At 47, Penn has a new look on life. But don't tell him he's mellowed
Saturday September 22, 2007
"The days of the vision quest are gone," says Sean Penn, sitting in his own little smoke lodge -- actually a Toronto hotel room stocked with bottled water and cigarettes. "There are no rites of passage," he insists, except the ones we pursue ourselves.
Penn, 47, went through his rites of passage two decades ago. He was a surfer dude and a bombastic young actor; a Madonna husband and a paparazzi combatant. He was constantly proving himself, often in ways he didn't have to.
He hasn't quieted down -- as the rest of our conversation will soon show. But he has settled in, living in Northern California with wife Robin Wright Penn and their two children. He knows who he is.
Still, something about those rites of manhood continues to interest him. It drew him, in fact, to his latest movie as a director, "Into the Wild," the true-story of Christopher McCandless, a bright young man who walked into the wilderness armed with little but an eagerness to test himself.
"I'm not advocating recklessness but I do think you have to find your own edge," Penn says, during a long chat in the middle of the Toronto film festival. "As a young man I went through those issues as a surfer. It wasn't just learning how to face fear, but how to identify a healthy fear from a crippling one."
He takes another drag on his cigarette, his close-set eyes squinting against the smoke.
"And -- without any politics involved in this comment -- I'd argue that a lot of young people who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dominant reason they went is to prove themselves, too," he says. "'What am I made of?' You know, the old ways of doing that aren't available anymore."
What hasn't disappeared -- and probably never will -- is Penn's unerring ability to draw headlines.
He flew to New Orleans after Katrina, and started pulling people out of the water. He's gone to Iraq and Iran and Venezuela, and talked to people the White House could only categorize as unfriendly.
Plenty of people have called him a traitor for that.
"They're the traitors," he says of the current administration. "They're anti-Constitutionalists. They're not what the Republican Party used to be about, they're not what the right-wing used to be about. It's a complete perversion."
Yet even among the people who agree with him, politically, Penn can raise hackles. Cocky confidence and radical politics, Hollywood is used to. But withering honesty -- Penn once publicly called old friend Nic Cage a sellout -- leaves them stunned. Doesn't he know how the game is played?
Penn knows, of course -- he grew up in this business. He just doesn't care.
I ask him a question about how his uncensored comments may have hurt him, professionally. He begins his answer by acknowledging that they may make it harder for audiences to accept him as a fictional character.
"There's a cost," he admits, "but it's a different cost than other people are willing to pay for doing TV commercials when they're already f------ rich. It's like some second-story man using his talents to smash some poor shopkeeper's window. Either sell shampoo or act in a movie."
It's a particularly vehement outburst and, as he says it, I realize it's coming the same month that George Clooney faced snarky questions at the Venice Film Festival, for doing a Nestle commercial in Europe. Clooney, visibly annoyed, said he wasn't going to apologize for "making a living."
So, I say to Penn, some of the actors who are doing this say they have villas to keep up .Â¤.Â¤.
"You have bills to pay?" he snaps with a tight smile. "Downsize. And by the way, I should say there are great exceptions. Brad Pitt does an ad, that money's going to somebody who needs it. But you're a fan, and you've just seen someone in a movie you love, and then you pick up a magazine and they're selling shoes? No. No, I'm sorry."
But it's not an apology for how he feels. And it's certainly not an apology for always saying what he believes, without ever backing down.
"There was an expression I learned from a Secret Service agent, when Sean and I were doing 'The Interpreter,'" says Catherine Keener, who costars in "Into the Wild." "It's 'I'd walk in any door with him.' And that's Sean. You know he's there for you, in any situation. I just laid eyes on him the first time and thought, 'I want to be his friend.'"
Perhaps the hot-blooded impulsiveness is just in the genes -- Penn, part Irish, jokes about his Celtic temper. Perhaps the sense of outrage comes from his father, Leo, an actor and director whose career was damaged by the blacklist. But Penn has been his own man since he was a boy.
He thought he'd become a director himself then, making Super 8 films with his friends. But Penn always had to do most of the acting, unless he could convince a sibling to help out. (His older brother, Michael, is a musician; his younger brother Chris, "Nice Guy Eddie" from "Reservoir Dogs," died last year of heart disease.)
Eventually Penn committed to acting -- and established a reputation as a deeply intense performer. Effortlessly adaptable, he could be the straight-arrow cadet in "Taps" or the outrageous doper in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Sometimes it seemed as if there wasn't a part he couldn't play -- and as if he knew it.
"The confidence I've always had as an actor was never that I was so good, " he says, "but that others were so bad."
But seconds after he's said it, he can't help but laugh at himself.
"I wish I could claim that line as my own, but I'm actually stealing from Bukowski on why he wrote," he says. "I have a lot of respect for the craft of acting.Â¤.Â¤. But it's not something that serves my own peace of mind. And there are a lot of social discomforts that come with it. What did Dylan say? The worst thing about fame is being reminded who you are."
Twice a decade or so, Penn declares he's giving up acting. And the movies he ends up directing during those breaks -- "The Indian Runner," "The Crossing Guard," "The Pledge" and now "Into the Wild" -- range from good to great. But judged against his own performances -- "At Close Range," "The Falcon and the Snowman," "Carlito's Way," "Dead Man Walking," "Mystic River" -- they pale. And as a selfish fan, it's hard not to wish he'd direct less, and act more.
"But I fell in love with movies as an audience, and when you fall in love that way, you don't fall in love with just the acting," he says. "I found my voice, initially, as an actor. But whatever part of me still has a hunger for acting I can fulfill by working with actors ... Making a film is like building a house. You don't have to do every job yourself."
What Penn was building for awhile in the '80s -- during the days of the Madonna marriage and the tabloid fights -- was a reputation as a hard partier. ("I've got a lot of fun friends," Woody Harrelson said once, "but it's hard to imagine having more fun than when Sean's having fun.") Penn's run-ins with journalists were legendary.
"Well, let's not associate those people with journalists," says the star who's filed his own stories for the San Francisco Chronicle. "These are guys who stand out in front of your home to take some picture that's not going to make any contribution to the world. And then they yell at you in hopes you'll react and they'll get a better picture. They used to do pretty well with me on that."
Penn married longtime girlfriend Robin Wright in 1996. And while he still looks like a dissolute college student -- his hair is perpetually uncombed, a cigarette always between his fingers and a bar probably never too far away -- he seems happier now. And while he still says exactly what he wants, and angers any number of important people, he continues to get great, good parts.
"I remember the year I was first called a traitor," he says. "That was also the same year that I was standing next to one of my cohorts, Tim Robbins, and we both had Academy Awards in our hands for 'Mystic River.' So I can't say (my outspokenness) has really hurt me."
I tell him that when I first heard that he and Robbins -- both pretty visible leftists -- had been cast in that movie I was surprised. They didn't strike me as the sort of actors that Clint Eastwood would even want to speak with, let alone direct in one of his films.
"Clint is, if nothing else, a great gentleman," Penn says. "But, you know, I can't make out what we disagree on, really, when you look at the issues. You'd call him a libertarian I suppose.Â¤.Â¤. But at the end of the day, it's not about being right or left, it's about honesty or dishonesty. And, man, what a s---- America we'd have if it was all just a bunch of lefties."
In the movie industry, of course, Penn remains in the front ranks of that bunch, with a picket in his hand and a chant on his lips. And, despite the grey in his hair, unlikely to mellow any time soon.
"I'm actually angrier and more radical than I was at 20," he says. "But we're up against more now... The thing to do is to figure out how to channel that anger in ways that are productive. I have to say I've tried, and I've rarely found any real change to come from it. But what's the choice? You know, like the (David & David) song goes -- "And though we all know deep down in our hearts/that someday this will all fall apart/for right now let's just be heroes." So, you know, that's my strategy. Blind optimism in the face of the inevitable."