Photograph of Sean Penn by Mary Ellen Mark, New York City, April 1983.
“ONE TIME, ME AND MY BUDDY EMILIO PLANNED THIS THING. IT was one of those times where we sat around and said, We're really gonna follow through on this. All the way. Nobody's gonna laugh.”
“This guy Kelly always got off the school bus with Emilio. So one day, I was around the corner with another buddy in my car. We had .22‑caliber machine guns with blanks. And Emilio had a blood squib ‑a big bag of fake blood. So he coaxed this guy Kelly into walking down to the ice‑cream parlor with him.
"We drive by‑and we open fire. Emilio does this great stuff. He squeezes the blood bag, and it bursts all over his front. He hits the ground. Kelly has a skateboard in his hand, and he's freaking out. He starts to walk away in shock.
“So we grab Kelly at gunpoint, put him in the back of the car, and we take off. He's so scared, he can't talk. We're wearing ski masks, and were calling him Emilio as if we got the wrong guy, right? We go up into the canyon. We stop and tell him to get out of the car, and we say, 'We're not going to hurt you, but we're gonna tie you to this tree, and then we're gonna take off.'
“This was our greatest, ever: out of the back of the car we take this gasoline can –it’s full of water- and my buddy lights a match. The guy starts screaming. I pour the water on the guy, and my buddy flips the match at him.
"Then we tell him. Emilio arrives, and we have a little picnic. And that guy has never been the same since."
SEAN PENN HAS ALWAYS BEEN A LITTLE INTENSE. HE KNOWS he's lucky to have an artistic expression for that intensity. Acting, it could be said, has saved Sean Penn's life, has made him a better person than he would be otherwise, in the same way rock & roll saved John Lennon's or Bruce Springsteen's.
No one is going to confuse the films Penn's done ‑Taps, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bad Boys‑ with Citizen Kane. And while he's copped meaty roles in all three, none of the parts has scored him any Oscar nominations, nor will they. But on the basis of three movies and two relatively brief appearances on Broadway, (most recently in John Byrne's short‑lived Slab Boys), the twenty-two‑year‑old Penn is being widely acclaimed as the finest actor of his generation. Even critics who slagged the kids‑behind‑bars melodrama of Bad Boys fell all over one other in praise of Penn. Pauline Kael in the New Yorker compared the impact of his performance as the tough Anglo, Mick O'Brien, to the work of James Dean and Marlon Brando. In fact, Penn's personal notices may be staving off commercial oblivion for Bad Boys, which somehow has managed to hold its own at the box office despite a rash of other films aimed at the adolescent market ‑ among them The Outsiders, Spring Break and that timeless classic, Joy Sticks.
Penn's directors and fellow performers rave about him in language that goes beyond professional courtesy. “The most talented young actor in films today," declares Bad Boys' director Richard Rosenthal, who chose Penn for the part despite calls from Matt Dillon's agent “every day for a week."
“Sean's really, really great," lauds Timothy Hutton, whose loyal but high‑minded roommate Penn played in Taps. "It doesn't surprise me at all how well he's doing."
"Everyone was very afraid of using him," recalls Slab Boys director Robert Allan Ackerman.” But when you see somebody with that incredible focus...”
"He's going to be an incredible artist," says Amy Heckerling, Fast Times' director, who shepherded Penn through his best‑loved performance as the dope‑addled surfer, Jeff Spicoli. "He already is."
What makes Sean Penn so special? Unlike some young actors, it's not his angelic looks. Penn's is a plain, if appealing, young face-large nose, close‑set eyes, small mouth. And though he's played sympathetic characters, he doesn't radiate a nice‑guy persona the way Hutton and Dillon frequently do. What Penn does radiate is an almost irresistible intensity, a near‑desperate belief in the aspirations of his characters that can be poignant (as in Bad Boys) or hilarious (as in Fast Times). Penn seizes upon the physical possibilities of his roles with an Olivier‑like brio ‑witness the scene in Bad Boys where he bashes two guys senseless with a pillowcase full of soda cans. But, as James Dean did before him, he keeps his rage in check: and scrupulously avoids histrionic displays. "He was always concerned with being physically connected," says his acting teacher, Peggy Feury. “And that it really be organic."
Penn has the ideal actors background. Both his parents are in show business (his father, Leo Penn, is an actor and a director; his mother, Eileen Ryan, a former actress) and have encouraged him throughout his career. As a result, he is not intimidated by auditions: "My mother told me, ‘When you go in, you have to picture them not sitting at a desk but sitting on a toilet’." It's amazing how that will make you feel strong." And he seems impervious to rejection: "If a guy doesn't want me to play a part, that's okay. It's a dangerous thing to get in a bad way about that."
“In addition to having that innate, intuitive talent that you can't teach, he has technique," says Art Wolff, the director of Penn's first Broadway show, Heartland. "He's really well trained." And he has an almost fanatical commitment to honest, intelligent work. He will research his roles with frightening avidity. Penn remained in character on the sets of both Fast Times and Bad Boys, and hung out only with his characters' buddies. He still sports a tattoo he got while filming Bad Boys.
Penn bristles slightly at the mention of these traits. “The one thing I don't like to see written about me," he says, is this whole Robert De Niro thing. I think it just doesn't matter. All that matter is what’s on the screen. I don't need to be thought of as a hard worker. I just want to be as good a I can."
"A lot of people will label him shy," says Hutton. "But it's really just that he has a good sense of himself. He doesn't have to carry on and be an extrovert, because he's got a real clear vision." •
"I know exactly what I want to do," Penn says. "I've made my definite choice for all time. I've been an actor for going on six years. I made the choice and I've never questioned it.”
Such clarity of vision is so startling in a twenty‑two‑year‑old that it makes Penn seem, well, single‑minded. He doesn't go to a lot of concerts, and he doesn't play sports too much anymore. But for now, that's the way he wants it. “I kind of know Sean," says Amy Heckerling, "but I really just know Jeff Spicoli." Perhaps that's why he’s been reluctant to do interviews. As Heckerling notes, "He feels much more comfortable being a part than being Sean Penn."
SEAN PENN TAKES A SEAT ACROSS FROM ME in one of his favorite New York restaurants ‑Vinnie's Pizza, a raucous, fly‑filled eatery that serves 'em by the slice. Penn fits in perfectly. He may have been raised under the Santa Monica sun, but his appearance suggests a lot of time spent in the shade. His complexion is pale and a little raw, his fingernail are bitten to the quick and his clothes ‑a military‑school T‑shirt, a cardigan sweater with only two buttons still in service, jeans held up by a bandanna‑make him look more like a budding Welsh poet than a beach boy.
Looks to the contrary Penn had a typical West Coast childhood‑hours spent searching for fun, fun, fun, getting into a scrape with the law and, in general, hating school. "I regret having gone," he says quietly, pulling on a can of cream soda. 'You know those Nautilus machines? The way they're built; they assume the body has perfect symmetry, so you can get hyperextensions and hurt yourself. Same with school.”
His pastimes included tennis, surfing and frequent jaunts to the cinema. "I'd go to the movies a lot," he recalls. "It's only lately that I've gotten to the point where I care hit's a good or a bad movie. I liked everything."
When Penn was about sixteen, his younger brother, Chris ‑a fine actor in his own right, who'll appear in Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish ‑received a Super‑8 movie camera for Christmas, and they began making shorts with friends from the neighborhood. Their magnum opus, Looking for Someone, was an hour‑long film that had begun as a three‑minute mystery.
"We had to beg people to be in it. We were out all night long in Westwood, shooting in parking lots and doing stunts that nobody would ask a stunt man to do." Penn speaks with quiet excitement now. “This was our first experience in film. We'd see what we'd shot the week before, and then go out that night to shoot more. We found ourselves jumping off twelve‑foot‑high things onto concrete.
"We had some great action," says Penn of his first taste of acting. “It hurt all the time. Couldn't admit it though, 'cause it was high school, and we always had a guy working with us that some girl had a crush on. And the girl would say, ‘Oh,can I watch?’ So that one girl made us all rough it. The one thing they couldn't be around for was the acting. That was always private"
After graduation, Penn got a job as a gofer ‑ usually referred to as production assistant‑ with the Los Angeles Group Repertory Theatre and played an occasional role. When he eventually decided to take some acting classes, Peggy Feury an old familiy friend, wasn't sure she wanted Sean in her class.
"Most of the time I don't take people who haven't been to college or if they haven't been, I try to get them to go part‑time. But with Sean, I never made any of those efforts. He already was really clear about what be wanted to do. He was willing to read everything, he was willing to research everything. Just one little session, and I knew there was nothing to worry about"
“I had very mixed feelings about classes going in," remembers Sean, "I decided I'd go in and kind of not listen, and anything that happened to sink in would be something I needed. It ended up that most of what she said sunk in.”
“It was in Feury's rigorous four‑day‑a-week, four‑hour‑a‑day sessions (not counting out‑of‑class rehearsal time) that Penn began to develop and bone his skills: analyzing a scene, breaking it down into parts, sussing out the logic without sequence that can be vital to an actor's performance. Other actors take classes; Sean Penn inhaled them. Before long, be was auditioning around town, with limited success.
"I got a job doing The Time of Your Life, playing a newsboy who comes in and sings Irish tunes. After they heard me sing twice, I was fired. After that…well, I went off and got a play going at Santa Monica College. I worked on it for about three months, knowing there would be only one performance. But it was a part I really wanted to work on. It was terrific for me because it was a great exercise. But that's all it was."
He had no money, no job, no prospects. Nothing but a kind of single‑mindedness very much resembling hope. “I knew I would get the work I wanted," Penn, says, 'Cause I had to.
"I only had a little money left in the bank, odd‑job money. I had been just studying and doing plays ‑I would move out of the house whenever I was in a play‑ and I was coming to the end of my ability to do that. So I bought a one‑way ticket to New York"
The night before Sean's departure, an old family friend, Jordan Rhodes, came by the house, and happened to have the script of a new play for which auditions were being held in New York. The play was Kevin Heelan's Heartland, and Rhodes knew the director, Art Wolff. An audition for Sean was set up. It was a disaster.
He walked in the door and was physically right,” recalls Wolff. "So I had him read with the actor who would play his father in the play, J.C. Quinn. And Sean was terrible. Nervous, tight and inaudible part of the time."
Penn knew he had bombed. But Rhodes called Wolff and got Penn a second chance. What happened next still brings a lump to Wolff's throat, and even the phlegmatic Penn calls it "one of the terrific experiences I’ve had."
“I had my back to them. I was reading with this other actor, and his scene ended with his exit. And by the time he exited, I was really there. Things were starting to happen, and the director could tell. So he said, "Keep going; and we ended up going through the last third of the play."
“Tears were streaming down my face," says Wolff. “Tears were streaming down Sean's face. Heelan was shaking. I walked over, put my arm around Sean, and we hugged each other. It was just extraordinary. I've never done that before, and never done that since."
'HEARTLAND' VANISHED THREE WEEKS after it opened. (“He was the best thing in
the show," Heelan admits.) But an agent saw Penn and recommended him for his first movie role, in Tap. He got the part and began an agonizing shoot under the pressure of a directors’ strike deadline. To fend off ‑or in some cases, to enhance‑ the craziness of a set chock‑full of teenage boys making their first film, Penn, Hutton and Tom Cruise started hanging out together after hours in Hutton's four‑wheeler.
"We had a great stereo system," says Hutton, “and we used to play very loud music and drive through the Pennsylvania countryside. Literally.”
Then there was the master plan, as Hutton explains it, concocted by the Three Musketeers, with liberal borrowing from Apocalypse Now. “Near the Valley Forge Military Academy, the Merion Golf Club was hosting the U.S. Open that year. And we had access to helicopters and smoke bombs. So we went to the sound department and asked them if they could rig up some speakers on the helicopter. We realized that on Sunday, all the heavies in the golf world were gonna make their final putt for the big bucks. So, we were gonna have a radio up in the helicopter and be kind of flying around the area, listening to the golf broadcast, and then at the key moment, swoop down and land on the eighteenth green.
“We were going to drop out of the sky just as the announcer was saying, “And now here's Tom Watson, thirteen under par, birdy‑triple‑doo‑dah‑dang. The crowd has gone deadly silent'" Hutton explodes in an aural frenzy of "Ride of the Valkyries" and machine‑gun fire. “We were gonna jump out, wearing our fatigues and carrying machine guns with blanks, and say something like, 'Just kidding.”
“But we were so charged up about the idea that we didn't keep to ourselves, and it got to the police. They sort of came down and said that it wouldn't be such a great idea."
A rockabilly blond Penn with Tasia Valenza in Louis Malle's "Crackers."
THE STRANGE DISCIPLINE THAT CHARACTERIZES Penn's work could not have been more difficult to maintain than it was on the Fast Times set, where he first met his fiancée, Pam Springsteen. Not that he bothered to spare her his weirdness or tried to make time in between takes.
"You can't get involved. It means too much. It's a permanent record when you make a movie, and it means too much to do your silly little playing around. I see a lot of that happen, and it's a shame. I met Pam afterward. I saw her afterward."
"See," he says, warming to his favorite topic "acting is a matter of saying goodbye to yourself for ten minutes, or whatever it is. That's what I do. It's like, you build a cage as big as you can build it. Hopefully, you build it strong enough so that once you get in it and lock the door, you can just go nuts and do whatever the hell you want.
"And there's no way‑because you've built that cage so strong in terms of the choices you've made‑there's no way you can go too far. You just go nuts. There's no character in the world you can't go nuts with, as long as you build a cage."
THE SCENE IN BAD BOYS THAT PENN IS proudest of ‑ and had the greatest hand in- is a scene where the prison shrink informs him that his girlfriend has just been raped and beaten by his Puerto Rican antagonist.
“My temptation at that moment," Penn says, “was to do what every actor in his right mind would have done: go nuts. And I said, Can't do it. It'd be nice and theatrical, but it's not true.”
“This is where it comes from. You know, you make a decision and then you look for all kinds of things to rationalize it. The other night, something horrible happened. The guy I'm staying in touch with the most of any of the Bad Boys people was an extra in the scenes we shot at St. Charles juvenile center. The other night, he was released. Today is the day I was supposed to fly in for his wedding. At three the other morning, I get a phone call. It's his mother. She says, “He's in trouble again.”
She says he's got two counts of rape, one count of armed robbery. And I know where he's going. He's going to that place where we shot [the movie]. And it killed me. His fiancée is eighteen, she's pregnant. I talked to her yesterday ...She's probably one of the ten most tragic people in America right now. And she says, ‘Sean, I won't cry. He is worried about me, my mother‑in‑law's telling me to go cry. But I won't. Because if I do, I'll lose it, and I'll kill myself."
And for his scene with the shrink in the film, Penn merely pauses and says awkwardly: I just wanna cry."
"Dialogue in that scene is a little off" he admits. "But I can almost accept that. I said some idiotic things to that girl yesterday. I said, 'Oh, God,' or something like that, and she said [sarcastically] 'Oh, God.' I couldn't say anything."
Penn backstage after a 'Slab Boys' show: he's been talking with costar Kevin Bacon about a production of the rest of the trilogy.
SEAN PENN'S DANCE CARD FOR THE NEXT few months is pretty full. He's already completed a role in Louis Malle's new film, Crackers, in which he plays a “nearly retarded Texas rockabilly musician" opposite Donald Sutherland and Jack Warden. He's currently filming Racing with the Moon, a romantic drama with Elizabeth McGovern. He's talking with Kevin Bacon about a possible production of the sequels in the Slab Boys trilogy, Cuttin' a Rug and Still Life. He has a project in the works with renegade director Bob Rafelson; titled At Close Range, it's about a family tractor‑stealing ring in Pennsylvania. He wants to do Chekhov and Shakespeare (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, especially). Anything but an escapist picture.
"I think a movie, like Raiders of the Lost Ark is just like taking drugs," snarls the man who claims he has never touched recreational chemicals. "I'm against the whole idea of 'Oh, it's good entertainment.'
“My dream," he says, is to play Phil Ochs. I have a recording of him speaking in his most depressed times. He went to South Africa and his throat was damaged and he started drinking a lot and getting very paranoid. He did an interview where he talked about death and how afraid he was of death. What he didn't talk about was how certain he was that he was dying.
"He was sure he had this stomach problem that couldn't be fixed.... He sat his daughter, Meegan, down ‑ she was eleven years old ‑and he said, 'I just want you to understand that I'm dying.' It was incredible. When the Sixties basically failed so did Phil Ochs."
Does Sean ever worry that the motivating force behind his art could dry up as quickly and utterly as Ochs' did?
“My reason for being an actor is something that can never dissolve like that. I have some very specific things that I have to do." He flashes a killer grin. "I can't describe it. You just have to do it. If I can no longer say what I want to say by being an actor, then I'll leave."
PENN, HOWEVER, HAS NO PLANS TO LEAVE. For a man of twenty‑two, Sean Penn has made some pretty strong decisions: a lifelong career and a forthcoming marriage.
"The only thing I'm certain about is the choices I've made in relation to acting," Penn demurs. "The other stuff is just part of the experience, you know, as we go along."
He smiles to himself “I don't mean to say I'm getting married just for the experience of marriage, it's just" ‑he pauses ‑ "like you have to keep breathing. I met someone whom I always want to be with. She takes care of me. She knows what I'm doing without my ever having to say anything."
Which is probably how Sean would like the world to view his acting. His face or his style may be reminiscent of some of moviedom's best‑known outlaws, but Penn doesn't want to be a personality, or a presence, or a quality. He doesn't want celebrity. He doesn't even care about audiences. He just wants to work.
“There's not much you can do that you don't regret sometimes," Penn says. "But it doesn't matter, you know? As long as you've got acting, it doesn't matter."