Penn Is Still Mightier; Robin Walker Finds Sean Penn in a Mellow State of Mind

Article excerpt

Byline: Sean Penn

Technically Sean Penn might be middle aged. But the 44-year-old seems to be as much of a rebel as ever.

He picked up an Oscar for his role in Mystic River last year - but took the opportunity to sneak in a comment about his opposition to the war in Iraq.

In fact the actor has had a string of Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe nominations thanks to controversial and hard-hitting roles in films like 21 Grams, I Am Sam and Dead Man Walking - but has made as many headlines for his hot temper, his dislike of the paparazzi and his outspoken political views.

With as many staunch supporters as detractors, the actor simply doesn't care.

'I've never been able to feel particularly likeable or inclined to pursue it. It's like director Louis Malle said about women, 'They either like you or they don't'.'

One thing he certainly is is respected, in particular for his obvious acting talent. And he's followed up a strong of emotionally and politically charged roles with two new, equally hard-hitting films - The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, which opened last week, and The Interpreter, opening on Friday.

The former, based on a true story, sees Sean as a struggling salesman who decides on revenge when the American Dream eludes him. As his life disintegrates around him - his wife, played by Naomi Watts, leaves him, and the business loan he hopes will transform his life is turned down - he descends into madness and alienation, culminating in his plan to assassinate Nixon by flying a plane into the White House.

It was a tough character to play but he felt drawn to doing it, he says. 'I think it was the hardest one to make, it was misery, but I'm very proud of the result.'

In Sydney Pollack's more mainstream The Interpreter, Sean portrays a federal agent who has to protect a UN interpreter, played by Nicole Kidman, who may be the target of assassination.

The film marks the first time that the UN has allowed a movie crew to shoot inside the New York headquarters of the world body - even Alfred Hitchcock was turned down for North By Northwest.

Both these films show Sean at his best - the brooding intensity, a willingness to show ordinary men battling extraordinary situations and a distinctly unfashionable political consciousness.

But although the star took out newspaper advertisements explaining his opposition to President Bush's invasion of Iraq two years ago, he doesn't like to think of himself as a political activist.

'Political activist is somebody else's term, not mine. I think I am a moderately responsible citizen,' he maintains. 'If I was more than that, I would have done a lot more.'

But he does believe that an actor should reflect the times in which he lives. 'Something of the present culture has to be siphoned through the work.' And he adds: 'I don't think there's enough political films here or anywhere.'

While he isn't opposed to more light-hearted films, his choices tend towards movies he feels he has an emotional stake in.

'I can enjoy the Hollywood blockbuster like anyone else, but I would feel unfulfilled if I didn't try to make something that has some substance to it,' he says. …