Sean Penn, With His Own Two Eyes 

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

Wednesday, Sep 19 2007

Let fury have the hour, anger can be power

D’you know that you can use it?

—The Clash, “Clampdown”

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.

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Tue 15
  2. Wed 16
  3. Thu 17
  4. Fri 18
  5. Sat 19
  6. Sun 20
  7. Mon 21

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending