PLAYBOY: Is everything you got what you really wanted?
SHEEN: Sure. Fame is empowering. My mistake was that I thought I would instinctively know how to handle it. But suddenly when it's you, you realize there's no manual, no training course.As much experience as you might have had hanging out with the people who are "in," until it's you, you can't know. It's like trying to explain to somebody what it's like to have sex the first time. Or asking Hank Aaron what it feels like to hit a home run in front of 50,000 people. Eventually, any plan or illusion I had about how I would deal with fame evaporated rapidly, because I took it a little far, I think. Just a tad [smiles].
PLAYBOY: And how did that affect you professionally?
SHEEN: Fame is a fickle mistress. It's very deceiving. It looks really bitchin' from the outside, and then you get it and it's very confusing professionally, socially, emotionally. It's confusing because you're so worried about how you're perceived. A lot of my exploits were guilt-driven, shame-driven. I would hang out with the lower-class individual and try to give away as much as possible, because on some level I felt like I hadn't really earned all I had, and when was everyone going to find out? When would the curtain be yanked back? And all this because one day I was a working actor, just trying to pursue something I enjoyed and trying to make a living, and the next day I was a commodity.
PLAYBOY: Surely that can't have been a complete surprise.
SHEEN: No. But it was terrifying. Suddenly they're telling you, "OK, you've proved yourself to a point, and now, with this next picture, we're banking on you to validate our investment." You go to the set with a different view of your responsibilities, and sometimes it gets overwhelming.
PLAYBOY: And you handled it by—
SHEEN: Just drinking it away.
PLAYBOY: What kind of advice did you get from family and friends?
SHEEN: I got advice, but there's a big jealousy factor, so you don't know what advice to listen to. You don't know if people are trying to sabotage you or if they genuinely want you to consider your options. Is he telling me to do that because if I fuck up, he'll look better?
PLAYBOY: Which was it?
SHEEN: Abuse-fueled paranoia. As kids we're not taught how to deal with success; we're taught how to deal with failure. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. If at first you succeed, then what? We grow up with our fathers talking about walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, and of wearing the same socks for 10 years while delivering the newspaper for half a penny a month, eating chicken bones and cat hair. We're raised to believe that you've got to work hard for what you achieve. Then you work hard for a while and suddenly you're not working as hard and you're achieving more. You start to wonder. It's no longer so much about the work as it is about the box office and the reviews and the premieres and the premiere parties and the nonsense. It's confusing.
PLAYBOY: What confused you most?
SHEEN: [Pauses] In the end it was how I went from making multimillion-dollar deals on movies and fucking Playmates to being unemployable and fucking a, um, five-months-pregnant Mexican whore with cesarean scars, in a bar in Nogales. [Pauses] Forget it. I'm not going to tell you that story, but when you go from one end to the other, you have to pause and wonder what went down between those two points.
PLAYBOY: Any answers?
SHEEN: I still don't have all the answers. To tell you the truth, I'm more interested in what I can do next than what I did last. We've talked about a lot of psychological stuff, and, frankly, I'm not all that certain about any of it. Uncertainty is a sign of humility, and humility is just the ability or the willingness to learn.
PLAYBOY: You grew up with Sean and Chris Penn and Rob and Chad Lowe as friends. Were you neighbors?
SHEEN: The Lowes lived about six houses away and the Penns about three miles away. We all went to the same school and lived in the same neighborhood. I met Robert Downey Jr. in high school; we had biology together in the tenth grade. I met Chris Penn in the third grade. Sean is the best actor of our generation, hands down. And he's only getting better—and it pisses me off [laughs].
PLAYBOY: What's his secret?
SHEEN: He brings a reality to his work that's beyond what is required, and I think it takes the audience to another place. He tortures himself doing it, but God bless him, because that work exists forever. It's educational, watching his stuff. He teaches us about taking risks and about letting go of self, of celebrity, of ego and all that crap we hang on to in front of the camera. Sean just says, "That's not what I'm here for."
PLAYBOY: You all made amateur films together, as kids. Super-8s. Anything still stand out?
SHEEN: A film Sean directed, Rooftop Killer. It was about an assassin. We were short on actors, so I played the assassin. It was basically a reason to get to a very violent ending, and to use blood bags and blanks.
PLAYBOY: Did it seem weird growing up with a dad who made movies?
SHEEN: For a while I didn't think there was anything unique about it. But then I'd see how people reacted to him in public, and as I got older it seemed a little strange. His time was always strained or in demand. My mom has been the anchor of the whole group. She's really the brains behind the operation. A very smart, strong, sincere, compassionate lady as we traveled the world, living in hotel rooms and watching Dad make movies.
Whenever Dad would talk about a job, the first thing we would say is, "Where does it shoot? Where are we going?" I credit him with keeping his marriage and the family intact by always saying, "I've got to have plane tickets for the whole family." Yeah, he kept us out of school, but school comes and goes. Family is forever.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever want a normal childhood?
SHEEN: What is a normal childhood? We weren't rich, we were pretty middle-class. My dad survived from job to job; with him taking care of so many relatives, he couldn't save any money, really. Sometimes we'd move into a new house, for six or eight months, with no furniture, just sleeping bags. Even that didn't seem abnormal. My parents went through a vegetarian phase, a nudist phase—things that didn't seem strange until you got to school and everybody else's lunch boxes were filled with brand names, not health-food shit. There were always interesting people at the house: guru types hanging out, people of advanced intellect in some religion or form of yoga or political sphere. My parents always sought new teachers to better their intellect and awareness.
PLAYBOY: How much did your family talk about acting?
SHEEN: Actually, it's the last thing we talk about when we're together. But now we all have to own TiVos so we can watch my show and Dad's. My sister Renee is on West Wing, too. She's Miss Landingham's assistant. They don't give her enough to do, but she's really good. I get her an audition here and there, but I won't get her a job. I just don't believe in that.
PLAYBOY: Like your father, who didn't help out with you and Emilio, either.
SHEEN: Right. And we never asked. I knew early on that it wouldn't be real, that it wouldn't be earned, which is the one thing he's always stressed: earning things so you own them. I think what drove me insane for a long time is feeling like I hadn't earned most of what I achieved because it came so fast.