Sean Penn Photo by Eric Ray Davidson
Sean Penn Photo by Eric Ray Davidson

Sean Penn

Read the article that just won a bronze award for best Q&A in the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ 2021 editorial competition.

Penn won an Oscar for his starring role in Milk. Courtesy of Focus Features
Penn won an Oscar for his starring role in Milk. Courtesy of Focus Features

Two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn has been a household name for decades, thanks largely to starring roles in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont HighRacing with the MoonThe Falcon and the SnowmanDeadman WalkingMystic River, and Milk. In recent years, though, the now 60-year-old actor, writer, and film director has focused more on social causes than on his Hollywood career.

Penn is a seeker of his own truth and doesn’t accept the word of governments or the media—or even instruction manuals: he says that when he bought a complicated Nikon camera, he threw out the manual, explaining that he is instruction-intolerant and is better off making mistakes until he figures something out. He visited Iraq to understand for himself what was happening there; he has also met Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and the infamous drug lord El Chapo in Mexico.

Eleven years ago, after the earthquake in Haiti, he went there and founded the Haitian Relief Organization, which evolved into a group known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort). The nonprofit has helped Haiti and other countries and currently concentrates its efforts on testing for COVID-19.

While Penn approaches such missions with the utmost seriousness, he smiles often, laughs easily, and comes across as humble, shy, and self-deprecating. He smokes incessantly and says, “There are a lot of people out of work, but the job security I provide for oncologists is unparalleled.”

He spoke with us via video call from his home in Los Angeles.

Penn stars in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Photo: Universal Pictures Media Licensing
Penn stars in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Photo: Universal Pictures Media Licensing


Did your father and mother play a role in your attraction to acting? 
Yes. They were both actors, but they weren’t part of the movie business social life, so my world was dragsters and surfing. There was no real sense of following in the family business, but they supported me once I did it.

Who most influenced your acting? 
I was making little films with friends when I was at Santa Monica High School. A really wonderful actor, Anthony Zerbe, came to Career Day and, when he spoke, it got me exhilarated about my newfound interest. By the time I was in acting school, it was Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson wasn't just a great actor; he was a charismatic person.

You directed him in The Crossing Guard. What did you learn from him? 
I think one tries to be a bit of a sponge and not analyze what they're sponging; but Jack Nicholson, besides being a great actor, is as smart about film and film storytelling as anyone I know. His natural relationship with the truth is something he was able to harness in a particularly compelling way. 

I know you're very proud of Milk, and you've said that Harvey Milk became the song in your life. What is it about him and that role that so resonates with you? 
Harvey was such a dynamic leader that you couldn't help but kind of fall in love with him. It was the combination of a wonderful story about an incredible man with a great screenwriter, Lance Black, and as good a director as we have, Gus Van Sant. 

Do you think Milk’s activism was the seed for your own? 
I felt a kinship to an awful lot of it and met a lot of the great activists who were very close to him. Harvey Milk would have been such an important advocate had he not been killed right before the plague of HIV. He probably would have led a productive conversation about that virus on a national level [years before it was widely discussed]. I think the loss of him was the loss of many other lives. 

You once said, "I have a great love affair with humanity. But I'm not too good about humans." Why? 
Social discomfort. I'm not a natural-born social animal. So I don't think the era of quarantine is a sea change for me. 

You wrote Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, and a year later, you wrote the sequel, Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn. Are you working on another sequel? 
No. I'm working on a novel that's independent of that series. 

I heard you were thinking of becoming a full-time novelist.
There is one reason why I'm not going to be a full-time novelist yet: my bank account. Between the CORE organization and my reluctance to do certain kinds of projects, I've got about six cents in the bank. I'll find my way to write while doing other things. 

As we speak, the election is still a few weeks away, but what are your thoughts on Donald Trump?
This is somebody who was born to damage, and we were willing to ignore each other enough for that to happen. It is absolutely possible that Trump could win the presidency again, but that would not be a triumph of him or his base. That would be a failing of the rest of us to get together and do what we know we've got to do. 

What do you think we need to do?
We've got to have a policy of mandatory service: forestry or working with the elderly or environmental projects. It's a great way to offset student loans and give young people an opportunity, so they go out into the world knowing that their actions matter. I've seen this around the world. I see it with the volunteers and staff at CORE, mostly young people. It's a different breed. Once somebody sees that they matter, it changes everything. 

Penn films Emile Hirsch for Into the Wild. © paramount pictures 2020, from into the wild, now on on digital
Penn films Emile Hirsch for Into the Wild. © paramount pictures 2020, from into the wild, now on on digital


Was your 2005 trip to New Orleans to aid and rescue Hurricane Katrina victims the beginning of your humanitarian work? 
In terms of hands on, yes. I grew up partly in Southern California, where we now have these fires. I experienced the way a community gets together, be it related to fires or storms and tides and sandbagging for each other. I also saw how quickly people become disconnected neighbors right after it's done. 

For me, what was most significant about New Orleans after Katrina was I had always thought that one might get in the way of a greater government deployment to these things. But what you find out when you get into these areas is that those productive government agencies and individuals are most grateful to have another hand there. Our first day we were able to bring about 40 people out of the flood zone. There was a lesson in that. 

What did you hope to accomplish in 2010 when you went to Haiti after the earthquake and started the nonprofit that later became CORE? 
I was able to get enough support to get two airplanes, one for personnel. We put together a group of 30 aid workers, seven of them doctors. I'd been in contact with Paul Farmer, who had been working in Haiti for over two decades, and I asked what was needed. Even amputations were being done with no intravenous pain medication and at that time, there was one anesthesiologist in the entire country. We were able to get bulk intravenous pain medication and deliver it to the trauma centers, clinics, and hospitals to which Paul Farmer guided us and were able to deploy our doctors to medical organizations on the ground. 

We were resource people who did not know the Haitians’ world, and they became the greatest resource that we could have. What started with 39 Haitians as full-time staff became 120 people with only five non-Haitians. We obtained visas for some of our Haitian staff to help in the hurricane belt in the United States, and that's where the organization became what is now Community Organized Relief Effort— CORE. We work in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, throughout the hurricane belt, and in Haiti.

Because we had an infectious-disease history with the epidemic of cholera in Haiti, when COVID happened, through [California] Governor [Gavin] Newsom, [Los Angeles] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti, and the Los Angeles Fire Department, we formed partnerships and built out to what CORE's now doing with COVID-19 throughout the country. 

CORE has a staff of a thousand people nationwide, out of which 90 percent are women. Why do you think so many women are attracted to this?
The father of my best buddy growing up said, “The toughest guy on the block is the one with the least to lose.” And now, the toughest guy on the block isn't a guy. We're not trying to recruit women, per se; we're an emergency-response organization, identifying the strongest leaders, the best communicators, and the people with the most will and grit.

You can get coronavirus test results in two days as opposed to the five it takes in some of the wealthiest communities. How do you do that? 
We're not a medical organization; we're sample collectors, and we need tests. People have to know very clearly that they must quarantine from the time they take their test till the time they are notified. Any contact in between can nullify that result. We have a guarantee of 48 hours or less. At that point, contact tracing has to begin immediately.

CORE cofounders Penn and Ann Lee in Haiti. courtesy of CORE Photo: Community Organized Relief Effort
CORE cofounders Penn and Ann Lee in Haiti. courtesy of CORE Photo: Community Organized Relief Effort


How can people help CORE? 
We are totally dependent on contributions. This is expensive work and we need constant help, so as little or as much as people can contribute will help. They can also volunteer through the website [coreresponse.org].

What will CORE concentrate on after a vaccine is found? 
We'll be looking at what models are made available for people to get vaccinations. We're encouraging flu shots because these respiratory issues are going to affect people who will be afraid they have COVID. If necessary, we’ll turn our current test sites into test and vaccination sites. Until the world is vaccinated, we're vulnerable. 

How is CORE using business aviation? 
This was a lifesaver for us. I had to get staff around the country and fly to eight cities multiple times as well as travel to Navajo Nation. Working 18-hour days and getting to a flight on time can be difficult, not to mention exposing our staff to the infection. Angel Flights, an NGO, helps us out. Sawyer Aviation and Glencoe Aviation helped us in the past where we needed to really scramble. You can't go out there unless you're paying for a flight out of pocket, which is a problem if you don't have the money. We can't justify taking donor money to use private planes, so without these companies getting on board, we would not have been able to expand as we did. 

You’ve flown privately aside from CORE?
Quite a bit. Most of the time when I fly privately, I’m promoting a movie and the studio is paying for it. And there were times where I did something on my dime. For example, I would take a red-eye to Miami a lot to go in and out of Port-au-Prince. If I waited for the next commercial connection, I’d end up losing that day of work on the ground, so I'd fly commercially to Miami and then take the hop to Haiti on my own nut. 

I was flying once on the studio's dime from Los Angeles to the Venice Film Festival with Jack Nicholson. It was a pretty spacious plane. Jack came out of the restroom and looked around. There was a lot of room over his head and he said, “Seanie, one more Batman and I get the good kind [of jet], the kind on which you can stand up.” 

Is there a particular airplane that you prefer? 
I like Hawkers and Challengers

If you could buy your own aircraft, what would you buy?
Probably something with the most range. Were it just me and I could afford it—now this is, of course, just dreaming; this is not talking about environmental impact—I would probably live in a tent if I could have a private plane at the ready to go wherever I wanted to go. I think the only thing that keeps me from more travel is going through terminals and having cell phones pointed at me, waiting for me to pick my nose for it to go on TMZ. And to go through a private terminal and get up in the sky, I don't care how long we're up there, I love it. 

Penn at home with a friend in Southern California.  Photo by Eric Ray Davidson
Penn at home with a friend in Southern California. Photo by Eric Ray Davidson

This interview has been edited and condensed.
 


FAST FACTS

NAME: Sean Justin Penn

BORN: Aug. 17, 1960, in Santa Monica, California

CAREER: Actor, director, screenwriter, and/or producer in more than 50 films. Also a novelist.

PHILANTHROPY: Founder of CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort)

EDUCATION: Santa Monica High School

HONORS: 2012 Peace Summit Award for disaster relief work in HaitiNumerous acting awards, including two Oscars for best actor (Mystic River, 2003; Milk, 2008) and three more Academy Award nominations in the same category (Dead Man Walking,1995; Sweet and Lowdown, 1999; I Am Sam, 2001).

PERSONAL: Previously married to Madonna and to actress Robin Wright, with whom he had a son and daughter. Married third wife, Australian actress Leila George, in 2020. Loves woodworking and cross-country road trips.

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