalizing "the battle of the sexes" by casting women as hostile Indians to the male characters' cowboys. It's a paean to the woozy comfort of being sad presented in a raucously psychedelic style, drawing on musical numbers and cartoonish costume sequences. It both is and isn't a period piece, set in an imagined Los Angeles that's all classic cars and yachts, smoke-filled recording studios and tropical foliage. It feels like a 1970s issue of Playboy come to life.
Coppola and Sheen have been friends since meeting as boys on the set of Apocalypse Now, in which Sheen's dad, Martin, starred under Coppola's dad's direction. Coppola says the initial seed of the idea for Charles Swan came in 2004, and it stemmed from his own crisis, not Sheen's. "I experienced a breakup, and at the same time, a friend of mine was going through a divorce," he recalls. "And we would just sit around and talk incessantly about the same things in a very loopy way. We'd bring up a memory and be happy, and then be angry. The state of mind one can get into when you go through a breakup can be kind of dazzling and fractured."
So, in other words, in the midst of an intense personal trauma, emotionally we are all Charlie Sheen? "You're using 'Charlie Sheen' as a sort of euphemism for insanity, which is maybe not fair, but I understand what you mean," Coppola says. After all, both Swan and Sheen are on "the feather edge of keeping it together."
The film is Coppola's first directorial effort in a long while. He was one of the top music video directors of the end of the MTV-playing-music era, making iconic clips for Green Day, Fatboy Slim, The Strokes, and Moby. In 2001, Coppola brought his first feature film, a late-'60s pastiche called CQ, to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was overshadowed by another Coppola film, Apocalypse Now Redux. The Village Voice's Dennis Lim summed up CQ thus: "Endearing but pointless, at once cluttered and tinny, this film-dork fantasia suggests a shopping spree at a high-end vintage emporium underwritten by Daddy's blank check."
Over the decade-plus gap between directorial efforts, Coppola collaborated as a writer, producer, and/or second unit director on two Wes Anderson films and three Sofia Coppola films. What became Charles Swan was percolating all the while.
"You work on something, then you set it aside; you can't quite crack it," Coppola says. "And I have a lot of other things that I do in my life. So you know, a year goes by, and you do this, you do that. But I kept coming back to it. All this time goes by and you have one little experience and you put that in, another thing occurs to you and you put that in. Part of its kaleidoscopic personality comes from all the time that it took."
Truly, part of Charles Swan's charm is the kitchen-sink factor — a metaphor that Coppola turns into a visual punch line — but his juxtapositions don't seem haphazard. The film may be an indulgence in the kind of vintage fetishism for which critics blasted CQ, but it's also a sustained and successful riff on the relationship between design and desire, via a lightly comic examination of the process of turning one's collected experiences into a work of commercial art. On that score, it has a direct precedent in Funky Squaredance, a 10-minute video Coppola directed in 2004 for the French band Phoenix, which uses scrolling text and a grab-bag of still images and video clips to describe Coppola's creative process, thus transforming the process into both a conceptual artwork and an advertisement.
"That was a step to coming to this project," Coppola says of Funky Squaredance. "You live your life and the things you're exposed to become collected."
Suddenly, Charlie Sheen bounds into the room, his arms extended in Coppola's direction. "Congratulations, bro."
"Oh, thanks a lot." Coppola stands up, looks Sheen up and down, and says, "You look sharp!" He's wearing a crisp blue button-down untucked over white linen shorts, white socks, and sneakers. He's very thin and very tan. One of his front teeth is gold.
"Thank you," Sheen says, bringing his hands to his face. "I have this burn on my nose. Are we taking photos?"
"Really?" Sheen exclaims in semi-mock frustration. "I've been up there fucking trying to put this healing creme on it."
If you'd read my texts, Solters says, you'd know — no photos.
"I know, I know," Sheen says quickly. "But my phone, uh, died, last night."
Solters says, sarcastically, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"No, I got pissed and just . . . tossed it."
Sheen suggests we do the interview upstairs, which provides an excuse to give us a tour of the wing of the house that's under construction. Downstairs, the living room is being turned into a bowling alley. Upstairs, a slide-away bookcase reveals what will soon be a "1930s martini bar." The remodel is scheduled to be finished in two weeks, although, Sheen says, "They said that four weeks ago."
The house is not the only thing under construction. Sheen has recently made a host of charitable contributions, pledging to give $1 million to the USO, funding the funeral of a paparazzo who died chasing Justin Bieber, and giving Lindsay Lohan $100,000 to pay her taxes. Perhaps a more telling turnaround: He went public with salacious tales of a boozy night in Mexico with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — and then quickly apologized.
The five of us — Sheen, Coppola, the two publicists, and I — settle into a room that's finished, a lounge. They sit side by side on a couch, the newly minted Oscar nominee and the sitcom drudge on the upswing from, shall we say, a tumultuous year. ("I would call it embattled," Sheen says. "Erstwhile, I would call it 'roid rage.") How did they get here?
"We met in the Philippines," Sheen says, turning to Roman. "1976? '75?
"'76, '77," Coppola corrects.
What do you remember about that?
Sheen grimaces broadly. "All things traumatizing."
Francis Ford Coppola compared the Apocalypse shoot to the war depicted in the movie: "There were too many of us. We had access to too much equipment, too much money, and, little by little, we went insane." Roman Coppola's dad went into production with a script he wasn't satisfied with and no idea what his Vietnam epic was really about. Martin Sheen was brought in to replace Harvey Keitel in the lead role after the first week of shooting. Sheen, a three-pack-a-day smoker, suffered a heart attack on set, further delaying production. They were shooting amid a civil war, and torrential rains forced the shoot to shut down for two months. Cast and crew members habitually dropped acid and took speed. Oh — and the Coppola family had put up its own assets to fund the film. Through all of this, Roman's mom, Eleanor, kept detailed diaries, shot behind-the-scenes footage, and made clandestine audio recordings, all revealed in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The film contains copious footage of Francis Ford Coppola, shirtless and manic, looking nuttier than any footage of Charlie Sheen that I've ever seen.
The on-set chaos fed their friendship. "I'd seen half the world before I was 12," Sheen recalls. When they met, Coppola was 11 and Sheen was 10, and though Sheen would bond with other kids on movie sets, "Ours was a little more special than the norm." Coppola would finagle leftover scar prosthetics from the makeup tent to play with, and borrow prop cameras. They'd run around, playing, taking pictures that would become burned in their memories. As they reminisce, they finish each other's sentences.
"The Kurtz compound was a real, working village," Coppola says. "My dad brought in real Ifugao to populate it . . ."
Sheen interrupts: " . . . and play the Montagnard army, yeah."
"So, we were in this world as kids. We would just hang out, amidst all this very far-out imagery. Heads, dead bodies. It's a whole swirl of memories now, 30 years later . . ."
". . . which don't seem real."
"Yeah," Coppola agrees. "But they were very matter-of-fact at the time."
After the shoot, the boys became pen pals. "Over the years, we would see each other," Coppola says. "Sometimes not so frequently, but years would go by and we would always have that bond."
That bond would sustain ups and downs in each man's fortunes. In 1986, Sheen broke out with a lead role in Oliver Stone's Platoon. That same year, Coppola's older brother, Gio, 22, died in a boating accident while working for their father as second unit director on the film Gardens of Stone. After Gio's death, Roman, then a 21-year-old NYU student, stepped into his brother's job.
"I could see his misery," Eleanor Coppola wrote. "He lost the person he was perhaps closest to in all the world and he couldn't escape; each day he will be surrounded by reminders of Gio and will witness his parents' and sister's pain." Roman Coppola has shot second unit on almost every Francis Ford Coppola film, and every Sofia Coppola film, since.
And then, Coppola says, "There was sort of an epic period."
Sheen cackles: "The year of '90!" Sheen appeared in six films that year, including The Rookie (co-starring and directed by Clint Eastwood) and Men at Work (co-starring and directed by his brother, Emilio Estevez). That year, an article about the "Coppola brats" described Roman as having "the ectomorphic look of someone surviving solely on caffeine, cigarettes, and sleep deprivation." He had started producing independent films, most notably a '70s spoof called Spirit of '76, which he also co-wrote. Coppola was toiling to make a name for himself; Sheen was the hugest of young stars.
Stardom has changed so much that there is no direct equivalent to the kind of star Charlie Sheen was in 1990, or what that must have felt like. Think Robert Pattinson, if he had already starred in two Oscar-winning films; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, if he had had all his current success by age 25, and knew that his movie star father had made his greatest film when he was 36; Jennifer Lawrence, if she was a dude. If you were Charlie Sheen in 1990, you wouldn't know that your biggest and best films (Wall Street, Young Guns, Eight Men Out, Major League) were behind you, and that the future of your film career held the Hot Shots movies and Money Talks, and not much else worth mentioning. If you were Charlie Sheen in 1990, you probably would think you were going to live forever.
"Charlie said something to me," Coppola remembers, "and this was a time when you were doing big movies and stuff. You said, 'Dude, we've got to make a movie together.' " Sheen nods vigorously. "And I was just a 25-year-old guy, aspiring to do stuff, and that stuck in my mind. It meant something to me that you would say that."
"Well, it was the sons of the guys who made the greatest film ever," Charlie says. "Period. The end. Sorry, Godfather. Sorry, Dog Day [Afternoon]."
In an interview a week before he was fired by CBS, Sheen encapsulated his state of mind with an Apocalypse reference: "I'm putting up the river to kill another part of me," he said, "Which is Kurtz." Meaning, of course, Marlon Brando's character in the film — a Special Forces officer gone AWOL and insane. Martin Sheen's character, Willard, journeys upriver into the proverbial heart of darkness to confront his own demons and kill the rogue colonel.
Today, Sheen says, "Everything, every lesson about life, every nuance, every hardcore, softcore — everything you need to know about how to be a good person is in Apocalypse." That's been his philosophy, he says, "since I was a young adult, since I started looking at it a little bit differently, about Dad's journey. You know, people try to compare Platoon to Apocalypse, and I'm like, 'Get out of my house.' Our story was pretty good and told from boot level, but I think Apocalypse is about so many other things than just that war, you know?" Gesturing to Coppola, he adds, "We quote the movie incessantly."
Coppola confirms, "If we're together, a day doesn't go by without some reference."
The pair are products, literally and figuratively, of 1970s American cinema, and Coppola used their shared shorthand — as well as visual references, like a photo of Jack Nicholson accepting his Oscar in 1975 — to communicate what he was after with Swan. "That period of time when my dad made those pictures — and [Martin Sheen made] Badlands — it was a big moment in cinema. We would see it with a different perspective years later."
Suddenly, they were 45. After wrestling with the idea of Charles Swan for half a decade, Roman brought the script to the Two and a Half Men set to pitch the project to Sheen.
"I played him some music, I described this character going through the crises. He said, 'Sounds like All That Jazz'" — choreographer-turned-filmmaker Bob Fosse's dark, autobiographical musical, which was released the same year as Apocalypse. "And when he said that, I was like . . ."
" 'He gets it,' " Sheen laughs.
"Yeah: We're back. We're in sync."
This, Coppola hastens to add, was "prior to all the craziness."
"In the world?" Sheen asks. "Or me?"
"You. And the world, too — you're a reflection of the world. You're tapped into the cosmos."
Over the next few months, the two exchanged texts about the project constantly; at one point they went down to Belize, where the Coppolas own a resort, for what Sheen calls a "tropical workshop," to refine the script. But they couldn't nail down a start date.
"I can't speak for you," Coppola starts, "but . . ."
Sheen flicks his lighter and mutters around the Marlboro in his mouth, "Yeah, you can."
"Charlie wanted to do this movie but was hesitant to commit to it."
Sheen exhales smoke. "It was terrifying."
Sheen's last major film role had been in Scary Movie 3 in 2003. Even before the Meltdown of 2011, no one was banging down his door with quality parts; he "didn't want to be, like, Cop Number Four in all the crap Warner Bros. was insultingly offering me." Also, despite his connection to Coppola, "There were too many things he was asking me to do that I'd never done before." Such as? "Speaking another language." Sheen, who was born Carlos Estevez, has a conversation in Spanish in one scene of the movie.
It's interesting that he saw it as unfamiliar territory, I say, as some people may assume he's playing some version of himself.
"How? Why? Based on what?" Sheen snaps, talking over me before I've finished my sentence.
From the character's conspicuous excess to the general theme of a 40-something man broken and then rejuvenated by crisis, there are more than a few similarities that could be drawn between Charlies Swan and Sheen. There's a scene in which Swan's car tips over on Mulholland and has to be towed out of a stranger's pool — an echo of the 2009 incident in which Sheen's Mercedes was mysteriously found in a nearby ravine. There's a hilarious scene in which Swan asks a Russian cab driver to help him score drugs, the punchline of which I won't spoil here, which clearly nods to Sheen's notorious party-by-any-means-necessary proclivities.
In hindsight, I should have reminded Sheen that when his dad asked for guidance about his character in Apocalypse Now, Roman's dad said, "He's you. He's whoever you are." Instead, I let Coppola play diplomat.
"There's very little corollary between the specifics of the story and Charlie's life," Coppola says. "But when an actor brings his life and his experiences, and he's dealt with a breakup, [he's] had experiences that echo what's in the material, that's a great virtue to be able to bring those experiences and put it on the screen. So I say, yeah, it's very much Charlie, because as an actor, that's your job, to bring those feelings and your life experience to it."
Sheen's, er, life experience made casting him look like a gamble. "Financiers, insurance companies, did not like the insurance profile," Coppola admits. "But they're based on dumb . . . not facts, perceptions. We just had to not have insurance, which was fine." Taking a page from the film on which they met, Sheen and Coppola put up personal collateral to secure the budget.
But Sheen still was hesitant, and it was only when it got to the point that they would lose a tax credit if they didn't start shooting immediately that Coppola was finally able to push him in front of a camera.
"I came over here one night to sort of nudge things along," Coppola remembers. "I had this brown velvet suit that was my personal suit, and Charlie had this fedora. And part of the image of this character is, he wears these aviator tinted shades with the fedora." Coppola took a photo of Sheen in the suit, the hat, and the shades, showed it to him, and said, "This is the guy." As if to say, you don't have to worry about pulling it off — you already are.
What did the photo make you understand about the character? "Just how other people saw him," Sheen says. As opposed to how he actually is? Sheen nods, slowly. "Like our lives."
This was Sheen's first acting gig after "the meltdown." Today, Sheen says, "It was a challenge that came at the perfect time. I can't describe why I say that. But I think any other time, it wouldn't have happened."
Coppola reaches over to light the cigarette dangling out of Sheen's mouth, using an antique lighter that Sheen had given him. "You like that fucking lighter, don't you?"
They start chatting about other gifts Sheen has given Coppola, including an ashtray that was used in the film. They're masterfully avoiding the topic that we were just on the brink of broaching, by essentially doing what Sheen's character does in the film: seeking refuge in beautiful, fanciful objects in order to avoid dealing with the substantive, the messy, the uncontrollable, the real.
On Apocalypse, Sheen's dad faced his demons head-on. The first scene of the movie includes footage of an actual drunken breakdown Martin Sheen had on-camera. In a blitz, he smashed his hand through a mirror and continued to perform, refusing medical attention while film rolled. As Martin Sheen put it, he couldn't stop, he was too intent on "facing my worst enemy — myself." Eleanor Coppola's footage of this unfolding on-set, seen in Hearts of Darkness, with Sheen naked and wailing before the camera, is startling, terrifying, uncanny. As Eleanor describes it, "Anything could happen. They were inside somebody." His subsequent heart attack put things in perspective: "I just knew that if I wanted to live, it was my choice," he has said. "If I wanted to die, that was my choice, too."
Was Charlie Sheen's own "meltdown," his "off-script" embrace of total transparency, a worshipful son's wan attempt to retrace the steps of his father, in search of the knowledge and catharsis on the other side? Though Charles Swan doesn't include anything as literally naked as Martin Sheen's breakdown, I ask Charlie Sheen if playing a man in crisis so recently after his own crisis gave him any kind of new perspective about what he had himself gone through. He seems confused by the question.
"My life is so much bigger than any job I've ever had," he says. "I can separate, obviously, because I'm not fucking crazy. It just . . . "
Coppola interrupts: "Well, there was a sense of satisfaction . . . "
"Fuck, yeah, there was!. Yeah!"
"You do the work and you feel you're connected with one another and the other performers . . ."
"I felt I was leaving something good behind," Sheen concurs. He points at Coppola. "And I wasn't letting him down. I wasn't a detriment to the material."
Sheen's concern with his legacy seems to be what's driving him through Anger Management's unusually grueling schedule — they've shot 27 episodes, and plan to crank out 70 more (or about three full regular reasons) in the next 18 months. "I've considered retirement after Anger Management is over," he says. "I need to spend time as a dad. Spend time as a guy who isn't on somebody else's clock." But "I couldn't have the other mess be what I left behind as a legacy in television."
At this point, do you care about how you're perceived?
"Can't control that," he answers. "It's how I perceive myself. It's like in Apocalypse: 'Willard, are you free of the opinion of yourself, are you free of the opinions of others?' It's like, people that don't know Apocalypse suck at life." Sheen turns to Coppola for approval. "Right?"
"I'm with you on that."
On my way out, I overhear Coppola stressing to Sheen, as he did to Solters, how important it is for Sheen to talk about the movie when he does interviews — as though this is Sheen's first time at this rodeo. When they first started talking about making this movie, Sheen was the biggest star on TV, and he would have been taking a chance by expending his celebrity capital on his old friend's unconventional indie. By the time they shot the movie, it was Coppola who was taking a chance on uninsurable damaged goods. Now that it's time to sell the movie, what is Charlie Sheen worth?
Two nights later, Sheen is a guest on Late Show With David Letterman. Over the course of two full segments, "the meltdown" is recycled into a set-up/punch line comic routine, and thereby decontaminated.
Letterman gives him a chance to blame his behavior of 2011 on "crack cocaine." "I wish it was crack cocaine," Sheen responds. "It was just that my brain kind of separated into itself, and I had to take a stand for what I knew was right."
"Are you a different person now?"
"Are you embarrassed about any of this?"
"Of course! Did you see some of those interviews?"
There's no mention of Coppola or the movie until Letterman starts to wrap up. Shaking the host's hand, Sheen blurts out: "I also have a film coming out on February 8. It's on VOD now — A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III." Letterman looks surprised. It's as if he wasn't aware Charlie Sheen was selling anything other than Charlie Sheen.
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