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Acting on impulse

Sean Penn looks back at a volatile year of working -- and living -- with raw emotion.

September 28, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

Mill Valley, Calif. — It is afternoon in Marin County, well past the lunch hour. In the Indian restaurant by the frontage road, the kitchen is about to close. There is the smell of curry and the sound of taped sitar music. In a corner, wondering whether the manager will bend the no-smoking law and let him fire up a cigarette at the table, Sean Penn is talking about work and life and these past 12 controversial months.

"E.L. Doctorow had a quote I've used a lot of times," Penn is saying, a hard-shell pack of American Spirits weighing on his shirt pocket, "that the responsibility of the artist is to know the time in which he lives."

The words come out in a rapid mumble. He is leaning forward, looking out at the empty banquettes. For all the menace in his public image, Penn in person is actually fragile-looking. He's not tall -- maybe 5-foot-10 -- and he's slight, like a mime or a dancer. From a distance, waiting alone outside this hole in the wall in a Travelodge just off the freeway, he looked lost and disheveled, pacing and smoking on the blank pavement like some little bohemian fugitive in a Sean Penn movie. Close up, though, he is clean-cut, with very blue eyes and very white sneakers, his face shaved, his hair puffed with what appears to be some sort of styling product. His untucked shirt looked from afar like denim; up close, it turns out to have been cut from something finer, more delicate.

It has been a year since Penn's visit to Iraq turned him into the surprise face of the antiwar movement. The New York Post is still ragging on him ("Baghdad Sean," its pundits were calling him at one point). Nor has that been the extent of his trouble. The courts are still sorting out a legal wrangle in which Penn claimed producer Steve Bing canceled a $10-million job offer after Penn questioned the then-popular invasion on the Larry King show. Plus, his car was stolen from the street in broad daylight in April, with two guns in it.

Penn's personal dust-ups, however, have coincided with an especially fertile professional period, which has yielded two of his most interesting roles as an actor in many years. This fall, he will appear in two of the season's more anticipated dramas, Clint Eastwood's brooding thriller "Mystic River," which opens Oct. 8, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's edgy "21 Grams," set for Nov. 14. The first puts him in the hands of a respected Hollywood elder, the second in the sights of a budding and highly regarded Mexican artist.

Both are meaty roles, with all-star ensemble casts, and Penn's name is again coming up in the context of Oscar nominations (he's never won one). His performances are so disparate that the actor is almost unrecognizable from one film to the other, a chameleon-like trait that has characterized Penn's work, from the stoned surfer dude Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" to the convicted murderer in "Dead Man Walking" to the talented but repugnant guitarist in "Sweet and Lowdown."

But the range of these more recent roles also has raised provocative questions about the intersection of an artist's world and the work that channels through it. Penn did the first film before the Iraq contretemps and the second within hours of his return from Baghdad. ("He was smelling still [from the long journey] when he came on the set," Inarritu said.) His immersion in the war issue, once he committed to it, mirrored the ferocity of his involvement in the dramatic projects.

Work and world, in other words, have been especially commingled for Penn this year, a development that he said he welcomes.

"If you surrender to your responsibility as an artist," he says, his stubby hands graceful, his words slowing now, "you will automatically speak to it."

An open letter to Bush

It was October 2002 -- a lifetime ago now, geopolitically speaking -- when Penn took out a $56,000 ad in the Washington Post to publish an open letter to President George W. Bush. The letter, which Penn said he wrote both as a father of two and as the son of a World War II veteran, called on Bush to slow a march to war in Iraq that was then gathering momentum. "Let us reintroduce inspection teams," the actor suggested, repeating what was then a popular antiwar alternative.

The thrust of the ad wasn't surprising, but Penn's name was, a little. Although Hollywood is famously liberal -- Penn's father, the late TV director Leo Penn, had been blacklisted in the '50s -- the actor had generally kept his political views low-key. Also, Penn isn't "Hollywood" anymore, exactly. A half-dozen or so years ago, he moved to Marin County where he lives with his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, and their children, a 10-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. He was, he says, "tired of a lot of aspects of Los Angeles, the main one being raising the kids in a company town." In the Bay Area, he wasn't distracted "by people mainlining the sort of commercialism and compromise of spirit that goes with most peoples' idea of [show business]."

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