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Sean Penn Bites Back

By Christopher Connelly

October 1991

Source: Premiere

© Westmount.
The city that was the birthplace of Marlon Brando and Malcolm X would figure to provide a congenial setting for other like-minded rebels; even so, the idea of Sean Penn flourishing in Omaha, Nebraska, can take some getting used to. Elsewhere, his reputation may precede him into a room like bad cologne; here, where the natives still eat red meat, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and drive Detroit iron, there seems to have been unfettered enthusiasm for Penn's decision to film his writing and directorial debut, The Indian Runner, in and around town. State officials promptly inducted Penn and his confreres into the Nebraska Navy (a Cornhusker mock militia), while James Earl Sinnett and Sharon Hughes welcomed Penn into the delivery room at Clarkson Hospital to shoot the birth of their third child. There have been a couple of drawbacks, of course: there are no direct flights from Los Angeles, which may have contributed to the breaking of some delicate lenses en route to the set, though no one suggests that it's responsible for the rash of scratched negatives sent back. 'I don't think I've worked on a picture in the past ten years that had a scratch on it,' says sad-eyed producer Don Phillips, shaking his head. 'So all of a sudden, four...'

It is 9 o'clock or so on a blustery October night, and the chill seeps a bit into the abandoned police station on 11th and Dodge that the Indian Runner company has commandeered for the course of its nine-week shoot. Up one flight sit the Spartan production offices; out back is the spacious garage, jammed with a host of "60s-era Mustangs and a peace-and-love-painted Volkswagen bus; and here in the remnants of the building's original holding area, Penn is at work. The Indian Runner is a character piece centered on two brothers: farmer turned policeman Joe Roberts, honest, dutiful, so luckless that he drives a Corvair, and his younger brother, Frank, a returning Vietnam War vet prone to random acts of violence. In the scene Penn is about to shoot, Frank has been arrested outside Joe's jurisdiction; when Joe comes to get him out, he finds that Frank's girlfriend is doing the honors instead. Unobserved, Joe watches them embrace and leave the holding area arm-in-arm; surprised to see his brutal brother capable of such tenderness, he takes in their intimacy with a detached fascination.

Penn's camera is mounted above the action in a far corner of the large room, and as he surveys the situation, he looks out on a sargasso sea of extras who are providing the smoky atmosphere in which the wordless scene plays itself out. Wearing brown cowboy boots, a short-sleeved shirt hanging out over his black jeans, and a black vinyl gimmie cap with STUNTS emblazoned across the front, Penn shoots until he seems satisfied, then announces to the extras that he'll be changing lenses. 'Thanks for your patience,' he tells the locals. 'It'll just be a few minutes.'

But he's lying. As the extras lapse into normal behaviour - talking, laughing, their kids playing hopscotch on the floor - Penn whispers terse instructions to his camera operator: 'Black guy...the guard.' He is grabbing shots of oblivious individuals. 'The idea,' he tells his operator, 'is to catch people unaware.'

As a performer, Sean Penn lost that ability years ago, which is as good a place as any to begin to explain why, at age 31, he has decided to quit acting. 'I don't get anything but grief out of [acting] now,' he says during a dinner break one night before a shoot outside what used to be Omaha's gigantic, beautiful train station. 'People who knew me well understood it completely, and people who didn't know me well didn't believe me: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah - we'll see.'' Few believe that he will never act again (Penn himself suggests he'd do an I'm-in-it-for-the-money job, akin to Brando's turn in Superman), but no one doubts that there has been a sea change in the mind of the man who once regarded acting as his lifeblood. Even he seems hard-pressed to explain how it happened.

'Don't know, can't pinpoint it - it's still a little bit of a new notion to me,' he says. 'I was doing this play in Los Angeles, Hurly-burly, which I love: great part, great director, terrific actors whom I also liked personally, which is as good as it gets for an actor...and I was miserable.' The two films he did after this epiphany, We're No Angels and State of Grace, were equally unpleasant experiences, he says, again despite his fondness for his co-workers. 'I think I got so caught up in the - it was such a fascinating thing in the beginning, still is. Now I'd like to avoid it as much as I can. It's like, boxing is fascinating to me also, but I don't want to get in the ring with Mike Tyson. I feel like I tear myself up emotionally for money just got to the point where - and I can't say how much of it is the baggage that comes with it in my case - I started thinking more and more about doing something else, and that's what this is.'

While 'this' is surely time-consuming and draining, it doesn't exact the psychic toll that Penn's roles seem to have. 'That was part of the misery of acting for me,' he says, ''cause everybody else can get out there and throw a Frisbee around before [the director calls] 'Action'. I found that the amount of concentration it took for me to feel free in front of a camera was a lot.' If so, it paid off, starting with Penn's 1981 movie debut with Tim Hutton and Tom Cruise in Taps; perhaps only at that moment would such a movie have been cast in which Hutton played the leader, Cruise played a crazy, and Penn played the 'conscience of the piece.' Still, it was his performance as bonehead surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High that made his career. Despite its lighthearted quality, it was the film on which Penn pioneered what became the young-actor fad of remaining in character throughout the shoot; as late as 1984's Racing With The Moon, he would leave phone messages in his role's name. [i]Racing With The Moon [/i]also raised the issue of Penn's refusal to do press; though any film that used an abortion as the sort of coming-of-age moment usually served by a high school graduation probably faced a tough road commercially, Penn's silence was seen by some as a key element in the film's box office failure. 'I'm not the first actor who didn't feel he had something to say to the press all the time,' he says, 'but I'm the first one they went after, as far as I know.' In Penn's view, the film's failure had more to do with lack of corporate will at Paramount Pictures, where producers Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing had brought the project. 'They just dumped it. And I'm the one that fucked it up, right, 'cause I didn't do interviews.'

Penn's best performances - in The Falcon and the Snowman, At Close Range, and State of Grace - were similarly obscured by short runs, though each film seemed to lose its way toward the end. 'It's a very gratifying thing when it works,' he says, 'but when you pour your guts out for something and then it's for shit, or it's something that just should never have been made, or made that way, you just get...'

Crazy, perhaps - which may be the only way to regard the multiyear paparazzi-bashing spree that eviscerated his career options and eventually earned him a 60-day jail sentence. How did it happen? 'It was very clear how it happened,' he says, laughing. 'I had six charges against me at the time! I had to make the best deal I could.' Asked if he didn't try to lighten up after, say, charge four, he pauses. 'Off the top of my head, I can only think of one crime that I would turn somebody in for; if I saw them in the act, I would flag a cop. And I committed that crime. That was drunk driving. All the other stuff, no regrets.'

His off screen behaviour earned him the enmity of millions of moviegoers - and as a result, onscreen, Penn brought more baggage than Joan Collins on the Concorde. That baggage he credits with 50 percent of his decision to leave acting. 'I guess you could say the struggles for an actor are hard enough. You don't need the extra burdens.'

Occasionally, his cynicism even entered what was once his temple: on the all-but-unseen Shanghai Surprise, 'I fucked up the whole thing,' he says. 'I drank a fifth of Scotch until five in the morning, took a shower, and went to work.' He became more of a risk, both artistically and commercially. 'I wasn't getting offered the movies most of the time by the directors,' he says. 'Of course, there were some directors I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I'd enjoy. Working with Brian De Palma on Casualties of War was one of the best experiences I've ever had, because he knew his shit so well that no matter what anybody thought, there was going to be a very strong point of view on the screen. But I didn't have a lot of experiences like that.'

On balance, Penn sees his time spent acting as adding up to 'a significant learning experience and an insignificant career. See I can't find acting to be all that subjective a thing. I've known when my work was good and when it wasn't. In my career, there was a lot more scrutiny of what I was into, and the scrutiny was inaccurate when it was positive and inaccurate when it was negative. I had very few pleasant experiences; I don't look at my career as a body of work, I look at it as very fragmented. There's nothing to latch on to that really has much to offer the collective good.'

At this point in the public eye, then, on stands as the American Richard Burton - a brilliant actor undone by drink and the love of the world's most famous woman. The near-operatic ups and downs of his relationship with Madonna have been carefully chronicled elsewhere. Now, he says, 'I don't harbor any bad feelings. There's a certain fondness that I don't think ever goes away, but we don't communicate, there's no dialogue.' Although Madonna unequivocally denied some of the more fantastic accounts of their breakup, Penn, nevertheless seems to feel that his press-friendly spouse could have been even more vehement in his defense. 'Yeah, well, that was confusing to me,' he says of the rumors. 'I've always wondered, and I guess I'll never know, how aware she was of the effect of her passiveness in those areas: you struggle against it and try to communicate about it, and nothing changes. I'll never know if it was a separate agenda or [she was] just blind to it.'

He has, he says, mixed feelings about 'defending myself on something where I felt that I had a clear slate - mixed feelings not for myself but for my family; other people were hurt by those things. And you don't know whether to...' His voice trails off. 'Your own virtue is something that's difficult to define sometimes. I've had a system of rules that I've gone by ever since I've been public, and one of those was never to bad-mouth anybody in the press as much as that had been done to me. And I still feel that way, still feel like I'll say it to their face, but I don't know... I know that I've taken a lot of shit for it. And I don't know that I wouldn't have taken the shit if I had said something, if I had said, "I can prove that's not true.''

All of it is so much backwash now, though: freed from the burden of playing somebody else, Penn looks serene and at peace. Known at times to be a prodigious drinker, 'I think I've had about six beers and two Scotches the whole time I've been here,' he says. 'It used to be all day, every day - and I never did any rehab thing or anything like that - but I just only drink on the weekend; that's about it.' Adding to his serenity is his domestic situation; he is the father of a baby girl, Frances Dylan Penn, by actress Robin Wright, whom he starred opposite in State of Grace. Didn't he once say that acting is too important to fool around on the set with someone? 'What the hell,' he says with a smile. 'You can't be held responsible for all those things.'

© Westmount.
Penn's fondness for the story that became The Indian Runner goes back nearly ten years, to the New York apartment where he sat with his then-fiancée and listened to Bruce Springsteen's acoustic album, Nebraska, which contained a track about two mismatched siblings. After the record was finished, his fiancée decided to call Springsteen - a task made considerably easier by the fact that she was Pam Springsteen, his younger sister. 'So I got on the phone,' Penn recalls, 'and I said something like, 'I'd like to make a movie out of that song someday.' And he said something like, 'Oh, okay.'' Over the years, Penn says, he harboured an ambition to play the younger brother and discussed it with some of his acting chums. 'I mentioned it to Bob De Niro at the point we'd decided to do We're No Angels, as we were trying to come up with something to do together. Then I talked to [writer] David Rabe - and in the week that he was thinking about it and didn't get back to me, I just started writing it.'

Penn banged out the script in 30 days, deciding 'by page three' that his face was wrong for the role, and that he'd be better off just writing and directing. Fully cognizant of the informality of his go-ahead from Springsteen and the Boss' reluctance to allow his songs or their premises to be turned into movies, 'I thought the way to go about it was just go balls-out and do it, so he could see the work in front of him and not some idea, and hope that he liked it enough to let me.' Once he'd finished it, though, he filed it away, instead concentrating on a John Cassavetes script he'd purchased after the filmmaker's death in 1989.

Then, Penn recalls, he got a visit from Don Phillips, a producer who'd known him since the Fast Times days. Penn pressed the script into Phillips's hands, lying a bit that its author was a prisoner with the remarkably preppie name J. Club McPhee. 'He said that he was on death row at San Quentin,' recalls Phillips, 'and I said, 'I don't care who this son of a bitch is; he's a hell of a writer.'' Once advised of the ruse, Phillips (unbeknownst to Penn) took the script and the bogus tale of its origination to his longtime compadre Thom Mount. 'I knew that Thom was very close to starting his new company with Japanese money,' says Phillips, 'and I approached him saying that this would be a wonderful picture to start off with because it had class: rather than making some high-concept picture, this would be a great introduction to his new company.'

While Penn worked on rewrites, Mount continued to hunt for financing, finally securing $10 million or so from MICO/NHK Enterprises, which had poured an estimated $35 million into a Charlton Heston-Tim Matheson dog entitled Solar Crisis. 'Whenever I'd talk to him, I'd get jacked up,' says Penn, 'because it sounded like it was all happening - and then when I'd talk with the lawyers and the this and the that, they'd say, 'Well, the money's not there yet.' But he did it, he put it together, here we are. I don't think anybody else in town in his position would have funded this: I had no track record, and what track record there was was not necessarily favourable - and then I don't think it's, on the surface, the most commercially viable sort of material. We didn't have Charles Bronson [who plays the Roberts patriach] involved until we were a go movie, we didn't have Dennis Hopper [who plays the bartender] until we were a go movie.'

When the picture finally got the go-ahead Penn immediately knew whom he wanted for the stalwart older brother: David Morse, the soft-voiced St. Elsewhere star whom Penn recalled seeing in Inside Moves. 'Sean really fought for me,' says Morse. 'I knew there was a kind of a pressure on him to go with bigger-name people, but he had a vision of who this character was, and somehow I fit that thing. He's an impressive man: everyone has this image of him as a fighter in the other sense, but truly in the best sense he's a real fighter, a fighter for people, for what he thinks is good and right.'

The last time a major motion picture was shot in Nebraska, the film's younger star (Debra Winger) fell in love with the state's governor (Bob Kerrey). But as Viggo Mortensen prowls the midnight location, a Shelby Mustang ablaze some 200 feet beneath him, and the camera zooms in on his extended fists, KILL and FUCK tattooed Thunder Road-style on his knuckles...well, somehow, it just doesn't seem worth asking what Mortensen might think of 52-year-old governor Kay Orr as a woman.

For the role of the hellion Frank, Penn caught sight of Mortensen's performance in Fresh Horses and knew he had his man. Once Mortensen was cast, Penn helped him fully plumb the depths of his character. 'I had always thought of Frank as a barking dog that bites,' Penn says, 'so I asked Viggo to spend some time with a friend of mine who's a Hell's Angel who knows the world and also is a fighter - not that there's a lot of fighting in the movie, but I felt that he should know it and be able to feel that physical confidence.'

'Hopefully what will come across is that he does things he does because he's pure, pure good and pure bad,' explains Mortensen. 'I mean, compared to me and most people I know - we kind of have little controls and little ways of limiting our behaviour and our reactions to people. Frank doesn't really do that.'

Great things have been predicted for Mortensen: his good friend Michael Blake, who wrote Dances With Wolves, has called him 'the new James Dean' (the very tag affixed to Penn some years back) and says Mortensen might have been his first choice to play Dances' John Dunbar. The set has been visited by a flotilla of trolling agents inquiring about his current agency status. Facially, Mortensen looks like a cross between Sam Shepard and echt movie villain Lance Henriksen, a suggestion enhanced by his character's myriad jailhouse tattoos (applied in hours-long makeup sessions) and the unperiodlike leather brace on his right hand and wrist, which he wears constantly and removes only immediately before shooting. Word on the set is that Mortensen busted a knuckle and sprained his wrist during rehearsals for a fight scene, but when asked about the injury, his eyes take on a demonic glint.

'Sean Penn,' he says, 'bit me.'

Bit you?

'Ah, you know, he tries to help us all in different ways,' he says. 'It's just one he picked that day.'


'It wasn't the bite so much, it was the tearing,' he continues. 'That's when I thought I could get very sick from this. He clamped down, and it was too late to do anything. So I tried to stay really still, like you would with a rabid dog; you pull away, they just sort of sink in a little more. And sure enough, I tried to pull away, thinking it was over with, and that's when it started to tear.'

As the light bulb over his head starts to illuminate, a visitor asks the obvious question: Has there been any talk on the set of having Penn humanely destroyed? 'Ah, I don't know,' says Mortensen, 'I try to stay impartial. I got a week to go on this; I want to keep things on an even keel. So he broke my hand, you know what I mean? I got my shots.'

The Delmar Hotel is a flophouse so authentic that virtually the first sight after a visitor crosses its threshold is decadence connoisseur Helmut Newton preparing to do a shoot in one of the upstairs rooms. Its lobby is wall-to-wall with life's unfortunates; one, a near two for Samuel Beckett, boasts a softball-size occipital tumour. In an upstairs room, waterlogged plaster peels off the walls above an unspeakably stained mattress. It is like a Smithsonian of seed.

This is room 202, practically at the top of the stairs, which has been dressed as Frank's crash pad. Mortensen walks in and surveys its detritus. He takes a washcloth from the room's sink, folds it, and drapes it over the railing at the foot of the, not just yet. First, he goes to the bottle of Southern Comfort that sits on the dresser, lies on the bed, and puts the bottle between his legs to open it. Then he splashes some sour mash on the washcloth and re-drapes it. With his thumb over the top, he sprinkles more over the sheets and replaces the bottle. Finally, he ponders the room's Bible: Should it go over the bed? No. Under the pillow? No.

Then he seems to get an idea: he grabs his switchblade, inserts it as a bookmark, and places the Bible on the bed. There.

Such attention to detail was the hallmark of Penn's best work, but he's just as happy not to be the performer doing the obsessing (though he isn't above giving his actors line readings). To him, directing has the advantage of relative anonymity. 'Your name's on the screen for a bit and then you're out of it,' he says. 'Even your detractors and those who'd love to put a knife in your back forget that you're involved - if you do good work. And if you don't, you deserve everything you get.'

What he will get with The Indian Runner remains to be seen. Most of the performances, especially Morse's, are lovely, and Penn's shot selections seem inventive and energetic rather than hackneyed. It is not as director but as writer that he has overreached: there are more than a few poky sequences, and his decision to use Joe as an occasional narrator seems to lessen the film's dramatic pull. It is the characters of Joe and Frank who emerge most strongly, not as antagonists so much as different sides of the same personality: the driven rebel and the duty-bound worker - a personality not entirely unlike that of its creator, who, for all his piss and vinegar, and occasional finger-pointing, doesn't seem to have lost sight of what makes the medium work. 'There are those movies that are made to supply us with dreams, and there are those movies that share a dream with us,' he says. 'I'm interested enough in other people to be interested in sharing their dreams, but I don't need to be supplied with dreams. I got my own.'

And bearing ample testament to that is The Indian Runner's unexpectedly uplifting ending, one that amid much gloom and foreboding offers a fair amount of promise for his characters. 'It surprised people,' Penn admits with a grin, 'because I think I'm just perceived as someone who has no hope.'
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Last edited: 14 July 2005 09:58:41
© Premiere.