Sean Penn Unmasks ‘The End’ of the Acting Blues (Guest Column)

Sean Penn Acting Blues Variety Guest
AP Photo/Michel Euler

From 500 B.C. to 300 B.C., actors of the Greek theatre wore the masks of comedy and tragedy–those that had come to be the representative symbols of the craft of acting, and the expression of the actor. Somewhere along the line, acting found its way more into a profession than expression. Today, those masks represent a union, or more accurately, a guild of actors that work to protect business with little or no focus on the protection of creative expression.

Throughout my own career as an actor, I’ve worked hard to avoid that label; to find projects that I felt I could serve well in their expression. I tried to avoid careerism.  I have had my share of transgressions. Yet overall, my care for the work was such that I sought a body of work that would, within my own limitations, express my generation’s experience.

Now, in my mid-fifties, thirty five plus years into that career, I have found myself often, slumping into a depression over my own observation of the disparity between those Greek expressions of comedy and tragedy, and a generation of actors today, who so ubiquitously find expression itself passé, and seem to make movies simply for the purpose of selling them and less so the making of them. I felt surrounded, and it led to several bouts of depression.

Depression led me to a writer named David Foster Wallace. I began with a brilliant biography of Wallace, written by a New Yorker writer, D.T. Max. In his book on Wallace, he quotes him saying “…you are sickness yourself…you realize all this, here. And that, I guess, is…when you look at the black hole and it’s wearing your face.”

I dove in to Wallace’s writing; his “Infinite Jest,” his “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (acting?).  And from his writing, I went to YouTube and watched his television interviews, most significantly, with Charlie Rose. David Foster Wallace was already dead. Committed suicide at the age of forty-six. This man, who was suddenly making me feel less alone, a man of poetic idiosyncrasy, and extraordinary honesty about himself and the human condition, this  man, who I’d felt such a kinship with was already dead and buried.

No, no, no!! No, no, no!! I wasn’t ready to let him go. So, BOOM, I know what I’ll do. I’ll make a movie about him. That will certainly keep him alive. But there was a problem. Who on earth could play him? Who was the actor less invested in advertising, or in the politeness of profession than in actually suiting up and getting inside of Wallace? Who had the range, the physical and mental structure to play David Foster Wallace? The answer came quickly:  There wasn’t one.

I put up my white flag and marched forward. Perhaps it was enough, just knowing his voice had been heard. A few years passed, and I boarded a plane to the Middle East. En route, I went through the airline film selections, “Don’t wanna see that.” “Don’t wanna see that.” “Don’t wanna see that.” “Don’t wanna see that.” Then the title “End of the Tour” came up, if only because it was the first among the titles I’d passed on that I’d never heard of before. I read the brief summary. “Jesus Christ, they made a movie about David Foster Wallace.” And there it was. Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace.

I had enjoyed Jason Segel in a host of comedies my kids had forced me to watch. I knew he was talented. I knew there was no more challenging form than comedy. BUT AS DAVID FOSTER WALLACE?! Do I want to see this!? Or is this going to drive me into the current location of Mister Wallace himself? I decided there was no better place to be brave than in a six thousand ton machine, twenty five thousand feet above the ocean, entirely out of my own control.  So I gave it a go.

I pressed “play.” I sat for 106 minutes. For maybe ten of those minutes, was I not weeping. It wasn’t just a wonderful film. It wasn’t just the writer’s intelligent selection from Foster Wallace’s public works to the creation of dialogue and behavior that so well had matched my own experience of Wallace. It wasn’t just the assured direction, or the generous performance of his co-lead. What it was, most significantly, was the realization that I was seeing a real actor, a real person, in Jason Segel. From a generation so dominated by human advertisements, calling themselves human actors. I was seeing in Jason Segel not the selling of a film, but the making of one–the pure, intelligent, sad, funny, human embodiment of the origin of those Greek masks.

Something about this experience flooded my brain with dopamine. It just made me happy. And it still does. There’s an actor out there, I thought. Good.

Sean Penn, who is critically acclaimed for his dramatic turns in films such as “Dead Man Walking,” “I Am Sam,” “Milk” and “Into the Wild,” is also known for his political and social activism, including his humanitarian work in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.