After Writing and Directing The Indian Runner, Sean Penn Swears He'll Never Act Again
HE'S BEEN CALLED EVERYTHING FROM "ONE OF OUR BEST... young film actors.." (Vincent Canby) to one of "the most offensive people on the planet (New York's Daily News). But Sean Penn insists that he doesn't want the baggage that comes with being the best or the most or the worst of anything. "All that matters is what's on the screen, he has said, and what's been on the screen thus far has shown him to be an actor of unremitting intensity, so willing to submerge himself in his characters that it is often impossible to tell where they stop and he begins.
In the decade since he began acting, Penn has turned in a string of remarkable performances, sometimes in films that didn't live up to his potential. His small rote in Taps, where he played the moral center of an eroding military school, started him on a road that seemed to lead directly toward Brando and De Niro, his acknowledged inspirations. As the captivating pothead Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he single-handedly launched the word dude into the national vocabulary. When he came bounding toward us as Daulton Lee in The Falcon and the Snowman, he was our worst nightmare: Rupert Pupkin on cocaine. In At Close Range, his arms were pumped up to the point of obscenity, but the raw emotion and pain that shook his body when he faced his father in court are unforgettable. Even in his misses, Shanghai Surprise, We're No Angels and Casualties of War (where he was completely miscast and had an even worse New York accent than Uma Thurman in Henry & June), he was so focused that we could only feel embarrassment at his predicament.
Finally, in Colors and last year's under seen gem State of Grace, his face lost its softness and he looked, for the first time, like an adult.
Unlike some of his peers (Matt Dillon, Andy Garcia, Tom Cruise), he's never been considered a heartthrob. While some women were attracted to his characterizations, many more were put off by the absolute testosterone frenzy they saw in his performances. His success has happened because men liked what they saw in him: a troubled boy/man willing to take a stand, willing to be killed if necessary, for what his character believed in.
So what does the 30-year-old Penn, maybe the best actor of his generation, do as a follow- up to more than a dozen films in which he has always been good and sometimes brilliant? He announces that he's quitting acting. . . to write and direct movies. And for his first project, he chooses a stirring, tragic and romantic "relationship movie (about a good brother and a bad brother) based on one of Bruce Springsteen's bleakest songs, "Highway Patrolman.~~
It's a sweltering day. The front page of the local newspaper carries stories about the Crips and the Bloods. The school board wants to ban red and blue clothing from school because gang activities are starting to disrupt classrooms around the city. On a blocked-off street, Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper are huddled together, going over dialogue for an upcoming scene. Where are we?
Wrong. We are not in Los Angeles. We're in, as everyone on the set calls it, Oma-fticking-HA, Nebraska. Oh God. If, as the stories go, Penn is a moody son of a bitch when he's acting, he shows none of this as a director. He scrambles around the set, joking with the crew, offering words of encouragement and advice to his actors, helping the grips pull lines from one end of the street to the other. (Although he does stay a good distance away from the gawkers who line the street. And the gawkers themselves, mostly locals who have never seen this much activity, admit that they want to watch him mainly "because he use to be married to that Madonna. Only seen one of his movies myself. ) If he's sometimes been ferocious with the press, he's adopted a hands-off policy with me. "Make yourself at home, he says the first time we meet on the set. And he means it. ..cast and crew have been encouraged to cooperate, allowing access to the filming even when it's obvious that they would rather the set be closed.
There is, on every movie set, the feeling that you're involved in the making of something very important. Even people on a movie that winds up a complete horror admit that while they were working on it, it felt like a masterpiece. That feeling seems quadrupled on The Indian Runner. People talk in hushed tones about what a major film this is, how it will launch the career of a new and dynamic director, how Penn may be the next Scorsese. Thom Mount, the executive producer, takes me aside and says, "There hasn't been an original American drama since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We may or may not hit it here, but if we do, we can change the face of what's considered respectable to put on film. Truthfully, it's enough to make me want to gag.
"Don't take any of this too seriously, a sane crew member finally advises. "He may be good, he may not be. The proof will be in the finished product. The proof will be in the finished product. It becomes my mantra for the next six months.
Omaha welcomes Penn in an odd way: Although lots of money will be spent here and locals who never even dreamed of a moment before the camera will make their film debuts, the paper prints a photo of the house Penn is renting- along with the address- the first week he gets there. "It was hell, says Pat Morrison, coproducer of The Indian Runner and head of Penn's production company. "All these people started knocking on the door. You can imagine.
While the stars of this movie (David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as the brothers, Valeria Golino and Patricia Arquette as their wives, even Sandy Dennis and Charles Bronson as their mother and father) go basically unnoticed as they mill around the boarded-up stores, Penn is the center of attention.
But Dennis Hopper seems more than glad to mingle with the natives, happy just to be respected and working. Clad in jeans and a cut-off denim shirt, with fleshy arms and a tight stomach, he is covered with enough (fake) tattoos to impress an army of bikers. "He's gonna be one hell of a director..., he begins but gets sidetracked by a rather large local woman who is set to play his wife. "Honey, he charms her, "is that your own dress or did the costume designer make it specially for you? Her answer is inaudible, and when he leans in closer to hear her, she asks, "What movies you been in? Hopper winks. "Oh, Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now. The woman is shaking her head. "Blue Velvet? "Hoosiers ?" His voice trails off, seemingly deflated at not being able to impress her even a little.
Cinematographer Tony Richmond (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) says that working on The Indian Runner reminds him of his days with Nicolas Roeg. "He's a very intelligent and intense young man, he says of Penn. "What he didn't know he learned very quickly, in about 10 days. He wasn't afraid of taking risks, wasn't afraid to show a very sensitive side of himself. And he gave us a lot of freedom, not because he was unsure, but because he is sure enough of himself to trust other people.
The setup is finally ready, and Hopper and the woman take their places. But Penn decides to change the dialogue. "You're a writer, he yells in my direction. "Gimme a piece of paper, will ya? On it, he writes: "Hippies are the wound of American society and hands it to Hopper. (The scene will eventually be cut, but Penn's obvious joy at watching Hopper say those words is enough to get the crew fired up for the day.)
The Indian Runner closely mirrors "Highway Patrolman : Joe Roberts (David Morse) gives up his farm when he can't pay the bills and goes to work as a cop to support his family. His brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen) comes home from Vietnam with emotional wounds that can only be quieted by causing total chaos in the lives of those around him.
A few nights later, the confrontation between the brothers is being blocked. While Morse paces around in deep thought, Mortensen and Penn joke with the producers and Richmond.
- By acting in The Indian Runner, Dennis Hopper replete with fake taffoos, returns a favor to Penn, whom he once directed in another searing law-and-order saga, CoIors-
In take after take, Mortensen seems unable to get a handle on the rage his character feels about his brother's complacency and happiness with his family. Finally, Penn walks over and throws an arm around Mortensen's shoulder. "You're right and he's wrong. So fuck him. It's the spark that Mortensen needs to get over the breach. One more take and they're through for the night. Penn stops on the way out. "That's not exactly how I feel, he says, tapping on my notebook. "But it's what Viggo needed to hear.
I wonder about that, assuming that if he had to choose between an outlaw and a hero, Sean Penn would cast his lot with the desperado: a case of a bad boy making a film about how it's OK to be that bad boy. The proof will be in the finished product.
When I meet with Penn at Skywalker Sound, where he's editing and mixing The Indian Runner, he's got a deep gash under one eye, covered with a buttefly bandage. I've only seen two guys in my life with cuts like that, and one of them was Emile Griffith. What gives? But Penn will only shrug and shake his head. "Nothing to boast about, he finally concedes.
Talk of going out for lunch is nixed in favor of the basement snack area. There are a dozen women standing around (mothers waiting for their kids to finish a looping session, it turns Out), and Penn just puts his head down, grabs my elbow and steers us to the farthest table. He sets down paper cups of water and twists his mouth into what, in other people, might be called a grimace. On Penn, it passes for a smile.
Wearing what I will come to think of as his uniform (black shoes and socks, black pants, white button-down shirt and black leather vest), he is not exactly aloof, not exactly chatty. Penn is leery. "You can't really blame me, he says. "The press has not been my best friend. What he doesn't want to talk about he waves away with a flick of his wrist; what intrigues him he'll go on about at length. Cigarettes and tattoos are like the leitmotif of his being. He is trying to give up the former, while the latter "just keep coming at me.
His California upbringing (his father is director Leo Penn, his mother, actress Eileen Ryan, who has a small role in The Indian Runner) is belied by his pale, white skin. "This is as tan as I get, he jokes. His laugh startles "the looping ladies, as we've begun to call them, and they turn in his direction. When one of them recognizes him, she passes the news onto her friends. Eventually, their talk stops while they turn to stare and fix their hair. Penn seems not to notice, but ever so slowly, he moves his chair so that all they see is his back. Between acting assignments and some theater (Slab Boys and Goose and Tomtom in New York and Hurlyburly in Los Angeles), Penn directed a rock video for Joe Henry and wrote a draft of Dominick & Eugene that was never used. Its theme-brothers trying to come to terms with their own, and each other's, shortcomings-is echoed in "Highway Patrolman.
When Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album came Out, it stunned people. No longer content to be just a working-class hero, Springsteen took a look at the desolation that is America and wrote odes to killers and madmen and bad boys. He made these people so real that it was unnerving. In "Highway Patrolman he addressed a problem that haunts millions of households: What do you do when one son is noble, and the other seeks out trouble? How far will that good brother go to help a sibling who is on the road to hell? And what happens when the good brother realizes that in order to keep his life so sane, and so unlike his brother's, he has given up the fire of desire?
"I heard Highway Patrolman' about eight years ago, Penn says, "and I got intrigued. It touches on lots of things that interest me but purposely leaves them unresolved. I say purposely, but what I really mean is, we don't know the answers. I wrote the script quickly, in about a month. I have a few other scripts that I've written, sitting on a shelf waiting for me. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted this movie to look like, but I didn't know how I was going to get it made, financially, and I didn't know whether I could get the rights to the story. But that all came together pretty easily. Really, the flow of this thing has been incredible. There hasn't been a moment of.. .what should I call it? Let's just say, the shit I have sometimes felt as an actor. Acting has been torture. It has its own dubious thrill to it, for sure. It's about tearing yourself apart, for money, and expressing yourself, for a need. And a director doesn't have to tear himself apart like that. The writer has already torn himself apart. When he gets pissed off, he can start to punch out the keys to the typewriter.
By the time I got to start The Indian Runner, I had already passed through the hell of it, and the rest was" Penn stares to the middle distance for a long minute. Finally, he comes back to the present. "It was fun. I've known for years that I wanted to direct. I've been around this all my life. And I've always kept my eyes open on the movies I've done, checking out everyone else's jobs. I just dove into it, figured we'd work it out as it went along. Which is exactly what we did. Yeah, it was lots of fun. A 50-day shoot. A dream cast. Good people around me who could teach me what I didn't know. Nobody was afraid of me, nobody was afraid to speak their mind. And I listened. I've had enough directors who didn't give a shit what the actors felt. No names, please. But I cared about everyone's ideas. Some of them were better than mine. Goddamn, I'm lucky, huh? He laughs, surprised even now at his good fortune. When Penn laughs, it's easy to believe that he's just one of the guys out for a few yucks. But the Band-aid under the eye bespeaks a singular temper and fervor that keeps me on my toes. I stay at least an arm's length away from him at all times.
Asked about directors and writers he admires, Penn lights up another cigarette and begins reeling off the list. "I've said this before, but I think David Rabe is the best writer alive today. He has no peer. My experience in his plays [Goose and Tomtom and Hurlyburly, which Rabe also directed] were the best. Brian De Palma was great [Casualties of War, a Rabe script]. I've never been in sync with the things De Palma is interested in on film, but there's no question that he's committed to his vision. I was young when I did Taps, and I think my youth may have gotten in the way of it, but Harold Becker's a terrific director. And, of course, James Foley [At Close Range]. Any directors he'd like to work with now? "I'm done acting. Really, Martha. Unless someone offered me some obscene amount of money. ..."
"lt~s been done before, I say.
Penn shakes his head.
"OK, I say, "I won't bring up Shanghai Surprise.
He groans. "For the pain I went through for that movie, they didn't pay me nearly enough. That's the way I look at it now: A dollar's gain for a dollar's pain. But the people who spent their seven bucks should get a refund.
And how much of his own life is in The Indian Runner? "There will be no question where I stand when the movie comes out. None. As for: Am I the good brother or the bad? I no longer believe in such absolutes. Nobody is a total prick. There's shades of that in all of us. I think there is very little self- esteem out there these days. I don't feel any obligation on my part to be social at what I do.
I don't think that my work has to be gracious. And I'm just as irritated at the rebel spirit. I don't like that either. Human drama is the only thing that has infinite mystery. If you're talking about genuine feelings, you really can't fuck up too much. With a grin, he says, "Tell em Sean Penn said that.
Dylan Frances Penn, the baby Sean had with the actress Robin Wright (who may forever be referred to as, "you know, the Princess Bride ) is exactly four days old the next time we meet.
The man who comes ambling into the Westwood Marquis hotel for breakfast no longer seems guarded and distrustful. When I offer congratulations about the baby, he grins widely. "You know, when they handed her to me and I realized it was a girl, I thought, I've never understood one of you in my whole life. And then, lapsing into Ricky Ricardo's accent, he adds, "She's got a lot of splainin' to do. He's still on the verge of giving up cigarettes, inhaling deeply on an American Spirit. "Robin found them for me. No additives."
About the movies he's done, he has little to say. "Some have been good experiences, some have been good films. Not necessarily the same ones, is all he will comment. But ask about the general direction of the movies and he's a regular Chatty Cathy. "I'm so busy that I rarely get to the movies. The last thing I saw was Vincent & Theo. Bob Altman did a great job. I love Cassavetes' stuff, and Hal Ashby's. All I have to do is hear the music from Raging Bull and I get teary. I liked Betty Blue, loved My Life as a Dog. But there's not a lot of good stuff out there now. Even some great directors are doing work that I don't like.
"People have a lot less dignity than they did in even recent generations. Now we're at such an all-time low that it effects the movies. The actors are obscene in what they do. You see tons of actors who look at their job as just taking all those cute smiles and tactics that they used to help them get laid in high school, and they transfer that into a movie career. And they'll do whatever the material dictates and whatever people will pay the most attention to. And it just adds up to shit. I may sound arrogant, lots of people think I am arrogant, but that's the way I see it.
Now that The Indian Runner is completed, Penn is elated. "For better or worse, he says, "it's done. All the choices have been made.
What he wants to do, he says with a smile, is stay home with the baby for the next few months and then start on his next project, a script he's writing called A More Perfect Heaven for the Heart of the Big Dog. No interest in acting in it? He puts on his stem face. "Haven't I told you this before, Martha? I am not going back to acting. Unless they offer me an obscene amount of money. ..." We both laugh, knowing that Hollywood is a pretty obscene place and that anything is possible.
When we go to leave, he adopts his head- down, arm-on-my-elbow, get-out-to-the-car- before-anyone-notices-us stance. We're both panting by the time we get to the garage.
A FEW NIGHTS LATER, I MEET.. Penn at Skywalker for a screening of The Indian Runner. There are five of us, and the editor, Jay Cassidy, hands each of us a pen and paper and a little flashlight. Right before the lights go down, Penn stands up and clears his throat. "You're all going to be graded on this later, so no cheating. It's the last laugh any of us will have for the next two hours.
If it's possible, The Indian Runner is more disheartening than the whole of the Nebraska album. While Springsteen brought these peculiar men to the edges of our imagination, Penn has fleshed them out. And while he has infused them with all the characteristics we each carry in us (the nurturer and the destroyer, the healer and the murderer, the good son and the bad), he has made a clear and studied choice as to where his sympathy lies. Gritty and visually stunning, The Indian Runner allows its characters to run loose in their own drama. The onscreen birth, the grotesque women with their jiggling flesh and the full frontal nudity just seem to raise the stakes, sucking you right into the hell that is these people's reality.
Even when The Indian Runner fails (the image of the Indian falls flat, especially since it follows so closely on the heels of Oliver Stones almost identical vision of Indian-as-shaman, and Penn's weak script is not up to his film making abilities), Penn holds it together by offering up a cinematic version of a bad car wreck: You don't want to watch it, you can't keep your eyes off it.
While the past decade has made screen heroes of a slew of cold and manipulative men (Michael Douglas in Wall Street, Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, even Robert De Niro in GoodFellas), it's amusing that it is Sean Penn, the definitive bad boy, who has finally come out and said that a man is only a man when he can take care of himself and not hurt others.
The proof is in the finished product.