Don't Get Him Started

Times Staff Writer

Sean Penn doesn't believe in film preservation. He hates those hallowed classics like "The Grapes of Wrath" and " Gone With the Wind," a film he describes as "an abominable fraud of a movie."

"I sometimes feel that they should just burn them all and start anew," he says.

Penn giggles wickedly--a hoarse, breathy, gasping chortle. It's the first time in the last hour that a flash of mischievousness has animated his rough-hewn features.

Penn says he's found that an eradication of past history can be rejuvenating.

"I had a house burn down once, and everything in life burned, except my family, and it was so liberating. I didn't have a bad moment about it," he says. "It sort of reinvigorated my interest in a lot of things. I wonder if there should be some kind of anarchy," he says, laughing.

It's Monday, lunchtime at the bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, and Penn is here to promote his film "I Am Sam," which opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of December and reopens in wider release at the end of this month. This is the kind of task he usually detests and, for most of it, he has swathed his personality in rigorously polite wariness.

He's wearing a black suit with a black shirt and a black tie. A little goatee and longish pompadour give him a faintly menacing look, especially because they make him look almost exactly like the convicted killer on death row he played in "Dead Man Walking." He sits with his arms crossed, almost defensively, except when his cranberry juice and Caesar salad arrive, a salad from which he meticulously picks off the croutons and most of the cheese.

The only other occupants of the bar are an ever-expanding klatch of rich blue-haired ladies, decked out in holiday suits and hats, discussing drinking and shopping, their tinny tones constantly threatening to drown out the hushed, cracked voice of perhaps the greatest actor in America.

It's Sean Penn's mission, and in some ways his plight, to mount a one-man battle against mindless, soul-numbing, "embarrassing" entertainment. "I'm not somebody you'd want to go to most American movies with. I'd really upset you," he warns. "I get crazy. I feel like they're [the filmmakers and the Hollywood system] are all up there saying, 'You're an idiot! You're an idiot!' And they're not just saying it to me. They're saying it to everybody around me, and some people who aren't idiots are believing it about themselves and that becomes the broad audience.

"They're contemptuous of everything, of themselves, of everything, all wrapped up in a package of the feel-good movie of the year. They talk about violence in movies and all of that stuff. My attitude is, a bad movie is violence!"

Penn isn't ranting as he says this. His voice never rises above a murmur, each word carefully plucked with meticulousness and an air of self-awareness. His demeanor is more philosophy professor-cum-beat poet matter-of-factly delineating the hard-won wisdom of years of experience.

It would be easy to surmise that Penn has mellowed since his first incarnation as a sneering, bad-boy wunderkind, married to Madonna, shooting at helicopters and brawling with paparazzi. For the first half of his career, he was known as much for his fury as for his craft. But his friends caution that this is a facile reduction of a complex and unusually steadfast and loyal personality. "He was sweet and dangerous 20 years ago, and he's sweet and dangerous now," explains producer Art Linson, who hosted Penn's wedding to Robin Wright in 1996.

Penn is clearly uncompromising. For several years, he claimed publicly that he was quitting acting, but in fact, he explains, he can't because "I can never get ahead of the game financially because of the movies I do." He prefers directing. In the last decade, he's crafted such challenging fare as "The Crossing Guard," a harrowing tale of a father haunted by the death of his daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver, and "The Pledge," about a man's obsessive--and soul-destroying--search for a serial killer.

"Sean's a very poetic, hard-nosed director," says Jack Nicholson, who starred in both. "He goes his own way. He's all about being substantial in the work."

When Penn acts, it's often not for much money, opting to work for scale (about $2,000 a week) in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), or for a reported $300,000 for Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1998)-- although he received a reported $5 million to star as a mentally challenged adult in "I Am Sam."

Nor is he an actor because of a burning need to be loved. Penn hasn't been lovable on-screen in almost 20 years, preferring an array of psychopaths ("Casualties of War," "Carlito's Way"), sociopaths ("Hurlyburly") and misfits ("She's So Lovely"). It's often been his special self-appointed task to mine the familiar shards of humanity among the human wreckage. In his two Oscar-nominated performances ("Sweet and Lowdown" and 1995's "Dead Man Walking"), he's managed to earn audience sympathy for a louse-like musician and a racist murderer.

The world of Penn movies is tough, alternately mind-provoking and mind-numbing, full of anger, occasionally realized good intentions, dollops of human ugliness and flashes of beauty. They're not for light escapist movie-watching on a Friday night.

Even Nicholson, who admires Penn's' integrity, says, "Sean's a funny guy. I keep hinting around, 'Let's try to lighten up a bit.' He just laughs."

Penn says his movie choices have "nothing to do with my mind."

"I always hunted long and far for any writer who can write without living in the corner of his artiness, and they're not there because they're all invested in the comfort of this comfort-addicted country. The only writers who made any sense to me were writing about tougher, less heartwarming things.

"But mostly, any movie that's been heartwarming the last 20 years has been a piece of crap, in my mind," he says succinctly. "Every single one of them has been awful and embarrassing and degrading to me, and so I never responded to those scripts. This was a script that wasn't like that."

He's referring to "I Am Sam," a full-blown weepy about a man with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old struggling to raise his 7-year-old daughter, whom the state wants to remove from his home. For the jaded moviegoer, the premise might sound like an echt Hollywood melodrama, but Penn's performance is stripped of any prefab sentimentality. He's clearly inhaled the spirit of John Cassavetes, and it's a performance less powered by shticky theatrics than blunt emotion.

Penn works hard to make the audience identify with Sam's plight.

It's almost as if Penn's assumption that the audiences won't relate to Sam because of his infirmity has freed the actor, indeed inspired him, to go for the emotional jugular. It's released a sweetness in Penn's performance not apparent since the days of "Racing With the Moon" (1984). For a man almost no one would call warm and fuzzy, Penn is wrenching in his ability to portray a truly unselfish love and a kind of universal dismay many parents feel when faced with small, mewing children.

Penn doesn't offer to elucidate why he was drawn to the material (generally, he simply knows whether or not to do a part before he's even finished reading the script). Nor will he comment on the grand subject of fatherhood except to smile and say he likes it, "all of it," and that as a father, "I try not to stay in my head too much." The family lives in a compound north of San Francisco, and right before this interview, his wife and two tow-haired children, 10-year-old daughter Dylan and 8-year-old son Hopper Jack (named after Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson), milled about the hotel entryway, his son doing wheelies on inline skates. Penn explains, "He never walks. He's either skateboarding or wheeling or bicycling."

Penn's "I Am Sam" performance might garner Academy Award consideration, but since Dustin Hoffman, Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Day-Lewis have already won Oscars for playing characters with extreme disabilities, his chances seem diminished. Despite his two nominations, Penn has never attended the Academy Awards and refuses, point-blank, to even discuss the subject even though it's clear the film opened in December to meet the academy deadline.

Penn isn't so much a cynic as an angry idealist, a throwback to an earlier era when Hollywood wasn't a corporate machine efficiently, and impersonally, pumping out product for the masses, and when art, even movies, seemed important.

"Hollywood is much more creatively corrupt than it is economically [corrupt]," he says. "It takes $1 for them to kill their dreams. Their dreams are worth more than $1."

Penn has been called an acting savant, and his process remains mysterious. It starts with what he calls "sponge work"--in the case of "I Am Sam," visiting L.A. Goal, a nonprofit center for adults with developmental disabilities, where writer-director Jessie Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson researched the script.

"I usually start pretty well outside," he says. "I'll start thinking about the clothing and things like that, and then movement. Bit by bit, the other things kind of follow. I always used to think about it just like building a cage. You would build it strongly and you're very free within it when you're shooting."

"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.)

When asked about the letter, Penn, who's been trying to quit smoking for the last six months, pauses to light up a cigarette. Penn doesn't want to be misconstrued as a perk-fiend he was just irked that Fox refused to facilitate his promotion of a film, for which he'd already worked for six months in Australia at a fraction of his price.

"These are people who take the plane to go to the bathroom!" he says. The fact that Murdoch's company owns a number of tabloids further incensed him. "That's an agency that's owned and operated by a person who trades on the pain of people with his gossip magazines!"

His children get to see a kinder, gentler side. When he takes them to the movies, he even makes sure to bottle his disdain. Although part of him thinks much of Hollywood's history deserves a spot in the incinerator, another part has been carefully showing the kids classics such as "Harold and Maude" and "The Graduate." "I was thinking of the tone, the feeling that you walk away with," he says, a tad remorseful about having shown "The Graduate" to them. "I wasn't thinking about people having affairs with their girlfriend's mother. They had some reactions to that."

He even agreed to co-star in the ultimate feel-good show "Friends" in the fall because "I like the show. I needed the money and because I'd be king with my daughter. Her favorite show is 'Friends.' Also it's scary, and it's good to be scared sometimes. When I get up in the morning, I don't walk around thinking that I'm the funniest guy on the planet."

"I Am Sam" director Nelson says, "I never saw his dangerous side. In fact, he only got mad once." Penn's anger was directed at a dog wrangler during a scene in which his character (who has just landed a job as a dog walker) attempts to walk six dogs at once.

"The wrangler was making the dogs perfect movie dogs, and Sean wanted them to be really dogs. I remember him saying, 'Let them be dogs! They don't have to be Disney dogs. Let it be real!' Sean has a very deep need for the truth. If something keeps him from that, it will agitate him."

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Penn Tribute

The American Cinematheque is presenting "Spontaneous Combustion: A Tribute to Sean Penn," a retrospective of the actor- director's films that began Friday and ends Tuesday. All screenings are at the Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

Today

"Dead Man Walking" (1995), directed by Tim Robbins. Co-starring Susan Sarandon. 5 p.m., followed by ...

"Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), directed by Woody Allen. Also starring Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman.

Discussion with Penn between the two films.

Tuesday

"Carlito's Way" (1993), directed by Brian de Palma. Also starring Al Pacino, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, Viggo Mortensen. 7:30 p.m., followed by ...

"Hurlyburly" (1998), directed by Anthony Drazan. Also starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan.

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