- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Sean Penn. Actor. Writer. Director. Terse guy. Examples: Would he rather give up acting for directing?
"Yeah," Mr. Penn says.
What brings him back to the screen?
"Money," he explains. "To get by."
Does he have another acting project lined up after his latest film, "I Am Sam," set to open next month?
"Nothing definite," Mr. Penn confides.
What's his next writing-directing project?
"Road movie about love."
How far along is he with that one?
"I'm baby-stepping," Mr. Penn gushes.
This could be a long, uncomfortable interview. Fortunately, Mr. Penn is also a passionate terse guy. Hit on something about which he has strong feelings bad scripts, his pickiness on roles, objections over mainstream Hollywood and Mr. Penn strings together sentence after sentence in blunt response.
Take his approach to choosing parts. He's demanding, but not an absolutist.
"It's rare that something comes along that has it all and I don't always ask for it all," Mr. Penn, 41, says in an interview at a secluded hotel near Beverly Hills.
"It's just got to not violate certain principles for me. I have this strong feeling that audiences don't always know they're being lied to, but they always know when they're being told the truth. So if at the inception of the project that possibility is there in something that's interesting, whatever the truth is in the context of the movie and the style of the movie, then I'm excited."

Or consider "I Am Sam," a four-hanky, feel-good film in which he plays a retarded father who enlists an attorney (Michelle Pfeiffer) to regain custody of his 7-year-old daughter. After a career of somber, tough-as-nails films and a history of paparazzi scuffles, might Mr. Penn's sweet-natured Sam take some of the edge off his bad-boy image?
"Not my concern. I just don't believe in the careerism that would make it my concern," Mr. Penn says. "My feeling about the things I have chosen to do over time, it's always been about the writing first, and the writers that have made any sense have been writers that have been beating themselves up in a vacuum, surrounded by a sort of societal plague of comfort addiction.
"And so the comfort-addicted have been churning out all this garbage, a lot of the supposedly loving stuff that I find cynical garbage and that I get angry about. It turns out it's all these little dark-room, self-punishing people that I've been more interested in for their writing."
This time out, "I Am Sam" director Jessie Nelson and her co-writer, Kristine Johnson, came up with something that struck Mr. Penn as interesting and thoughtful but also good-hearted and loving.
It's quite a transformation for Mr. Penn, who earned Oscar nominations as a manic, self-defeating jazzman in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" and a death-row killer in Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking."
Mr. Penn's directing efforts have been equally dark: "The Indian Runner," a Cain-and-Abel tale about a policeman and his desperado brother; "The Crossing Guard," starring Jack Nicholson as a vengeance-minded father; and this year's "The Pledge," with Mr. Nicholson as a retired detective who obsesses himself into oblivion over one final case.
Since making a splash two decades ago as a teen stoner in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Mr. Penn has played sleazes ("Hurlyburly" and "Carlito's Way"), a brazen cop ("Colors"), a jaded soldier ("The Thin Red Line") and a bestial soldier ("Casualties of War"), a street punk turned inmate ("Bad Boys") and a street punk turned traitor ("The Falcon and the Snowman").
"I Am Sam" director Nelson had no hesitation about casting Mr. Penn in a gentle, paternally offbeat role.
"He's the best actor of his generation. There's nobody better," Miss Nelson says. "I just felt if he could play those other kinds of roles with such commitment and intensity, it would be fascinating to see what he [could] bring to these other emotions. The joy and kindness."

Mr. Penn acts to earn money, but he has resisted doing big-studio action flicks solely for a huge payday. He recently appeared on two episodes of "Friends," partly because he and his family are fans and partly because "I needed the dough," he says.
"I'm broke presently. With the kind of movies I do as an actor, generally I haven't been able to get ahead of the game," says Mr. Penn, who lives in Northern California with wife Robin Wright Penn and their two children. "I've got a nice home, things like that, but cash is flowing away as we speak."
Mr. Penn, who does not hesitate to slam other actors for taking on cartoonishly violent films, says he holds out hope of finding an intelligent action project among the scripts that come his way.
"I plunge in praying it's going to be 'The French Connection.' I'm all for action, believe me," Mr. Penn says, "but these childish things that are advertising shooters and violence, those don't appeal to me.
"I'm offended when people promote killing because they have a good set of abs and take millions of dollars for it. I find it cheap and offensive and it should be spanked," Mr. Penn says. "If you go out there and promote murder, and you don't even understand murder, you don't understand the gigantic gap between the twitch of a finger on a trigger and the result at the end of that ballistic impact, you have no business advertising it. I've become the minister of complaint on the issue, I suppose."
Mr. Penn's biggest complaint once was about the paparazzi he sometimes tussled with in the years when he was married to Madonna. He has found respite now. Paparazzi don't hang around his Marin County home, and he's able to live a fairly normal life, attending school events or taking his children to the park.
Has he mellowed?
"No; I just get left alone a little bit more, and I'm not out there in the world as much as I used to be," Mr. Penn says. "I think I avoid things."
Mr. Penn also avoids one closing question, reverting to terseness when he is asked what another Academy Award nomination or an Oscar itself would mean to him.
"I'm going to leave the topic alone," Mr. Penn says. "I'd just, uh, I'd make too many people angry."

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