Crossing Through the Fire with Sean Penn
The two-time Oscar-winner chats about leaving Hollywood, El Chapo, and his debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.
Interviewing Sean Penn face-to-face could be as challenging as acting opposite him, especially when the topic is anything but Hollywood. After winning Academy Awards for his starring roles in Mystic River and Milk, and earning directorial acclaim for Into the Wild, Penn has made his bones of late as a traveling hands-on activist and as a shockingly seasoned journalist who hit the ground running with pieces written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Huffington Post, and, most famously, his torrid travelogue “El Chapo Speaks” for Rolling Stone.
Now comes Penn’s debut long-form (well, 176 pages) work of fiction, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, and its accompanying book tour—both of which prove to be magically and caustically mirthful, elusive yet oddly epigrammatic, dystopian, and craggily humorous as all get-out. Sitting before the fifty-seven-year-old Penn, the cragginess peeks through, as does a ruddy, wild-haired handsomeness. Fidgeting in his seat restlessly, Penn seemed as if he could use a smoke.
We caught up at the Free Library of Philadelphia for a freewheelin’ talk.
Without putting words in your mouth, you have hinted through various media at a distaste for acting at this point in your life. At the very least, you may be disillusioned about what film is now. Could that come from the manner in which we disseminate film—a la Netflix and Hulu? Is it the business? Boredom? Or are you just feeling something else may be of greater priority—writing, perhaps?
You’ve given me a multiple choice. It’s not an observation that I would hope to encourage in others—it is really just my own experience. The girl that I fell in love with that is cinema was one that I feel in love with in a dark theater full of strangers. This was at a time in American cinema, particularly, where once a week, you saw a film that would be remembered forever. Today, there are films that you have to work hard to remember.
That’s not to say that there aren’t great films still being made with great directors and great actors. But I do find that the shareability of that experience is diluted by the content and the limited ways people view them. I mean computers and phones. That is just not an exciting thing to me. I don’t have the bandwidth to follow all the content that is going on, or begin to become a part of the conversation with bingers who are putting earpieces in their ears, sitting for eight hours in their bed with pizza watching shows that I don’t even technically know how to access.
With regard to your activism in Haiti… You showed up there in 2010 and never really left. You not only put your money where your mouth was, but you kept paying in and made the public an active part of remembering the issue. Why?
“I don’t have the bandwidth to follow all the content that is going on, or begin to become a part of the conversation with bingers who are putting earpieces in their ears, sitting for eight hours in their bed.”
Haiti was an accident of timing. I had been in a single-parenting situation after a divorce, and my son had a terrible skateboard accident. He’s 100 percent today, but at the time he had to have brain surgery. He wasn’t wearing his helmet, was going twenty miles an hour, and he hit the pavement. That was horrifying—the pain he was going through. And then having morphine run through him for that pain… To see the relief he had in that hospital bed was great. After this, he was not disturbed at the notion that his mother wanted to spend time with him. So I found myself, for the first time in twenty years, alone in a house where no one told me what to do and I wasn’t telling anyone either.
That sounds like a movie.
At that point, I did the obvious when I came home several nights drunk and alone, and I was exhausted. So I thought, “What other freedoms do I have?” And one was to turn on the news at 4 a.m., without anyone getting in my hair about it.
The first thing I saw was the Haiti earthquake, and the very first thing being reported was that they had no intravenous pain medication, and no access to it forthcoming. That was particularly daunting, as I just saw a young man in my house go through that very thing. So I thought for a minute: While actors in Hollywood know where to find narcotics, they don’t typically know where to get bulk narcotics.
I spoke with Dr. Paul Farmer, who had come in from Port-au-Prince, and I asked his needs. He said 350,000 vials of morphine and ketamine to start. So I called Hugo Chávez, because there wasn’t anyone in this country who was going to get me that stuff. I told Hugo that I had a couple of friends with planes and trucks, and the next thing you know, we were able to distribute that. The original idea was to be there for two weeks, distributing pain meds and maintaining communication. We had room, though, on the planes—one solely for cargo—so we asked doctors who might have the time and inclination if they’d like to go with us. There were NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in place that we loaned doctors to, but I saw then that these NGOs functioned in a very frustrating way. Coming from Hollywood, where sets have to be built yesterday, we started exercising motion picture ethics and got things done faster. I ended up feeling as if it was a job well done.
Let’s move into writing. The first bit of non-film writing that most people know you from was the El Chapo story. You’ve got a keen eye. Do you believe you succeeded in your mission: pass or fail? And how did all that come to influence your novel?
That’s a very good question, because there is a direct line. It wasn’t that I felt as if I failed to achieve what I wanted as a writer with the El Chapo thing. It was an issue of a kind of tone deafness to the times. There was a very vitriolic reaction to my journey there, which usually came from journalists who had only read excerpts of the story that other journalists had regurgitated.
Hey, I read the whole thing. When did writing the novel become a thing for you?
It had started over many years because I’ve had access to travel and [I’ve met] many amusing people, and I believe I have had an interesting life. I have been offered to write memoirs and I was always embarrassed by the idea of that. I thought I would be too self-conscious. I might create—inauthentically—a heroic figure if I did that [laughs].
“Fuck it. I can do what I want. I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve worked hard. I have beautiful kids. I can do this if I want to.”
But I did want to write. I was happy to write. As an actor you create characters that are—at the very least—the most fun for you to play. These were happening for me in the car or before I would go to bed or when I was trying to make my kids laugh; something free would happen. And there is that voice. Some might call it a muse. That voice doubted that I should write a memoir, but the actor/writer in me said that I can sure play the part of this person who is writing a memoir. There I could create another character and try to set it in a landscape that is very current. So I began looking at what I call the quicksand of the current climate of this country and saw how one character could describe the other character’s dance in that quicksand.
The book is deeply musical, poetic, and has an overall rhythm and tone that I could only describe as Paul Schrader meets William S. Burroughs. What rhythm did you hear in your head as you went along?
This is an interesting thing. There has been a lot of mixed reaction to this book, which I expected. I don’t think I’d do an audio version of this. I tried and it was wrong. The reader gets to be their own director with the printed text—put their own vision and spin on it. For instance, I have a character that speaks with an enormous amount of alliteration—there’s only pomposity to that on my end. I’m curious, though, to see what choice readers make as to following that character’s rhythm.
Also, this book is not an opinion piece. I never thought of my own politics while writing this—mine was a more stream-of-conscious approach—so what I find in the end is a lot of contradictions. In this way, my aspiration for the book is that I could give people a few giggles in a time of complication, if not crisis. If it does that—and ends up being itself inclusive and not a polemic—it’s still a work of fiction.
You say stream of conscious. Were you writing in long or short bursts between being an actor and a father?
I wrote it in thirty days and I rewrote it for two years.
We started the conversation about film and getting away from it all. Do you feel that part of the move to write a book allowed you to move from that world, yet still create?
I had been a person whose greatest sense was in collaboration, and I came to a point in my life where something changed and I had to accept that I do not always play well with others [laughs]. Once I accepted that, I gave myself license. Fuck it. I can do what I want. I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve worked hard. I have beautiful kids. I can do this if I want to. People will want to share it, or they won’t. I can’t control that. I do hope to make it accessible, and make it of some value, and it has humor because that’s the only common language that I can find among us.
The novel has humor and it has empathy—soul and compassion. Was it necessary to ensure that that came through? You don’t often get empathy where so much violence is implied.
“How did we get here? Donald Trump did not bring us here. It was a long time coming.”
See, the absence of empathy is what’s not funny about the state of the union, and I didn’t believe that there was any humor value without empathy. I was struggling to find that which has value. As I had this opportunity, and a publisher willing to put my writing out, my first question was, “What can I do of value?” Because the one thing not of value at this point was a straight, vengeful debate. How many of us have participated in a culture of complaint—and how tired is that? No matter what anyone’s politics are, you have to admit that at this moment things are sort of chaotic. How did we get here? Donald Trump did not bring us here. It was a long time coming.
“You are not simply a president of impeachment, you are a man in need of an intervention. We are not simply a people in need of an intervention, we are a nation in need of an assassin. I am God’s squared-away man.” You wrote that in Bob Honey. Now, I’m cool with that, but Kathy Griffin found herself ostracized for holding up a bloody faux-stump of a Trump head. I get that the book is fiction, and that you have probably expected trouble for all sorts of stuff during your life. How about this?
There are two answers to that question. This is fiction and these are, in essence, the words of my characters. And it is like when an assassin lets a bullet fly from a little slice from behind a window—and sees five blocks away the target and that he’s done his job—and he assumes that someone else will do the clean-up. He puts on a shirt, strolls outside and says, “It wasn’t me.”
You shift the blame.
[Laughs.] With that suggestion, it wasn’t me. But, I am also at a point in my life where I am happy to join the club of the ostracized. I mean, why not? I have been its president for a very long time. FL