The Penn Method

11 minute read
Richard Corliss

If every face tells a story, Sean Penn’s could be the great American novel. It’s long and tough, complexly weathered, as if battered by hurricanes, twisters, unseasonable dry spells. The high hair, dudish sideburns and smoldering glower give him the aspect of a mug on a WANTED poster–a lifer more than a lover. The curved scar slicing through his right eyebrow is the signature to a portrait already rich in character. Other actors sell the moviegoer their affability; Penn’s face is a confrontation with the dangerous unknown. It dares you to go on the bumpy ride that is so often a Sean Penn film: a journey that doesn’t soar above your most brutal fears but burrows deep inside them. His gift is to demonstrate that a man could learn to live there.

That gift has won him (in these pages two years ago) the title of America’s Best Actor–though, he jokes, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in danger of being America’s Best Movie Star.” Or America’s best-behaved one. That scar, for instance: it’s the memento of a bar fight with a superbuff gym fetishist–a “mirror athlete,” Penn calls him. In 1987 the actor did a month in jail for bopping an extra. His four-year marriage to Madonna made for all manner of naughty headlines. He has lost a few industry friends by making rude remarks about their career moves. In his 20s, Penn says, “I spent some time investigating the adventures of alcohol, like a lot of young American boys, and sitting around with a stupid smile on my face or being glum. One or the other.”

At 43, he can still raise hackles, but now the fights are political: Penn visiting Iraq before the war (and then saying the Iraqis used him as a propaganda tool); Penn accusing a producer of freezing him out of a movie project because of his antiwar comments; Penn critiquing the U.S. invasion as if it were a screenplay. “There are incredible holes in the plot,” he tells TIME. “The casting’s terrible. This guy who is playing Donald Rumsfeld should be doing dinner theater. It’s a really poorly thought-out movie, and it’s killing people.”

Most times, though, there’s a smile on that craggy face. These days the hard-to-please Penn is invigorated by his life both at home–with his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, and their children, daughter Dylan, 12, and son Hopper Jack, 10–and on the set. “I’m pretty engaged with everything in my life right now,” he says. “I haven’t always been like this,” he adds, unnecessarily. Fate has been treating Penn well recently, and he’s returning the favor.

The two new movies he stars in–Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams–are, respectively, the opening-and closing-night events at the current New York Film Festival. “I’ve been lucky lately,” he says. “Whatever anybody thinks of the films, these are strong directors. You know what your purpose is.”

Mystic River–written by Brian Helgeland, from the Dennis Lehane best seller–begins on a Boston street in the late ’70s. Three boys are fooling around when a man who seems to be a police detective orders one of the boys, Dave, into a car. For days, Dave is held captive and sexually abused. A quarter-century later, all three of the old pals bear scars. Dave (Tim Robbins) is not so much the walking wounded as the walking dead, a zombie with a caring sadness. Sean (Kevin Bacon), now a cop, watched his wife walk out on him six months ago, but he’s still faithfully married to his misery. Jimmy (Penn), who did time for a robbery in his youth, lavishes his burly, custodial affection on his daughter. And when the girl is murdered, it is Jimmy’s turn to feel reamed by fate. Sean is the investigator, Dave a looming suspect.

21 Grams, which won Penn the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, traces a circle of pain similar to the one in Mystic River. Paul (Penn) is a math professor whose life is saved by a heart transplant. He learns that the heart came from a man killed with his two daughters in a hit-and-run accident. He joins the man’s widow (Naomi Watts) in seeking out the driver (Benicio Del Toro) and considering whether the inadvertent killer should live or die.

Mystic River’s story is told in Eastwood’s straight-shootin’ fashion, while 21 Grams, written by Guillermo Arriaga, jumps like an antsy first-grader from one plot strand to the next. Neither film, despite what you might have heard, is within shouting distance of a masterpiece. Gonzalez Inarritu’s English-language debut lacks the zigzagging drive of his Mexican hit Amores Perros and taxes credulity with its pileup of fatal coincidences. Mystic River has a case of wandering accents (sometimes South Boston, sometimes West Hollywood) and plods toward its conclusion more like a tired cop than a cunning detective. Its sharpest characters are the soft, doomed Dave, in a beautifully modulated turn by Robbins, and Jimmy’s wife Annabeth, played by Laura Linney as Lady Bountiful on the outside, Lady Macbeth within.

As counterbalance to today’s facetious, preadolescent movie environment, however, these two dark, ambitious dramas have much to recommend them–and a lot in common. Both are ensemble pieces that intercut the activities and attitudes of three despairing people. Both pictures are, in a way, deeply Catholic statements about grieving–bearing the burden of death in the midst of life–and the ways to face and overcome it. (“Jesus didn’t come to save us from pain,” someone says in 21 Grams. “He came to help us bear the pain.”) In both movies, a violent family loss forces Penn’s character to decide which route to take–revenge or redemption. This subject plays to Penn’s strength–dramatizing, incarnating and eloquently commenting on a soul in rage.

“Revenge is a real easy one to get people interested in,” he says. “It’s easy to be the figurehead of the false courage by encouraging and leading revenge. But I sensed that these two directors were not interested in just dazzling with the ugliest parts of humanity and the quick fix.” Penn loved the camaraderie of the Boston location where Mystic River was shot. He also liked Eastwood’s relaxed control on the set, the director’s ability to get first-take perfection from some very serioso thespians, including co-stars Linney, Laurence Fishburne and Marcia Gay Harden.

“We worked together, rehearsed together, throughout the shoot,” Penn says of the ensemble. “We were building something. Sometimes you feel like you show up with a hammer and somebody else is there with their computer, and they want to put up just a program of the building–they don’t want to hammer a nail. In this case, you felt productive. And that’s the link between acting and everything else. You can feel productive when you’re really committed to your work rather than just surviving.”

The inspirational foreman here was Eastwood. “Clint’s vibe is very productive,” Penn says. “He’s not the director as disapproving father. Clint is the approving rascal, older-brother father. You are not inclined toward useless rebellion with him, unless you just want to see him laugh at you.”

Eastwood returns the compliments. “My saying for Sean is, ‘He’s rated high, and he’s better than he’s rated.’ He’s got a work ethic I like. He’s very, very ready to go.” Sounding like a drill sergeant with a soft streak, Eastwood praises the entire cast. “They’d come to the set on time and prepared. I try to catch a scene where it feels like the words are said for the very first time. Some actors get it right away, and some don’t. These actors got it right away.”

Maybe because four of them (Penn, Robbins, Bacon and Fishburne) have directed films. Penn, in fact, has long thought of himself as a writer-director–he has made three impressive features (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge) as well as a poignant short film on 9/11–who finances his projects with acting gigs. “I was doing Super-8 movies in high school, and I loved that,” he says. “But the idea that somebody was going to put 5 or 10 million dollars in a kid’s pocket to direct a movie was ridiculous. ‘Where are the adults?’ So acting was how to get into this thing that I loved. And once I got involved as an actor I got very taken with it.”

After a decade as a working actor, he got to make The Indian Runner. Even now, he says, “I pretty much have some version of a great time whenever I’m directing. Acting I have a little more trouble with. An actor for hire is dependent on the ability of others. And when you dedicate yourself to something, and it starts bursting leaks all over the place, you find yourself–chastened. You’ve spent the better part of three months away from family. And then you’re stuck. It’s happened several times.”

A notorious “stuck” film was the 1986 Shanghai Surprise, with his then wife Madonna. Penn’s boredom with the role showed–his performance was its own sit-down strike–and, truth to tell, he’s not often comfortable in comedic roles (We’re No Angels) or romantic ones (Up at the Villa). “America’s Best Actor” is also America’s most actor-y actor; his technique is out front for all to applaud; his dark psychic energy can lead viewers to admiring him rather than understanding the character. That’s why roles that allow him to strut his rough anxiety–as in Dead Man Walking and Sweet and Lowdown–are his catnip. Brooding, conflicted, R-rated character studies like Mystic River and 21 Grams: these are natural Sean Penn films.

Big-budget action pictures aren’t. Penn says he is offered such films “here and there” and turns them down, though it’s not the money he objects to. “I’m as anxious as anybody to find a cup at the end of the rainbow. You think of what you could do, not only in your work but also in your life and in other people’s lives. But the Hollywood action picture of the past 20 years takes advantage of a very comfort-addicted audience base and puts them in a kind of hero dream. It says, ‘You’re the good guy, and the good guy not only shoots the bad guy, but he shoots him through the head, and 20 lbs. of gray matter fly out the back, and hurrah hurrah.’ Then the lights come up. And the repercussions of these actions aren’t dramatized. There’s something emotionally corrupt about films that celebrate the worst in us.”

Penn sees not a conspiracy but a fraternity between the minds that produce these films and those that gave us Gulf War II: Back to Iraq. Both, he says, are “blatant in their pursuit of dummifying the American public.” He compares the Administration’s Iraq ramp-up to a Hollywood preproduction meeting: “A good director tells you that you’re going in to remap the Middle East. A bad director tells you you’re going in for weapons that don’t exist.” And he is happy to keep speaking up–and listening. “I’ve had dialogue with Dennis Kucinich, with a lot of people in the military, in intelligence, in the FBI. Some of them I sought out, some sought me out. People in the Senate; Governors. I felt like I had a lot of support. The support just wasn’t broadcast.”

It’s not surprising that Penn would immerse himself in research and invective on his country’s political life; as an actor, he’s been an obsessive study. To cue his character’s depression, for example, he used to place a watered-down Coke in a scene. “Watered-down Coke is always a disappointing taste for me.” Now, Penn says, “I can find that disappointment internally, so I can be more flexible. The less you need tangibly, the freer you are to access emotions. It’s always about freeing yourself. It’s always about getting your head out of the mirror.”

He can’t get his head out of our looking glass. With two bold, punishing performances, a fulfilling domesticity and a commitment to political discourse that will infuriate some, inspire others, Penn can count on having his face on that WANTED poster for years to come. –Reported by Desa Philadelphia/Los Angeles

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