Sean Penn: Rebel with a cause

He's the Hollywood star turned activist who's riled people throughout his career. And now the British are in his sights

What was Sean Penn doing in Argentina anyway?

Why are a movie actor and his moustache touring South America like visiting statesmen, and being welcomed with a press conference by each of the continent's presidents? Actually, as it happens, Penn is there as a visiting statesman: in January, he was appointed Haitian ambassador-at-large, the first time a non-Haitian has ever been awarded such a title.

Not that this necessarily qualifies him to comment on the status of disputed archipelagos in the South Atlantic. Indeed, you might argue that to wade into the debate over the Falkland Islands – or "the Malvinas of Argentina", as Penn appears to prefer – is a distraction from his task. Nevertheless, after meeting Argentinian leader Cristina Kirchner this week, the actor informed a crush of journalists that "the world today is not going to tolerate any kind of ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology".

Later, in Uruguay, he disparaged the RAF's plans to post Prince William to the islands as "unthinkable". The reactions of right-leaning British MPs and media outlets were predictable. Tory Patrick Mercer, a former army officer, called Penn's comments "moronic". The Daily Mail complained that "the achingly trendy ex-Mr Madonna" was "shooting his mouth off". Falklands War veteran Simon Weston called him an "idiot". Even mild-mannered Countryfile presenter Ben Fogle suggested he should be fed to crocodiles.

More remarkably, Penn's contribution inspired a brief surge of seething patriotism in even those UK citizens who wouldn't normally give a second thought to the far-flung colony. (Or should that be "self-governing British Overseas Territory"?) That is the unifying power of the tedious Hollywood liberal – and Penn is perhaps the most committed of all to the ludicrous and archaic ideology of celebrity interventionism. He has previously, for example, inserted himself into arguments surrounding Iran, Iraq and Venezuela – though, to his credit, he did visit those places before broadcasting his views.

Politics entered the life of Penn's father Leo uninvited. An actor like his son, and a decorated Second World War airman, Leo was among those blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s for refusing to testify against his peers. Thanks to his progressive sympathies, he found himself unemployable in film, and turned to the New York theatre for work, where he met Penn's mother, Eileen, also an actor. After Michael, the first of their three sons, was born in 1958, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Leo became a television director.

Sean was born in August 1960, and claims his kindergarten teacher christened him "Gary Cooper" for his silence and surliness. He was a volatile teenager, arguing persistently with Eileen, from whom he is said to have inherited his hard edges. In 1974, he made his first screen appearance in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, directed by his father. He grew up in the company of actors, including his younger brother, Chris, and friends Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Like them, he first emerged as part of the so-called "Brat Pack", appearing with Tom Cruise in Taps (1981), and as the dope-smoking surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

Even during this first stage of his career, Penn was known as a formidable on-set presence. He had spent two years training intensively with method acting coach Peggy Feury and, to prepare for his role, lived out of a car at the beach during the filming of Fast Times. It helped that he had grown up surfing, and that the Vans trainers made famous by Jeff Spicoli came from his own shoe collection.

Penn soon became a tabloid favourite, too, and after a brief engagement to the actress Elizabeth McGovern (now best known as Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), he wed the young pop star Madonna in 1985. Enraged by press helicopters hovering low over the ceremony in Malibu, he found a gun and started firing at them. The marriage proceeded in similarly tempestuous fashion: while the couple were shooting their 1986 turkey Shanghai Surprise together in Macau, Penn came across a photographer snooping in their hotel room, dangled the man from a ninth floor balcony by his ankles, and was arrested for attempted murder. He escaped from jail and fled the country on a jetfoil. In 1987, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail for assaulting one of his wife's more ardent fans. The couple divorced in 1989, when Penn was charged with domestic assault, after tying Madonna to a chair and beating her.

His second marriage appears to have been troubled, too, if less spectacularly so. Penn and the actress Robin Wright had a daughter in 1991, and a son in 1993, marrying in 1996. But they endured a number of separations and abortive divorce filings before separating permanently in 2010.

Unhappy with acting, at the start of the 1990s Penn had stepped back from the screen and moved behind the camera. His directorial debut, The Indian Runner, appeared in 1991. His subsequent films, The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001), shared its melancholy vision. The Indian Runner, based on a track from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska LP, concerned two warring brothers and, according to Penn's childhood friend Matt Palmieri, reflected the warring halves of its creator's character. "One part of [Sean] is the responsible, clear-headed, thoughtful older brother, the guy who kind of takes charge in a crisis," Palmieri told The New Yorker. "On the other hand, he's angry, wild, rambunctious – definitely highly aggressive."

When he returned to acting in earnest, it was to great acclaim. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1995, for his turn as doomed Death Row inmate Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, and finally won his first Academy Award in 2004 for the crime drama Mystic River. Critic John Lahr described the two performances as being "among the high-water marks of contemporary acting". Penn won again, for Milk, in 2008. By then, he was also well known for his politics. In the run-up to the Iraq war, he spent $56,000 publishing an ad in The Washington Post, criticising George W Bush. He visited Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion. In 2005, he travelled to Tehran to write 12,000 words for the San Francisco Chronicle. He visited Venezuela to meet Hugo Chavez in 2007, and to Cuba for an audience with Raul Castro in 2008.

The actor's humanitarian activities may have started with mere curiosity – in 1992 he drove into LA's Rodney King riots to take a closer look, and had a shopping trolley thrown through his windscreen – but they became hands-on. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he flew to New Orleans, found a boat and started fishing victims from the floods personally. When Haiti was hit by a monstrous earthquake in 2010, he swooped into the country with $1m in funding and no NGO experience, and founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organisation. A year later, he was still there, running the Pétionville tent camp, population 55,000, on the golf course of a former country club.

Penn's personal immersion in Haiti ameliorated the impression that many Americans had built up over the preceding decade, of – as The New York Times put it – a "tiresome pinko bloviator". His politics put aside, he won many admirers among those disillusioned with the NGO community. Brad Horwitz, Haiti's largest US investor and a J/P HRO supporter, told the newspaper: "Sean's politics and mine are completely opposed. His go left, mine go right. But politics are kind of irrelevant in this... and J/P HRO have shown real staying power."

British detractors beware: Penn does not respond well to sneers. Last year, for instance, he told CBS News that he hoped his critics would "die screaming of rectal cancer". When the makers of South Park mocked Penn and his fellow Hollywood liberals in their film Team America, he wrote an open letter inviting them to join him on a road trip to Fallujah and Baghdad, signing off "All best, and a sincere fuck you". He is perfectly comfortable making enemies. "I love humankind; I don't like humans," he has said. "I don't get along with people very well. I never did."

A life in brief

Born: Sean Justin Penn, 17 August 1960, Los Angeles County, California.

Family: Second of three sons of actor and director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. Married to Madonna 1985-89, then to actress Robin Wright in 1996, with whom he has two children. They divorced in 2010.

Career: Made his film debut in 1981 in Taps. Appeared in more than 40 films including Dead Man Walking, I Am Sam, The Thin Red Line, Sweet and Lowdown and 21 Grams. Nominated for five Oscars and won best actor twice, for Mystic River and Milk. He was vocal in his opposition to George W Bush and the Iraq war, and was heavily involved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake.

He says: "I'm a person that feels pretty alienated from the rest of the world and never felt understood by anyone."

They say: "What on earth has this got to do with Sean Penn? He's neither British nor Argentine and seems to know nothing about the situation." Patrick Mercer MP

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game