Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn addressed his disappointment with the general state of moviemaking in Hollywood and how he, at one point, even considered retiring from acting.
“I’m 54 years old, I’ve smoked a lot,” said the star of the upcoming drama The Gunman, which opens March 20, “so I don’t know how much time I’ll [have], you know? We’ll see. I will probably act many more times, but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t. If I don’t make a few of the films I want to make as a director, I’ll be disappointed.”
The actor spoke before students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV on March 4. In a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed the 1950s Hollywood blacklist, attempts to improve conditions in Haiti (where Penn has been running a refugee camp) and the state of American film, Penn — who was taking part in the school’s ongoing “Hollywood Masters” interview series moderated by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Galloway — also recalled one especially unusual encounter: with serial killer Richard Ramirez.
“He wrote me [a letter],” said Penn. “I was down here on Bauchet Street, in L.A County Jail, in the cell kind of across from him. And after about a month of seeing each other around, he wanted my autograph. So he sent one of the deputies over, [and the] deputy came to my cell and told me: ‘Hey, Richard Ramirez wants your autograph.’ And I didn’t trust the deputy because I’d gotten in some trouble inside there and just passing a piece of paper is contraband, so you can get extra days for that, and I already had extra days and I didn’t want more. So I said, ‘Bring the sergeant down here, and I’ll talk to him and if he approves it. Then I want him to write something first and I’ll write him something back.’ So the sergeant came down and approved it, and they went over to Ramirez — this guard basically wanted to play Cupid, in some way. So, I get this thing from him and it says, ‘Hey, Sean, stay tough and hit them again — Richard Ramirez, 666,’ with a pentagram and a rendition of the devil.”
Penn wrote back: “I said, ‘You know, Richard, it’s impossible to be incarcerated and not feel a certain kinship with your fellow inmates. Well, Richard, I’ve done the impossible, I feel absolutely no kinship with you. And I hope gas descends upon you before sanity does, you know? It would be a kinder way out.’ And they gave it to him. And then my house burned down years later, and that damn thing of his burned with it.”
The filmmaker and actor, whose pictures include Mystic River, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dead Man Walking, also spoke about his disappointment with the current state of motion pictures, which led him to consider retiring as an actor at one point.
“I really got disenchanted,” he said, “and I thought I was done. I’m born in 1960, so that puts me in what — for anybody who’s studying film should know — is an extraordinary age of ‘eating’ cinema. You know, if you’re going to the restaurant of cinema, in the 1970s in this country, every weekend is an event that has lasted to this day. I mean, such extraordinary American films. That was what I was entering, that’s the business that I’m going into. [But] it died with another cinema’s [birth]. At that time, the very best art films were the biggest movies of the year. And people in Hollywood dined out on, ‘Oh, you know, we made $60 million.’ And then Jaws came out, and $60 million was like Dr. Evil saying ‘$1 million!’ It started to move toward where it is today. Rather than building a career as an actor, you’re looking to win a contest to be in a movie. It’s different. You know, Dustin Hoffman said — I had dinner with him one night — and he said, ‘You’re not retired, you’re disappointed.’ “
Penn addressed his ongoing issues with the invasion of privacy to which public figures are subject. “I hear people talk about privacy and the importance of privacy, and now that Pandora’s box has opened with social media, the Internet and so on,” he said, “and virtually anybody can be hacked — and will be. And I believe that, within a year from now, any wife or husband, any parent, is going to be able to access everybody’s entire email history and text history and photography history, no matter how many times you’ve deleted it. Everybody’s going to have access to everyone’s history, and all of it’s going to come out. Do I care a lot about people’s privacy and how that’s going to affect them? Not if they ever bought a People magazine because they’ve been doing it to me for 30 f—ng years. Guess what, you know? The only way you deserve privacy is if you promote privacy. And the culture has not. It’s run around, pulling people’s pants down like a bunch of silly children. And I just think it’s taken us down a notch in everything that we aspire to.”
Asked about the status of the refugee camp he has operated since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he replied: “We’ve relocated all 60,000 [refugees in the camp],” while acknowledging that, at one point, the sheer scale of the disaster proved almost too much. “The only time that I was really overwhelmed was a month after we arrived,” he said. “I had gotten to know Port-au-Prince [well]. And all of those references had disappeared. It all felt fixable, until I went up in a helicopter the first time, and we were delivering some supplies across the country. [There was] an incredible amount of pain, and just for a moment I felt that it could never be fixed.”
Watch the video of the Q&A below, and read the full transcript starting on the next page.
GALLOWAY: Hi everyone. I’m Stephen Galloway and welcome to the Hollywood Masters filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. I don’t need to talk about our guest. I don’t like to use superlatives, but you can’t avoid them. He is the greatest actor of his generation. He’s one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen on screen and I urge you to do what I’ve done the past week which is I went through his films to choose clips and when you watch them in a row it’s astonishing. He’s also really a humanitarian on a very great level and we’re going to talk about that, that’s how we’re going to start this interview. But first, let me welcome two-time Oscar winner, Sean Penn. [APPLAUSE] Hi. Thank you. Thanks. Lovely to see you, thank you for coming.
PENN: It’s great to be here.
GALLOWAY: January 2010, huge turning point in your life. There’s a massive earthquake in Haiti and you decided to take action and go out there. Where were you when that happened and what was going through your mind?
PENN: Well I had been in a… I had gotten divorced earlier that year and my son was still finishing a couple of years of high school and he was with me so I had kind of cleaned my slate professionally at that point anticipating that it might be for about two years. And about eight months… Well several months into that he had, had a traumatic brain injury. He’s fine now but it was very shaky at that time. And with that came, after surgery and so on, an enormous amount of pain and I remembered it had locked in my head when the morphine had gone into his veins and that he was finally out of pain for a period of time. Cut to a few months later he had a pretty miraculous recovery. And his mother had settled somewhere and she wanted to spend some time with him and he with her or I could say he wanted to get the hell away from…
GALLOWAY: I don’t think so.
PENN: Making him take his medication and do his homework. And so he wanted to spend some time with her and so he went. And I found myself without any professional obligations out of a nearly 20-year relationship and at that time 18 complete years of kids in the house for the first time able to do whatever I want. And without going into great detail for about four days I tried to do everything I wanted to do. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: You know, you can go into detail, it’s just for us.
PENN: Succeeding principally in exhausting myself. And so I’d discovered that the most available thing that was new to my life after 20 years was to be able to turn on the television at 4:00 in the afternoon and have nobody whine about it. And I turned on the television and it was the incredible whining of agony and the Haiti earthquake. And the very first thing that was reported when I turned on the television that there were absolutely no intravenous pain medications which of course hit that nerve having just had a son go through this. So I had worked with a couple of people post-Katrina hurricane and who I knew I could call upon who might be interested in going down and I’ve often said that you know an actor in Hollywood knows where to find narcotics, but not bulk narcotics. [LAUGHTER] And I got in touch… Through my first ex-wife, I got in touch with Paul Farmer who had an NGO.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
PENN: In Haiti. And I asked him what was the need? And it was the need for all the trauma centers and hospitals was roughly 350,000 vials of morphine. So from some of the… Because I… Sometimes I slum it as a journalist and I…
GALLOWAY: I’ve read your stuff as a journalist. It’s very good.
PENN: And through that some of those travels I had met and known President Chavez. And I thought he may be able to help here and I called and I said that I had a group of people, we were ready to go to Port of Prince if he could fly 350,000 vials of morphine to his embassy, we’d pick him up and rent some trucks and get mapping of where to distribute them from Paul Farmer and distribute them and he said yes. And so we put a group together, we found ourselves with some extra seats on the plane that we’d arranged to go in because there were no commercial flights going in so we needed to charter a plane. And so we got some doctors who were willing to go in and we’d farm them out to existing NGOs. And so we flew in. And I’d never been there before and it was quite an alarming arrival. And we got the doctors out and we started doing that. We started distributing these morphine and ketamine 24 hours a day.
PENN: And very soon after that and a couple of days into that we had found that the place we’d put up our tents which was just in a yard of a house that had been destroyed was very close to what turned out to be the biggest internally displaced camp in all of Haiti at that time which eventually swelled to 60,000 people in one camp. So we went and lived in that camp and one thing led to another, I wasn’t satisfied with the way that NGOs were working in general. The United Nations itself had taken an extraordinary hit, 100 people killed, some of their best people, the people that knew the groundwork. So things were extremely chaotic. And I’ve often thought that why we had a…
PENN: We had two particular values I think. One was that NGOs have, you know, a lot of their strategies come from models in other places and maybe some of them are adaptable and some aren’t and they struggle. Where we were more, you know, we were neutral, it was fresh. So our organization was born out of we only had the Haitian people to go to, to give us lead. And very quickly they became our lead. And so I think we became effective in a particular way for that reason which is what led me to stay because if you feel you can be effective, if you feel you offer it something.
PENN: And the other part was that organizing an NGO and dealing with emergent disaster relief in particular is exactly like filmmaking with higher stakes. But when we say we want to have a set ready, typically we want it ready yesterday and when you want to take… To save lives, you want that life saved yesterday, there’s no waiting. And so we had that kind of an attitude. And in the innocence of that we found that the only thing holding up other organizations were all the cautions they’d learned. And then we’ve always tried to hold onto that as we learn necessary cautions ourselves. And so that’s when…
GALLOWAY: When you say that you arrived and it was alarming, what did you see that was so alarming?
PENN: Well it was, you know, as soon as you were driving through the chaos of… Look, you have a country of a total of 10 million people and 250,000 of them die in 10 seconds, principally in the city we were in. So in that warm climate you’re landing to the smell of death and also the trauma of an entire population. We were there very soon after, maybe less than a week after the actual earthquake. But they were there as this happened and no one didn’t lose somebody. So it was not only that your world had crumbled, but loved ones, in many cases multiple loved ones vanished and in horrible deaths and so on. So this was, you know, you can only imagine that. It’s… You’re not landing in the Haiti before the earthquake, you’re landing in… It’s as if a bomb had just hit, so.
GALLOWAY: How did that impact you emotionally?
PENN: Well as it turns out I’m pretty good that way when I’m on the… You know, because when you’re on the ground you can… You have… You’re blessed with the arrogance that you can fix it, that you can help. As far as the eye can see, as long as you feel like you can… You can’t bring anybody back but that you can be of assistance here, that’s what your mind is on. I think the only time that I… You know, there were moments of course where you, you know, you feel incredible sadness for somebody’s plight or for you know if you are there when a child is lost or those particular triggers. But when something is this large you’re really looking for what part you can play to make it better. The only time that I was really overwhelmed was a month after we arrived because that was the first time I think I had gotten to know… In many ways I had gotten to know Port of Prince better than people who were from there because our drivers, like we are in whatever city we’re from, if you drive a city you get so… It becomes so seconds-nature that I know that, that building… I might never have paid attention to what street that is, I know that’s where I make that left.
PENN: And so all of those references had disappeared. So where our own drivers would get lost, we knew which rubble pile to go around because that’s how we saw it. It was our only frame of reference. So having seen the entire city at all hours of the day and night, but only from the ground, that was one thing and it all felt fixable until I went up in a helicopter the first time and we were delivering some supplies across the country. Even now it’s that… It became that awesome, incredible amount of pain and it just you know for a moment felt that it could never be fixed. You know, that, that… At that point. But you know with an incredible amount of fortitude of the Haitian people it’s now, you know, the recovery from the earthquake itself is relatively complete. You’ll never get back the lives, certainly they’re all out of… There’s a housing shortage, but there was a housing shortage to begin with. And it was a poverty earthquake in a poverty zone where that was still gonna be the problem and it’s the principal thing that we deal as we move from emergency relief into development that we deal with now in Haiti.
PENN: But you know there were 1.6, 1.7 million people displaced and I think today there’s remaining about 65,000 total in the country displaced.
GALLOWAY: How many in your refugee camp now?
PENN: None. We’ve relocated all 60,000.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. I have to tell you, you know, I went a year off the earthquake and I spent Christmas with Penn. Having had lunch at that little place, you needed a cigarette, do you remember?
GALLOWAY: And I had never seen anything like it. I mean you know I was just saying to [LMU Film School] Dean Ujlaki that it was like a bad fiction film. You got off whatever that main road is and every building looks as if it’s been exploded, a bomb was exploded in it and you’d see some women outside with, you know, washing themselves with a huge bowl and a friend washing their hair. And it was astonishing.
PENN: It was great having you there because we had, had some journalists and believe it or not journalists and many who’d been in conflict zones were fearful in Haiti and it was nice to be with someone who didn’t seem at all fearful.
GALLOWAY: No, I didn’t feel that, yeah.
PENN: It seemed like you had the same interest and we… Yeah, it was a very… I was really glad that you came.
GALLOWAY: And but you’re being modest too because he’d run a camp of 50,000 people and you’d walk through this camp, it’s like a whole little town. There are tents with people with cholera, there was some people just broken in, do you remember on the side you had a gun with you. Am I allowed to say that? And, you know, and then we went in one of the worst slums in the world and there’s this little guy who’s running the slum and you were negotiating with him. It’s just an amazing experience. Where did that come from in you? Who instilled the seed of empathy that led you? Was it your father? Penn’s father was the great blacklisted actor and television director. Was he the one who influenced you?
PENN: I don’t know. I’d have to start by accusing myself of empathy. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: You [OVERLAP] that.
PENN: Like you know I think I’ve been asked a lot especially when it comes to you know things that I’ve been perhaps outspoken on politically and so on, how much that was connected to my father and certainly all of us are sponges to our parents and so I have to assume he had a tremendous amount to do with a lot of aspects of who I have become as a person and things that are important to me. But I don’t have that… I don’t know that I recognize the direct… Because he was such a gentle spirit and he was one to let his children find their own way and their own interests and so on. So there was not a lot of indoctrination. But he shared well and I’m sure that, you know, in fact…
GALLOWAY: Do you think of yourself as a gentle spirit?
PENN: These are percentage deals. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Well give us a percentage.
PENN: Well it’s kind of like the 23 and a half hour a day atheist, you know.
PENN: Which I am. And radically atheist except for that half hour a day. Not entirely.
GALLOWAY: How aware were you of the Blacklist? Do you all know about the Blacklist and McCarthyism? How aware were you of that and how much did it influence your life? And by the way, I was reading a book about you and I didn’t realize that Martin Ritt, Marty Ritt who’s a great director had helped your dad and he was my mentor growing up.
PENN: Oh is that right?
GALLOWAY: So how much did that cast a shadow over your upbringing?
PENN: Well it was among… I would say that civics… I wouldn’t have known to describe it with that word, but that civics were discussed quite a bit. More with my father than my mother, but in the family. And what was always, I think my principal feeling of that or confusion about that was that if you take a young, first-generation immigrant, put him through the depression and then he enlists to fight for his country at 17 years old, you have a life expectancy on his particular missions of seven missions. So after that they’re all voluntary and he and the rest of his crew volunteer to 37 and are shot down twice and continue to go back. Come back after several years in the European theater.
GALLOWAY: In World War II?
PENN: Yeah. And just a few years later be told you can’t work for the country in the country that you fought for. I would say that, that would create a bit of bitterness in me. He never had it. He was… He saw, he had a personality that absorbed those things much more as a… I think he so believed in the country and the ideals of the country that he could see it as a stage. It’s a stage that repeats itself but a stage, and so. And I always, and still admire that, you know, in anybody. Anybody that’s able to take their own experience and make it reductive of all that can be [OVERLAP].
GALLOWAY: Do you think that could ever come back to America and not the McCarthyism?
PENN: I think there’s all kinds of McCarthyism that comes. So much of it now is… You know, I think that now we are almost unconsciously self-censors. We report on each other, we spy on each other.
GALLOWAY: It’s called social media. [LAUGH]
PENN: Yeah, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Do you twitter?
PENN: I do not.
GALLOWAY: Do you have Facebook?
PENN: I have never turned on a laptop computer in my life.
GALLOWAY: Wow, wow.
PENN: What I’ll do once in a while is I’ll get on a… Get my glasses on and try to see what’s better and I’ll type something into my browser that I need to know about or something and that’s it. That’s it.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. At what point did you decide I’m gonna be an actor and was it a difficult decision?
PENN: It was right down the road here at Santa Monica High School because I had wanted… I really wanted to be a… I used to read the… F. Lee Bailey had written some books, the great criminal lawyer that when I was in high school just really got me excited and the idea of being a litigator. And then I read those books and I thought that’s what I’m gonna do. Of course at some point I knew I was gonna have to increase the C average. [LAUGHTER] And when I found myself fighting with a biology professor to get a D instead of an F so that I could graduate, I thought maybe that’s a lot more school than I want to go to before I’m gonna get to the school that’s gonna get me to the school to be a lawyer.
PENN: And so while that was happening while I was fantasizing that I would be a lawyer and senior… Particularly I think by senior year of high school, my younger brother started making eight millimeter films. And the reason they started making eight millimeter films is because he and his friends, he was very friendly with Martin Sheen’s son, Charlie. I guess I can just say Charlie Sheen. [LAUGHTER] I’m used to being…
GALLOWAY: That’s the definition of growing older, you know.
PENN: I’m used to being alive before… Yeah, yeah, yeah. I knew him originally as Martin Sheen’s son, Charlie. So… And I think they started making movies because Charlie and Emilio had come back from the Philippines after the shooting of Apocalypse Now with a couple of severed hands. You know, prosthetic hands.
GALLOWAY: Oh. [LAUGHTER]
PENN: So all of the stories they made movies involved bloody, severed hands and the scripts were all based on those. And I…
[PENNT02 – YOUTUBE SHARING]
PENN: …I thought, oh I could get into the severed hand filmmaking business and I kind of got involved working with them and we would shoot day and night. At that time you’d get the old like Ektachrome 350 and you’d look for places and Westwood was a great place to shoot nights because you had a lot of ambient lighting, street lighting, storefront lighting 24 hours a day. And with the Ektachrome you’d get exposure enough and you could go do night shots and so on, there’d be nobody down there. And so to direct movies, which is what I ended up being the director of the movies, you were always short actors and had to get into it and I enjoyed it. I found myself enjoying it but never considered it as a career. And then they had a career day at Santa Monica High School and the actor… An actor I admired a lot, do admire a lot, Anthony Zerbe, came down to talk to class at large about. And my eyes kept drifting down to his boots and he had those kind of floor shine zipper boots, the black. And I thought that’s what an actor wears, those are. And I tried a pair on the next day and they fit and that was it.
PENN: And then I got into a repertory company right after high school and I wanted to direct films but the directing a film and acting in a film were different in one way, I didn’t know how to convince adults to give me millions of dollars to make a film. And I thought, but you know you don’t have to be an adult to be an actor. And I think that I’d like to think that I proved that, you know, you can be an actor for a long time without being an adult, so. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: You made this huge decision at some point, your career wasn’t going in anywhere in L.A and you decided to uproot and move to New York. Why? And I don’t think had you ever been to New York at that point in your life?
PENN: I’d been when I was five years old. My dad directed a movie with Sammy Davis Jr. called A Man Called Adam and I’d gone to visit him when I was five and I had cousins there and we stayed with them. But not since and then a buddy of mine, Joseph Vitarelli who’s a composer now, he and I had gone into acting class together out of high school. And I’d met I think every agent in Los Angeles and got, you know, nobody showed interest and I was doing a lot of theater. You couldn’t get paid to do theater out here, you know, very few. So it was a lot of equity waiver theater so I was working for a truck company, Roadway Express, loading trucks and doing this job and doing that job to support my acting classes and gasoline to drive around or whatever else it was but it wasn’t making a lot of money.
PENN: But I had about $800 saved and Joseph, same, and so we said well let’s see how long we can make it in New York without running out of $800. And at that time I think I spent the first… We put down $600 which included first month and a security deposit in Hell’s Kitchen, what was Hell’s Kitchen. And three days later I got a Broadway show. So it was a good move.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. And then you got Taps, which was a big film and Taps led to the film that really put you on the map and I’m going to show a clip from… It’s one of my worst mistakes in terms of [jargon?] when I saw this film and I saw this actor named Sean Penn everybody was talking about and said he’s just being himself which is the most stupid thing you can think, you know. Let’s take a look from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
GALLOWAY: [APPLAUSE] So, I so love that moment when you have that moment of joy. You know, when I left the book in the locker and you can see the joy on this not very bright guy’s face. When you did the audition for the film the first audition you did was a disaster. Why?
PENN: I was never good at auditions. I mean I’ve always felt, you know, my kids will say that I’m a terrible actor and where certainly this is so is when there’s not a stage or an action and cut to do it between. I think I’m very self-conscious when I don’t have a diving board to jump off of. If you’ve got me on the deck it’s, you know, I think that I’m kind of like that guy who’s if the camera’s there, you know, I’m talking to somebody here, I’m constantly looking at it, it just I just get that way. I need to know we’re jumping off the board and to have that kind of world of it around me to jump into it.
PENN: So when you’re in an audition… I think I’d have to circle back. And when I’m, as a director, often I will not audition actors. Even actors who have… Whether they’ve acted before or maybe young actors that… If I can meet somebody and trust and have a sense that they’ve got the instinct I think it’s your first opportunity to show them your confidence is to say you know what, let’s just do this. And when you’re in a room with people and of course as a young actor you’re typically in a room with more than one, you’re not just there with a director, you’ve got perhaps a casting director or a producer in the room and so on. And I don’t know what they really know about anything. So I just feel like, you know, even… There’s a… Again, there’s a certain… The entitlement is not personal but it’s an entitlement about the voice that you have been given if you believe in it.
PENN: And why subject it to some schmuck who knows nothing and you’ve got to go there and put yourself on that line? And I just resented the whole process. And I understood it, I knew it wasn’t that they all necessarily were schmucks but I just, you know, they’re not paying me to do this well yet. Let me know you’re going to pay me and then I know you’re serious and I’ll do it. And I just was like that when I had no money. And so I’m still very much like that and so I recall the feeling of what auditions were like. And now I think the other thing is that there was nothing organic about the audition. You know, there was not… It was kind of like okay, here’s this Xerox and you know, here’s the lines and go do it and you t… You know, often you’re playing a scene with a man, with a woman or vice versa and all of that stuff and so I just didn’t like it.
PENN: Now today I know a lot of directors and probably most casting and most of what actors and young actors are doing is kind of self-taping. And under those circumstances I suppose you can create, you know, if you’ve got some help and so on you can create the circumstances you need and then you’re not doing it for that room of judges, you’re doing it to create a little film of the character that… And then you say and by the way, if you guys think that this little film gives you the confidence to give me money to do this, then I’ll come and do it.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to rehearse?
PENN: Yeah. Yeah. Well it varies. It varies. You know, there’s a kind of old idea of you know don’t practice anything you gonna get right the first time but it varies. I mean there’s certain scenes as an actor that I mean I’ve had scenes where I read them once and I didn’t want to look at them again until the day that I did them and other scenes, other kinds of things you do. It depends on how many moving pieces and people there are.
GALLOWAY: How do you handle when you have conflict with a director? I mean I know that you and Oliver Stone were not close.
PENN: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: How do you deal with a situation like that?
PENN: Well I should say that I’ve recovered our relationship. We have a great relationship today. It was not good when we worked together because, you know, Oliver has a way of working that… Or did when I worked with him it was… I didn’t feel it was very trusting. Or it wasn’t that it was not trusting, it really had to be the one to create what you were going to do. It had to… He felt that he had to own it. And as an actor you have a solemn duty to own it yourself and no one else. And so that’s a conflict. And so I freaking… I loathed him while I was working with him because I just wanted to avoid him and it’s hard to avoid your director on a film.
PENN: But he’s a bold, talented man and he’s done some wonderful things and I find, you know, he finally has a great sense of humor about the way that he is and you know.
GALLOWAY: Would you work with him again?
PENN: I would actually. Yeah, I would. I would. I would have a different perspective on it.
GALLOWAY: So Spicoli puts you on the map and you’re suddenly famous and you’re married to Madonna and you become a celebrity. How did you handle that? Did you like fame?
PENN: No, I didn’t handle that well. I mean I didn’t handle it well but I would say that the world doesn’t handle the perception very well also. There’s a, you know, you see what happens now. If you… I always try to share with people if you take the camera out of the paparazzi’s hand for example, just erase that. Someone follows you everywhere you go all day, every day. You don’t have privacy. I mean there is a point where it would be legitimate to take that person’s life. This terrible thing that happened on the Pacific Coast Highway with Bruce Jenner. No matter what else happened there and I don’t know what happened, but you had one driver who we’re told we’re not allowed to text message while we’re driving because it’s a distraction. Well if you’re being followed everywhere, you’re distracted.
PENN: So it’s not… It’s legal for them to distract you and get somebody killed but it’s not legal to say I’m five minutes late. So there’s this… You know, it’s the fact what happens is that because of the perception certainly of money or you know that fame is somehow a revered thing or an envied thing or a loathed thing which it’s all of those, all of these things are distractions from what is actually the human dynamic of it which is that people want to live their lives and not have that kind of focus on it. You also want to be able to do that, you know, to express yourself as you want to be able to express yourself and so in the personal balance and whatever part of it is your responsibility to say okay, well I didn’t necessarily get into this for this or for this kind of attention.
PENN: I know that this is happening and it’s a very tricky balance, but… So I talk around it a little bit because I’m still settling it but I have thought recently, you know, I’m having spent most of my life now with some version of that attention. Yeah, I hear people talk about privacy and the importance of privacy and now that Pandora’s Box has opened with social media, the Internet and so on and virtually anybody can be hacked and will be. And I believe that within a year from now any wife or husband, any parent is going to be able to access everybody’s entire email history and text history and photography history on all of that no matter how many times you’ve deleted it.
PENN: That everybody’s gonna have access to everyone’s history and all of it’s gonna come out. Do I care a lot about people’s privacy and how that’s going to affect them? Not if they ever bought a People Magazine because they’ve been doing it to me for 30 fucking years. Guess what, you know, the only way you deserve privacy is if you promote privacy. And the culture has not. It’s run around, pulling people’s pants down, you know, like a bunch of silly children. And I just think it’s taken us down a notch in everything that we aspire to and in every way that we feel our daily lives. And I’d like to see young people turn that around.
GALLOWAY: Well that’s them so.
PENN: I know.
GALLOWAY: Did that lead you to… You’d come to this other real turning point in the late ‘80s, really just a few years after Fast Times, and then you’d done other films where you decide you’re gonna give up acting. Why? Did fame and all that contribute to that decision? Did you one day just wake up, it’s a huge thing to say oh my god I’ve had all this acclaim but now I’m not gonna do it anymore.
PENN: No. I think when it was, you know, somebody else gave me the answer to this and I’ll share that with you. I really got disenchanted and I thought I was not… I thought I was done. And the reason, you know, I’m born in 1960, so that puts me in what for anybody who’s studying film should know is an extraordinary age of eating cinema. You know, if you’re going to the restaurant of cinema in the 1970s in this country every weekend is an event that has lasted to this day. I mean such extraordinary American films. So it was on the vision of that and the thought that, that was what I was entering, that’s the business that I’m going into.
PENN: You know, then I got there and they all had drug overdoses or went over here or went over, and that whole cinema, well it died with another cinema’s… With the advent of a more commercial… You know, at that time the very best art films were the biggest movies of the year. They were the most commercial movies were also the best movies. And people in Hollywood and other centers of filmmaking and finance dined out on, you know, oh you know we made $60 million. And then Jaws came out and $60 million was like Dr. Evil saying one million… [LAUGHTER] You know, it just didn’t matter anymore and they were all going for the big genre, the big…
PENN: And at the same time the advertising business was so saturating and I think what it was is that filmmakers were going into that, actors were I think losing the plot on because the theater was dying in many ways. And so it started to move towards where it is today which is rather than building a career as an actor you’re looking to win a contest to be in a movie. It’s different. And all of that was changing and what it represented very early on was that you didn’t have the writing. You didn’t have the filmmaking. That you had entered it on the basis of that hope that wasn’t most of what was being made.
PENN: And so, you know, Dustin Hoffman said, and this is kind of what turned me around, I had dinner with him one night and he said you’re not retired, you’re disappointed. And it was true. He said, you know, I had Mike Nichols and John Schlesinger, you know, Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate back-to-back and this one had this and you’re just looking for those kind of…
GALLOWAY: Are you still disappointed?
PENN: Well I don’t… Most movies that I watch, I watch for 10 minutes unless they’re really good or really bad. [LAUGHTER] And when I see a terrible movie my jaw drops and I just keep watching. I can’t move and I end up watching it.
GALLOWAY: But in your own life are you disappointed in some way?
GALLOWAY: There’s something that propels you because…
PENN: Now as you start… Once I started directing movies…
GALLOWAY: Which is this other gigantic leap you make with The Indian Runner. You suddenly say I’m gonna direct.
PENN: Yeah, then you get… Then you can’t blame… You can’t… You’re not just an actor subject to it anymore. So what difference does it make what Hollywood’s making as long as I can still go and make the things that I want to make? Now I can’t do them as an actor because I’m not necessarily gonna direct myself as an actor or whatever it is. You’re so subject to the whims of and what happens to be going on. Am I interested in this at the time I was offered it and is this something that represents something I’m interested in my life. But as a director and as a writer you can say well I know what I’m interested in right now and I’ll make a movie about that right now and so on.
PENN: So it’s not even about the quality of the ‘70s movies versus the this. It’s the personalization of it. And so you know like anything tactical you try to make a powerful adversary irrelevant and I think that finally I’ve found a way to largely do that. As an audience I am still attacked by movies often and beaten up.
GALLOWAY: I know that feeling.
GALLOWAY: Well then you get this other extraordinary role and we’re gonna take a look at a clip from it which is that kind of personal filmmaking. Let’s watch a clip from Dead Man Walking.
GALLOWAY: [APPLAUSE] How do prepare for a role like that? Here’s a guy about to face the death penalty.
PENN: Well I spent a lot of time down in death row in Angola prisons talking, seeing you know a lot of times this scene when we’ll get in there. You know, if you go down there in search of collection and I think it, you know, can be a toolkit for affectation a lot…
PENN: …lot of times. So much of valuable preparation to me is time. Is spending a lot of time and not trying to prepare, but being around a thing. And then you like, if something’s well written, which I felt that this script was very well written, Tim Robbins’ script. It will affect you. You let it work on you more than you work on it, and I think that this movie was particular in that as I remember for me the process of it was almost entirely related to what I just said which is putting yourself around certain people, you know, around the accent, around the socioeconomic class, around the clothes, around the stuff and then bit by bit letting yourself adopt that stuff but really so much of it was in the script. It was really this was a very… My choices felt very off the page.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about death row?
PENN: That we still have death row surprises me. But not too much. I mean I’ve been… You know, I know a lot of jails and stuff and so [OVERLAP].
GALLOWAY: A lot. [LAUGH] I think I read that Richard Ramirez, a serial killer took a liking to you and was writing you letters or something.
PENN: He wrote me one, yeah. I was down here on Bauchet Street, L.A County jail in the cell working kind of across from him. And after about a month of, you know, seeing each other around and all of that he wanted my autograph. So he sent one of the deputies over, deputy came to my cell and told me hey, you know, Richard Ramirez wants your autograph. And I didn’t trust the deputy because I’d gotten in some trouble inside there and just passing a piece of paper is contraband so you can get extra days for that and I already had extra days and I didn’t want more extra days so I said bring the sergeant down here and I’ll talk to him and if he approves it, then I want him to write something first and then I’ll write him something back.
PENN: So the sergeant came down and approved it and signed off on the approval because I didn’t trust them. And so they went over to Ramirez and you know this guard basically wanted to play Cupid in some way. We were both on 24 lockdown so… But so I get this thing from him and it says, Hey Penn, stay tough and hit them again. Richard Ramirez, 666 with a pentagram and a rendition of the devil. [LAUGHTER] So okay, I got a souvenir from Bauchet Street, okay. So I wrote him. I said, you know, Richard it’s impossible to be incarcerated and not feel a certain kinship with your fellow inmates. Well Richard, I’ve done the impossible, I feel absolutely no kinship with you. [LAUGHTER] And I hope gas descends upon you before sanity does, you know, it would be a kinder way out, so. And they gave it to him. And then my house burned down years later and that damn thing of his burned with it so I don’t have it.
GALLOWAY: May be good. So going back to what I was saying in the beginning when you watch these films and you know you usually I show four clips but I chose to throw in this lovely little Woody Allen film. You met him because you wanted advice about directing.
PENN: Yeah, I did. I had talked to him about when I was gonna direct the first time and then I didn’t know him well and…
GALLOWAY: Did he give you any advice?
PENN: I don’t remember. Scorsese, yes. He definitely let me come and observe post my first film which was a really good time to do that. You know, to after I’d made Indian Runner, I felt I’d learned a lot about the cinema that I knew I wanted to do, the voice that I’d collected over time or the kind of cinematic grammar that I’d wanted to use and you almost write it into your first piece what your thoughts are. But then when you’re looking to be able to diversify your toolkit and so on, to be able to go from just having touched the process like that where it’s on your shoulders to go and kind of observe on a set of Martin Scorsese’s, because he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, I was really interested and he let me come down and audit on Cape Fear.
GALLOWAY: What did you learn from him?
PENN: Well it was interesting. Probably many things that are technical and, you know, relate to questions that to me are like the pers… Everybody has their own particular question about what’s gonna tell this kind of story this way and that. But what I took… The big takeaway and which to me explains why he’s so extraordinary is it was still a mystery to him.
PENN: You know he was making… It was the first time he was using anamorphic lenses was on Cape Fear. So he was looking at a new aspect ratio for composition and interested by it and asking people what do you think, am I, you know, doing the frame right, am I doing you know this kind of… And I felt it was genuine.
GALLOWAY: It’s so fascinating with really great art the mystery remains whether it’s, you know, writing, acting. And probably even if you’ve done something good you sometimes look after and think how did that happen, how can I reproduce it and it never… Let’s take a look at a clip from Sweet and Lowdown because I am trying to understand the magic of this and you know Penn’s publicists are saying you’ve got to include a clip from Sweet and Lowdown and I kept watching this and thinking oh my god this is so magical. Why? Here we go. This is Penn going back to [a] girlfriend and telling her he’s about..he’s telling her he’s leaving her.
GALLOWAY: [APPLAUSE] Oh my god I just love that. I can’t even tell you, I can’t explain why I love it so much. [LAUGHTER]
PENN: This was a gift, you know. I got a call from Woody, you know, I have this movie and I said well let me read it. And he sends a courier who waits because they don’t want to give you the script and, you know. And so there’s somebody waiting outside and I, you know, just this had me chuckling. You know, that was just, that’s a writer. That’s a real writer.
GALLOWAY: Where does the voice come from?
PENN: A couple of places. I… One in particular but I don’t want to… I don’t like to…
GALLOWAY: Well give us a clue.
PENN: No. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Give us a different clue.
PENN: No but it was… Well the main thing was that when I read the script there was a cadence that I heard that was a kind of… That kind of got me giggling. So the next thing you know you started to do it and…
GALLOWAY: Were you at all involved in choosing Samantha Morton? I think she was 19 when she did that. Very young.
PENN: No, no. He told me this is who I’m interested in and I saw Under the Skin I think it was that she was in and she was terrific, and. But I didn’t know, I had known nothing about her.
GALLOWAY: Was there something special working with her or?
PENN: Well she’s, I mean she’s really special. But special working with her, she plays a mute and so she was pretty mute most of the time of the movie. We didn’t have a lot of conversations.
GALLOWAY: It’s such an extraordinary thing when somehow you’re watching a two-shot. So much of American film is, you know, close up, cut to another close up or the over-the-shoulder shot. And here so much of what he’s doing is holding the shot on both of you and your eyes going back and forth, back and forth. And you’re mesmerized by both these characters. You know, when you see it, do you feel any of that or do you just remember actually doing it?
PENN: You get… Well you either get depressed or nostalgic depending on what you’re looking at. On this one I was, you know, it reminded me of some things and people and, you know, of a time not to do with the movie making so much.
GALLOWAY: So you go from a film like this with one of the great, great American directors to a guy who wasn’t acknowledged for many years as one of the great American directors, Clint Eastwood. And let’s take a look at Mystic River.
GALLOWAY: By the way, I guess I’ll… Stop the clip, that’s okay because we’re running behind but we were watching this clip just before everybody came and it’s so subtle, the camera, the sound you know that conveys atmosphere but lets you really see the actors. And… Well we’ll watch it, where you reunited with Tim Robbins from Dead Man Walking. Here we go.
GALLOWAY: [APPLAUSE] You met Clint because he wanted you to do a different movie and you flew up to Carmel. What was that meeting like?
PENN: Well, you know, one thing I’ve always said about Clint Eastwood is he’s the least disappointing movie star you’ll ever meet. You know, whatever you thought he was onscreen, he is. And just you know it was great. He’s very… I think one of the things that speaks to the longevity not just of his life at this point but of his continued reinvention and all of that is he’s a very level guy. You know, a very easy guy and you know while he lives for the movies I think he’d be the first one to say it’s only a movie. And there’s things to [being in a movie?]. And he approaches it in one way, other people approach it in a different way but I had a real, you know, very good… Felt a good connection with him. I didn’t… The movie that he was doing wasn’t for me, that first one. And I thought, you know, sometimes if you tell a director you’re not interested in something they offer you that you know you maybe never hear from them again.
PENN: But then the next movie was Mystic River and he sent it and this was I think I was 20 pages in I called him and said, you know, let’s go.
GALLOWAY: How much guidance does he give you as a director?
PENN: He is an environment provider for sure. I mean in the best sense he’s one of those… First there’s the incredible efficiency of his crew that had been his crew on everything for everything that he’s been doing for so long. You’d never know who the director was if you had just showed up on the set other than that you would recognize his face because he’s very… There’s no action and cut and there’s no yelling across or anything. There’s just a kind of this and the camera guys have the… Everybody’s got their eyes on, everybody on the crew’s got you know their secret service earpieces like that and nothing is… You know, if there’s yelling on the set it’s one actor yelling at another in the writing of the piece.
PENN: And you know but he was… I had a scene in this movie that could easily have… People could have gotten hurt because it was the moment where the character I’m playing finds out that his daughter is killed and is very close to her and people try to stop him from getting to…
GALLOWAY: The scene where you were trying to get to her body?
GALLOWAY: And everyone’s…
PENN: And I went to Clint and I said that you know that it’s written and it’s like three or four policemen and they grab him and they hold him back. And I haven’t met the three or four policemen… Any one policeman could put me down, but not without me hurting them on the way down and if your child is dying or if you’re playing that your child has died and you want to get to your child, I don’t know how this is gonna happen without biting someone’s face off if necessary to get to your child. He said okay. Let me worry about it. You know, this wasn’t… We weren’t gonna choreograph anything with stuntmen or anything like that.
PENN: And I can tell you, man, you get like eight police officers holding every joint and muscle you can… And it allowed me to try to kill them to get free to get to my daughter. Because it’s… It’s also a great workout, you know, get eight of your best friend, [LAUGHTER] you try every direction you move is locked down and you try to fight your way out of it for your life and it leaves you sore the next day. But he just… Because that’s easy. He’s like yeah, that’s right, it’s gonna take… We just added more people. He thinks very… But, you know, most… A lot of us wouldn’t even think about the simple thing, you know how am I gonna do this, you know. The actor’s over there and he wants to hurt people?
PENN: And these are, you know, just a couple extras playing cops and you know they’re gonna sue us if he hurts them and are they gonna hurt him back and? You know, he doesn’t think that… You know, how much… What are the physics of this? Just add more power on the other side.
GALLOWAY: How many takes does he let you do?
PENN: As many as you want. He’s a very first take oriented guy, but he’s, you know, because I think that he’s that jazz… You know, his passion is jazz music and that’s, you know, bring in this musician, bring in that musician and you start riffing, you want to catch that magic. So he wants everybody in that original improv together. But you know, you want another take, you want 100 more takes, he’ll do it.
GALLOWAY: Who are the filmmakers you particularly admire today?
PENN: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for sure. Yeah. You know, I mean and I think…
GALLOWAY: Well you’ve worked with him.
PENN: Yeah, yeah. And he’s… He’s extraordinary. Very different from Clint and he’ll put you through your paces but I thought since Amores Perros just everything he does is… I think he’s one… He’s arguably the greatest director living I think.
GALLOWAY: Who that you haven’t worked with would you most like to work with?
PENN: Well I guess now I feel much… You know, I don’t think I randomly could say that because it would have to be about what the project is also. Of course, you know, Martin Scorsese, if there was something where I felt like it was… I don’t want to do it just to do it. Where there have been times in the past where I’ve worked with directors where a part of the decision was to observe them as directors, to learn as a director. Today less… I think I’m more hard… I’m harder pressed to go out and act in a movie.
GALLOWAY: Do you still love it?
PENN: Well I still love movies. I love directing movies. Acting’s a tricky thing. I think what the key for me is that you really feel like A, something really valuable’s gonna come out of it and B, that you in particular are really valuable to it. And finding those two things together is rare.
GALLOWAY: You just produced a film that you starred in, Gunman, which is about to come out. Was that because you wanted to play that role or for other reasons?
PENN: No. It was interesting to me because for one thing in my other job I’ve had done a lot of work in the last years and projects with either former military, current private contractors, so on. That world was something that I had become very familiar with and interested in. And so there was that. There were… You know, there’s a lot of issues that are interesting in terms of whether it’s a post-traumatic stress issues, it was just part of it also. And it was a very active movie. I mean right from the first time I read it I saw well I know what I… It was very clear what had to be achieved and so on. And again I felt like I know how to pursue this and I’m interested in pursuing it. I don’t know if I, you know, thought a lot more than that. Just to say okay, this is gonna be… Because also it’s a very kind of exciting movie I guess or actiony-based movie that all of the action movie that typically that I don’t respond to or sometimes do as an audience but wouldn’t want to be part of are the action movies that kind of wink at the audience within a kind of pop violence.
PENN: So the extraordinary violence and then a very witty line between two guys you know or something that’s kind of like, you know. In other words, this is all artificial, folks. And usually made by people who don’t seem to have much of a concept of what violence is, emotional violence or physical violence.
GALLOWAY: And you do?
PENN: Well I have some. I know that if a bomb goes off you’re not gonna hear anything for three or four days and maybe longer if you’re anywhere near it. You know and in the movies, you know, it’s [NOISE] fireball and the guy walking and you know. You know, I know enough about it and I know people who know a lot about it and I brought… And that was another attractive thing about the story is I could bring to it people who had walked, truly walked in every step of the shoes of the character that I was playing was walking and could help me with that and help the script with that.
PENN: And so there was a lot of support around that. Also it was organic to the lifestyle of… All the action was very organic to the reality of truly the people that I know have done everything that’s in that movie and been in those terrible situations and have done things that haunt them and… Which is part of the story as well.
GALLOWAY: Could you ever imagine retiring again from acting? Pulling away from acting, saying nope, I’m moving on?
PENN: I don’t think I’d say it out loud. You become kind of like a, you know, cry wolf.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever thought that recently?
PENN: Well what I’ve thought is that I’m 54 years old, I’ve smoked a lot and I got a few movies I want to direct so I don’t know how much time I’ll, you know. [LAUGH] We’ll see. But I mean I don’t have… I won’t be… I will probably act many more times but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t. If I don’t make a few of the films I want to make as a director I’ll be disappointed.
GALLOWAY: So I’m gonna show one more clip which is a great argument for not retiring from acting. [LAUGH] Why don’t we get you guys who are gonna ask questions up at the microphone while we watch a clip from Penn’s second Oscar-winning performance and it’s such a… Just such a lovely performance in Milk. Let’s take a look at Milk.
GALLOWAY: [APPLAUSE] I cannot believe that you’ve got a body of work like this. I mean it’s just astonishing and you know I’m sort of in this revolving process of watching lots of people’s films and doing lots of interviews and I’ve been talking to my mother a lot and every time I talk to her, what do you do? I said I’ve been doing this and that, but god this guy’s Sean Penn, he’s really something. So really, we’re gonna take some questions and I can’t tell you how extraordinary it is. I can’t think of ever saying that to anybody so.
PENN: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: You know, let’s take the first question.
Q: Mr. Penn, my name’s Sophie and I’m a screenwriting major. You have talked a little bit about your directorial debut, The Indian Runner and it has inspired me for years and I could watch it over and over again. And I know that the script is based on a Bruce Springsteen song, Highway Patrolman and I was wondering what your approach to screenwriting is.
PENN: Well that was the first one and I had heard Bruce’s song I think about eight years before I wrote the script and so it lived in me. As soon as I heard the song I called him and said I want the rights to do that as a movie and I think if only because he thought it was me just dreaming. I hadn’t directed anything, I was pretty young, he said yeah, sure, sure, sure. Go ahead, you can do it. And then it kind of it just sat with me for about eight years and then I sat down to write and I just didn’t look back. And the approach was really I had had the pictures of the story in my head so I really went… The scenes followed the pictures, the scene writing, the dialogue really followed the pictures in that case.
PENN: It was kind of… I was seeing the story landscape to landscape, interior to exterior, day to night, face to face in terms of the two brothers, you know, angle that carried the dangerous movement of one to the internal movement of the other. And all of it was really visually graphed in my head and I just wrote to it. But that’s something based on a two-minute song into a two hour, 10 minute movie, something like that. And yet I felt like the song told me every picture. With Into the Wild, which was my first page one adaptation from a book, I had read the book 10 years earlier and it was a 10-year courtship to be able to gain the trust of the family to make the… To get the rights. I read it twice in a day, the day that I read it and then after 10 years I didn’t read it again before I wrote the script.
PENN: I just wrote it again as it had lived with me for the 10 years and then went back. And again, it was very much landscape to landscape and so on. And then I went back and took a lot of what was in the book, a lot of the prose of the book and it became part of the dialogue or the narration and things like that, but the layout. So I guess the short answer is that I’m a visual thinker and the visuals may give me the provocation to say, okay, who’s in that picture and what are they saying to each other and why and what’s been felt and kind of go from there.
Q: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
Q: Welcome to LMU.
PENN: Thank you.
Q: My question is you’ve mentioned before that not a lot of good movies are being made and also that you think summer blockbusters have basically been seen by the audience multiple times because you think they’re unoriginal. So I was wondering for you what’s a type of movie that you’ll never get tired of seeing?
PENN: I think when somebody expresses to me rather than trying to impress me it’s a good start. I am not opposed to commercial films, I just am not led by… You know, I just think it’s too important a medium. It’s too enriching to us to give over entirely to that. And because we are, you know, the new religion is and only increasingly this kind of commercial success of films and so on, we’re just, you know, telling people not to dream and not to feel relative to their own lives. To do it relative to, you know, somebody who wears the underpants on the outside of their tights as an adventure hero or something all the time. You know, I can enjoy one of these movies once in a while but I don’t… You know, when I see something expressive, it talks to me.
PENN: And it isn’t that the budget of a film is irrelevant to me. Some people can dream in beautiful, honest dreams that are very big. Others can do very small. Others can make very big out of small, for example there was a film a couple of years ago called Beasts of the Southern Wild, which I could watch 100 times.
GALLOWAY: I love that.
PENN: You know, and it really does what cinema should do. It goes into the magic of the way we perceive life as well as, you know, the human direct expression and I just like to see us use cinema to speak to each other instead of have cinema speak at us.
GALLOWAY: What’s the film that you watch the most?
PENN: Over the years I’m gonna say Scarecrow probably a lot.
GALLOWAY: Yoshi Kozinksi.
PENN: No, no that was Jerry Schatzberg.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, Schatzberg, yeah.
PENN: With Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. That’s a great movie if you haven’t seen it. I have various reference movies and such so all… I’ve thrown on the Deer Hunter a few times. The movie that probably is singularly… That I’ve shared with people that really overwhelmed me about what cinema can be was a Russian movie called Come and See by Elem Klimov. And you know there’s always that difficulty. We face it, you know, in any film that has… That deals with violence or war is that yes, it can be argued. I have a different argument which is for another time but that these things are by the nature of cinema stimulized promoting violence and so on. That’s a very superficial and I don’t… I’m not part of that school of thought. But I do think that it’s hard if your point is to do something that shows you war and makes you feel about war what the human, if a human has good nature should feel about war, that the most successful of those was Come and See.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
Q: Hi, thank you for joining us. My name is Elsie Dortelus. I am a second-year grad student in the film production program. As a Haitian American I remember watching CNN after the earthquake and I remember, you know, seeing you like over and over again. I remember thinking like you were really passionate, I could really see that you were genuine about helping Haiti. Five years later, what have you learned about the Haitian people and what is the next major goal you want to achieve through your organization?
GALLOWAY: Good question.
PENN: [That’s fast?]. The Haitian people by and large have no relative in the way that we would consider relationship with comfort. They’ve been so challenged for so long and to see the way that they, the strength of the Haitian people and that spirit to go… I can fall right into the clichés of these descriptions, but it’s only cliché to the cynical ear. There’s extraordinary heroism and spirit there and it’s really simple. You find a way to tell 20 families that it’s not all about import and you plant the freaking island and you get agriculture going and you let those farmers do their thing and Haiti’s gonna be just fine.
Q: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: Next question, please. This is our last question. Okay.
Q: Hi. Tasha Henderson, third-year graduate screenwriting student. My question is which character has been your favorite to play and which character has had the biggest mark on you and why?
PENN: Well favorite to play is anybody that has… If the character has a confidence and you like the people you’re working with that falls into the category of favorite to play. The character is played within security and therefore you are carrying that around the 24 hours of every day during the months that you’re shooting it, some artifact of that to connect to. Probably miserable. But sometimes the best stories that come my way because of my face I guess are the miserable ones. So I don’t know that I have, you know, favorites. I’m pretty much like, there’s an old movie called The Gumball Rally and I think of it often with these things is, you know, it’s a big road race movie and the Italian driver grabs the rearview mirror and as he’s tearing it off he tells the guy in the car, he says first rule of Italian driving, what’s behind you does not matter. So that’s how I feel about most of them.
GALLOWAY: Let’s have our last question please.
Q: Hi, my name is Brady Palubiski. I have a sister back home in Wisconsin that has special needs. She has cerebral palsy and I’m just wondering what I guess attracted you to the story of I Am Sam and how did you prepare for that role?
PENN: Hm. Again, this is like a personality thing. You know, I think the only difference between anybody is personality. You know, the challenged, the mentally challenged people that worked on that film I think it was a couple of months prior, you know, I’d spent a lot of time with them. And at a certain point you’re not recognizing that which you had at one time considered an affliction so much, you’re really just dealing with the person. And the conversations that were had were really liberating to me because I realized that with very few subjects of exception the only difference was a little bit more patience for the time it would take to process things but that this just becomes more of… I had more of a feeling that I was dealing with a personality issue than I was with some kind of handicap. And a lot of those personality issues were great personality qualities. And so those things that attracted me kind of musically about those personalities I guess again, you know, I tried to let in and see what it formed.
GALLOWAY: I think we’re done.
PENN: All right. [APPLAUSE]