Sean Penn has become an iconic representation of the 1950s version of cigarette-smoking masculinity since the 1980s.
His career began with a series of films that showcased his resolute acting and has continued to evolve over the past four decades, with a focus on directing.
And playing characters in darker, traumatic stories such as Dead Man Walking, Mystic River, The Tree of Life, Milk, The Thin Red Line and I Am Sam.
At age sixty, Penn considers himself a “difficult person” and has developed his off-screen persona as an artist-provocateur.
In 2015, he sparked controversy at the Oscars when he asked Alejandro G. Iñarritu, who had directed Penn in 21 Grams, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”.
That same year, he penned a Rolling Stone article featuring an interview with El Chapo, a notorious drug lord. His intention was to stimulate public discourse on the war on drugs, yet Penn considers the essay a failure.
Additionally, he generated more discussion in 2018 when he spoke out about the #MeToo movement on The Today Show, claiming it lacked nuance and divided men and women; his statement was picked apart by various media outlets for its peculiar syntax.
Earlier in the year, Sean Penn had released his first novel Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, a satirical take on the Trump era.
Penn’s writing style was a mix of alliteration, multisyllabic words, modernist puns, folk songs and sentences reminiscent of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories. For example:
“It can be a pickle to sort a predisposition from a premonition, a fickle folly from a formidable phrase, or a pursuer from the pursued.”
Despite the usually low profile of debut experimental novels, due to the fame of its author, the reception of Bob Honey was widely reviewed and largely negative, with critics hurling extreme insults such as “the worst novel in human history”.
And dismissing it as another example of bad celebrity literature. In spite of this, in 2019, Penn followed up with a sequel entitled Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn, diving further into the cartoonishly horrific world he had created.
Penn has not only made a name for himself in writing and film, but also in humanitarian work. His organization, CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), has been active for the past decade, recently creating one of the largest coronavirus testing programs in the U.S.
with over thirty-seven sites and a focus on underserved communities. To generate funds for his work, Penn held an online table reading of the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with a variety of Hollywood stars, Shia LaBeouf included in the role Penn had in his twenties.
I was able to converse with Penn shortly after the occurrence had taken place, while he was working hard on the effects of COVID-19.
Although he typically avoids interviews and never shies away from making a statement, during our conversation he was extremely giving, tranquil, and sincere.
For most of the time, Penn uttered lengthy sentences, which were like something out of a Henry James novel, and he continuously astonished me with his peculiar expressions that often had an unforeseen interpretation.
Ross Simonini’s perspective is that the creative process involves taking risks in order to create something that is meaningful and of value.
He believes that it is essential to venture outside of one’s comfort zone in order to generate something that is truly innovative and inspiring. Without taking risks, it is impossible to produce something that will stand out and have an impact.
The image shown is that of Sean Penn.
THE BELIEVER: How does the act of writing alter you compared to when you act or direct? Your writing possesses a playful and humorous tone.
SEAN PENN: Before the Bob Honey books, I had written other things, including some novels that I started but never finished.
These books were my response to the craziness that was the 2016 presidential campaign and the general madness that many of us were feeling due to not being sure what was actually true anymore.
This confusion had been intensifying for a while as the country’s value system had been gradually eroding, with people no longer making an effort to uphold the principles they professed to have.
In my opinion, creating a written piece is similar to performing on stage. When crafting my books, I discovered the Pappy Pariah character. I believe the comedic effect of the books derives from how the reader interprets the folksy, melodic dialogue.
The language of the text was like a trampoline that my words jumped off of. The speech itself made me chuckle, a stark contrast to the unassuming man that I was.
It seemed like the world I was in was getting more and more ostentatious, and I was an unadorned guest in it. This is what motivated me to keep writing, even though my previous attempts at books had failed. Mainly because I was having fun.
BLVR: What was the timeline of your foray into writing fiction?
SP: It all began with scribbling poetry on bar napkins in my twenties. As a child I had written some short stories, but the writing I’m now known for came from my access to alcohol.
I wasn’t much of a party drinker, but I sure did enjoy spending time in the bar with a few drinks, letting my mind wander and eventually starting to write what became poetry. Not all of it would rhyme, but it was definitely character-driven.
I wrote a lot during that time, and in my mid-twenties I started writing a novel inspired by Americana. I loved taking road trips, visiting all the places I had heard about in songs. I guess my love for this kind of imagery is reflected in many of the films I later directed.
I was so fed up with the restraints and the effort that goes into making a film, especially in terms of budgeting, that I decided to try my hand at writing a novel instead.
I wanted to be able to imagine whatever I wanted without being bound by financial constraints, so I put my energy into something with no money on the line. Writing a novel allowed me to let my whimsy run free and explore without limitation.
BLVR: Considering the mythology of Americana and the classic act of road-tripping, images of the Beat Generation, Bukowski, and Bob Dylan come to mind. Do you feel that your writing is a part of that same canon, and if so, is your life related to it as well?
SP: To exemplify, Catholics show that the church is always present in their lives, no matter if they stay or leave.
This is similar to my experience with the American road’s mythology–I have an emotional attachment to it. At sixteen, forty-four years ago, I set off in search of it, and though a lot had changed, I was still drawn to the smaller roads and humble motels.
I suppose this is not about the power of my imagination, rather a longing for an idyllic time in my life. The part of me that has grown is located in California, while the part that dreams remains on the American highway.
The Container Store is now the Box Shop, offering a variety of products in container form to customers. Customers can find an array of boxes, tubs, and other containers to help them organize and store their belongings. The shop also provides helpful advice on how to effectively use their products.
BLVR: Your literary works contain criticism of the current situation in our nation, and provocation has been a major component of your artistry throughout your career. What is the purpose of provocation in your opinion?
SP: It’s an interesting inquiry, and I concur with it. I wouldn’t have been able to come up with that on my own, so I’ll attempt to answer it the best I can.
I’m usually approaching everything from the perspective of my younger self, creatively, as I think most of us are born with more empathy than we eventually keep. We often struggle to remain as present as we should be to the core of our society.
Thus, we attempt to break free from the walls of cynicism, hurt, and focusing on the superficial.
We tend to believe that people don’t truly wish to remain stuck in such limitations. Unfortunately, many times we find that the situation is already set and there is no desire on some to progress.
However, if there is a last resort of faith from which to make changes, then making it happen through art might be the solution.
BLVR: Is there a particular usefulness of fiction? Are there any books you have read that have spurred thought or emotion?
SP: At this particular moment, I have just finished watching a documentary about J.D. Salinger and I remember when I was 14 or 15, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time.
That was an experience that has stayed with me, due to the way Salinger was brutally honest and his writing was so powerful. It showed me that truth-tellers can come in many forms, be it a novelist, teacher, influential figure, or politician.
BLVR: Was it around that time that you began to act as well? Are acting and writing fiction related for you in terms of creating alternate realities?
SP: Yes, at best – self-exploration can free one from their ego. When I was younger, my ego would express itself as shyness and discomfort in social situations.
I wouldn’t say I was awkward, though I could be social, it just took a lot of effort. I think the same is true of writing for me: when I am writing, I forget about being self-conscious.
Interestingly, my books were met with quite a lot of criticism. I often think to myself, what if I had published them without my name attached?
I initially had my sights set on readers from a demographic that typically does not read, such as younger people and college students.
However, I remembered that without being an avid reader, and without appreciating the funny aspects of the material, there could be some reluctance to read. This is something I still think about.
I’m in the process of writing a third novel that is not in the style of my Bob Honey books. This one is a bit more direct, and I’m not quite sure how to handle it. I wanted to write for a 21-22 year old today, despite the fact that physical paper-in-hand readership is the lowest it’s been in human history.
That doesn’t stop me, since I still have a day job and I can make films. I don’t want to be too concerned with whether or not people will read it, but I’m writing as if I don’t care.
BLVR: Could you tell me if you think that how you identify yourself had an effect on the reviews you got? Is there generally an opposition when you attempt to do something that is not related to movies?
SP: I believe that in the past, there was a deep respect for those who could handle multiple forms of art.
However, with the rise of fame, people began to think that someone successful at committing burglary was not able to do the same in terms of a retail establishment. It appears to be more of a strategic choice, rather than an artistic one.
Access is the key factor here, and I cannot be certain if I would have gotten a publishing deal without the profile I have. Nevertheless, I could not control this. The other option would be not to express myself in the way I wanted, though I could have chosen to release it with a different name.
BLVR: Is art a field that is becoming more specialized, similar to the way other aspects of culture have become?
SP: I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to this sort of thing. To be honest, I do miss the days when supermodels were exclusively supermodels – I don’t like it when actresses take up the job.
I’m just as judgmental as the critics of my book when it comes to this. I preferred it when their specialty was strutting down the runway.
BLVR: Is there a distinction between these various efforts of yours, or do you view all of them–filmmaking, acting, charity, composing–as an entire, unified entity?
SP: To put it simply, I manage it all without any issues. Another term that applies to this situation is troubleshooting. Writing involves a lot of problem solving when constructing a story, especially one as complex as in these books.
As an artist, certain phrases have become mantras of mine. “It isn’t art without clarity in its foundation” is one of those. It doesn’t matter if the clarity is difficult to obtain, as long as the creator has a clear view of it.
This is the same for activities such as film development, disaster response, creating a character in a screenplay, and directing a movie.
To me, problem-solving accounts for half the work. I actually enjoy it and often employ strategies to compartmentalize, much like a carpenter would. What’s the name of that store that sells different types of drawers?
Q: What about The Container Store?
SP: Yes, I dabble in container designing as a hobby. It’s more like a proof-of-concept type of thing.
I don’t take any measurements and just let the creativity flow. That’s the difference between a hobby and a profession for me, like writing, film, disaster response, and development. These are all professions, whereas a hobby would be something where I just don’t measure and have a good time.
When I wake up in the morning to solve a crisis, my mentality is the same as when I’m writing a book or shooting a movie. As for collaboration, I approach it in the same way for both film and disaster response.
Writing my two books was a break from collaborating; I felt I was becoming an unpleasant person and wanted to create something entirely by myself.
BLVR: Is it possible to consider disaster relief as a form of art?
SP: In 2010, shortly after the earthquake, I made a journey to Haiti with a few people I knew and some who I had gathered up quickly.
When we arrived, we found that a lot of young Americans had made the trip from the Dominican Republic, renting a car and going adventurously into Haiti. They had heard that we were attempting to assist the people in need.
I started with a group of hippies and they were all very passionate and hopeful–they quickly developed a deep connection with the Haitians and had learned to speak Creole in only a few months.
On one of my trips through the IDP camp, I wanted to get a T-shirt printed that said “tell it to a humanitarian” because I had a lot of them assisting me.
I found myself working as more of a plumber than a person, just like a tool in their toolbox. I liked that, since it removed me from the social pressure that comes with fame. As a celebrity, you’re expected to go to hospitals and cheer up the children.
I’m horrible at it! The kids are more mature and less intimidated in that situation. But I do have a knack for getting the job done. It’s in the planning, not the actual work I do. I’m just an extension of the planning process.
BLVR: Could you explain how your shy disposition has shifted since your sixteenth year?
SP: Growing up, I was quite introverted and I used alcohol to give me the courage to face social situations.
I kept this up for around twenty-five to thirty years, however, in the end, I found that exhausting. I began to question why I was trying so hard and I realized it was for professional success.
This filled most of my days, and then I had alcohol for the nights. I eventually came to the realization that life wasn’t so bad and I made some really good friends too. Now, if I’m not out doing something, I typically just sit and relax here with my golden retriever who comes to check up on me from time to time.
BLVR: How has it been to complete a film in the midst of the pandemic?
SP: As of late, I’ve been feeling the effects of having just finished editing a movie. Although I have the final say on the product, I’m a very collaborative person at heart.
Everyone involved in the movie has made great contributions, from the director of photography to the actors. While I must make a lot of decisions by myself, I still value the opinion of my collaborators.
Even when I’m angered by criticism, I eventually find that they were right and I come to depend on this process of going back and forth.
In this particular case, it was necessary to only be with an editor when we showed it in the screening room. We found that when we went from an Avid system to a big screen, it was a great learning opportunity.
It was often something different than we expected. Before the pandemic, it was already a common practice to send links since I had producers in New York and other parts of Europe. However, I knew that I couldn’t rely on the opinion if it was seen on a small screen.
Usually, all the people would gather in a room to watch it, and it was important to get the bulb and sound balanced in order to mesmerize the viewers for two hours and see how it goes.
But this time, I just stopped sending links since no one could watch it on a big screen. Not having that kind of assurance was difficult, and I really missed the experience of getting on a plane to work with musicians in Seattle and asking, What if we hit that note a little harder on that cut? That’s all gone now.
A phrase often attributed to numerous people, such as Orson Welles and Warren Beatty, regarding the film-making process is, “You never finish a film; you abandon it.
” Usually, the abandoning is done together, but due to the current circumstances, one has to do it alone, making it an odd experience.
BLVR: Would you compare it to writing a novel, as a solitary venture?
SP: I’m quite pleased with the result. It was a production I had the privilege of starring in with my daughter and she was brilliant. That’s all the more reason not to give up. You want to ensure that it’s flawless, especially since it’s your daughter taking the spotlight.
BLVR: Directing your wife [Robin Wright] in several films was a different experience, given that she already had a prior established career.
SP: Flag Day is a movie based on a script by Jez Butterworth, who won a Tony Award for The Ferryman, and is also the mastermind behind Jerusalem and a few other films.
He has a knack for writing stories about America, which is why he was chosen to adapt Jennifer Vogel’s memoir, Flim-Flam Man [:The True Story of My Father ‘s Counterfeit Life], into a film.
The story follows Vogel’s relationship with her dad and her journey from living amidst deception to becoming an investigative journalist.
BLVR: Are you a reader nowadays?
Currently, I’m looking into various biographies about someone who is being depicted in a motion picture in which I have a role. Nevertheless, I won’t mention their name since they are a real individual. Thus, I’m in the same world as this person presently.
BLVR: Does your habit of reading usually correspond to your projects?
SP: To be candid, I’ve mostly stuck to nonfiction for the last ten years with only a handful of exceptions.
I’m not sure why that is since the last few novels I read were awesome. There are some really talented authors out there and I did get the chance to read some of their works when I was on my book tour. People who were helping me out in interviews had their books, so I would take the opportunity to give them a look.
I had gotten to a point where I thought the American novel was at its end and I had not been discovering writers that appealed to me. However, in the last few years, I was jolted into realizing there are some great authors out there so I must have just been too lazy to look. I have become fixated on the politics and nonfiction that has been happening, so I had not focused on the fiction.
BLVR: Your stories have the feel of a patchwork constructed from factual elements. You include numerous strange details. For example, is it really true that buckshot is made from used car batteries?
SP: Affirmative, that is accurate. Nonetheless, I took the initiative to invent new ideas when it seemed reasonable. A caution should be included on the books.
BLVR: Being outside of the public eye has to provide a sense of liberation, where one is no longer under the stress of needing to always be correct.
SP: I agree. One of the most notable experiences I had while writing was not concerning facts and figures, but rather with words. There were countless times when I realized that the word I chose was the right one, although I had never seen it before.
It seemed that my brain had unconsciously gathered a plethora of vocabulary and I was using it correctly. It was an enjoyable way to reconnect with language.
I’m not very well-versed in modern technology but I still like to use encyclopedias and dictionaries. Recently, I received an original edition of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary which I find to be an interesting read.
Going through its leather-bound, dry pages, I consider how people used to grasp the language at the time.
BLVR: Do you compose your stories by simply beginning to write, or do you employ a technique like Method acting to become immersed in the narrative?
SP: When I began writing my first screenplay, I was at a typewriter and pounding away, although my typing speed was not fast. As I didn’t want to lose thoughts, I had to keep up with the ideas that were coming to me.
Nowadays, I usually take notes–structural or ideas–during the night. Then I have someone who comes to me with a laptop, so I can take a walk, smoke a cigarette, and discuss my ideas.
I usually rewrite sections of text, which is difficult to do with a laptop.
So I print out the chapters and work on them with pen and paper, going over them multiple times. I also have to proofread it, ensuring that I have clarified particular points and have set up for what is to come. This process is slow-going due to the amount of rewriting required.
BLVR: What makes screenwriting distinctive from authoring a novel?
SP: Writing a novel is much more complex for me than simply crafting a screenplay; I’m more of a visual thinker. I’ll start with a fever dream, developing a chapter in a day, but then I have to return to it and read it multiple times. I’ll even read it aloud to others, which is a similar process to when I’m directing a movie.
When I’m editing, I’ll invite three filmmaking friends to watch a screening and I can tell when I haven’t told them the complete story, even without them saying a word. There’s no need for expressions or verbal cues; I’m already aware of that gap.
I experience the novel in a cinematic way and then must find a way to share it with the reader. I recognize the difficulty many people have understanding it.
To test if it is clear, I seek out a few individuals who have no knowledge of it and if one of them can explain what they have just read, then I know the book is successful.
BLVR: Taking a different course of action than one that is popular.
SP: Yes, I would like for someone other than myself to be aware of its existence, even if it is only one person.
The usage of technology has revolutionized the way we communicate with one another. It has enabled us to stay connected, even if we are far away from each other.
By using technology, individuals are capable of conveying their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in an expeditious manner. Additionally, it has also made it simpler to access information from any part of the world. Thus, technology has undoubtedly become an integral part of our lives.
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