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 of 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 were 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]."

Sheen: "I have this burn on my nose. Are we taking photos?"
Kevin Scanlon
Sheen: "I have this burn on my nose. Are we taking photos?"
Roman Coppola and Charlie Sheen have been friends since meeting on the set of Apocalypse Now.
Kevin Scanlon
Roman Coppola and Charlie Sheen have been friends since meeting on the set of Apocalypse Now.

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 hard-core, soft-core — 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 #4 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 one could draw between Charlies Swan and Sheen. There's a scene in which Swan's car tips over 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 cabdriver to help him score drugs, the punch line of which I won't spoil here, which clearly nods to Sheen's notorious party-by-any-means-necessary proclivities.

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