WASHINGTON – Sean Penn, whose interview with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman made headlines around the world, is known for his acting brilliance and bad-boy reputation but he is also a sleeves-rolled-up humanitarian and lifelong activist.
As a member of the 1980s Hollywood “brat pack” and husband in that decade of superstar Madonna, Penn came to public attention long before winning Oscars for his roles in the 2003 drama “Mystic River” and the 2008 biopic “Milk.”
But his humanitarian work and political involvement have not been those of an actor just looking for headlines.
A week after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Penn moved there. Living in a tiny tent, a Glock gun at his side for security, he dispensed medicine, carried heavy bags of rice and swept floors.
The nonprofit group he founded, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, now employs more than 300 development workers.
Five years earlier, after Hurricane Katrina left a swath of destruction along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Penn criss-crossed flooded areas in a small motorboat.
While many relief workers hesitated to enter the putrid and possibly toxic floodwaters, not so Penn, a former competitive surfer.
“Displaying a mix of bravado, altruism and daredevil recklessness, he repeatedly swam over to trapped homeowners to take them to higher and drier ground,” Vanity Fair reported.
Penn has often courted controversy. He was lambasted for visiting Iraq in December 2002, two months after he paid $56,000 for an advertisement in The Washington Post protesting President George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq.
A darling of the anti-establishment, Penn met in 2007 with President Hugo Chavez, a bete-noire of Bush’s, in Caracas; President Raul Castro of Cuba granted him his first interview with a non-Cuban.
He is widely viewed as one of the finest actors and directors of the day. “Milk” director Gus Van Sant called him “the Brando of our generation.”
He won his first Oscar nomination in 1995 for the death-row tale “Dead Man Walking,” and garnered further Academy Award nods for “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999) and for his role as a mentally handicapped father in 2001’s “I am Sam.”
But he has always been quick to stick a thumb in Hollywood’s eye. When he received the Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician assassinated by a colleague, Penn alluded to his not-always-easy personality.
“Thank you. You commie, homo-loving sons-of-a-gun. I did not expect this,” he told the Oscar crowd. “I wanted to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me.”
He told French daily Le Monde the year before that the awards seasons were a place “where manipulation and very good marketing are rewarded.”
Penn has been romantically involved with a veritable A-list of superstars. After splitting up with Madonna he had a stormy on-again-off-again marriage with Golden Globe-winning actress Robin Wright. He has dated actresses Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron.
A Haiti fundraiser the charismatic actor hosted Saturday in Beverly Hills, California, drew a glittering list of stars, but though Penn took the stage repeatedly he made no mention of the El Chapo interview, Variety reported.
The event drew celebrities from former president Bill Clinton to actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Arquette and Penn’s ex-wife Madonna, who performed a song on a ukulele, then auctioned it for $300,000.
Madonna told Penn she had loved him “from the moment that I laid eyes on you,” adding, to laughter, “I just wish you’d stop smoking cigarettes.”
For his part, Penn spoke with passion of the death of a 15-year-old who had been denied medical treatment in Haiti.
“We can’t depend on governments,” he said, a point he has often argued.
“We have to make it better now.”