Oprah Talks to Sean Penn
Oprah: You have a reputation for being antipress. Are you?
Sean: Selling a movie feels like a hustle to every bone in my body. Many actors have careers dominated by modeling. They're all over the place. It turns me off. People who are good at what they do ought to practice something bigger.
Oprah: Do you have your own set of rules about what roles you'll take?
Sean: I choose movies that I think will speak to what's important. I was getting ready to make a movie when 9/11 happened. I decided to get out of it. If I have any rule, it's that if you're talking about yesterday, it should somehow relate to an understanding of today and tomorrow.
Oprah: Why did you make I Am Sam [a movie about a mentally retarded man who teaches a lawyer about love and family]? That's as close to heartwarming as you've come.
Sean: [Laughs.] That was an interesting challenge. Craft comes into acting later rather than sooner. I was somebody who had to learn through a process—a natural actor doesn't need to.
Oprah: Who's more natural than you are?
Sean: Some people just have it and others don't. For me [the craft] was hard-earned. My mother came to the first play I did. She said, "Well, you were just awful. You've got to have something to fall back on." She was dead right. But I got with a repertory company, and bit by bit I began to find out how to use whatever gifts I had. How many ways can you use yourself to tell a story that won't be the same one that'll bore the hell out of you?
Oprah: Why did you do Mystic River?
Sean: Clint Eastwood handed me a script and said, "Read it and see what you think." I wasn't interested because the theme was too similar to a movie I'd just made. But I really like Clint and we've had a lot of chuckles. A year later, he called again and I figured, "This guy will never talk to you again if you turn him down." I got about ten pages into the script when I called him and said, "This just hammers me."
Oprah: Do you often know after ten pages?
Sean: Yes. I'm usually sitting on this couch, and if I make it to page 11, I start looking at my calendar to see if I can do it.
Oprah: What about your upcoming film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon?
Sean: It's just good luck that the movie speaks to what's current. In some respects, you could call it bad luck. I was working on this for several years before 9/11. At the time, I thought, "The guy who wrote this wants me to do it and he should have what he wants because he's up to something important." I came to regret it because it was the most miserable shoot ever. [Laughs.] You saw the movie. There's not a lot of time spent with dancing girls.
Oprah: It's dark.
Sean: I think Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing; I love having written." I hated making this movie, but I love having made it.
Oprah: Because you had to play the main character, Sam Byck?
Sean: Yes. His whole world was just disturbing every day.