An Interview with Sean Penn - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Sean Penn

Actor, Director, Writer, Humanitarian

“Self-exploration really does free one from one’s ego.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

An Interview with Sean Penn

Actor, Director, Writer, Humanitarian

“Self-exploration really does free one from one’s ego.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Sean Penn

Ross Simonini
102 Snaps

Since the 1980s, Sean Penn has been an American symbol of the cool, cigarette-smoking masculinity that peaked in the 1950s. His early films established him as a dedicated actor of brooding intensity, and he has spent the last forty years building a catalog of directorial work and gritty characters, mostly in dark trauma dramas: Dead Man Walking, Mystic River, The Tree of Life, Milk, The Thin Red Line, and I Am Sam. 

At sixty years old, Penn considers himself a “difficult person,” and over time he’s perfected the off-screen role of the artist-provocateur. In 2015, he dropped his famous and vexatious “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” joke at the Oscars, when presenting an award to Alejandro González Iñárritu, who directed Penn on 21 Grams, and incidentally, found the comment amusing. That same year he conducted a controversial Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo, a man the US DEA has referred to as the “godfather of the drug world.” Penn wrote a long-form essay that he hoped would develop the public’s thinking around the war on drugs—it didn’t, and Penn considers it a failure. Likewise, in 2018, he criticized the #MeToo movement for lacking nuance and dividing men and women. On The Today Show, he said, “This is a movement that was, you know, largely shouldered by a kind of receptacle of the salacious”—a comment that was analyzed by several publications for its perplexing, quasi-poetic message. 

Earlier that year, he had unleashed an entire book of such language with his first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, an absurdist political satire of America’s Trump era, which ends with a poem in defense of Charlie Rose and Louis C.K. The book is a collage of alliteration, multisyllabic vocabulary, modernist puns, folk songs, and sentences that recall the playful wordplay of Carl Sandburg’s nonsense classic Rootabaga Stories. For example: “It can be a pickle to sort a predisposition from a premonition, a fickle folly from a formidable phrase, or a pursuer from the pursued.” Debut experimental novels such as this rarely cause a stir, but because of Penn’s fame, Bob Honey was widely reviewed and hungrily reviled. Critics attacked the book with hyperbolic insults (“the worst novel in human history”) and dismissed it as the newest installment of bad celebrity literature. Despite these criticisms, in 2019, Penn released the book’s sequel, Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn, diving even deeper into the cartoonishly horrific world he had created.

Alongside writing and film, Penn has developed his work as a humanitarian, with CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort). Through this program, he spent months living in Haiti and has continued working to rebuild communities over the last decade. Recently, CORE created one of the United States’ largest coronavirus testing programs, with thirty-seven different testing sites and a focus on underserved communities hit hard by the virus, such as the Navajo Nation reservation. To raise money for this work, Penn staged an online table reading of the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, featuring a constellation of Hollywood stars, including Shia LaBeouf in the role Penn played in his early twenties.

I spoke to Penn days after this event, in the midst of his crisis work for COVID-19. Despite being historically resistant to interviews and always willing to provoke, he was generous, calm, and earnest in our exchange. For much of our talk, Penn unspooled his long Henry Jamesian sentences, responding with a cascade of peculiar phrases that often surprised me with their unexpected meaning. 

—Ross Simonini

I. “I KINDA HAD TO LET THE WHIMSY FLOW” 

THE BELIEVER: The tone of your writing is different from that of your acting and directing. It’s playful and even goofy. How does writing change you?

SEAN PENN: Well, for the things I’ve written before, not published—including several novels that I dipped my toe into and didn’t complete—I took a very different approach than I did with these Bob Honey books. These books came out of the 2016 presidential campaign and the general madness a lot of us were feeling, the feeling of not knowing what was real anymore. I think that whole nightmare hit so strongly because it had been quietly building for a couple of decades. The value system of the country was over. People weren’t even pretending to value those things that they stated they valued.

I think that with writing what happens is, like with acting, you find a character of a certain voice. And then with these books, it was about finding the Pappy Pariah character. I think the humor of the books relies heavily on a reader’s own application of the kind of singsongy, folksy elocution.

I look at the language of it as the trampoline that these words play on. The language itself made me giggle, and with that came the contrast of a very flamboyant language against an unflamboyant man. And I felt that the world I was in was an increasingly flamboyant world and that I was a very unflamboyant visitor in it. And so I played with that in this form. That’s really what got me to write past the failed pages of other attempts at books. Because I enjoyed it.

BLVR: When did you start writing fiction?

SP: Well, I think probably it started in earnest, writing poetry on bar napkins in my early twenties. I had written some short stories as a kid, but I think the kind of writing in these books came out of having access to alcohol in my twenties. I was not so much of a social drinker, but definitely a bar drinker. There was some kind of great comfort in an evening spent having a few drinks, letting one’s mind drift, and starting to write what turned out to be poetry—not always rhyming poetry, but character poetry. And I did that quite a bit. I wrote a lot. And in my mid-twenties I began a novel that was my sense of a kind of Americana. I’d become a bit of a road hog, visiting the bar life, but doing it mobile, so I would be zigzagging my way to the East Coast or vice versa. I was hitting towns that I might’ve heard the names of in a song. And so there was a lot of collecting of this kind of imagery in my head. And I think there is some through line of that in some of the movies I directed.

But what had to happen for me to sit down and focus on writing a novel was getting fed up with the restrictions and the desperation one has to invest in making a film. I’m thinking especially of money reasons, where a brief two-sentence description on the page of a screenplay can catapult a budget by millions of dollars. You’re limiting the way you’re dreaming. You’re self-censoring based on what could, in any real world, be affordable to shoot. I got past that stage because I felt like I kinda had to let the whimsy flow, and in writing a novel, I could write and see whatever I wanted to write. And it wouldn’t be subject to money, because there was no money on the line.

BLVR: When you’re talking about Americana mythology and road-tripping, it conjures up a particular era of the Beats, Bukowski, and Dylan. I know you see your writing as part of that canon, but do you also view your life as part of it?

SP: Well, I would use an example of Catholics. Those I know who have remained in the church or who have left the church—either way, the church stays with them, even those who have great feelings of rebellion toward their condition. For better and worse, this is the way I experience my conditioning in terms of the mythology of the American road. It is a planted love. And I feel like I see an experience of it and an experience of the loss of it. Then there’s a point in time when I turned sixteen years old, which is now forty-four fucking years ago. Blows my mind. And I think, like a lot of people, I went off in search of it, and it was kind of the waning years of Route 66. I mean, there were sections of it that still existed and sections that got cut off and detoured by then, but it did precede the strip mall. I remember very few interstates. I was interested in the smaller roads and less interested in landing in a bar in a city than in a horseshoe motel. So I think I’m probably determined to hang on to that imagery. You know, some of this is not about so much in expanded imagination, as it is constantly chasing the familiar from a really more innocent time in my own life. And so I think probably it would be fair to say that the part of me that—again, for better or worse—has been forced to or has chosen to evolve, that part of me lives in California. And the part of me that tends to dream lives on the American highway.

II. THE CONTAINER STORE

BLVR: Both of your books are filled with shots at the state of our country, and in many ways, your whole career has used provocation as a part of your art. What would you say is the function of provocation?

SP: It’s a good question, and, yeah, I don’t disagree with it. I wouldn’t have found that articulation on my own, so I’ll try to answer it well. I’m always sort of operating from my younger mind, creatively, because I think most of us are born with more empathy than we hang on to, if only because our minds and lives get too crowded to be as present as we might be to the heart of a society. And because I think we all do go back to renew ourselves in some way, we face what look like walls of cynicism and disappointed hearts and investment in the superficial. We tend to try to rattle that cage because we don’t believe that our fellow human beings truly want to hang on to that kind of restriction of their own existence. And yet often we find that the marriage is complete and that there is, in some, no will or motivation to move. And yet I think if you have a last place of belief where you can move the dial, it’s probably provoking through art.

BLVR: Do you think fiction is specifically useful for this? Have you read novels in your life that provoked you?

SP: Well, I’m going to fall into a category of many on this, because you’re asking me at a time when I have just watched, for the first time, a documentary about J. D. Salinger. And when I was, I guess, fourteen or fifteen, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I don’t think I’ve been as provoked as that again, like I was in the hands of a truth teller—and I’m not talking about just a novelist. Could be a teacher, a culturally influential figure, or a politician. I think that experience of his brutal honesty, and the viciousness of his writing, was probably the big rock-and-roller that sticks with me today.

BLVR: You started acting around that time too. Acting and fiction writing are both ways of immersing yourself in alternate realities. Do they serve similar functions for you?

SP: Well, at best, yes. That self-exploration really does free one from one’s ego. And the way my ego would demonstrate itself, as a young actor in particular, which is not altogether gone today, is that I was a very shy person and very socially uncomfortable. I wouldn’t even say “awkward,” because I could be social, but it was exhausting. And a lot of that had to do with a certain kind of ego issue of self-consciousness. And when somebody said “action” or “cut” in that little period, it was like, you got to fasten your feathers and jump off a building without any self-consciousness. And I think writing is exactly that same thing for me, which is ironic because these books were met, critically, with so much venom. And I’ve often wondered, What if I had published them without my name on them? 

I also think now that the reader I was most interested in getting to is from a demographic that doesn’t read, and that’s younger people and university students, but then it occurred to me that without being a practiced reader, without being a willing adventurer into the humor of these things, there could be some resistance. And so that’s still something I think about. 

I’ve just begun the third novel that is not a Bob Honey novel, and not in the style of these books. It’s what one could say is a little more straightforward, and I don’t have a grip on it. I wanted to write for a twenty-one-, twenty-two-year-old today, and it’s a bit of an odd mission focus, because you’re doing it knowing that readership of paper-in-hand is at its lowest in human history. At least since the press was made. That doesn’t put me off, because I come in with a day job. I have films I can make. I think I wanted to let that protect whatever whim I wanted to have as a writer. It’s not to say I don’t care about whether it gets read or not, but I’m operating as though I don’t.

BLVR: You mentioned that your identity may have colored those reviews. Do you generally feel a resistance from critics when you try to work outside of film? 

SP: I think we can go back in time and find artists, the great and the small, where there was even a reverence for the multitasking of several forms. But I do think that as the culture got more
celebritized, one could understand how the public would assume that somebody who was a good second-story man [a burglar who enters a house by an upstairs window] had no business doing what for them is, you know, punching in the glass of a retail storefront. So I think I would understand a general sense that there’s a strategic parlay rather than a creative one. It’s about access. And that may in fact be the case, that there is additional access. I cannot tell you, as I am talking to you, if I would have gotten a publishing deal without the profile I have. I just don’t know. But again, this isn’t something I could control. And the other option would be not to express myself in whatever form I see fit. I suppose I could whine about that possibility, but then again, I might have thought better to just release it under a different name.

BLVR: Should art be a place of specialization, the way the rest of culture has become one?

SP: Funnily enough, you know, I can accuse myself of being a policeman on this stuff a little bit. For example, I do miss the days when supermodels were supermodels. I don’t want to see actresses doing the job of supermodels. So I’m just as narrow-minded about these things as anybody that might be critical of me writing a book. I liked when they specialized in walking down the catwalk.

BLVR: Do you think about these works as separate and conflicting? Or do you consider all your work—directing, acting, philanthropy, writing—as a single, unified kind of work?

SP: I could say quite literally that I experience it seamlessly. And a category that is common across all of it is troubleshooting. In writing, there’s an enormous amount of problem-solving in creating a narrative, but especially a narrative like in these books, which is an elusive narrative.

As an artist, there are those phrases that kind of stick with you as a mantra. And for me, one of those was “It isn’t art without clarity in its foundation.” And that might be an elusive clarity, but it had to be, for the creator, a very clear item. And I think it’s the same thing when working in film development or disaster response or drafting a character in a screenplay or directing a movie. I think problem-solving for me is half the gig. And I like problem-solving. I am one to build compartments. I’m now talking literally, like a carpenter. What’s the name of that store where you get the various kinds of drawers?

BLVR: The Container Store?

SP: Yeah. So I’m a hobbyist as a container designer. It’s much more proof-of-theory projects, though. In other words, I’m not going to measure. I’m just going to cut and see and sit and go, Oh, that’s neat. So that’s the difference for me between a hobby and a profession—and I consider writing and film and disaster response and development professions—but a hobby is one where I don’t take any measurements and just enjoy it. 

But, yeah, I do experience all these things the same way. When I wake up in the morning with a disaster-response problem to solve, I get my mind in exactly the same place as I do when I’ve got to write another page in a novel or to shoot a movie. I find that in areas that do require collaboration, like film or disaster response, I collaborate very similarly. Writing, as it was for me, at least with these two books, was very much a departure from collaboration. I had felt I was becoming an ornery bastard who was not playing as well in the sandbox as he once did. And that it was a good time to pause and put my efforts into something I could proudly say was just mine.

BLVR: Do you see disaster relief as a kind of art?

SP: When I went to Haiti in 2010—we went after the earthquake there—we went with a small crew, some of whom I knew, some of whom I’d collected very quickly in the days that followed the earthquake. We found a lot of young Americans that had flown into the Dominican Republic, when the airport was still functioning, and rented a car and drove adventurously across the Haitian border and found us because they’d heard we were up to something to try to help these people.

And it turned into a collection of hippies, and I mean that word in the best sense—very true hearts, young and hopeful people who very quickly got connected to young Haitian counterparts and [underwent] a great assimilation into the Haitian culture. They knew everyone by name, and they were speaking Creole within months. And I would go down through the IDP [internally displaced people] camp, doing what I was doing with all these people working extensively for me. I wanted to print a T-shirt that said on the front of it, tell it to a humanitarian, because I had so many of them with me.

And for that work, I felt much more like the plumber, like a facilitator, far less personalized. I felt more like the hammer in their belt than like a person among them. And I liked that. And that goes back to the social discomfort. As soon as you make your name, a name for yourself in the movies, somebody is going to ask you to visit a pediatric ward of a hospital to make some kids happy. I’m terrible at it! The kids are much more adult in that circumstance, much more able to engage in conversation. But I do kind of feel like I’ve got a pretty good skill set for getting the nail in the joint. It’s in the planning, not the day-to-day work. I become an appendage to the planning.

BLVR: How would you say this shy personality you’ve mentioned has changed since you were sixteen?

SP: I think there’s probably a twenty-five, thirty-year period when I tempered the shyness with alcohol, kind of a liquid-courage syndrome. But after a couple of decades or more, that gets pretty tiring. And you kind of look at the sky one day and say, What the fuck am I trying so hard for? I was much more of a loner as a kid. And then I found purpose professionally. That would cover most of the days, and alcohol, the nights. And then you wake up one day and say, You know, this game’s not so bad, and it’s not. And then also by that time, you’ve collected some very close friends. But you know, if I’m not out doing something, I’m pretty much sitting on my butt, right where I’m talking to you right now. I’ve got my golden retriever and he checks in with me periodically throughout the day and that’s about it.

III. AN ASSUMPTION OF OSMOSIS

BLVR: What is it like to finish a movie during the pandemic?

SP: Hey, I’ll tell you, it’s really been hitting me in the last weeks because I just locked picture a couple of weeks ago. And what happens is that while I have always retained the final cut on movies, I’ve always been, despite what I said earlier, a very collaboration-reliant guy in spirit. So you have people that have worked very hard and made great contributions to either getting the movie financed or getting the movie made: your DP, your actors, and whatever. So while I need to work alone and make a lot of decisions, I want to see what my collaborators are thinking. Often I’ll get very angry at a criticism, just angry until I’m not angry anymore and I realize the solution to it and that they were right. And you kind of get dependent on these ways, these ebbs and flows of process. 

And in this case, it got to the point where I was restricted to being alone with an editor when we brought it to a screening room. I mean, to be able to go from an Avid system and watch it on a big screen, you always get a big lesson. You think you’ve got one thing and then you put it on the big screen and you’ve got another thing. And it’s become such a dedicated remote system of sending links, even before, pre-COVID, because I had producers in New York and others in Europe. But you know there’s no opinion you’ll trust from someone who’s seen it on a small screen. Usually everybody flies in and you get them all in a room and make sure the bulb is right and we have the sound balanced and you look to hypnotize them for two hours and see where it comes out. And in this case, I just had to stop sending links because they were not able to see it on a big screen anymore. And I wasn’t going to trust anything that was said. And so you’re putting something to bed without that kind of comfort blanket of what you typically subject yourself to, and you kinda miss it. And you aren’t able to get on a plane where you have some musicians working in Seattle and get in the studio with them and say, What if we hit that note a little harder on that cut? All of that’s gone. 

There’s a comment about moviemaking that has been attributed to everybody from Orson Welles to Warren Beatty, so I don’t know whose it actually is, but it’s “You never finish a film; you abandon it.” And yet you normally abandon it as a group, holding hands together. And now I’m having to do the abandoning on my own, and it’s a very peculiar experience.

BLVR: Is it more like writing a novel, in that sense—a solo endeavor?

SP: Yeah, I guess it is. I guess it is. I’m very happy with it. It’s a movie I did with my daughter in the lead, and she’s just a showstopper. All the more reason you don’t want to give up. You want to keep the bone in your mouth. You want to make sure it’s perfect. ’Cause it’s your daughter up there.

BLVR: You directed your wife at the time [Robin Wright] in several films, but that’s quite different, since she already had an established career.

SP: Very different. This film is called Flag Day and it’s from a script written by Jez Butterworth, who won the Tony Award for The Ferryman on Broadway. A wonderful writer. He also wrote Jerusalem and a handful of movies. A great English playwright, but he also writes American stories very well. And this is an American story adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s memoir, called Flim-Flam Man [:The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life], about her relationship with her father and growing up around so much deception that she ended up becoming an investigative journalist.

BLVR: Do you read much these days?

SP: Right now I’m reading biographies about a character. I won’t say who it is, because he is a real person being fictionalized in a movie I’m going to play a part in. So I’m kind of in the world of this one fellow right now.

BLVR: Does your reading usually follow your projects?

SP: You know, honestly, the reading I’ve done in the last decade, with probably only six or seven exceptions, has been nonfiction. I don’t have an explanation for that, because the last novels I read were great. And I do find there are some really great writers out there. In fact, when I went on my book tour, I did read several novels because I was talking to somebody like you, who is a writer, doing a Q&A, and I would pick up that person’s book because they were stepping out to help me. And it exposed me to quite a few writers. 

Before that, I had gotten to some point where I thought, I don’t know if this is the end of the American novel. I just didn’t feel I was finding writers that were interesting to me. But then in the last couple of years I actually did get woken up [to the fact] that there are pretty tremendous writers out there. So it might just be a function of laziness. I guess I’ve gotten myself pretty caught up in all the firestorms of what is going on politically around the world. And so I find myself hyper-focused on nonfiction.

BLVR: Your fiction feels like a collage of nonfiction. You drop in all these bizarre little facts. Like, is buckshot really made from recycled car batteries?

SP: Yeah, that’s correct. That one is correct. However, when it felt right, I went ahead and made stuff up. There should be a warning on the books.

BLVR: That must feel somewhat freeing after being in public life, where there’s so much pressure to be accurate.

SP: I think so. And one of the ways I felt that most in writing wasn’t so much with facts and figures or trivial information; it was with words themselves. There are so many times when what you read in the book was initially meant as a place-saver because it flowed and it seemed to be the right word, but I wouldn’t have known I knew that word until I looked it up and saw, oh, it was the right word. Meaning, I knew I’d heard that word used. My brain had collected a lot of vocabulary that I accidentally used correctly. And so that was also a fun way of forcing me back into the language in that way. I’m not much with the technology, you know. I’ve still got my encyclopedias and my dictionaries. I had just actually got gifted an original pressing of a Dr. [Samuel] Johnson dictionary. That’s great reading. You pick up this old leather-bound thing with parched pages and you go through it and you think, Oh, so this was the way they embraced the language at the time?

BLVR: Do you just sit down and write, or do you get into the story through a technique, such as Method acting?

SP: At some point, when I wrote my first screenplay, it was just sitting down at a typewriter and banging it out. And I don’t type very fast. So I was always quite frustrated because I didn’t want to lose ideas. And I was thinking ideas ahead of ideas. Now more often I’ll write a lot of notes—whether they’re structural or just idea-driven notes—at night. And then I have an assistant who comes in with a laptop and I’ll pace and smoke a cigarette, and I can riff.

But I rewrite a lot. I’m terrible with paper because I can’t read off a laptop. I’m printing and reprinting chapters. So I’ve got the pages in my hands and I’m making notes all over them. I’ll work a chapter over and over again. And I get it printed over because now I need to do a clean proof of it, to know I got that other stuff done and I’ve clarified this and clarified that. I’ve alluded to this and I set it up for that. [The process] is not very fast because it’s all rewriting.

BLVR: How is screenwriting different from writing a novel?

SP: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard for me to separate them, except that I can tell you I have to write many more drafts of a novel than I do a screenplay before it’s ready for consumption. I think I’m a much more visual thinker than anything else. I will make an assumption of osmosis, and I will write in a fever dream and write a chapter in a day. But that chapter doesn’t share the images in my head for a very long time. After that I’ve got to go back and read and re-read. I will read aloud to people, and it’s in very much the same kind of spirit that happens to me as a filmmaker, because when I direct movies—and I’m finishing one now—it’s not about getting comments. I mean, I’ll pick three great filmmakers who are friends of mine and invite them to an early screening while I’m still editing. And once they’re in the room, I see what part of the story I haven’t told them. Because I’ve been watching this thing in an editing room, loving it, quite sure I’ve been clear, and then I get in that room, sitting next to those people. And they don’t have to say a word, there’s no indicators at all, not even expressions, but I just know I have not shared this story yet. 

And it’s the same but much more so in the novel. I am living the novel as a movie, and then I have to go back and find a way to share that movie with a reader. Obviously, I recognize the kind of elusive nature of this book for a lot of people. So I do then go to a few select readers who know nothing about it. And if I get one who can tell me what they just read, then I know it’s there.

BLVR: Not the populist approach.

SP: Yeah. I only want to know it’s there, if only for one person outside of me.

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