You’d never mistake Sean Penn for a man who enjoys being interviewed. Sitting opposite me in a hotel room in swanky Malibu, 10-second pauses are frequent as he carefully chooses his words. He also chain-smokes a succession of American Spirits – a reminder of his old-school macho status in an age when most actors view eating carbs as a Caligula-level indulgence.
And, aside from his hatred of doing press, that’s what sets Penn apart: compared to his peers, he is hardcore. Over the past 30 years, he’s delivered performances ranging from the rage-filled dad of Mystic River and the rage-filled cancer sufferer of 21 Grams, to the rage-filled murderer of Dead Man Walking. Typecast? Hardly. There’s also the compassionate campaigner of Milk, the smarmy lawyer of Carlito’s Way and, of course, the definitive stoner and proto-Bill And Ted of Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
And that’s only about a quarter of what he’s done that’s of note. What does he think of his peers, who haven’t been quite so ambitious?
“I think many actors have disgraced their craft and are left to celebrity status in many cases. They’re mostly the punks for what the studio wants to do,” he says, as I nervously sink back into my chair. This is the man who hung an extra out of a window for displeasing him, fired guns at helicopters the day he married Madonna and regularly lamped photographers during the short-lived paparazzi circus of a marriage that followed. So posing for a few watch ads isn’t for him? “I think acting today, by and large, is more associated with a fame-building game than anything to do with a gift. It’s supposed to be a giving and not taking industry, and today it’s more about the take.”
We’ll get to the unusually committed way Penn gives back, but we’re here to talk about The Gunman, his unexpected foray into the post-Neeson Badass Dad cycle of action flicks. He plays the usual vague Special Forces-type confronted with the abduction of a loved one, and 54-year-old Penn, naturally, has gone all in, talking about the “dramatical poetical realm of the piece” and discussing the film in terms of how “it has a lot of provocative stuff for an actor. You’re dealing with what taking human life means to someone, how does it affect their personality, and whether or not it may be a justifiable killing.” Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine the 1992 Steven Seagal thinking so deeply about snapping various henchmen’s necks.
As you’d expect from a man who clearly seldom takes a full hour for lunch, Penn prepared extensively with real-life army men – except rather than use some studio-sanctioned bloke from the Pentagon, Penn consulted with security contractors and Special Forces operators he knew through his extensive efforts in Haiti since the devastating 2010 earthquake. He set up an organisation that has raised millions of dollars for the country and ran a relief camp that housed 55,000 people, so – as you can imagine – met all sorts in the near anarchy that followed the disaster.
“The problem with actors working with these guys [Hollywood military specialists],” he says, “is that it’s done in a highly cautious way, because there are insurance issues. In my case, I was able to work independently, not as part of the production of the film – and get reimbursed later – and get everything I needed in training and preparation. You’re not going out there to learn how to shoot guns; you’re practising techniques that preserve you and disable others. Which is interesting, whether it’s in warfare or chess.”
Chancing my arm, I ask about the wave of fiftysomething action heroes in today’s cinemas. Are they realistic? “President Obama’s biggest surprise when he met the Seals who went into Abbottabad to get Bin Laden was that they were old,” he says. “It’s also a conversation about who’s going to the movies these days. Maybe older people go the theatre more and will identify [with someone my age], while kids are looking at movies on their laptops.”
He’s even more frank about his reasons for continuing to act. Regularly hailed as his generation’s De Niro and in possession of two Best Actor Academy Awards, Penn has little to prove as an actor, and for five years now has seemed more interested in his activism and directing – so why return for The Gunman?
“Listen man, you get divorced, you pay a few fines and you get involved in something where it’s hard to get people to dig in their pockets and you have to dig in your own, and you’ve got kids, and by the time you finish directing a movie you’ve paid for it more than you’ve been paid for it… There are a lot worse ways of making a living than doing something that fascinates you, and acting does fascinate me.” Given that 99.9 per cent of actors will sell you some nonsense about how much they wanted to work with so-and-so, this is refreshing stuff.
Still, directing does seem his real passion, with his new film, The Last Face, coming out later this year. Penn’s early life actually sounds more like the cliché of the nascent filmmaker than actor – his father was a TV director, and he ticks the usual boxes of junior Spielbergs messing around with their parents’ cameras, making a spate of short films with his pals Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. They don’t sound as heavy as his adult work.
“They were much more police detective and slasher-oriented,” he says. “When Charlie and Emilio got back from the Philippines, where their dad was making Apocalypse Now, they brought some prosthetic severed hands back with them, and things like that. They’d learned some make-up effects – the kind of things that fascinate teenage kids. I think we just used the camera to support the props.”
Doing your duty
Before we reflect on just how intense a Sean Penn-directed slasher movie would be, it’s hard not to wish he acted more. For about 20 years, he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for transformative and committed performances – he didn’t sleepwalk through a single one, and usually boasted some splendidly massive hair to boot. It’s far harder not to be impressed, however, at his commitment to the causes he cares about away from the big screen. If he’s been mostly doing cameos in Gangster Squad and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty recently, it’s because he’s been concentrating on his humanitarian work in Haiti, Pakistan and elsewhere. Wikipedia lists him as “actor, director and politician”, and, among other honours, he was appointed Haiti’s Ambassador-At-Large in 2012.
Asked about the accusations of limousine liberalism he must hear at least five times daily, he gets worked up. “When you’re in a position like I’ve been lucky enough to be in,” he says, “forget about what my organisation does, or the high-dollar operations, everybody – a school teacher or an actor or whoever – has an obligation to speak out and play a part.”
And what about the criticism that comes from it, such as when he took a photographer to the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, and was lampooned by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for visiting Saddam’s Iraq, or suggested the Falklands might be returned to Argentina? “You just have to take the sh*t. I got plenty of walls I can kick if it upsets me, but mostly I’m pretty thick-skinned.”
As he glowers at me through a cloud of smoke, it’s hard not to believe him. And you just know that there are more of those intense, Oscar-winning performances coming. Right after he saves the world.
The Gunman is at cinemas nationwide from 20 March