In the early 1990s, after his brief marriage to Madonna made him tabloid fodder, Sean Penn turned his back on acting to concentrate on directing and writing.
His retirement was short-lived.
The subsequent decades brought Oscar-winning turns in “Mystic River” and “Milk,” along with memorable performances in the likes of “Dead Man Walking” that cemented his reputation as an acting great.
But those early threats of retirement reveal Penn’s long-felt discomfort with being a creature of Hollywood, and point to a contradiction in his public persona. While the entertainment business is part of his DNA, he seems to find his greatest fulfillment far from the klieg lights.
Both sides of Penn were on display last week, when the actor whipped up a media firestorm after his blockbuster interview with Mexican druglord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman appeared in Rolling Stone. The piece, a rambling first-person account of his efforts to secure the interview, followed by a Q&A with his subject, has sparked a larger debate about the perils of celebrity journalism.
Although his fame and celluloid pedigree granted Penn an audience with the cartel baron, the reluctant movie star might shirk from being branded a celebrity. Like Marlon Brando, whose Method actor intensity is closely mirrored in Penn’s own style, he is eager to use his clout to draw attention to the world’s ills.
Acting was a burden for Brando. He electrified the movie-going public with “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather,” but was more comfortable embracing the role of crusader, lecturing the world about its indifference to the plight of Native Americans and South Africans under apartheid.
Penn is another rebel with a cause. From his work marshalling disaster relief in earthquake-ravaged Haiti or post-Katrina New Orleans, to his reporting jaunts to Iraq on the eve of war, Penn has transcended movie stardom, and he is a cowboy playing by his own rules.
He doesn’t just sip Chablis at charity functions or grip and grin through trips to Capitol Hill. He immerses himself in projects, and is on the ground manning rescue boats, sleeping in tents, or hauling bags of donated food.
“We thought he was going to be like one of the celebrities who don’t spend the night,” Maryse Kedar, president of an education foundation in Haiti, told the Christian Science Monitor. “Haiti became his second home.”
In the process, Penn’s career seemingly has been an afterthought. His recent roles in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Gangster Squad” and “The Gunman” remain curiosities at best. For one reason or another, he’s passed on parts more worthy of his stature, such as the villainous fur trapper in “The Revenant” that was ultimately played by Tom Hardy.
While his political stances and his willingness to rub shoulders with the likes of Chavez have generated media attention, they’ve also made him a bete noire of the right. At a time when many celebrities employ armies of handlers and spin doctors to help them steer clear of controversy, Penn seems to seek it out.
He has the air of a person who could take or leave fame, an icon for whom walking the red carpet is a Sisyphean task. The roles that he specializes in — the brooding, tormented men with fractured moral compasses in films like “Mystic River” or “Casualties of War” — are out of step with popular tastes. This is an era of comic-book movies, where right and wrong are laid out in black and white. Rather than don spandex and join the Avengers, Penn does his heroic gallivanting off screen.
Perhaps his childhood is key to understanding his tortured relationship with the craft that’s made him rich and famous. Penn grew up in Malibu, the son of actor and director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. In Rolling Stone, Sean describes his upbringing as middle class, but, income aside, his parents’ Tinseltown circle included industry giants Jason Robards and George C. Scott.
That has instilled in Penn an abiding appreciation for acting as an art form, but his lineage has left him well schooled in the commercial aspect of the business. He was also able to observe firsthand the industry’s skill at ostracization, after his father’s career was derailed by his refusal to name names as part of the 1950s blacklist.
If Leo Penn’s travails provoked Sean’s jaundiced view of Hollywood, then his mother is partly responsible for inspiring his activist streak.
In a 2006 New Yorker profile, Penn said he inherited from Ryan an “unyielding attention to what we would perceive as injustice.” That comes through in his public pronouncements, far-flung excursions and efforts to try to make sense of and insert himself into the world around him.
His quest to understand the darker elements of the human experience is why he remains a riveting icon, and it is the same fixation that led him to El Chapo’s jungle hideaway.