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Don't Get Him Started

Sean Penn hates most Hollywood films, especially the feel-good kind. So why did he agree to star in the heart-warming 'I Am Sam'?

January 06, 2002|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | Times Staff Writer

Sean Penn doesn't believe in film preservation. He hates those hallowed classics like "The Grapes of Wrath" and " Gone With the Wind," a film he describes as "an abominable fraud of a movie."

"I sometimes feel that they should just burn them all and start anew," he says.

Penn giggles wickedly--a hoarse, breathy, gasping chortle. It's the first time in the last hour that a flash of mischievousness has animated his rough-hewn features.

Penn says he's found that an eradication of past history can be rejuvenating.

"I had a house burn down once, and everything in life burned, except my family, and it was so liberating. I didn't have a bad moment about it," he says. "It sort of reinvigorated my interest in a lot of things. I wonder if there should be some kind of anarchy," he says, laughing.

It's Monday, lunchtime at the bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, and Penn is here to promote his film "I Am Sam," which opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of December and reopens in wider release at the end of this month. This is the kind of task he usually detests and, for most of it, he has swathed his personality in rigorously polite wariness.

He's wearing a black suit with a black shirt and a black tie. A little goatee and longish pompadour give him a faintly menacing look, especially because they make him look almost exactly like the convicted killer on death row he played in "Dead Man Walking." He sits with his arms crossed, almost defensively, except when his cranberry juice and Caesar salad arrive, a salad from which he meticulously picks off the croutons and most of the cheese.

The only other occupants of the bar are an ever-expanding klatch of rich blue-haired ladies, decked out in holiday suits and hats, discussing drinking and shopping, their tinny tones constantly threatening to drown out the hushed, cracked voice of perhaps the greatest actor in America.

It's Sean Penn's mission, and in some ways his plight, to mount a one-man battle against mindless, soul-numbing, "embarrassing" entertainment. "I'm not somebody you'd want to go to most American movies with. I'd really upset you," he warns. "I get crazy. I feel like they're [the filmmakers and the Hollywood system] are all up there saying, 'You're an idiot! You're an idiot!' And they're not just saying it to me. They're saying it to everybody around me, and some people who aren't idiots are believing it about themselves and that becomes the broad audience.

"They're contemptuous of everything, of themselves, of everything, all wrapped up in a package of the feel-good movie of the year. They talk about violence in movies and all of that stuff. My attitude is, a bad movie is violence!"

Penn isn't ranting as he says this. His voice never rises above a murmur, each word carefully plucked with meticulousness and an air of self-awareness. His demeanor is more philosophy professor-cum-beat poet matter-of-factly delineating the hard-won wisdom of years of experience.

It would be easy to surmise that Penn has mellowed since his first incarnation as a sneering, bad-boy wunderkind, married to Madonna, shooting at helicopters and brawling with paparazzi. For the first half of his career, he was known as much for his fury as for his craft. But his friends caution that this is a facile reduction of a complex and unusually steadfast and loyal personality. "He was sweet and dangerous 20 years ago, and he's sweet and dangerous now," explains producer Art Linson, who hosted Penn's wedding to Robin Wright in 1996.

Penn is clearly uncompromising. For several years, he claimed publicly that he was quitting acting, but in fact, he explains, he can't because "I can never get ahead of the game financially because of the movies I do." He prefers directing. In the last decade, he's crafted such challenging fare as "The Crossing Guard," a harrowing tale of a father haunted by the death of his daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver, and "The Pledge," about a man's obsessive--and soul-destroying--search for a serial killer.

"Sean's a very poetic, hard-nosed director," says Jack Nicholson, who starred in both. "He goes his own way. He's all about being substantial in the work."

When Penn acts, it's often not for much money, opting to work for scale (about $2,000 a week) in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), or for a reported $300,000 for Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998)-- although he received a reported $5 million to star as a mentally challenged adult in "I Am Sam."

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