TIME celebrities

Sean Penn Was Doing Journalism Long Before ‘El Chapo’ Interview

He's interviewed Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez

Before Sean Penn secretly landed an exclusive interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the Hollywood actor already had a handful of major interviews with world leaders under his belt.

The 55-year-old star had sat down with President Raúl Castro of Cuba during a seven-hour chat in Havana in 2008. The brother of former Cuban president Fidel Castro told Penn he would be open to meeting with Barack Obama should he win his presidential election, according to the article published by The Nation.

“I would have to think about it,” Raúl Castro told Penn over tea and wine. “I would discuss it with all my comrades in the leadership. Personally, I think it would not be fair that I be the first to visit, because it is always the Latin American presidents who go to the United States first. But it would also be unfair to expect the president of the United States to come to Cuba. We should meet in a neutral place.”

Penn described Raúl Castro as “warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit” for the story, which also included an interview with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. “I had three primary motivations for this trip,” Penn wrote. Those reasons included the desire to “deepen my understanding of Chávez and Venezuela and excite my writing hand, and to enlist Chávez’s support in encouraging the Castro brothers to meet with the three of us in Havana,” he said. Penn also wrote about the Venezuela’s leader’s thoughts on human rights in his country as well as the next U.S. administration.

In the 2008 piece, Penn mentions that he had previously met with Fidel Castro. A year later, the actor and liberal activist reportedly flew to Cuba to meet with him again for a Vanity Fair assignment. It’s unclear if that interview ever panned out, since no article was ever published.

Penn also covered Iran’s elections in 2005 in a five-day series of stories for the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2004, he also wrote a personal account for the Chronicle about how the occupation by U.S. forces in Iraq “could ignite a powder keg” there. “People from all sides of the debate acknowledge that the insurgency movement builds every day in manpower and organizational strength,” Penn wrote at the time.

The actor’s latest interview with “El Chapo” for Rolling Stone helped authorities find the escaped fugitive after a months-long international manhunt, according to the Associated Press. Penn told “El Chapo” he was writing the story for free. “When I do journalism, I take no payment,” Penn wrote. “I could see that, to him, the idea of doing any kind of work without payment is a fool’s game.”

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