Sean Penn: Rebel with a cause

Taciturn, difficult and short-tempered - all words that have been used to describe Sean Penn. But Sheila Johnston finds a thoughtful, erudite man who says he is more patriotic than his President
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The Independent Culture

When Sean Penn is worried or angry - and his films regularly call upon him to exhibit both these qualities - his bright blue eyes, with their surprisingly long lashes, contract into pinpicks, his brow crinkles even more than usual and the sharp planes of his face clench into a fist. Few actors are his peer when it comes to agonised introspection or to sudden, scary flares of physical violence - and nobody can match him in combining the two. Madonna, to whom Penn was briefly married in the Eighties, keenly described him as a "cowboy-poet", and his work combines an intelligence and fine sensibility with the hard-living image of an good old-school American wild boy. Off-screen, too, he can be pugnacious. It has been a while since his jail sentence - 32 days, back in 1987, for hitting an extra who had tried to take his picture on the set of Colors - but he continues to impress as a guy one wouldn't care too much to mess with.

Lately he has thrown down the gauntlet in other ways, through his writing (no one seems yet to have coined the headline that the Penn is mightier, but it must only be a matter of time). The actor has been an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, taking out full-page advertisements to promulgate his views in the Washington Post and The New York Times. And he has made two field trips to Baghdad, in what seems to have been tough conditions and at some personal risk, in December 2002 and again last November shortly before the capture of Saddam Hussein. Penn's rambling but engrossing 10,000 word report on the second visit appeared in two installments in the San Francisco Chronicle last month.

During some of his less fine hours - opposite Madonna in the terrible Shanghai Surprise (1986), or mugging with Robert De Niro as convicts disguised as priests in We're No Angels (1989) - few predicted that Penn would stay the distance. He has generally played characters who are the very opposite of likeable; complicated men caught between their demons and a basic humanity. Consequently most of his films - with exceptions, such as Dead Man Walking (1995) - have been succès d'estime which failed to make money. He trumpets his disdain for Hollywood, moving to San Francisco with the actress Robin Penn Wright, whom he met while filming State of Grace (1990) and married after a stormy six-year relationship (they have two children, Dylan Frances, 11, and Hopper Jack, 9). And he has repeatedly announced his intention to retire.

But here he is, still one of the busiest actors around, his star still rising. Last month Penn won a Golden Globe and secured an Oscar nomination - his fourth - for his role in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. As an ex-crook whose daughter is murdered, very possibly by his boyhood friend, the actor was deemed by The New York Times to have given "not only one of the best performances of the year, but also one of the definitive pieces of screen acting in the last half-century". When he recently received a Lifetime Achievement award in San Sebastian, making him, at 43, the festival's youngest-ever honoree, no one thought it anything else than fair recognition of a substantial and impressive career. And besides, Penn joked: "In terms of my age, I would put my internal organs on a plate next to those of anybody who has received this award. You tell me who's older."

He's wiry, not tall (5ft 10in), and looks well-weathered for his years despite the shaggy shock of still-brown hair. A thin moustache straggles across his upper lip. He's casually dressed, borderline scruffy, in a brown leather jacket, open-necked shirt and jeans. In person he seems unexpectedly nervous - vulnerable, almost - and speaks hesitantly in oddly formulated phrases, although his film scripts and journalism reveal him as a thoughtful, prolific writer.

Penn has worked almost exclusively with US directors such as Brian De Palma (Casualties of War and Carlito's Way), David Fincher (The Game) or Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown). "To an embarrassing degree I'm not much of a cinephile," he admits. "I grew up as an audience for American films in the Seventies, when there were a lot of interesting things going on and I was influenced by them. I didn't have much interest in international cinema, but since then I've caught up a little bit." While The Pledge (2001), Penn's third film as a director, is based on a novel by the Swiss writer Friedrich Duerrenmatt, he says he still hasn't read the original.

But he has been widening his horizons. He pops up briefly next week in the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's eccentric sci-fi fantasy, It's All About Love, though, to watch him with all guns blazing, you need to catch 21 Grams, by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu, which opens on 5 March. His next film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, is executive produced by Alfonso Cuarén, the director of Y Tu Mamá También. "You'd have to be asleep at the wheel not to be paying attention to what's been happening south of my borders lately with all these great film-makers," he says. "My attitude is, 'Who'd have thunk it?' but here they are and I'm just in sort of in the lucky box right now, catching that wave of them."

Even so, he confesses to not having seen Inárritu's red-hot first movie, Amores Perros, when he met him through Julian Schnabel and Javier Barden, with whom Penn had worked on Before Night Falls. "They introduced me to Alejandro at a party and, after a short conversation with him, the next day I saw the movie. My reaction was to call him up and offer my services whenever he desired them."

In this aching portrait of three sad people facing death while longing to find some kind of meaning in their lives, Penn plays a terminally ill maths professor who receives a heart transplant from a man killed in a car accident. Perversely, he seeks out the donor's traumatised widow and initiates an affair with her. The film is told in Inárritu's edgy trademark manner, restlessly shuffling storylines and time-frames, an approach that must sorely test its cast. "We had two scripts: a straight, linear version, which was how we approached it as actors, and the version that you see," Penn says. "What drew me [to the script] was that it expresses something strangely closer to the way that we experience our day-to-day lives, our dreams and memories than a literal chronology seems to. These are the things that are worth exploring in a body of work."

Penn was a no-show last month at the Golden Globes and has never turned up for the Academy Awards. "For about six months you are analysed as to your feelings about it and, most importantly, what you're going to wear," he shrugs. "Then you're invited to be an extra in a bad television show, photographed clapping films that maybe you don't think a lot of. The Oscars recognise some wonderful things and a lot of cringeworthy things happen also. I find myself bewildered often. Ultimately it boils down to a socially uncomfortable thing to participate in."

None the less, he has now announced that he will attend the ceremony at the end of this month, out of solidarity with Eastwood, whom he has described as "the least disappointing icon in American cinema". Penn and Lost in Translation's Bill Murray are now the front runners for Best Actor. And, since Murray gives equally short shrift to Hollywood guff, it is delicious to speculate as to which man would make the more entertainingly abrasive Oscar acceptance speech.

Penn might well use the occasion for a little pointed political comment in the manner of Michael Moore last year. Although his father, Leo, a television and movie director, was blacklisted during the Fifties, he has never previously been a high-profile Hollywood radical or even especially noted for his left-wing views: "I'm not a Democrat, not a Republican, not a Green, not aligned with any party," he stated in his New York Times ad. But now his activities have made him both a poster boy of the anti-Bush movement, and a prime target for anti-pinko diatribes. Penn is one of the entertainers in the front line of attack in America's recent fusillade of bestselling books with titles such as Shut Up And Sing, The Terrible Truth About Liberals, Tales From The Left Coast and Off With Their Heads.

"I'm quite certain I'm much more authentically a patriot to the United States than my current President," he declares now. "We are not only actors and film-makers, but also human beings who are provoked at certain times. Sometimes we happen to have a camera in our hand and a script ready and other times there's a need for a more immediate sort of response. I don't think that you can be a credible artist without making your voice heard when so many people are dying day after day after day after day while we sit there in comfort in the United States. People have an obligation to speak and I'm one of them."

Politics will also figure prominently in his next two films. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is based on the true story of a failed furniture salesman (played by Penn) who tried to kill Nixon in 1974 by hijacking an aeroplane and crashing it into the Oval Office. "Yes, once again, I'm in the feel-good picture of the year," the actor cracked ironically in an interview with USA Today. And he's just about to start shooting The Interpreter, a thriller co-starring Nicole Kidman about an assassination plot at the United Nations. "I wouldn't comfortably call myself a rebel," he says. "But there is a certain necessary level of dissatisfaction that's, as it turns out, important, because to be complacent is creatively criminal. It's a constant struggle to find your own voice and to be loyal to it. There's only a price to be paid for not doing that, as far as I can tell."