Martin Sheen on ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ True Patriotism and Explaining America to Canadians

The acclaimed actor, who stars in 'L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables,' discusses why stories about brave young people matter and why Jane Fonda is his hero

Anne of Green Gables
Courtesy of Breakthrough Entertainment

Martin Sheen has a lot of reasons for wanting to play the retiring old bachelor Matthew Cuthbert in “L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables,” which debuted last Thanksgiving and is premiering the second part of its story this upcoming Thanksgiving. But above all, it’s because he finds it heartwarming. In the miniseries, his character Matthew Cuthbert is surprised by a redheaded orphan — enough that the reticent old bachelor, along with his prim sister Marilla (Sara Botsford), decides to adopt the talkative, imaginative girl, played by Ella Ballentine.

They tried to take her back, but the little girl was relentless and sparked something in these old people that changed their lives,” says Sheen. “They were blessed [because] they became a family.”

The acclaimed actor, best known for his role as president Josiah Bartlet on Aaron Sorkin’s NBC show “The West Wing,” spoke to Variety about why he wanted a role in an upbeat show about a kid — and why his hero is Jane Fonda

Matthew Cuthbert is so reticent. Even after Anne draws him out, he really just listens because she talks so much.

Exactly. He’s very fascinated by her. She uses big words and she has these extraordinary concepts, and he’s just fascinated by her. She becomes his teacher, really.

You’ve played characters who are so eloquent, so it’s an interesting choice to play someone shier.

Well, I think most actors are basically shy. That’s part of the reason they’re actors. Most of us, at least most of the ones I know, are very, very shy people, and they get a chance to come out of themselves through other characters. That’s part of the reason we’re so attracted to the profession.

Have you read “Anne of Green Gables,” or any of its sequels?

You know, I had read one of the books to my children — I’m going back 50 years ago. It’s been on the top list of favorite children’s books for much of the last century. First in line in any of the children bookshelves in the libraries and bookstore.

It must have been daunting to adapt something so beloved.

Yeah. Well, in fact, there was a little more pressure on me, because I was the only American in the cast. They were all Canadians. So, yeah. They had at me! But, I’m very glad to say that they thought I passed the audition.

What attracted you to the production?

Well, it was the classic nature of the work, of course. And the character, I loved. This very shy introvert who rarely speaks above a whisper is brought out to declare himself — pushed by this little firebrand. That appealed to me a lot. It was a rebirth of the old people. The brother and sister are settled in their ways and they’re just reborn again. They begin to see things that they missed, because they settled into this bachelor-type life. There was a big missing piece in their lives, and they didn’t know what it was or how to fill it until this little girl came along. And then they realized it’s about being a family.

“Anne of Green Gables” is ultimately such an uplifting story. In general, TV has been trending darker and grittier. This is quite the opposite. Does it feel important to you to do something warm right now?

It does. I’m glad you mentioned that, because there are very few examples these days of shows about young people. About a heroic young person that is a great source of inspiration. I find it hard to find any examples. Our industry at this time that is not focused on that.

One of the greatest problems with our entire Western culture is peer pressure. Kids are so afraid to step out and be different. On the contrary — they all want to be alike. They’ve all got their focus on these iPads or computers, and they’re all into trying to fit in instead of trying to find out. This show is an inspiration to young people to step out and stand up, and take a chance at becoming yourself and not just a reflection of the crowd.

Some might say that the show is sentimental, and that goes without saying. There is a lot of sentiment. But we don’t play the sentiment. It’s for the audience to find it. There is something extremely important about a young person being an inspiration on older people, and that is one of the major themes, I think, of “Anne of Green Gables.” She comes striding up the path and nothing is ever going to be the same. Thank God, you know?

As the only American on set, did you feel like your Canadian counterparts were looking to you for perspective on current American politics?

No. I thanked them for not building a wall, and letting me in.

You once played the American president. I imagine people look to you for guidance.

Well, perhaps so, because I played a very popular president, but that’s the key word, “played.” I’m not involved in politics. I do support a number of different politicians when they’re running for office, and so forth.

We just have to weather through this. We just have to. Up until this past election, there’s been a lot of reliance on the institutions that kept us going. We did have faith in all these very powerful institutions in the government. Now, we have to protect those institutions, because they’re at risk. That’s going to be a real test of our true patriotism — whether we go into the future with confidence, truthfully serving the general public. Or, do we just go into it blindly? And only worry about ourselves. This has really awakened the spirit of true patriotism. I think we’re going to be alright. We just have to trust one another.

It must feel good to be doing something for PBS right now.

Oh, yeah. They just came off this extraordinary documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which reignited a debate that is so healing in our culture. PBS was really the only place where this could done, ’cause there’s no ax to grind. They’re not selling products, they’re just exploring ideas. More power to them. They did it on the Civil War. They caused a great debate and a focus on what our divisions cost us. And, thank God, if we were going to have a civil war, we got it over with before they started building machine guns. It could have been a whole lot worse.

I would’ve hoped that they had covered more of the resistance — particularly the more heroic part of the resistance where people who suffered the most like Dan Berrigan and his brother Phil, who went to the penitentiary for burning draft files — not even draft cards! And, then, probably the most important protester of the war, who risked her life and her career, was Jane Fonda.

They covered her a little bit in [the parts of the docuseries on] North Vietnam, but I felt they should have interviewed her as who she is now. I felt that they were remiss in that. Very, very remiss — because she was the gutsiest one of us all. She annoyed most of the male population, because she was a gutsy woman. She was a reflection of Bobby Kennedy’s quote, “One heart with courage is a majority.” She’s my hero. With the exception of Dan Berrigan, I know of no American who risked more for their beliefs and put their life on the line for what they believed. We all gave it lip service, by and large, but she gave it her life. People find that hard to deal with, because we are so lacking in courage and we are so filled with our own image of what it means to be patriotic.

Not to be too fatalistic, but to your point about civil war — there is some talk by Civil War historians of how the cultural moment we are in could portend a second, contemporary civil war.

Those who fail to understand the past are condemned to repeat it, you know? If we still live back there, in our arrogance and our ignorance, then we’re going to exhibit a whole lot of the same kinds of feelings and thoughts that cause people to hate each other, and take issue with each other’s thinking.

And as you said before, something heartwarming that encourages us to trust each other is actually so radical.

Yeah, and to trust our instincts. Sometimes, it takes the very worst among us to inspire the very best. We’ve seen this in the last three incidents of mass murder. Look at all the numbers of people who come out compassionate and supportive, and healing. It’s far more than those that have done the damage. What inspires me is our mutual compassion and humanity. No one ever regrets an act of compassion, either received or given.

I’m very encouraged that the powerful acts of compassion that come out of these horrible situations, not unlike what we witnessed yesterday. [Variety spoke to Sheen the day after the Sutherland Springs, Tx. church shooting.] That’s where my focus is. I’m not focused on the division. I’m focused on the unity. We’ve come through too much, and there are far many more of us than there were during the Vietnam War, and certainly during the Civil War. And, there’s far more at stake. We have to be far more compassionate and understanding and tolerant of each other. Because there’s far more to lose.

You know, one of the things that I was struck by — this fascist group down in Charlottesville, marching that night with the torches — how young they were! How coiffed they were. This was not a poor people’s campaign. They were very bright and handsome young men — and they were all men, there was not a woman among them.They need the female character, which would soften that rhetoric and that arrogance, and that stupidity. Arrogance is ignorance matured, and that’s what we’re seeing.

We just have to weather this storm by showing more tolerance and more compassion. More mercy for each other, more understanding of where we’re coming from. That people are hurt, they’re crying out in pain, and they just want someone to respond. I was listening [to CNN] yesterday — I don’t know if you saw it or not, but the grandmother who lost a grandson, I believe he was five or six. She was talking on the phone from the hospital. She was awaiting the outcome of surgery on another grandchild, and she was talking to the reporter from CNN on the phone. We didn’t see her, but we knew who she was from the enormous humanity and compassion that she was exhibiting on the phone, worried about others and expressing deep concern and faith in what had gone on. I thought, wow. That is the best part of us. That woman is an example of who we really are.

Weirdly, this does connect to “Anne of Green Gables,” because the book is about the life of a small town, and that shooting happened in a very small town — like 600 people, or something.

That congregation suffered, I believe that lost a quarter of their congregation, it was 100 people.

Which, I read, is four percent of the town. 

It’s so hard to get your head around. I mean, really. We see on the news these horrible terrorist attacks in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. All over the middle east. Like in Nigeria recently, the market attack. And we sort of — we’ve become immune to hearing, 40 are killed in a bomb in a police station, and 50 are killed here at a wedding, and then a drone kills 150. We’ve become immune to it. That happens right in our midst, but the same thing happens in their communities. We don’t get to see them, we don’t get to mourn with them, to comfort them, to aid them. But it’s the same. And, when something like this happens in our communities, then we can respond. We can relate to — oh my god, that’s what it’s like in a terrorist bombing in one of these remote villages in Iraq or Iran or Syria and Turkey, and Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of these less secure countries. It’s horrifying, but it’s no less a loss for people. We just are not connected to it personally.

As a performer you have an opportunity to bring awareness or to bring compassion on a scale that most other people don’t. It sounds like that’s a crucial part of the job for you.

Well, that is a part of our responsibility, yeah. To help tame the world. That’s part of our responsibility. The larger portion of that comes from the writers, of course, but our choices of what we do plays into that. In other words, you know — we can choose to do more violence. To play cynicism and anger, and violence without redemption. Or, we can choose to play characters that redeem the violence and help tame the world. I would hope that I would fall in that category. I would choose to have a positive effect on people; a non-violent effect, certainly.

“L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: Fire” premieres Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. on PBS.