There was a time when I thought I wanted to know how Sean Penn does what he does onscreen. I've since reconsidered. To question certain actors about their acting is to potentially spoil the magic that a master artist is able to conjure. Even if I still wished to know his secrets, Penn has no intention of revealing his bag of tricks. What he shares, however, through conversation and through his actions, is that he approaches acting the same way he considers the rest of his life: as if it matters.
The best way to begin to understand Penn's process, without giving any of his secrets away, is to hear from those who have worked with him. First-time feature director Niels Mueller—who recently steered Penn in yet another outstanding performance in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on the true and troubling story of an ordinary man named Sam Bick—told me this about his star: "I realized how profoundly he uses every muscle and every cell in his body to enter a character. I discovered this most fully in the cutting room, where my editor, Jay Cassidy, would point out takes where it was really noticeable, where I would call cut at the end of a take and you would see Sam turning back into Sean. You could just see his posture, all the muscles in his face, everything change at the end of a take and then suddenly see Sean emerging from the character. It's remarkable, and it confirms that he works with everything he's got."
Just as I felt slightly like an intruder when interviewing Penn for this story, Mueller felt a similar feeling, at times, on the set of his own film. "I would talk to Sean off-set about upcoming [scenes], but then when Sean would come onto the set he'd disappear completely. There were times when I was watching scenes being shot where I still remember those scenes not as being involved with filmmaking but where I was just in somebody's living room listening to private conversations I shouldn't be privy to…. I felt like I was invading [the character's] space."
To learn more about Penn's process, one needs only to look at his body of work, which now spans more than 30 feature films. I also recommend Richard T. Kelly's new biography, Sean Penn: His Life and Times, due out this month by Canongate Books. It's the first time Penn has authorized and participated in a biography about himself, and his anecdotes and stories are accompanied by those of his family, close friends, and collaborators, including Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Christopher Walken, Bono, Woody Allen, Harry Dean Stanton, David Morse, and David Rabe, among many others. Underlying their statements about Penn is that he is a man of integrity, passion, and commitment—qualities that are evident in his work and in the interview that follows.
Back Stage West: While each of the characters you have created on film is unique, most of them have a moral ambiguity or internal dilemma at heart. Why do you think you're so drawn to these kinds of characters?
Sean Penn: Well, I think you've just described every human being that's real, and the other kinds of characters are ones that, if they have good abdominal muscles, it's OK to kill people—and those are two different kinds of movies, and I do one and not the other.
BSW: Are you ever weary of playing a character who may be seen as dislikeable?
Penn: No. This is a thing that comes up so much, with the way that the discourse goes on filmmaking and actors and things like that. I guess I finally feel that in trying to answer it, it's accepting the words as being relevant to the world as I see it. I don't see enormous gaps from one person to another in that way. I find we're all likeable in moments and dislikeable in other moments. We all make mistakes to one degree or another. Clearly there's a diabolical act involved in this particular person's story [in The Assassination of Richard Nixon], but it doesn't speak of the whole person. So what I'm looking for is something about a character that's more than one moment or one alien action that's taking place.
BSW: Over the years you've considered leaving acting. What brings you back?
Penn: Lack of judgment. [Laughs.] A lot of things. I think if you have the luxury to do that…if you can take some time away from it, it's a good thing to do. It's good to go and learn to play another set of instruments. I'm doing a movie that's coming out, and I'm guessing that I'm going to be taking a break for a while. I think that there's a lot to be said for doing nothing.
BSW: I would imagine that you're doing something with your time when you're not acting or working as a writer-director. How do you spend your free time?
Penn: I like to do nothing—a lot. There are enormous gains. You kind of recharge engines. You might be proactive in doing nothing, but life works on you, and you get to observe it happening…. The world's moving awfully fast right now, and we all have some stake in it. There are other aspects of life which demand something, but, all things being a utopia, I would spend a lot of time doing nothing.
BSW: Most actors don't get the chance to play complex, fascinating screen roles, like you have. Actors often have to take work in less-than-satisfying parts or projects. How do you think actors can retain their integrity while trying to make ends meet?
Penn: I think that if you need to take a job, the worst thing that you're going to do to the core of your integrity is to beat yourself up about taking the job—unless it's got an aspect to it that's truly against a personal, moral principle or something like that. But in terms of preserving a person's love for what they do and talent, certainly everybody is different in this way, and every system can tolerate different degrees of what I call the "vacuum parts," the bleeders that take stuff away from you and don't give you much back. But I think that if, personally, your life is what feeds your work, [along with] the commitment you have to paying your bills, then following through on that will feed you as an actor. Like any of the positive things people say, the negative catchphrases like "sellout" or things like that are just there to get in people's way. I think we exercise the options that we have, and we're responsible to them on a level that they're available to us. I think if it's about protecting a talent, the talent of somebody who's overindulging a comfort that already exists by doing something that's beneath their gifts will deplete their gifts. If you're in need of it in other aspects of your life, you're going to be safe.
BSW: From everything I've read or been told about you, integrity is an adjective that is often associated with you as an actor and as a person. Where do you think you get this quality from?
Penn: To whatever degree is the case, I think it reflects much more my intolerance of not pursuing that than it does my conscious need to pursue it. I'm able to look at myself in the mirror and live with myself, you know? I think I'm reasonably able that way, but I'm extremely susceptible to the mirror breaking if I don't feel proud of what I'm doing. I don't get away with much because it makes me bored with life, and I don't like to be bored with life.
BSW: Who or what steered you toward a pursuit of a meaningful life and meaningful work?
Penn: Certainly the first thing that comes to mind when I think of integrity comes from the example of my parents. To whatever degree that it's the case with me and that I aspire to it, I'm sure that that has a lot to do with it.
BSW: Another person who I'd imagine had a positive influence on you was your former acting teacher, the late Peggy Feury. Tell me about your time studying with her.
Penn: When I had first started with her she had recently left the Strasberg Institute. She had worked under Lee and studied with Lee for many years and had earned quite a reputation as an actress herself, independent of teaching. And then she started the Loft Studio in Los Angeles sometime in the '70s; I don't know exactly when. I picked up with her about 1978 or '79. I was intense for a couple of years and stayed with it on and off for about five years, and then she died. But she was a great teacher. She was open to whatever works, but she certainly was able to identify areas where one could focus on a new discipline. She had a great way of letting you in on things with questions, and, when a question came up that you couldn't answer, you'd realize that you had to spend some time in that area. So then she would give you exercises with which to build upon that. There was a kind of tangible experience in the way in which she taught acting, and she was very valuable to a lot of people, and a lot of people that I still know. In terms of people who ended up working a lot, she had a hell of a record. Half of my class has got overly heated pools. [Laughs.]
BSW: Around the age of 20 you left L.A. to pursue acting in New York. How important was that time spent in New York?
Penn: It was really important. I was working in class out here [in Los Angeles]. I was working at the Group Repertory Theatre, largely in technical departments as an apprentice, doing the plays there, but also starting to branch out and do plays in a lot of the 99-Seat houses around, and yet I was not getting an agent, was not getting a job. I stumbled onto a Screen Actors Guild card by getting a quick little job on a television show, and so then I thought, "OK. Now I'll be able to get work." I was working jobs, and I had about $1,200, and I started getting down to $1,100, and pretty soon I had $800, and I said, "Well, it's now or never," and I went to New York, and I got very lucky. In about three days I got a show [Heartland] that ultimately lost its Off-Off-Broadway theatre and then lost its Off-Broadway theatre, and then it ended up with the only theatre available being on Broadway, and that kind of led to an exposure that led to movies and so on.
It's not a path that I encourage as deserved or likely or massively accessible, but it's the way things went. Going to New York was a roll of the dice, and originally it was a roll of the dice where I was thinking about "career"—in terms of a movie career—as something to support a theatre career until there was a real movie career and theatre career, which I thought would come 20 years later. So I was seeing myself just being able to function, where there was more theatre than there was out here, and where one could then get into position to be able to do some film stuff along the way. And, as it turned out, they suddenly started making a lot of youth-oriented pictures that had not happened much since the '50s. Like, Jimmy Dean died, and then cut to Tim Hutton won an Academy Award, and suddenly there was a lot of work for younger actors. So I caught that wave.
BSW: In 2000 you returned to the stage in Sam Shepard's play The Late Henry Moss, with Nick Nolte. How was that experience?
Penn: Eh. See, I was never big on the theatre audience. It's got to be something that knocks my socks off.… I fell in love with acting in the theatre early on, as I did with acting, in general. Then, bit by bit…because it's so audience-dependent and interactive that way, I cannot say that I have enormous belief that we have a literary, theatregoing audience today. I think it's particularly difficult if there are known actors in the play, because what happens is, the first 10 rows fill up with non-theatregoers—with people who come to the sideshow. There was a good friend of mine who called me up backstage when I was rehearsing that play and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm just about to open in this play in San Francisco." He said, "A play? For me, that would be like summoning up the Inquisition." I feel that way today.
BSW: Every actor has his or her own process for working, and I realize it's personal and probably not something that you're fond of talking about, and frankly I feel uncomfortable having to ask you this, but.…
Penn: Let me bend the question. Here's what I think is one of the great one-line lessons that I got that I think covers a lot of stuff, including what I think your question is. When I was going to New York to do my first Broadway play I was concerned about getting to the back row. I'm working 99-Seat theatres. I had been, as an audience member, angry about theatres bigger than that, because I couldn't see their faces, and I wanted to see their faces. I didn't care how many times people told me what a wonderful production of such and such they saw, directed by Jose Quintero in 1957, and they're sitting in the middle of a massive theatre that's built for the economy of theatre and not for the experience of it, and you can't see the fucking faces. Great words. OK. I can read it at home. I'm sure some people enjoy it; I never got it. So I come as a resentful audience member of a big house. Now I'm going to play a big house to audience members, some of them in the back row. At the very least, I respect the play, but I respect the front row, too, and I was worried about what it would compromise to get to the back row. And this guy said to me, "All you have to be concerned about is whether or not you've got something to say; if you've got something to say, they'll hear you." That's how you approach a role: Find out what it is you've got to say.
BSW: With regards to Sam Bick, your most recent character, was there a secret you found to playing him? I don't expect you tell me what, exactly, that secret is, but I would like to know if, for you, there is always a secret to playing a character.
BSW: Is it important for you to keep that secret from others?
Penn: Yes. A secret may be a rhythm or something that tells your body that you observed in somebody that you know or that you saw. A secret could be some character choice based on the text. It could be a million things—something out of the workplace of this person. It could be anything or a combination of anything. But I think directors often make the mistake that you're not making, which is to try to reveal that. I always caution actors about revealing too much of how they're getting at it to a director.
BSW: Do you have any regrets with respect to acting?
Penn: No. [Laughs.]
BSW: What about John Cassavetes? Does it sadden you that you were unable to make a film with him? I know you came very close, but that he passed away before the film She's So Lovely could be made.
Penn: Yeah. We worked together for a year in preparation on the picture, and it was just dazzling. It became very easy to see very quickly why there are so many magical performances in his movies. I look back now, and I can remember rehearsing the movie, and I can remember conversing; I can't ever remember both, which it always was. They were the same thing. Life doesn't stop to make the movie; it continues. That was a great gift that he had. He was the greatest director for actors in the history of film. I'm sure.
BSW: Is there a movie that you would recommend any young actor must see?
Penn: A film as an acting lesson? I don't even remember the name of it. It's a TV movie that Vanessa Redgrave did [that takes place in] a concentration camp [called Playing for Time]. It's an acting lesson. It's a true story. It knocks your socks off. You can look it and can experience it purely as a character and as a performance; you certainly don't see the tools of working, but you can't, as an actor, not be shocked that you don't see it, in the case of this performance. It's stunning. For contemporary and young actors, I was knocked out of my chair by Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger. I think if I was going to talk about something that Marlon Brando did, that's hazardous. [Laughs.] I mean, there's no explaining him. BSW