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Sean Penn, With His Own Two Eyes 

Sean Penn on anger, humility and the power of seeing things for yourself

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007
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Let fury have the hour, anger can be power

D’you know that you can use it?

—The Clash, “Clampdown”

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The drive from Oakland to Mill Valley sends you across the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, worth the $4 toll for its breathtaking views of Mount Tamalpais, the sentinel of Marin County, and the gilded burgs over which it watches. Near the end of the bridge is another landmark: San Quentin State Prison, a place that teases the hard cases locked in there with a panorama of Mt. Tam that from the prison yard feels so close you’d think you could reach out and touch it. I don’t know if that’s irony or cruelty, but I do know prisons are sure given prime real estate in these parts. One of Sean Penn’s best friends is stuck there in San Quentin, maybe for good, and Penn cites this unfortunate fact as one of his main reasons for choosing to live in this corner of Marin County. He simply wanted to be closer to his friend.

I don’t think Penn cared much about being closer to the Acqua Hotel in Mill Valley, where we are to meet, a place that looks like it was dreamed up by a set designer for the James Bond franchise. Even with its backside views of a San Francisco Bay inlet and its sun-splashed interior, the Acqua feels sterile, its elegance — all clean surfaces, unmolested bright walls, lots of light and sharp lines — contrived. It’s tragically hip, and it seems like an odd place to be meeting Sean Penn. It’s more like a place one of his characters would inhabit, like the bright and soulless loft Jack Nicholson’s bereft Freddy Gale retreats to for booze and bad sex in The Crossing Guard.

When Sammy Hagar, the man who achieved the impossible by killing Van Halen, pulls up in a black Maserati and emerges wearing extra-long shorts, bad footwear and a T-shirt promoting some bunk product or event, and is urgently greeted by a severe blond publicist type straight out of central casting, the whole thing starts to feel absurd. I poke my cigarette into the air, thinking some dimension will surely burst. It doesn’t.

Actually, it does. About 15 minutes later, when . . . well, picture if you will a sleepless and forlorn journalist chain smoking in front of the all-glass doors of the David Lynchian Acqua Hotel. A plume of smoke fills the foreground just as a beater of a Land Rover rambles into the parking lot a little too fast and all but crashes into a tight parking space. As the smoke dissipates, Sean Penn tumbles out of the Land Rover in worn work boots, jeans and a gray T-shirt. He approaches with the athletic grace of a cat, all body parts in motion at once. He’s muscular like a construction worker. His hair is wild and magnificent, and there are deep crags around his cowboy eyes. The first words out of his mouth are:

“Can I bum one of your cigarettes? I’m sorry, I left mine back at the house.”

“No, problem,” you say, and then, for no good reason, or because you have no impulse control: “I’m getting divorced.”

“Shit,” he says, exhaling and looking you in the eye. “I’m sorry about that. That’s a bear.”

Sammy Hagar should watch that entrance in slow motion, repeatedly.

I’m up here interviewing Penn because a film he wrote and directed is imminent. But instead of settling into a hotel couch for the standard grilling, we finish our cigarettes and Penn suggests we take quick leave of the Acqua. He spent the previous day — beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. — rafting the North Fork of the American River and is still hungry and a bit worn out. We head for a local sushi joint in a civilized Marin County commercial center that would be a strip mall anyplace else. On the way there, Penn drives in a manner I’d describe as intent but not overly aggressive. I study the ink on his arms, which I noticed immediately upon greeting. It’s authentic old-school work, almost of the prison variety, and a refreshing contrast to the rote tribal decorations that have become de rigueur for frat boys and young Hollywood alike. (Is there a difference?)

Penn’s new movie, Into the Wild, based on the Jon Krakauer book of the same name, tracks the journey of a young man away from the conventions of his birthright and into a deep, deep wilderness that is both literal and ontological. It’s an epic and ultimately fatal quest, one that Penn has rendered onto screen in ways that feel more relatable and intimate than Krakauer’s account, which, as a mostly journalistic undertaking, couldn’t help but keep its protagonist at a short arm’s length. I read the book and saw the film, but it was the film that made me feel like I got to know Chris McCandless. It’s touching and heartbreaking and infinitely more accessible than Penn’s previous efforts as the writer and director of such dark and troubling ruminations as The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, and as director of The Pledge.

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