The incomprehensible lack of gongs for Sean Penn’s outstanding movie was by far the biggest shock at this year’s otherwise entirely predictable Oscars.
It’s based on an incredible true story. In 1992, top-flight graduate Christopher McCandless (a terrific turn by Leonardo DiCaprio-a-like Emile Hirsch, pictured right) dramatically rejected the glittering future in law his uptight middle-class parents had always dreamed of for him.
He cut up his credit cards, donated his savings to charity, burned his remaining dollars and set off into the wild.
McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp as he cringeworthily renamed himself, emerges as an intriguingly complex anti-hero – impossible to pigeonhole as a free spirit, a misanthrope or just a middle-class tosser.
McCandless’s extreme determination to survive, alone, in the wilds of Alaska stirs a vicarious wanderlust thrill, augmented by the ravishing location photography.
That said, this is no comforting Paulo Coelho self-help allegory. Nature here is ultimately pitiless. I won’t give away the ending but let’s just say in this forest, there ain’t no cute Disney bunnies to bake him cookies.
Sean Penn is a Hollywood star who doesn’t believe in Hollywood. ‘It’s not a real thing,’ he says. ‘I don’t live in Hollywood, I never even talk to anybody from Hollywood.’
He’s not referring to the geographical area a few miles from where we sit at the Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills. Nor is he talking about the fact that he’s moved away from LA, where he grew up and lived during his hell-raising days.
Penn is talking about the label, the mythical entity, the sign in the hills, with which he’s always had an uneasy relationship. Despite being one of the best film actors of his generation, despite barely missing a step in his 26-year career, despite four Best Actor Oscar nominations and one win (for Mystic River in 2003) in 10 years, Sean Penn is still the star some love to hate.
Why? Over the past few years Penn has become a posterboy for the much-mocked ‘Actor With a Conscience’ movement (a group that also includes Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins). Whether it’s taking trips to Baghdad or Teheran, climbing into a boat to rescue survivors after Hurricane Katrina, buying space in the Washington Post and the New York Times to rail against President Bush, or developing a relationship with Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chávez, he just can’t stop caring. And it’s hard to be a rebel with a cause in Hollywood (sorry, Sean) without prompting resentment. Penn’s refusal to turn up for his first three Oscar nominations probably hasn’t helped either.
‘I think everybody’s got a role,’ he says of his activism. ‘And if they happen to live in Los Angeles and work in the movie business that doesn’t exempt them. My first priority is what I do creatively now, but the emergency got too big. It’s too palpable, what my kids’ futures are.’
Penn, 47, now lives in the small town of Ross, near San Francisco, with his teenage children, Dylan and Hopper, and his wife, the actress Robin Wright Penn. He surfs, sails, does dad things. Does he miss LA? ‘No.’ He smiles. He’s been forced to rejoin the movie business circus to complete and promote Into the Wild, his new film as a writer and director.
It’s the true story of an affluent 22-year-old, Christopher McCandless, who abandoned his former life and eventually died living wild in Alaska. McCandless finished his degree in 1990, then donated his life savings to Oxfam, severed all links with his family and lived rough around America for more than a year, before hitch-hiking to the 49th state and surviving 115 days of isolation in the wilderness, living for most of the time in an abandoned bus. He also gave himself a new name – Alexander Supertramp.
Penn read Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name, when it came out in 1996, four years after McCandless’s death. ‘The cover just caught me,’ he says. ‘I grabbed it, drove straight home and read it twice through, from four in the afternoon until the following morning.’
The film builds on his previous directorial efforts, The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001), the last two starring his good friend Jack Nicholson. It is better, less serious, than those. Emile Hirsch, who plays McCandless, lost almost four stone in the course of filming, and gives a career-making performance. He’s matched by pitch-perfect turns from the likes of Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener. But stealing the show is the American landscape, which Penn and his cinematographer Eric Gautier bask in, as McCandless did himself.
It took Penn 10 years to persuade the McCandless family to let him make a film about their lost son. What drew him so strongly to the story? ‘A lot of things,’ he says, through an ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke. When he’s not puffing one of his American Spirits, he’s playing with the packet, waiting for the next. ‘You can sum it up with the word “freedom”. I think I like the idea of pursuing a rite of passage, going outside the comfort zone. The pursuit of authenticity in a relentlessly authentic place, and the will of this guy.’ Penn tends to speak in soundbites, but when he feels strongly he uncoils. His sentences shorten, and you get a sense of the controlled anger that adds such an edge to his performances.
Penn is wearing a plaid shirt under a green Avirex bomber jacket, which he has put on to stave off the cold blasts from the airconditioning. So, today, you can’t see the tattoo on his left forearm which, apparently, shows a caged demon with the words ‘deliver me’ underneath. You can construct your own metaphor about that, but one question seems obvious: does Penn, the cossetted movie star who puts himself out there and takes chances, see any parallels between himself and Christopher McCandless?
‘I think that there’s a little of him in everybody. A little wanderlust in everybody. I feel like wanderlust is the word that, when I speak it, other people know what I’m talking about. I don’t know that I’d identify it as a metaphor for me and Hollywood. I just thought I found something in it, a kindred spirit.’ Later, when talking about the sensitive McCandless, who ran away from what seem like everyday family problems, he could easily be describing himself: ‘He reacted to things that other people might just have lived through. He was sensitive, but sensitivity ought be a virtue. It’s society that makes it into a weakness.’
On occasion, Penn’s sensitivity has been exposed. In 2004, the South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mocked his activism in their Hollywood lampoon Team America: World Police. He had just returned from a trip to Iraq, the first of two he made to the region, and took offence at the duo’s suggestion that he had painted a rose-tinted view of the place (A puppet resembling Penn says: ‘Before Team America showed up it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate?…’). He also criticised the pair for saying that there was no shame in not voting.
Penn responded with a letter, the last part of which said:
It’s all well to joke about me or whomever you choose. Not so well, to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation and death of innocent people throughout the world. The vote matters to them. No one’s ignorance, including a couple of hip cross-dressers, is an excuse.
All best, and a sincere f— you, Sean Penn
P.S. Take this as a personal invitation from me to you (you can ask Dennis Miller [a right-wing American comedian who had also mocked Penn] along for the ride as well) to escort you on a trip, which I took last Christmas. We’ll fly to Amman, Jordan and I’ll ride with you in a taxi 12 hours through the Sunni Triangle into Fallujah and Baghdad and I’ll show you around. When we return, make all the fun you want.
He gives a relaxed response to the allegation that he can’t take a joke: ‘I take that from people whose humour impresses me, which is not very many people.’ Does he take himself seriously? ‘I take myself all kinds of different ways at all kinds of different times.’ He looks pleased with that answer. But surely he must know, having lived in the spotlight for 25 years, that writing such letters, or going around New Orleans in a boat, is going to raise eyebrows? ‘It flashed through my mind six or seven times that the press would have a field day,’ he says of his trip to Louisiana. ‘But it empowered me against them.’
According to Penn, he was watching television, absorbing the aftermath of the hurricane, and wondering about friends he had in town. ‘It was like, Day One: Oh my God. Day Two: Man, I wish I could help. Day Three: I wish I could help, but I wouldn’t want to get in anyone’s way. Day Three-and-a-half: There’s nobody’s way to get in, no one’s doing anything. Get on a plane and go. In my case it’s half about access. I’m a known movie actor and I have a reasonable bank account. I would wager that there’d be a lot of me turning up if you shared that with the population. I just get frustrated by feeling like I’m being lied to, or feeling like somebody needs help and they’re not getting it.’
Reports suggest he ferried 40 people to safety, carrying a pump-action shotgun for part of the time. The headlines read ‘Shotgun Sean’ and ‘Ballistic River’, and he was accused of orchestrating a publicity stunt. Does the press reaction and the mocking bother him? ‘I thrive on it.’ He says it slowly, and with relish. ‘I’ve come to like it. It’s all stupid writing anyway. They just take rumours and spread them.’
He’s fighting back with his own writing – he has sent dispatches from his trips to Iraq and Iran to his local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. But he hasn’t always expressed his anger solely through long articles. He hasn’t always been so reclusive, either. In 1985, he met Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccione on the set of her video for Material Girl. When they got married, a year later, on a California clifftop they were at the centre of a media storm so violent that, apparently, they couldn’t hear their wedding vows over the press helicopters. Which Penn got into trouble for allegedly shooting at.
Rumours are that the cast of Into the Wild would tease Penn by singing Madonna’s hits at him. He doesn’t remember. ‘Maybe I’ve got so used to people doing that that I didn’t notice.’
Over the course of their tumultuous four-year marriage, the couple earned the nickname ‘the poison Penns’ for their hostility towards photographers. In 1987, he was jailed for 32 days for assaulting an amateur paparazzo – an extra on the set of Colors – who tried to take a snap. It also emerged recently that he dangled another photographer out of a Hong Kong hotel window while filming Shanghai Surprise, the only film he and Madonna made together (and his only real turkey).
He has said before that his energy comes from rage. So where does that rage come from? ‘Never could figure it out. Best I can say is that it’s best not to raise kids on war on TV.’ Born in 1960, he still remembers when, all through his neighbourhood, ‘older brothers went to fight in Vietnam’. Whatever the cause, the remnants of that rage remain: ‘I still think photographers should be lashed out at,’ he says. ‘They should be put in a cage where you can poke them with a stick for a quarter. But not in a hostile way, just for giggles. They really are on the attack against mankind; it’s a disease, they should be helped somewhere.’ He pauses. ‘But I’d still like to poke them with a stick.’
In 2006, Penn lost his brother, the actor Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs), who died of an enlarged heart at the age of 40. Sean, along with the actor Mark Ruffalo, had cause to manhandle another photographer who tried to intrude on the funeral. ‘These people want to see you knocked down. It’s part of what I like about isolation. Schadenfreude is the number-one pastime in Los Angeles, in the film industry. They never, long term, get anything out of it except their own sadness. And I’m not sad, so it doesn’t matter.
‘I’m very drawn to isolation. I’ve always felt like I love mankind, the problem I have is with man.’ Is it fair to say then, that he, like Christopher McCandless, is an outsider? ‘No I see myself as an insider in an exclusive club.’ And who else is in that club? ‘People who care and say something.’
Hugo Chávez, who has used segments of Penn’s anti-Bush open letters to newspapers in his speeches, might fall into that category. Though Penn is cagey on the topic. ‘You don’t know that I have a friendship with Hugo Chávez, you just read it in some piece,’ is his response to a loosely phrased question about a couple of visits he has made to Caracas. He says his interest is purely for an article he is writing on the socialist leader.
‘The first thing I’m going to say is that we know more lies about him in the United States than we know truth. If you want a soundbite from me about Chávez, then I would say that, for the moment, he’s much more positive for Venezuela than he is negative.’ (Penn subsequently appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and described Chávez as ‘a fascinating guy’.)
Isn’t Penn worried that Chávez has the makings of a dictator? ‘He’s elected. He’s not ruling by decree. The constitution is very clear, and I’ve read it, cover to cover, two or three times. The Venezuelan constitution is a very beautiful document.’ (Are there any other movie stars who could – or would choose to – make that statement?)
He’s supporting the progressive Democrat candidate Dennis Kucinich for President in 2008 because he has ‘got the needs of the people and quality of life around the world,’ in mind. Penn is still idealistic about the democratic process. ‘People say “he can’t be President”,’ he says, referring to the fact that Kucinich is something of a little fish. ‘I say, “well he could be if you just vote for him”.’
Next, Penn is going back to acting (although he says he prefers directing as it’s ‘more tangible’). He’s just signed up to play San Francisco’s first openly gay politician Harvey Milk for Gus Van Sant, and is shooting Crossing Over, a film about immigrants in Los Angeles with Harrison Ford. So does that mean a break from saving the world?
‘It’s all one thing. It’s all basically a life. I’m not willing to separate my movie-making from my private life, from my political life. Any more than I’m willing to label this town “Hollywood”.’
I should have known better than to expect a compromise.