People don't usually think of Sean Penn as reclusive. His reputation is as a rebel: the guy who fired a handgun at helicopters the day he married Madonna in 1985, picked fights in bars, struck a photographer, and landed himself in jail in 1987. More recently, his political activism—he took out full-page antiwar ads in the Washington Post and later The New York Times —has drawn as much attention (a lot of it critical) as his starring roles in films such as Dead Man Walking (1995), Hurlyburly (1998), and I Am Sam (2001).
Yet for all the headlines, he rarely gives interviews. So when he agreed to let me talk with him at the home he shares with his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, and their two children just outside of San Francisco, I was jumping up and down with excitement. Right before our conversation, I watched his film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon , based on the true story of Sam Byck, who planned to kill the president in 1974 by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. Penn's performance as Byck is one of his most provocative. When I finally sit across from the actor, I find a man who couldn't be more different from the way he's been labeled.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Sean Penn
Note: This interview appeared in the January 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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.
Oprah: Are you one of those people who can leave the character in the trailer and come home and take the kids out?
Sean: No. I don't necessarily bring home every tragedy I'm playing. But there are rhythms. What I took home with Assassination was deep insecurity and failure.
Oprah: And Byck moving into his psychosis.
Sean: Right. I live in the energy and rhythm of the character. To some degree, that's true of every actor I've worked with.
Oprah: When you're playing a role like Byck, how difficult are you to live with?
Sean: That wasn't a pretty time.
Oprah: When you watch the film now, what do you think?
Sean: I get a kick out of it. I see all the funny stuff.
Oprah: And what might that be?
Sean: Oh, I mean cringe funny. When my wife, Robin, and I saw it, she had her fingernails in my hand. She was like, "I'm married to that man?"
Oprah: When you look at it in terms of people who feel disenfranchised, do you think it's more relevant now than it was four years ago?
Sean: Oh, yes. It's also politically provocative. There's a linguistics professor over at Berkeley [George Lakoff] who says that since 9/11, people don't vote based on self-interests or national interests—they vote their identity. If one considers George Bush to be a person whose fundamental nature is deep insecurity, as I do, do people take comfort in the familiarity they have with that? With his fear? With his identity not of courage but of bravado? I think they do. The law I have in movies is that people don't always know when they're being lied to, but they always know when they're being told the truth. So there's a consciousness now that seems not to want to know the truth—and to be grateful for that. You go with what's comfortable when you don't feel you can take comfort in what's going on. I see a lot of the Bush administration in Sam Byck. Sam acts with an absolutism in lieu of wisdom.
Oprah: What made you write the open letter to President Bush in the Washington Post in 2002, urging him not to wage war on Iraq?
Sean: I was going nuts with all these chicken hawks on TV talking their garbage. An actor's job is to look for truth in people's behavior. And I don't mind saying that I consider myself an expert. I knew what I was hearing was full of shit. And I know that my kids are going to grow up in the result of it. Bit by bit, it got me nuts. Angry.
Oprah: You knew you'd get criticism. What was your intention in writing the letter?
Sean: Somebody had to. Part of my anger was about Hollywood. Everybody was being quiet. I probably would've written the letter sooner if I hadn't thought so-and-so would do it before I did. I was like, "Let's get this conversation started."
Oprah: Did it work?
Sean: It helped. I didn't want to keep working in a movie business that was silent about this. I was ashamed of it.
Oprah: Is what you wrote in that letter what your friends and associates were talking about?
Sean: At the time, I hadn't been associating with too many people. I get up at 6:45—30 minutes before the kids leave. Robin usually gets things started before we see them off to school. Then we'll go have breakfast and come back here and read. So I was just at home, sitting around. Once the letter was published, it became an invitation for people who wanted to talk about it. That's how I met Norman Solomon from the Institute for Public Accuracy. He's the guy I went to Baghdad with the first time.
Oprah: Why did you go to Baghdad?
Sean: I wanted to have a full sense of the place. I didn't need to be convinced that people are people anywhere. I had that predisposition. But nonetheless, we were going to blow them up, and I felt like I hadn't paid enough attention to the last election. I knew my taxes were going to pay for some of the killing. Other times I could idealistically think about being the kind of person who cares what that means. This was the first time I really did.
After the trip, I realized that you don't have to understand people's religion or culture. You can understand people's hearts—and it's the same heart everywhere. In a sense, I was the choir to be preached to, but you can underestimate the power of preaching to the choir because a lot of times, the choir doesn't do anything.
Oprah: They just "amen" you. After you wrote the letter and took the trip, were you prepared to be called a traitor?
Sean: Oh, yes. I could have written the script of what would happen. I was kind of looking forward to it.
Oprah: You were looking forward to being called unpatriotic?
Sean: More than ever, I knew how patriotic I was. I knew others' responses [sparking more public debate] would have a stronger impact than any letter I could write. I wanted to light the fuse.
Oprah: When the American people started to question whether there had been weapons of mass destruction, did you feel vindicated?
Sean: No. That was coming with or without me. I talked to the weapons inspector [Scott Ritter] who had run the show for UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission]. He'd been the alpha dog who'd say, "We're going to piss on every wall, and they're going to know they've been inspected." He explained the science to me. It would be easy to think that in a place the size of California with a lot of desolate terrain, you could hide things. You can't. It turns out that each one of a six-man team takes 1,000 square miles with three lasers triangulating them. Anything that's buried, even in mile-wide lead six miles down, they'd detect. All those inspectors knew there was nothing there. It's possible that weapons had been moved out to Syria. But they weren't in Iraq. I don't think that information got out to people enough.
Oprah: How do you define your job now?
Sean: It's all one job. See my hand? Acting is like another side of my hand. As a profession, it mutates into something with broader obligations. I'm not just acting in regional theater. I'm a known person.
Oprah: What are your unshaken beliefs?
Sean: There's a scene in this piece I once wrote. A mentally disabled younger brother keeps getting in trouble because he trusts people. His older brother is fed up with having to bail him out. He says, "Why do you always trust people?" The younger brother says, "That way, when I'm right, I'm ready." My belief is that I've got to be ready for when good things happen. Oddly enough, I'm very optimistic.
Oprah: What has been the biggest misconception about you?
Sean: That I'm not aware of my own ridiculousness. I don't give a lot of clues that I'm aware. I'm aware of that, too.
Oprah: Are you trying to be mysterious?
Sean: This might be the last thing anybody would see, but I'm probably shy. I've never gone to a party where I didn't drink alcohol. I have a great time, but I'm not comfortable. My straight nature is not very social. That doesn't mean I haven't caught myself being terribly arrogant.
Oprah: Before I came here, several people told me, "You have to watch out for Sean because he's a bad boy and he shot at helicopters." I said, "Those are all media stories."
Sean: Well, I did shoot at the helicopter.
Oprah: That's just one story, one day—not the whole person.
Sean: When someone tells a story about you, they want a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's the problem with stories about people: You can't really do a beginning, middle, and end in a literal way. All true stories end in death finally, but even still, it's tricky.
Oprah: Have you mellowed?
Sean: No. I don't believe people change that much. And I'm not necessarily a big believer that they have to. There's a lot more good to be had in recovering from forgetting who you are than there is in discovering who you are. People's innocence gets hurt early on and they go away from themselves.
Oprah: When I ask whether you've mellowed, I'm asking: Would you shoot at the helicopter today?
Sean: I would feel just as disgusted by the behavior that led me to do it. There's mellowing internally and there's mellowing externally. I suppose I'm more practical now about a couple of things. I went to jail afterward. Not so bad, but it would be terrible today. My kids. I wouldn't do anything like that now.
Oprah: What about hitting a photographer?
Sean: That story has been mistold a million times.
Oprah: What really happened?
Sean: Three incidents in a row is what happened. There was a guy who had lied to my face years before, and after I'd had a few, I hit him. I didn't want him to get back up because he was bigger than me, so I picked up a chair. That became "assault with a deadly weapon," which I had reason to believe could be reduced to a simple battery thing that I could fight. While I was awaiting arraignment a week later, I was driving back from San Pedro—I'd been drinking and the cops pulled me over. A week after that, I was on a movie set and this guy took a picture in the middle of a scene. I went over and said something to him, and he spit at me. So I hit him. With three arrests in three weeks, I had to do time. Many of the details didn't come out because I made a deal for 60 days that ended up being 34.
Oprah: How was jail?
Oprah: Bet you read a lot.
Sean: I was able to send my reading material ahead of time. They have to go through every page to make sure you're not hiding contraband. When I got there, I found out what concentrated time will do. After two days, I'd read everything, including the complete essays of Montaigne. A lot of guys in prison are incredibly well read.
Oprah: They're reading stuff I wish I had time to read. What did your marriage to Madonna [which ended in 1989] teach you?
Sean: It was a good thing. Well, it was a miserable marriage, but I like her a lot. It got me steps further and clearer into knowing what I wanted. I still had a lot of demon doors to go through.
Oprah: For a shy guy, that marriage must have been like stepping into the reinvention pool of life.
Sean: When we married, there was no anticipating what was to come.
Oprah: Had she done Material Girl?
Sean: I met her on the shoot of that video. Madonna had done Like a Virgin, so she was a phenom, but nothing could have told anybody what would happen next. I describe that marriage as loud. That's how I remember it. And frankly, I don't recall having a single conversation in four years of marriage. I've talked to her a couple of times since, and there's a whole person there. I just didn't know it.
Oprah: What was going on while you were married?
Sean: I don't have a clue. I was 24 when I married, and I was just living in my own head. Who was it that said, "Men are vain, particularly young men"? That was me—and I sure liked to drink a lot. I'm not saying it was meaningless. I've carried over the lessons to things more applicable now.
Oprah: What is it about you and Robin that works?
Sean: It's a meant-to-be deal. I trust her. But none of it comes easy.
Oprah: In your ad in The New York Times [in 2003], you included a quote by William Saroyan: "In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches." Is that how you live?
Sean: I certainly aspire to. Those words make more sense to me than the Bible. It's shorter, and it says it all to me. If I'd written that, I'd feel I never had to write again. And that was written by a wife beater, by the way.
Oprah: Go figure. I love that quote. Now that I know he was a wife beater, I'll have to rethink that. What do you know for sure, Sean?
Sean: In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sam says, "Certainty is the disease of kings, and I'm not a king." In acting and moviemaking, the greatest thing is not knowing. What I know for sure is that it's all a mystery—and it's good that way. Words limit us, because words are about right or wrong, good or bad. You have a truth that's bigger than those words, and you follow it and it tells you what to do. And unless you're pathological, that's generally productive.
Oprah: What is your ultimate truth?
Sean: Change. When Marlon Brando died, I was talking to somebody about this. Once upon a time, it might have served an actor to try to be the best. That's not going to happen now. There's never going to be a better actor than Marlon Brando. There will be different actors. What he's done is infinite. You can find new poetry in his work every time you look at it. You're never going to have better music than Tchaikovsky. We're liberated from being better. I'm not going to have a better day, a more magical moment, than the first time I heard my daughter giggle. Tomorrow's not going to be better than that. So why invest in better? If God spoke to me right now and told me that I would never have greater stimuli than I have right now, that wouldn't worry me. It's all about how you celebrate the stimuli you have.
Oprah: I love that. Is that why you've skipped awards ceremonies?
Sean: There is no best performance. But not going to awards ceremonies has more to do with my social discomfort than with a purist thing. God forbid you get drunk beforehand and they call you up there. Then there's the media thing. They start acting like high-schoolers, pitting people against each other and betting in Vegas. Bill Murray and I are supposed to hate each other. It's all so sophomoric.
Oprah: Why did you go to the last Academy Awards?
Sean: Before I was nominated, my mother called me up and said, "Captain Kangaroo died today. He was 76. I'm 77. You're taking me to the Oscars ball this year." I said, "Mom, I'm not even nominated." She said, "Don't be silly!" Then I felt I'd been given a big gift by Clint Eastwood to do Mystic River. Clint was like a life lesson for me. Also, there was so much going on in the world that I would have been embarrassed at being perceived as taking some kind of a stand about that [the awards].
Oprah: How was Clint a life lesson?
Sean: He has a quiet dignity. He was very strong and great to be around.
Oprah: What did it mean to you to stand before your peers and accept that Oscar?
Sean: It was a relief to have the night over with. I don't care what anybody says, you're surprised when you hear your name called. It's like if you scratch one of those tickets, you never expect it to say you've won $25. So the surprise makes me nervous. I saw my mother's face and Clint's face, and that was going to bust me. I had to look past them.
Oprah: What were you feeling when everybody rose to their feet? That was cool.
Sean: I had only one line prepared, which was "I'm the living proof that this is not a popularity contest." But how do you say that when they're standing? [Laughs.] I didn't feel I did something better than I'd done before, but I did do something I was very proud of.
Oprah: People have said that your performance as Sam Byck is one of your finest.
Sean: It was the hardest thing I've ever done. My wife thinks it's the best. I don't call it my best, because either I've done something well or I haven't. I think I did this one well. I'd go back and fix some things in everything I've done. Usually, if I've done something really well, I'd only reshoot half the film.
Oprah: What feeling do you want people to walk away with after one of your movies?
Sean: I want them to think there's a possibility that things can change. In a book called Freedom from the Known, Krishnamurti writes that the greatest violence one person can do to another in an intimate relationship is to say "You can't change." That's the bullet.
When you leave the theater. you're either more alone or you're less alone. If there's a single thing I want people to take away from my films, I want them to walk away feeling less alone.