Emilio Estevez: A Man at Work, Hold the Selfies

Alec Baldwin and Emilio Estevez in conversation
Emilio Estevez and Alec Baldwin traded shop talk, anecdotes, and reflections on “The Public,” Mr. Estevez’s new film, during their conversation at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Saturday. Mark Segal

An early exchange between Alec Baldwin and Emilio Estevez set the tone for their hourlong conversation at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival on Saturday. Mr. Baldwin asked Mr. Estevez if growing up in a family with a father, Martin Sheen, who was a famous actor made his own career choice inevitable.

“So much of it was having access,” Mr. Estevez said, noting that he was backstage at the Public Theater in New York when he was 5 or 6 years old and “not really understanding what it was my father did, but it seemed fascinating enough to say I want to do that. But my parents stressed that I should further my education and get a degree in something and have a solid foundation.”

“Did you?”

“I didn’t. But they still think I’m in medical school.”

The day before their conversation, the festival screened to a packed house Mr. Estevez’s film “The Public,” which he wrote, directed, and stars in. Mr. Baldwin, who plays a police hostage negotiator in the film, and Mr. Estevez made for an engaging and often hilarious tag team, alternating movie shop talk with amusing anecdotes and personal revelations.

Mr. Estevez began to make home movies with a Super 8-millimeter camera his parents gave him when he was 10. He became involved with the theater department at Santa Monica High School and wrote and performed his own play there. 

“After the show, my father said, ‘My God, you’ve got the bug.’ He understood there was something going on inside me that I could not not do.” Mr. Estevez began to audition at the age of 16, and his early films included Tim Hunter’s “Tex,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” and Alex Cox’s “Repo Man.”

“People ask why you did this and not that,” Mr. Estevez said. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice, sometimes the movie picks you. When I auditioned for ‘The Breakfast Club,’ I also auditioned for a ‘CHiPs’ episode and a Taco Bell commercial. They just happened to say yes at ‘The Breakfast Club.’ Often it’s luck, and it’s timing.”

He said that Mr. Coppola was known for long, protracted casting sessions. For “The Outsiders” he had Dennis Quaid, Tom Cruise, and virtually every other young rising actor audition. “You would be up for a particular role in the film, and then you’d see Patrick Swayze audition for the same part, or Rob Lowe, and you thought they did it better. It created a real sense of competition, and it was exhausting.”

Mr. Baldwin commented that Mr. Estevez didn’t “seem like you’re all in on the movie star thing.”

“I never got into this business to be famous. I got into it to be a working actor, like my father. He sort of set the tone. When I started, he said, ‘Nobody’s going to remember your name. Just do the work, do the work.’ He kept stressing that and said if you’re lucky you’ll keep working until you’re old. So I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve never been comfortable with the autographs and the selfies and all the stuff that comes with it.”

The two actors admitted they had made both good and bad decisions during their careers. Mr. Baldwin recalled being offered the biggest payday of his career for an action film. When he told his agent he hated the script, the agent said he should come to his office and read it again. “He said they had a special light they shine on the script and it projects onto the page the amount of money you’re going to make by doing the movie.”

Mr. Estevez discussed his first experience as a director, a film he didn’t name. “It had a very bad script,” he said, admitting he was the writer. After writing and directing “Men at Work,” a comic action film about two garbage men who discover a toxic waste dumping conspiracy, his mother, whom he called the practical one in the family, gave him some career-changing advice.

“She said you’re making films about things you know nothing about. Make films about what you know. What do you know? You know family, you know about people. So my focus changed. I believe that now I make folk movies.”

His next film was “The War at Home,” which was adapted by James Duff from his own play. “I did this deal with the devil. I agreed to do the third ‘Mighty Ducks’ film in exchange for the funding to do ‘The War at Home.’ I played a character suffering from P.T.S.D.” Kathy Bates played his mother, and his father played his father in the film.

“After that, I decided that I would continue to make movies that mattered. I decided to stop starring in films I didn’t want to make. I changed the direction of my career, much to the dismay of managers and agents who were making a lot of money off some of the poor decisions I had been making.”

“The Public” takes place almost entirely in the Cincinnati Public Library, where Mr. Estevez’s character, Stuart, is a librarian. The city’s homeless take refuge in the library every day until the building closes. One day during a vicious cold snap they refuse to leave and launch a nonviolent sit-in, with Stuart’s support. The action escalates into a standoff with the police, with Mr. Baldwin’s attempts to negotiate a peaceful conclusion hampered by an ambitious prosecutor (Christian Slater). 

“I’ve seen this film three times,” said Mr. Baldwin. “Nearly everything that is plaguing this country right now is touched upon in this film — community, poverty, hopelessness, identity, opioid addiction, education.”

Mr. Estevez said the story was initially inspired by a piece in The Los Angeles Times by a former librarian who was retiring. “The thesis of the essay was that libraries have become homeless shelters and librarians have become de facto social workers. I was so moved by the piece that I did more research and wrote the script.”

Mr. Estevez characterized the film as a celebration of nonviolent disobedience, for which his father has been arrested 68 times. “In the ’80s and ’90s he would regularly end up on the news being carted off in cuffs. I understood what he was doing. We have to stand up.” 

The audience erupted in applause when Mr. Estevez quoted Jean-Paul Sartre: “ ‘I don’t fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.’ That was at the core of who my father is, and that has informed the kind of films I’m interested in making.”

Near the end of the conversation, Mr. Estevez explained that “The Public” was two years in the making, a period of time when he was thinking about nothing else but the film. “You even dream about it,” he said, adding that Mr. Baldwin had popped up in a recent dream of his.

“Was I winning an Oscar?”

“You were framing me for some murder you committed.”

“Who was I supposed to kill, and was it anywhere near the Supreme Court?”

Mr. Estevez concluded the conversation on a more serious note. “Tony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library system, was quoted just yesterday in an article saying that libraries are quietly the place where democracy can be saved.”