"The first day he came to the center, he was completely ego-less," Nelson recalls. "He became invisible. They were on an assembly line folding T-shirts into plastic bags, and he immediately sat down and started folding. He sat next to an autistic man who didn't think Sean was folding correctly. Sean would listen to every direction and try to fold meticulously and would ask them questions, and very gently became their friend. He was very good at the center. I think he felt their kindness."
Michelle Pfeiffer, who co-stars in the film as a driven, yuppie lawyer who takes Sam's case, says Penn was "really different than I expected. I expected him to be a much more narcissistic actor than he is. He's incredibly present and giving. A lot of times when people are that good, they kind of act alone, and he is just so opposite of that."
"I think of acting as a discipline," Penn says. "It's a discipline in terms of a craft. It's a discipline in terms of"--he pauses, choosing his words carefully--"you know, the unbridled ego, I tend to hurt my life with outside of acting. And that's the greatest thing about it."
Even from the very beginning, acting was a means to enable his directing. He grew up in Malibu, the son of Eileen Ryan, an actress, and Leo Penn, an actor who was blacklisted in the '50s and turned to TV directing. Sean attended Santa Monica High School with surfing buddies Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, and began directing super-8 films. "There were night shoots and such, and I couldn't collect enough people so I found myself in them," he says.
Despite his father's experience, he didn't start out disillusioned but impassioned. "I'm 41 years old. The time that I was 10 to 20 was 1970 to 1980. Look at the movies I was seeing! I get the chills."
After a brief stint studying auto mechanics and speech at junior college, Penn delved into acting with the Group Repertory Theater and later with acting teacher Peggy Feury in L.A. It was around this time that he became "obsessed" with learning the craft; many nights he just climbed back through an open bathroom window to sleep at Feury's studio.
His first film, "Taps" in 1981, focused on an insurrection at a military school, and starred such new faces as Timothy Hutton and Tom Cruise.
"It was fraternity row. We were all a bunch of young actors making more money than we'd ever made ... $15,000 after taxes when I was finished," Penn says. The film nonetheless initiated his lifelong sense of disappointment. Filmmaking was less an exercise in pure creativity than unfocused chaos, with performance often subjugated to camera lens and cinematography.
He followed up with a hilarious portrayal as the stoned surfer Spicoli in the 1982 teen classic "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and turns as an amoral, druggy, would-be spy in "The Falcon and the Snowman" (1985) and a corrupt son who betrays his murderous father in "At Close Range" (1986).
"Sean's sense of loyalty to the people he has relationships with is unparalleled in my experience," says James Foley, who directed "At Close Range."
"When he says I am in or I am with you, take it to the bank. It's rare. Sean will be totally disengaged from any consideration of the most self-protective thing to do when he makes a decision. If he makes a commitment to something, he's going to do it come hell or high water. I've come to really respect that."
Against the studio's wishes, Penn decided Foley was the man to direct "At Close Range," based solely on their emotional connection. He hadn't even liked Foley's prior film, "Reckless." "He had this feeling he never wavered from," Foley says. "This is Sean's greatest strength. The conventional wisdom and easiest road holds no sway over his own perception."
Penn's mother and brother acted in the movie, and his then-wife, Madonna, did the soundtrack. It was a template for how he would work as a director--stocking his films with those closest to him.
It was during his media-infested marriage to Madonna that Penn became as famous for his fists as for his craft, and landed in jail for a month in 1986 after punching an extra who tried to take his picture on the "Colors" set.
These days, Penn mostly reserves his pugnaciousness for his words, although his temper sometimes trails him like Pigpen and his cloud.
"I Am Sam" started out as a project at Fox 2000, a studio that grew noticeably cooler toward the idea after a well-publicized letter Penn wrote to Chairman Rupert Murdoch. The actor was enraged that the studio wouldn't provide a private jet to take him to a screening of "The Thin Red Line" in Texas, a gesture Penn claimed would cost the studio $6,000. (The studio put the price tag at $40,000.)