The Total Film Interview - Sean Penn

"In balance, there's not enough dark stories," he tells Total Film with a conviction that entirely characterises his side of the conversation. "Hollywood love stories are all about the first five days of a romance. I think there aren't enough stories reflecting the conflicting times we live in - wherever the conflict might come from. I prefer to pick up on a love story, say, 10 years into a marriage. I like to explore the painful things that people have to live with, which don't have a nice, satisfying resolution." He pauses and laughs. "I feel an obligation to hurt you."

This "obligation" is certainly apparent in Penn's recent work, from his last helming effort, abrasive Jack Nicholson crimer The Pledge, to Clint Eastwood's Mystic River - which has earned Penn his latest Oscar nom for Best Actor - to this month's bleak 21 Grams. Directed by Amores Perros' Alejandro González Iñárritu, this morbid, multi-stranded tale of death and revenge sees Penn again winning plaudits as a self-loathing heart transplant recipient who's compelled to track down Naomi Watt's fragile widow. It involves the kind of raw, uncompromising and never-less-than-impressive thesping that we've come to expect from the man who, somewhat ironically, first grabbed attention as chilled-out surf bum Jeff Spicoli in 1982's Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

The 'Greatest Actor Of His Generation' hat may be passed around frivolously, but looking at a career that takes in the likes of Carlito's Way, Dead Man Walking and The Thin Red Line, it fits Penn nice and snug. Although don't expect him to go standing up for the moviemaking establishment. Once a surly tabloid staple (Hollywood's bad boy, Mr Madonna, pap-popper extreme…), he's now a nuclear-family guy living away from the LA lunacy out in Marin County.

The rural detachment obviously gives him the luxury to pass occasional high-profile judgements on the industry that made him ("Hollywood is rife with creative corruption"), not to mention the country that spawned him (he's described the US as a nation with a "white population living on stolen property they murdered for"). But, as long as he continues to turn out performances with the calibre of those in Mystic River and 21 Grams, Hollywood isn't about to start complaining that Penn's biting the hand that feeds him. Besides, as the man himself says, it's not like he worries about making anyone happy…

How do you steel yourself for the kind of role you play in 21 Grams?
I approached the film as a way for people to come to terms with death as a very sad and harsh part of life. All these people are brought together by a tragedy, but at the same time, their pain makes them more aware of life, even though there's lots of rage and anger involved. My understanding was that there was this incredible intensity of suffering that links the three main characters, Paul (Penn), Jack (Benicio Del Toro) and Cristina (Naomi Watts). They're all experiencing some sort of loss and, in my character's case, that loss is his soul. He somehow feels he's inhabited by another man's soul, and at the same time he feels this terrible empathy for Cristina's suffering. He doesn't feel he deserves the heart because he was so unhappy in his own life and nothing much has changed for him.

Some critics have called the film too dark, too bleak...
I think it's very realistic, to tell you the truth. There's still the power of hope at work here, because they're still trying to comprehend what's happened to them. They still go on, even though they're all scarred for life in some way. I've always had a pretty dark vision of things, so I never thought the film was anything but honest and very human.

Both Mystic River and 21 Grams share the theme of revenge...
Yeah. I totally found myself understanding those emotions. Just imagine what the death of your child would do to you without any way of releasing that pain and rage. One of the easiest forms of release is revenge.

How do you view your own work in these films?
I'm pretty happy with what I was able to bring to the roles. I usually beat myself up after a film because I'm someone who normally only sees what went wrong or where I didn't feel I played a scene to the level I intended. Those films were pretty hard for me to play in terms of the psychological toll they take on you, day in and day out. But I think they were both important and artistically substantial and you kill yourself willingly to work with the other actors and the director to realise his vision. I think as an actor I can't give much more than I invested emotionally in these films.

You consistently choose roles which involve a fair amount of anguish and tension, yet you've also said you don't enjoy putting yourself through it...
No, I don't, and I never will. But for some reason, I keep on doing it. That's the problem I face every time I get out there and get involved with a character. I feel every moment of pain that my characters go through. Plus, I have this general image of myself as someone who doesn't have the balls to be the kind of person I want to be, that I'm a lousy excuse for a human being. When I was playing Emmet Ray in Sweet And Lowdown, I kept wondering if people think I'm as bad as Emmet behaves. It made me feel pretty sick and humiliated.

So do you see yourself as a very self-critical person? Has that always been the case?
Well, I'm not as negative as I have been. I don't get as wound up in my own petty anger or self-loathing as I once did. I don't feel as if I'm going up against the whole world anymore and I'm starting to appreciate other people more and realise how many people also share my anger about certain things in life - politically and personally. Still, I wouldn't say that I'm a changed man in that I'm wildly happy as a person and the world looks beautiful to me every day. I don't think I'll ever make it down that road.

Does it bother you that some people will always remember you as surf-dude Jeff Spicoli?
[Laughs]Well, there's something to that. There's a lot to that. It's a challenge for actors to go along and make a career of it after the audience first gets to see you without any of the baggage from a role like that.

Did you know any Jeff Spicolis while growing up in Santa Monica?
Many. Cameron Crowe had really put it down on the page in the first place and I knew he had seen what I'd seen.

When you begin the process of creating a character for a role you're given, do you start from the outside in, or are you more instinctive?
All the training I've had is based on finding things internally and bringing them to the surface. Then I started trusting that those things would be there. Now, I consider myself to be a hair actor. I find the hair, the clothes, the movement and the character starts to form. I'm also very influenced by writing. You can be flattened by bad writing.

Interesting that you mention hair, given your crazy perm as Al Pacino's coked-up lawyer in Carlito's Way. How did you arrive at that?
I found a picture in Life magazine of a law student from around the right time period. I tucked it into my script and went from there. Character role models can come from anywhere - sometimes from scripts themselves. The first scene with Robert Duvall in Colors was like that. He said that when he read that scene where he says, "Everyone in America wants to throw you down, and I get to do it," he wanted to do the movie. [Laughs]

Did Dead Man Walking immediately strike you as a great role?
It was a great, great script. The film was exactly the script that I read. It was obviously very disturbing territory, but it was incredibly rewarding to make.

Does that kind of material leave a mark on you, or is it easy to shake off?
It's tough at the time, but yeah - when I've finished, I shake it off pretty well. It's probably down to having purged something in the process. Whether you're calmly acting or screaming out loud and banging against a wall, getting it out is good - usually… I prefer to do my acting on a typewriter; whenever I feel the oomph, I'll start typing and I'm willing to feel anything. But being on someone else's economic timeclock and forcing yourself to emote can be pretty torturous.

You learned how to play guitar for Sweet And Lowdown...
I just really wanted to work with Woody Allen for that movie. He writes so well. I read the script and I just started giggling. I started to hear the character immediately. It was an intense period. I was pretty much married to my guitar teacher for four months - and I was making another movie, too. We had two beds in one room and we were using every spare moment.

How was Woody?
Most of his movies are ensemble pieces, but I had a very good line of communication. I did one scene, and he cut, and he said: "Sean - you know what's wrong with that take? Everything." [Laughs] He's direct and that makes things easier.

Do you think actors will sacrifice a lot to play a great part?
Generally speaking, actors are the best people in the movie business. They're the ones willing to put the most on the line. I feel this more when I'm directing. It's the toughest job in the business. You have to create a world inside your own experience and hold onto it while they're putting up lights and fluffing pillows and all that stuff. I think there's a real generous spirit at the heart of that. All good actors are drawn towards good parts.

At what point did you decide to become a director?
I think I've always wanted to do it. It's like, when you're living in your first house and you think: "Who's going to call the plumber? Where are all the adults?" But when you're 17 or 18, no one is going to give you $10 million to make a movie. When it finally did happen, with The Indian Runner, I was quietly giggling to myself. I saw all these trucks around and I thought, "There's all this money, and they've just put it in my hand!" I still feel that way. I love directing. I really thrive on the responsibility.

What made you want to do The Indian Runner?
I listened to a Bruce Springsteen song - 'Highway Patrolman' - and immediately started to see it as a movie. I wrote it on the set of We're No Angels to take my mind off… Other things.

Had you ever done any writing before?
Yeah, I had... But I'd never done any sober writing before [laughs]. I'd done a lot of scribbling on napkins in bars and I found that if I'd had a lot to drink, I could write in a way I liked. Whether I liked it the next day or not, I liked it at the time. But to write a script, I wasn't able to do that drunk. So I did it sober and it was interesting.

How did you come to Jack Nicholson and The Pledge?
When Jack and I were doing The Crossing Guard, we read a lot of detective stories and thrillers to relax. I was determined to work with him again. We passed the books around, and The Pledge was the one he really wanted to take on. We've developed a strong partnership. When I work with Jack, I don't feel any less like an actor or more like a director, and I think he's the same. We both started a year in advance, and so, by the time we got on set, we were both very comfortable with the material. It was very effortless and fun.

That director/actor relationship can be tricky, though. Didn't you clash with John Schlesinger when making The Falcon And The Snowman?
I had difficulty with John because he wanted my character to be something that I didn't think had anything to do with the story. Dustin Hoffman told me that he was jealous that I had won his crown from Schlesinger as the most unprofessional actor he had ever worked with. The way I see it, if the actor's instincts are against the grain of the director's, then the director cast the wrong guy. The director has got to support the instincts of the actor, every time. You can compromise and fit the director's mould, but the spark of spontaneity will be gone.

Do you think the '70s were spontaneous like that? Were they really the Golden Age they're touted as?
Yeah, not just for the filmmakers, for the audiences too. Every weekend, there was some kind of event. It was more of a golden generation. Now it's comforting. We're fed familiarity, and so we get to see the same movie over and over again. I only want to do dramas that say something about the human spirit. Something real and serious, something that John Cassavetes would be proud of. Cassavetes lived for his art and there's no greater compliment you can pay to him for that. He was someone who truly understood how much pain goes on inside the soul. I may not be the right kind of person I aspire to be, but I think I'm getting there. I'm still not the most optimistic person, but I sleep a lot better at night.

Are you still a drinker?
Yeah, I drink, but a lot less than I used to, and what I definitely don't do anymore is take off by myself for days at a time and get so drunk that I wind up in some strange hotel in the desert.

Are you ready to blow kisses at the paparazzi yet?
No, because they're the dung beetles of the world. They reek of piss and I'll never change my attitude towards them.

Do you control your temper better these days?
I'd like to think so. I think before I would consider allowing myself to lose it. I've been to jail for assault and that's not much fun. But guys sticking cameras into the face of my wife or my kids is crossing the line as far as I'm concerned. Jack [Nicholson] used to tell me that you can enjoy your celebrity if you stop feeling like protecting your privacy. He says if I don't like the attention, I should go live in the desert and run a gas station…

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.