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Martin Sheen's 'West Wing' Fantasy

Actor Martin Sheen.
Jim Wildman, NPR News /
Actor Martin Sheen.

Martin Sheen is not the president of the United States, even though he plays one on television. In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards on the Washington set of The West Wing, the actor discusses how his role can serve the nation in trying times.

"We call ourselves a parallel universe to the real world," says Sheen, who plays President Bartlet on the hit NBC drama series. "We know we're a fantasy. But at the same time, there are sometimes periods of history where a fantasy is not a bad idea to focus on every now and then."

Sheen was in the nation's capital to film Bartlet's second inauguration for an upcoming episode.

Sheen says that when the show began three years ago, he wanted to have the president appear at ceremonies, interacting with the public. But "what our show wanted to do was to show him in private, how he was with his staff, his family. How he organized a particular issue and how he galvanized his forces and his energies to push a bill...

"And now I've come to really, really appreciate that, all the nuances, the deeply personal things, how his moral frame of reference affects his policies and his own personal life."

Though he has been an activist for left-leaning causes -- he's been arrested numerous times for participating in protests -- Sheen insists he has no real-life political ambitions. "I'm not at all interested in politics, personally," he says. "I'm interested in issues and I'm interested in humanity."

Sheen says that at first he found it difficult to order military action in the role of president: "Me personally, it's real hard for me to order someone to get bombed or destroyed, but I'm not the president. Bartlet is the president and a real president has to consider doing these things. I promise you, the republic would be in real trouble if I were in the White House," he says. "I could not bring myself to make some of those decisions. It would be a total reversal for me."

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