INTERVIEW

‘I've always been interested in politics. The more things have gone astray, it’s more necessary to get involved.'

September 25 2006
INTERVIEW

‘I've always been interested in politics. The more things have gone astray, it’s more necessary to get involved.'

September 25 2006

‘I've always been interested in politics. The more things have gone astray, it’s more necessary to get involved.'

INTERVIEW

SEAN PENN TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT 'ALL THE KING'S MEN,' POLITICAL ACTIVISM, AND WANTING TO JOIN THE U.S. MILITARY

Am I right in that this is the first time you’ve played a politician?

A: I think so.

Q: Does the fact that you’re playing a politician now have something to do with the times we’re in, or where you’re at in your life or career? Or was it just an appealing role?

A: I think it would have been appealing to me at any time. Steven Zaillian, the director, and I had worked together 20-some years ago, whatever it was, on The Falcon and the Snowman, and we’ve kept in touch ever since then, and when he sent this thing, you know, it was just terrific.

Q: Were you familiar with All the King’s Men before you started the project?

A: I was familiar with the existence of the [Robert Penn Warren] novel—I hadn’t read it—so after I read the script I read the novel. That’s what I knew about it.

Q: Willie Stark, the role you play, based loosely on Louisiana governor Huey Long, is a great and complicated character. Unfortunately, he’s often discussed rather superficially as a thug and a demagogue, but I was happy to see the movie give him the depth he deserves.

A: I had never heard him described as a thug. Well, I’d heard it, and I heard it more when I started looking into the inspiration for the role, the governor Long story, but those were his critics—principally the wealthy— who considered him that way, and maybe the newspapers, which were controlled by

the wealthy at that time. But spending time in Louisiana, you talk to people and they remember the good he did. He was a man of the people, and he had this almost musical sense in the way that he talked and connected with people. But then there was the issue of absolute power corrupting, and that’s where it gets more complicated.

Q: You’ve played a lot of loners, outsiders, over the years. It must be different to portray a powerful politician—any special challenges?

A: Well, I find that that’s how I describe everything I do—as a challenge. Yeah, I mean the challenge here, for an actor, would be some of the speeches. At that time, they didn’t have microphones. Where a real politician today might do a four-city or five-city tour in a day and do four or five presentations of his speech, it’s always into a microphone. I was doing 30 presentations on a given day—you know, on different takes and new set-ups—without a microphone, so I would say that was a challenge. I hadn’t been on the stage in a long time. I hadn’t exactly warmed up my pipes.

Q: It’s also a much more flamboyant oratorical style than what you see from most politicians today.

A: Yeah. Well, this stuff’s evangelically based, you know—you can hear it in the language from the original story.

Q: The reason I asked about whether this role had appeal to you at this point in your life is that you’ve been politically active of late. You’ve published an open letter to George

Bush in the Washington Post You’ve been outspoken on the war in Iraq. You visited Iraq and Iran, you were in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Apart from this role, it seems politics has now become more interesting to you.

A: I think I’ve always been interested in politics. I think the way things have gone astray, it’s more necessary for people to get engaged or involved now, but I have always been interested. I don’t think anything has changed in me, but things have changed around me, as far as which way the wind blows, you know.

Q: When you see things going on in the world that you want to comment on, why do it through activism or by writing letters? Are there things that you can’t do through your art, through acting or directing?

I think you gotta pick up the knife that’s on the table, you know?

Q: But you write, direct and act—aren’t you perfectly capable of expressing yourself through your art?

A: Yeah, but you still don’t know on any given morning what you’re going to pick up. Sometimes, in politics, in the real world here, things need an immediate reaction. For me, maybe it’s lack of patience. You know, I really don’t distinguish between the knives on the table. If I need a knife, I pick up a knife. But, to your point, I do think it’s possible to express myself through art. I think you would have to write your own material, it would

have to be some version of a direct expression of what it is that you’re concerned with at that time, whether it’s fictionalized or not, or a political film or not. Certainly I think it’s possible to speak to anything through art, and there’s some great examples of lasting, influential—politically influential—art

Q What stands out for you?

A: Most of the early days of Bob Dylan stand out pretty good. Woody Guthrie.

Q: So you could see yourself doing something like that, making a movie with direct political intent?

A: Yeah, but it couldn’t start there. I mean, the things that I’m interested in start somewhere else, somewhere below the head, but if that was possible I’d like to do it. Like this movie—if I had the writing chops, I would have loved to have written something like this, you know? It might have related, as Warren’s did, very closely to things happening at that time. As it turns out, that’s not where I originate ideas that I want to do, creatively, but I definitely do with journalism.

Q: You recently did some reporting from the Middle East for the San Francisco Chronicle. Was that a one-off or do you plan to do more ofit?

A: Oh, no, it’s not a one-off. I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s going to be necessary for everybody to comment on, as much as they have in them to comment, so yeah, I’m sure I’ll keep doing it.

Q: You’ve taken some heat, as do a lot of actors and celebrities, for your causes. The South Park guys have made fun of you. And it has to be said that the whole idea of a Hollywood activist has become something of a cliché—people hear the phrase and they roll their eyes or get kind of suspicious.

A: They’re suspicious of it, but they’ll put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s seat, you know? At the end of the day, people know it’s not about who gets attacked. They know that the more times citizens—all of us—speak up, the better. Some people might write you off immediately, but I’m not going to participate in the culture of dismissal. If somebody gets saddled with a cliché, if that’s what you have to carry on your back, so be it. The people who dismiss you will miss the opportunity of hearing what you’re saying at that time, but it still gets out there in the psyche of the people when someone speaks out on something, whoever it is.

Q: Does it bother you when you go out with good intentions and get that kind of response? A: I expect it every time.

Q: Have you ever thought about getting more directly involved? Ever had an urge to enlist or to run for office?

A: I certainly considered getting involved in the military when I was a kid. I don’t know exactly why. I mean, I was growing up in the time of a very failed military campaign in Vietnam, but there was still my own father’s history and we had pride in that as his children.

Q: He was a tail gunner?

A: He was a tail gunner and bombardier. But in terms of actually running for office or something, that’s not very likely, for sure.

Q: Why not?

A: Not interested.

Q: Not interested in what part ofit?

A: It’s a media-controlled enterprise.

Q: How’s that different from what you’re in now?

A: You can squeeze a lot of truth into what I do now. I don’t see that happening in politics.

Q: Does that not present a challenge, an opportunity to do things differently?

A: Yeah, it’s a challenge because I believe that leaders do rise every once in a while, but it’s not a challenge for me. One thing you have to be aware of—what talents you have and what talents you don’t have.

Q: What made you want to enlist, aside from your father’s legacy? Was it a particular moment in your life?

A: That’s a good question because, you know, one of the things that we count on in recruiting for the armed forces is people’s need for identity. We also promise them brotherhood, the family and the manliness, and when you’re young these things are hard to come by, and they’re more and more necessary. So I think that’s what appealed to me.

Q: When did you consider this?

A: When I was 17.

Q: What was your immediate response to 9/11?

A Well, it’s hard to say what my immediate response was. I mean, we’ve all had time to digest it now. One of my first responses, I suppose, was what business do I have to take care of, to look after my family, and so on. What adjustments do I have to make to my life? But I guess my very first reaction was to think back to the night before. I was in New York the evening of Sept. 10, and there were about six of us and we’d spent the whole night, until about four in the morning, talking about the possibility

of a domestic terrorist attack in the United States. I was like the last guy to leave. And then I woke up the next morning...

Q: Why were you talking about domestic terrorism at that moment?

A: I don’t really remember.

Q: What side of the question were you on— did you think an attack was likely?

A: I was making the case that it was inevitable.

Q: Were you in the minority?

A: I don’t know if I was just shooting shit or if I meant it.

Q :And, now, looking back?

A: Well, mostly I guess when I think of it— outside the human loss aspect of it—it was an incredible missed opportunity to express any kind of positive American response. We had a golden moment there to be like a light at the end of the tunnel. However you

‘9/11—outside the human loss aspect of it—was an incredible missed opportunity to express any kind of positive American response’

describe that, it could have been great. But it went every which way but that.

Q: Is it your view that America can still claim a role of leadership and moral authority in the world?

A: Well, America’s got to reclaim it within their own borders first. I think they’ve got to be a real democracy before they start promoting democracy and identifying where they can help around the world. M