Charlie Sheen the movie star is apprehensive.
It's only niggles of a passing unease, spasms of an abstract disquiet. That's all. Nothing he can't handle or tuck away, at least for however long it will take until he can come back here, to his private domain within his house; for all intents and purposes a separate, near-sacrosanct wing unto itself. There’s a comfort in the assurance of its seclusion. (“I’ve told everyone, they all know; no one’s to even knock unless they’ve got half the mortgage on them.”) Besides, he knows today’s a great day. Today his mates are here, and together they’re going to the biggest ice-hockey game of the year. His Los Angeles Kings may just snare their first Stanley Cup championship, on home ice, and they’ll be there to see it. So there’s nothing for the movie star to feel apprehensive about.
But it’s getting late, and the movie star is still getting dressed. Or, rather, he’s still getting ready. His gathered mates are festive, clustering in the ground-floor kitchen. A few snatch discreet peeks at their watches but say nothing. No one is leaving until Charlie is with them. At last he descends the great staircase, at his warm, genuinely delighted, and gregarious best. A few rise, slinging coats on their forearms, though they know Charlie will mingle before he’s set to head out. A drink or two, then, just as he moves as if to the door, I catch his eye and his eyebrows motion upstairs.
We break away and scamper up the carpeted steps, ostensibly to grab a suitably warm addition for my ill-prepared outfit, the same as I wore the day before and have evidently slept in. The movie star scoops up my jacket without breaking stride, and we slam to a halt in one of the domain’s smaller en suites. We both take ruthless belts from a liquor bottle, laughing at ourselves in the wall-length mirror. “Quick, one more,” he says, thrusting the bottle. I drink and tell him to breathe, promising to be a source of calm today should he need to fix on one.
The booze is still burning as we tumble downstairs and off to the limo.
Since first hitting Los Angeles some months back, I’ve been struggling with the arithmetic of celebrity in this town, chafing at the falsehoods. But I have issues of my own, namely PTSD, so I try to constantly calibrate for that. And our afternoon, our outing to L.A.’s famous Staples Center, is about to jackknife horribly.
There’s a contemporary parlor game of sorts being played in Hollywood. I dub it “The Charlie Sheen Game.” It harkens to something Ava Gardner, screen divinity, was quoted as saying in 1968. “Nobody cares what I wore or what I said. All they want to know anyway is, ‘Was she drunk and did she stand up straight?’” Like punting on red or black at a casino table, the Charlie game is as monochromatic: is he, or isn’t he? Sober. On drugs. Freebasing cocaine again. Sane. Employable. Take your pick. All clearly grotesque and distorted simplifications, ignoring hosts of unimagined complexities.
Charlie’s reservoirs of self-loathing are deep and black and still, welling in the subterranean caverns of his core, but then are tapped to fuel the internal-combustion engine that is his angst and his guilt. Yet it’s also the engine of his incandescent warmth, his unquestionable talent, and his boundless generosity. (Wickedly wealthy, a lot is only a little to Charlie. He gave me a $26,000 pen so blithely, with such inconsequence, that only angrily hurling it back made it a moment of any note for him at all. “C’mon, you know this stuff means absolutely nothing to me.”) However, this is also his compulsion. Brutally self-critical, there’s such an odd validation in it for Charlie it’s dangerous, almost toxic. It renders him an avid people-pleaser, at times frighteningly quick to forfeit preferences or desires of his own. So it was with the Staples Center and what led to his “explosion.”
On game day, Charlie started out with what I think were four pretty good seats. I know I heard “on the glass,” which seemed to please all involved. Then, it seemed by pairs, he suddenly had to accumulate more. Then more. “Nah, you’re going,” he’s saying to more than one of the people in the kitchen. In the end, he’s scribbling on a piece of paper, marking 10 slots representing the tickets, but he finds he has only nine names. He counts again, then double checks with Stacey, his bright, beautiful young personal assistant. With an unused architecture degree under her belt, Stacey doesn’t miss a beat. The heart of Charlie’s household, she’s organized, punctual, and diligent. “Yesterday I did some errands, then organized Charlie’s wardrobe,” she says of one slow day. That night I saw the wardrobe. It was huge, bedroom size. “Stacey did this, man,” Charlie says as we drink in the wardrobe, going through his stunning wristwatch collection, flabbergasted at the order around us. “She’s gorgeous, right? Told her I wanted to f--k her, and she said no. No, right,” he says. Later I ask Stacey about it. “Long time ago he said a few things, you know. But there is nooooo way.” Anyway, Charlie’s checking with her about the tickets. Yep. Ten. One spare. “Hey, you wanna go?” Charlie hollers at Justin, a mate of mine, who’d popped over to deliver me a cable and a USB drive I’d forgotten.
Leaving for the game, all the lads pile into someone’s 4WD-looking vehicle. I notice Justin seems to be getting on famously with one of Charlie’s best, most solid mates, Todd Zeile, former pro ballplayer. I like that. Todd means the world to Charlie, way beyond their fusion over Charlie’s encyclopedic baseball knowledge and undying passion for the game. Todd’s a staunch, stouthearted human being. That Charlie responds so well to him assures me there’s still a bit left of his real self trapped inside Charlie Sheen. Their friendship wouldn’t work otherwise. But I wonder, as I watch them pull out of the driveway, whether that could be said for some of Charlie’s other ticket-holders?
Charlie, meanwhile, is sitting on the carpeted limo floor, facing backward, resting against the front passenger seat, for the entire ride to the Staples Center. He wants his latest porn star in residence, a waifish, bright young brunette, “Jamie,” to be comfortable and have the seat. “I hate new music,” the movie star hollers above the thumping electric guitars blaring over his built-in entertainment system. It’s all Gunners, Zeppelin, Springsteen. Charlie’s got the songs down pat, word for word. The grace of his delivery reinterprets them on the run. It’s a bit of a gift, actually, the way he does it. The movie star wildly marks the beat with his hands, occasionally swinging his ankles up. Then he’s apprehensive again. Worse now. I’m watching, seeing if he’s going to be able to keep a lid on all this.
I say this because I’m sitting across from him, white-knuckled with stress of my own. Like Charlie, but for other reasons, I tense up before things. I dread crowds, big noise, events. After my last one, back in Australia, I was charged with assault—a charge kindly, recently withdrawn—so I don’t want it to be me to blow first. Actually, at all, preferably. But as with the movie star beside me, it’s a line call at this stage.
When we pull up, finally, at the Staples Center, dropped right at the center’s door, I already know this is not going to end well. Charlie’s already fraying. There’s some problem or other, just getting in. No question. Bad. At the first opportunity I volunteer, eager upon the verge of outright rude, to leave.
Then it begins.
A few days earlier, we set this kid on fire. For real. It was awesome; he flamed up brilliantly. A stuntman in a fire suit, gooey with fire repellant, naturally. Top kid. Solid. His name is Crispy, which makes everyone laugh whenever he introduces himself. We’re at Charlie’s photo shoot for Newsweek, and I’ve been slugging from a whisky bottle hidden in Charlie’s car. Meeting Crispy is the first meaningful thing all day.
Turns out, Tom “Crispy” Crisp, a lad from Sioux Falls, S.D., who worked in his old man’s concrete business, only moved to Hollywood two years ago, living the first five months in his only possession, a van. (“I told my father, see, I still wasn’t feelin’ it. The adrenaline was still rockin’ and rollin.’”) Crispy, it unfolds, is a Marine. “Did four for the Corps,” he says to me. Two deployments. Both Iraq. Anbar. The second, with First Recon. Hard-core. He doesn’t have to say it, he never mentions any of it, but you can tell, straight away. This kid’s been in the s--t. I like him instantly.
It’s Charlie who introduces us. The shoot over, I see Charlie go out of his way to duck over to Crispy. He’s shaking Crispy’s hand. Nodding, smiling. Suddenly Charlie waves his arm above his head, signals me over.
Days later, Crispy is recounting it all to me again, though we both know I was there when it happened. “Charlie’s all right,” he says. “I’ve worked with a few now, and I’m a pretty good judge of character. It was a blast.” We talk. Eventually, I ask, why Hollywood? “They’re going to be making our movies,” Crispy tells me. “This is why I came out. I wanted to make sure the story’s told right. We have to tell the story. We’re the ones who know Our Fallen. We have to tell it ’cause this will dictate what happens with the next generation.” After all, he adds like it’s a footnote, movies are why he joined up. A military family’s son—grandpa in World War II, then Dad—he knows precisely which film it was for him. “Navy SEALs. Charlie Sheen. From that moment on I knew I wanted to serve.”
By the time they’re throwing us out of the Staples Center, it’s already a rolling train wreck.
From the very first, just going in, Charlie’s crossing open ground between limo door and arena entrance. The “media” goad him, and the movie star simply can’t help himself. He jabs, then counterpunches, saucy one-liners. In the circumstances, they’re actually fair enough. However, the movie star thinking those barbs is one thing, saying them on record, quite frankly, is dumb. And tedious. No? It is a pattern after all. But as quick as this gantlet’s run the real obstacle jumps up and bites Charlie. For no apparent reason, he’s suddenly two tickets short. Well, that’s torn it, it’s all over now. The time it’s taking to resolve the mix-up isn’t the problem, it’s what Charlie’s just gone and done to the movie star. In my little autopsy of this affair, sometime later, sitting now writing, I can say Charlie did nothing wrong, it was a logistical hiccup that should never have happened. Two friends the others say are entertainment “reporters” Charlie hangs with may have bolted ahead to their seats, having missed the start of play, but with the two critical tickets unwittingly in a pocket, the two pieces of paper suddenly the triggers for the handgun Charlie’s become.
Long story short, Charlie’s spewing insults at this 20-something chick in a red staff jacket who can’t let him back into the stadium after his quick cigarette. Video cameras catch a muted snippet of it. In no time it’s plastered across that part of the Net. One site’s headlines: “Charlie EXPLODES [their emphasis] at the stadium.”
No sooner are we back at the car and it is clear Charlie’s tempest is loosed and gathering fury. He asks his brunette, clued in enough to know it’s rhetorical, “What could possibly give those people the right to think they could treat me like an asshole?” “Well,” I interject, “you could stop acting like one.” He fires me one of those cheeky smirks, of private, mutual acknowledgment, then resumes his stylish yet churlish rant for the brunette about the arena as though he hadn’t heard me.
I confess I love these moments.
Suffice to say, it’s the limo ride from hell back to the house—for all five of us in the vehicle. I’m stressing, unrelated to Charlie, pretty bad. Flushing with a touch of Baghdad stress, I want out of this car. Now. I don’t care where. I’ll walk. Thick with our cigarette smoke it’s hard to breathe back here, to relax. On the right, Charlie’s booming loud, and animated, seemingly unhappy with himself, with the upheaval. The brunette is, well, being the brunette. Driving is one of the movie star’s Personal Security Detail, or bodyguards. The driver’s been with Charlie for a while. He’s not fussing, but he is punching straight for home. His wife is our fifth person, and the pair of them are chatting casually enough, mostly with Charlie, as we drive.
The wheels stop at last in the movie star’s driveway. I’m out and gone in a blink. It takes Charlie and the brunette over an hour to get out of the car. Once inside the house, he mingles with whomever is there. Everyone has a drink or two. Charlie takes some calls. Burgers appear. At some point, Charlie takes his leave, and with that he’s upstairs. Everyone knows the evening’s over now, that he won’t be reemerging until sometime in the afternoon, when he normally makes his daily appearance. Some days he turns and heads right back up. Other days he’s the life of the party, for as long as the party wants to go.
I have gone to the backyard, to a reclining lounge chair, in the quietest, farthest reaches of the Sheeniverse. I stay here for a few hours, occasionally rocking back and forth, but mostly lying back and closing my eyes. Charlie’s long gone upstairs when I come inside.
Michael Ware, a native of Australia, covered the Iraq War for Time and CNN.