Film: Rebel with a cause

Sean Penn no longer beats up journalists. That was just a phase he was going through. But he's still at war with the fraudulence of Hollywood.
Click to follow
For an actor who dislikes publicity, Sean Penn has a knack for getting in the papers. On the one hand, there's his long-standing threat of giving up acting, this time reissued at the moment when he has five new films about to open here. On the other there's the current row over the private jet he demanded to promote Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which so memorably saw him labelled a "perk pig".

That cap seems hardly to fit. Penn is reputed to have done the part for only $300,000 (well below what he could command) and possibly some profits. He pointed out to Fox that the price of the jet represented only "one hair on Mr Rupert Murdoch's formidable ass".

But to be fair, he can err on the side of painful. In the Eighties, when he was married to Madonna, he used to beat up journalists and, less forgivably, extras. When Penn's Malibu house burnt down in 1993 he set up home in a 27ft Airstream trailer with a few guns ("fun things"), and photos of Hemingway and Charles Bukowski. But the rebel lifestyle seems to be fading. After a long off/on relationship with the actress Robin Wright, they have a stable marriage with two children heading for its third year, and a base in San Francisco with Penn's production company.

He's now polite and restrained in interview; literate if convoluted. He has a surprisingly vivid physical presence, with a teddy boy quiff of hair and intense blue eyes above the bulky nose. And the small, bitter mouth beneath the moustache smiles more readily than it used to. Is it fair to say he seems happier?

"It's always been there, it's just a question of recognising it. There was a time when I didn't realise what was making me sad and nauseous." He quickly turns the talk away from himself. His fight was always with "the fraudulent nature of popular optimism", as exemplified in the Hollywood movie.

His kind of movies are quite different. One of the first we'll see is Loved, a delicate, harrowing piece starring his wife, and written and directed by her friend Erin Dignam. Penn has a cameo role as a lone loon who demands to be hugged by William Hurt's lawyer. The part was written in after the film was edited - "a scene meant to be understood at the end of the film, but that sets the boundaries of what its interests are". He also acted as unofficial fixer for the project, coming in at post-production stage when Dignam was in difficulty.

Loved is a film about love and abuse - "but much more about love". Robin Wright Penn plays the survivor of a relationship the outside world would call abusive, but which she sees differently. "There's abuse and mess in all of us and all our loves," Penn says. "Even if you have a storybook kind of love then the world will abuse you and it. We don't want to acknowledge that side of things because of recent gender politics - but you can't follow that theory all the way. Otherwise you're going to say that every Italian marriage for the last 200 years had no love in it because the guy yelled at his wife, or slapped her once. Ridiculous.

Such belligerence seems at odds with the film itself, which complicates, rather than rejects, "recent gender politics". But no matter. "The average movie," continues Penn excitedly, "presents a romance that lasts five days and implies that's the only kind that matters. You go outside from this film that has titillated your senses and you feel cold and lonely because it has no connection with your life and you." I tell him he sounds so angry. Does it do him any good?

"Fear, rage and guilt are things people can jump into very quickly," he admits. Then gets a little enigmatic. "If there's something in your life that's real hard to face head on - and too immediate not to face at all - sometimes you make the wrong choice and then get hooked on it. When Eric Clapton's kid went out of the window, I chucked all the bottles and started writing [the script for The Crossing Guard]. It was a real wake-up call. When it happened, I just felt you don't know how comfortable it is to have your child alive until your child is dead."

In Hurlyburly, an "emotional Armageddon" based on David Rabe's 1984 play, Penn gives a notable performance as a coked-out wannabe agent. According to The New York Times, the film proposes that "the war between men and women is only an offshoot of a larger and more deadly war: the one waged by men against themselves". (That could be Penn's obituary.)

Hurlyburly is yet another film Penn made with his wife. "She has a kind of weight no one else that beautiful has. And it happens we're roughly the same age, so we can play opposite each other easily." But like Loved and their other projects together - The Crossing Guard (Penn's second directorial effort) and She's So Lovely - it was conspicuously not made with box office in mind. Does Penn think it's important that American cinema should include the kind of film Hollywood won't finance readily?

"I don't approach it in that way. I'm not political within the film industry. I do the things that make sense to me and most films I see make no sense to me at all." Ask him to name one that does and he says Warren Beatty's Bulworth. Beatty says Penn doesn't really want to give up acting, he'd just "like to give up the thought of making the brand of picture that opens big on a Friday night". It's true that Penn first made that threat in 1991 and then went on to do Carlito's Way and Dead Man Walking, so you can't take it too seriously.

But Penn once said to me that the difference between directing and acting was "the difference between being a carpenter banging nails into a piece of wood, and being the piece of wood the nails are banged into".

"Where some actors have a craft, I have a set of works. An eyedropper with a needle on it, a spoon, and a rubber hose to tie off your arm. The first time you do heroin it's heaven but eventually you bottom out, and that's what happened to me." Didn't it satisfy him in any way? "Financially."

You can't believe that's the whole truth, and today he'll admit it. "I slipped into a bloodbath - but there's not too many movies that in hindsight I'm not glad I did." He frowns. "But I'd rather be writing and directing. I am that cliche." After Up at the Villa (an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story), and Woody Allen's new film (they got on badly), he's about to direct another of his own projects: a road trip reputedly starring Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Meanwhile, as an actor he has had the part of a lifetime in The Thin Red Line.

Penn wouldn't - and this has been held up an example of his cussedness - discuss the film before he'd seen it, but he is extraordinary as Sergeant Welsh, the cynical backbone to a group of army grunts bonding during the Battle of Guadalcanal. His face alone is surely Oscar-worthy: all the weight of the world on his hooded eyes. It's not just Malick's visual lyricism. At 38, Penn finally is growing into his cranky looks. Perhaps growing into a lot of other things, too.

`The Thin Red Line' and `Loved' both open on February 26