‘Y ou know, just to get one of them is something most actors don’t get to do, and for a long time I didn’t think I’d ever get one, let alone two.”
Sean Penn is talking about Academy Awards. His first was a Best Actor Oscar for 2003’s dark drama “Mystic River”; his second, also for Best Actor, was earned this year for his portrayal of a real-life person, openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, in the film “Milk.”
In his acceptance speech at February’s ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Penn, who’s renowned for being outspoken, moody and often aggressive (and in past times violent toward photographers), said, “I did not expect this, and I want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me,” before going on to salute fellow nominee and “brother” Mickey Rourke for his recent much-heralded movie comeback.
Did he really think he wouldn’t win a second award, or was he being modest?
“I did not think I was going to win,” he says firmly. “I thought Mickey (would). I really did. What a return, what a . . . I can really appreciate what a turnaround it was for him, after all the personal problems,” including reported substance abuse and a screen career most people had thought was washed up. “The unselfish part of me wanted Mickey to win. . . . But for some reason, I won it. Again. And I’m still trying to figure it out.”
In 1977, on his fourth attempt, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.
Penn feels the film’s success was partly down to the fact that it is “so upbeat about what can happen in a country that can allow people to be themselves. Sometimes. Harvey Milk came out of the closet. He’d actually been a Republican, but then he embraced his being gay and Jewish, and he kept running for office, and he was defeated, but each time he learned from it and he tried again.
“Now, that is an inspiring message, and it ties in with the change we’ve effected in this country in the White House. It’s no longer just business as usual.”
(The tale does have a sour ending though: Milk was assassinated in 1978 by a rival politician.)
I suggest that perhaps Penn was rewarded with a second Oscar because voters were willing to overlook his private peccadilloes in favor of his work as an actor (he has also directed, but not major box-office hits).
He grumbles slightly and notes, “Nah, that’s not necessarily it. Some people, or even a lot of them, do like my work. Stuff like ‘Mystic River,’ and so on. I’m not a comedic guy. I do fairly heavy stuff, and you know how the Academy has a deserved rep (reputation) for not honoring comedy.
“But then again, a lot of people have been put off me not by the anticamera thing (Penn’s treatment of paparazzi is widely reported): Most actors dislike being photographed unawares. The bigger your fame is, the more intrusive it gets. But it’s the political stuff. . . . That’s what I mean.”
Penn was outspoken against the American-led Iraq War, and visited that country to raise awareness of the biased media coverage in the United States. Though it didn’t transform him into a national villain of the order of actress Jane Fonda when she visited North Vietnam in the 1970s, it drew a lot of conservative criticism.
“When you’re an actor and you speak up on issues of social injustice, you get flak from the mindlessly responding magazines and news sources like Fox News, which is anything but ‘fair and balanced’ or whatever their made-up motto is. It’s a farce, because if you’re an actor or an alleged actor like (current California Governor Arnold) Schwarzenegger and you mouth off, you don’t get that criticism if it’s conservative drivel, like his wanting to cut salaries for teachers and even reduce the numbers of teachers.
“Teachers, man! Where is any country without teachers? We’re talking about the people who educate kids, who enable the future to be better than it is. Why don’t they cut military spending some? Oh, no. People like that want to cut teachers.”
Sean and his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn (best known for playing opposite Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump”), are the parents of two sons. Penn is extremely guarded about his private life, which seldom makes the news.
Another topic Penn is known for not discussing is his prior marriage (from 1985 to ’89) to singer and sometime actress Madonna. In the past, he was known to terminate interviews when its dissolution was brought up (Madonna left him after they had a fight and Penn allegedly tied his wife to a chair and gagged her, then left her that way).
In 2006, Sean suffered the premature death of his brother and fellow actor Chris Penn (born in 1965), who died of heart disease. Chris, five years Sean’s junior, was overweight and lived — artistically speaking — in his brother’s shadow.
Asked if he’s willing to comment, Penn allows, “He was a good brother; also a good actor. Chris didn’t get to shine . . . you know, the way he should have.”
Penn, born in Los Angeles’ seaside suburb of Santa Monica, was the son of an actress, Eileen Ryan, and of director Leo Penn (who died in 1998). Did being born into such a family make acting inevitable?
“Not at all. I think you make your own decisions based on personal experience and desire. If anything, there’s a tendency to avoid doing what your old man did for a living. You want to strike off on your own path and create a very separate identity. I had no idea I’d be directing movies myself. But being in L.A., being around the business, and because of my mom being in it and knowing about stuff like auditioning and what a high it is when an audition leads to being selected for a role, I just . . . I became curious.
“I thought, well, I can do that. It seems fun; it looks easy. It pays good! So I got into it, but then when I was acting, the more I was acting, the more demanding I became of myself. And sometimes of other people. I did reach a point where I wanted to have more control, at least over certain projects, which led to directing. Which is something I very much enjoy.”
Would Penn like to win an Oscar for directing, as numerous actors have done, and bring his grand total to three?
He chuckles briefly. “It would be fine by me. It isn’t something I’m considering. I don’t want to choose a project to direct based on whether I or anyone else thinks it could bring in an Academy Award. I go strictly by the script, what it’s about, how it grabs me. . . . By my gut instinct.”
“Milk” was a long time getting made. In production since the 1980s, at one point it was to have starred Robin Williams. A few years ago, it was to have been helmed by openly gay “Superman Returns” director Bryan Singer. It wound up being directed by openly gay Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting”). Does Penn feel a gay director was necessary to make the film authentic?
“First, let me say that Gus is a great director. He’s directed — very, very well — some material that is only heterosexual. And there are some nongay directors that could have done well by ‘Milk.’ But I do believe significant gay input should be required to give the inside feel, to not give in to that phony Hollywood formula whereby the gayness becomes secondary even though it’s a gay-themed movie.”
“Milk” also earned an Oscar for openly gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and its producers are openly gay. Does Penn feel a gay actor could have portrayed Harvey Milk any better?
“Now that is the question. As good as me? Yes. Better? Maybe. But in a way, that isn’t the question. In this industry, we all know who’s gay, and among box-office names, almost none of them would have signed on to play Harvey. Too close to home. It would virtually have to be a straight actor playing him.”
Penn goes on to suggest that Hollywood tends to avoid touching on controversial subjects such as homosexuality because of the possible effects on its bottom line.
“That’s the crazy way this industry works. It’s about money; and because so much of the public is still, so far, antigay, so is the industry — certainly in its casting and marketing policies.”
Penn’s Oscar acceptance speech gave him the opportunity to speak his mind on the recent ban on gay marriage in California, and the homophobic picketers outside the Kodak Theatre that night. “I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame, and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes, if they continue that way of support,” he told the audience. “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”
Did Penn get much flak for his speech?
“I heard there was . . . you know, some feedback against my statement. That’s only expected. What does it matter? I said what I should have said. The important thing is not to empower those bigots, not to keep legitimizing their bigotry. But that’s a whole other story. Better not get me started.”
Penn says people should see “Milk” “because it’s a good movie; it has a message for everybody. That’s a better reason to see it than my winning an award. Another award.”
“Milk” is now showing.