Hollywood great Martin Sheen will step onto the stage at Wembley Arena tomorrow – as the headline star at the UK’s second WE Day.
“You have to be willing to share your skills and responsibilities with your community,” said Mr Sheen speaking exclusively to the TES. “That’s the best way to achieve and make change. The change begins within you.”
The WE Day concert – featuring singers, actors and sports stars – is hosted by the Free the Children charity as a reward for the voluntary work students have undertaken both locally and globally. The event will be live-streamed throughout the day by TES.
“Craig Kielburger [the co-founder of We Day] has inspired kids to inspire each other,” said Mr Sheen. “To celebrate their social justice work, he has this tremendous celebration where they gather in these huge arenas, celebrating each other. It’s so inspiring, it’s so nourishing for young people to know that everybody really feels the same way.”
Mr Sheen, who has made more than 100 movies and is known for such roles as President Josiah Barlet in The West Wing as well as his roles in Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s The Departed, has long been a social activist himself, having been arrested around 70 times.
Mr Sheen, 74, whose real name is Ramon Gerardo Estevez, grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in a family of ten children. His Spanish father worked in a factory, his Irish mother died when he was just ten. The children earned a useful summer income by golf caddying, which is where Mr Sheen remembers first standing up for the downtrodden.
“I was nine-years-old when I started caddying,” said Mr Sheen. “It was a very powerful period of my life. It made very clear to me there were two kinds of worlds. I lived in one and worked in the other.
“I was 14 when I started the caddy union. Mind, it was crushed. The whole thing ended and I was fired within 72 hours. But the experience itself – stepping out against the grain and standing up and leading a group – was very powerful and scary and I learned very young that anything worthwhile has got to cost you something, otherwise you’re left to question its value.”
He is a devoted Catholic and said that his faith has spurred his involvement in social justice issues, including opposing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and campaigning for the environment, pacifism and migrant workers.
He said: “You don’t go out of your way to inspire others, you just focus on an issue and if it’s worthwhile, it will attract others and then have an effect on others.
“It can’t be an ego thing. It has to be a service thing.”
The young people he is speaking to tomorrow have all made a start. But getting involved is just one challenge – how can you stay committed, especially when faced with continuing war, violence and injustice? Mr Sheen laughs and warns against trying to “change the world”.
“We mustn’t expect change, what we can expect is commitment and let the change take care of itself.
“All of the issues I’ve been involved with over the last 30 or 40 years, they’ve all gotten worse,” he explains. “Nothing has improved, absolutely nothing. On the contrary, it’s worse now than it ever was. The only thing I can tell you has changed from my involvement is me.
“We don’t start out to inspire each other, we start out to serve each other. It’s how we are made more human and happier, by including other people in our lives.
“If people are overwhelmed by looking at the world, by looking at any issue – whether it’s the environment, horrible human abuses or violence – and think, ‘how am I going to change that?’ Well, you’re bound to stay at home. The only thing you have to be responsible for is yourself.”
And he repeats a story he has heard from Free the Children. “Some students went to India and they’re working on a project when an old man comes out and said: ‘What are you doing?’. The students reply: ‘We’re building a school’. The man replies: ‘You are building a better world for our children. Why don’t you build better children for our world’? That’s the key.
“That’s what Craig is doing, he’s building better children for our world.”