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 role in Taps, in which 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. 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 were unforgettable.
Even in his misses — Shanghai Surprise, We’re No Angels and Casualties of War — he was so focused that we could only feel embarrassment at his predicament.
Finally, in Colors and last year’s little-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), Penn’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?
Goodbye to acting
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 most bleak songs, “Highway Patrolman.”
Flashback to fall, 1990. It’s a sweltering day in Omaha, Neb. On a blocked-off street, Penn and Dennis Hopper are huddled together, going over dialogue for an upcoming scene.
If, as the stories go, Penn is moody and difficult 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.; While the stars of this movie, The Indian Runner (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.
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 Indian Runner, which is scheduled for release this fall, 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 out. While Morse paces around in deep thought, Mortensen and Penn joke with the producers and Richmond.
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 (the hell with) 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.”
A few months later, 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 butterfly bandage. What gives? Penn will only shrug and shake his head. “Nothing to boast about,” he finally concedes.
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. 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.
In his Nebraska album, Springsteen took a look at the desolation that is America and wrote odes to killers and madmen and bad boys. Springsteen made these people so real it was unnerving. In “Highway Patrolman” he addressed a problem that haunts millions of households: What do you do when one son is good and 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?
“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 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 . . . 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. . . .
A desire to direct; “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 that 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 (damn) what the actors felt. No names, please. But I cared about everyone’s ideas. Some of them were better than mine. I’m lucky, huh?” He laughs, surprised even now at his good fortune.
Any directors he’d like to work with now? “I’m done acting. Really. Unless someone offered me some obscene amount of money . . .”
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 (jerk). 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 . . . up too much.” With a grin, he says, “Tell ’em Sean Penn said that.”