Sean Penn talks SaMo High, earthquake relief and Twitter at LMU

By Michael Aushenker

Sean Penn spoke candidly with Stephen Galloway  at LMU Photo By Juan Tallo

Sean Penn spoke candidly with Stephen Galloway
at LMU
Photo By Juan Tallo

He memorably broke into the movie business as stoner Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” won Academy Awards for “Mystic River” and “Milk,” and directed several films (“Into the Wild,” “The Pledge”).

And about the only thing Sean Penn did not talk about on March 4 as the latest A-lister to take the stage for the ongoing Hollywood Masters conversation series at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television was that controversial offhand remark at the Oscars.

Much online hay was made of Penn’s “green card” quip at the Academy Awards, when before
a viewership of hundreds of millions worldwide the actor teased good friend and “21 Grams” director Alejandro González Iñárritu on the filmmaker’s way up the aisle to collect his Best Picture Oscar for “Birdman.”

But at the top of Penn’s elliptical yet articulate conversation with the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway at LMU’s Mayer Theater, he indirectly reminded everyone of an extensive record of progressive activism that makes a politically incorrect joke seem inconsequential.

In January 2010, freshly divorced from actress Robin Wright after nearly 20 years of marriage, Penn suddenly found himself enjoying some alone time, able to “turn on the television at four o’ clock in the afternoon with no one to whine about it,” he said. On CNN he saw reports on the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti.

“It was as if a bomb had just hit. Loved ones — in many cases multiple loved ones — vanished,” recalled Penn, whose teen son had at the time recently suffered a brain injury (“He’s fine now,” Penn said).

Dissatisfied with humanitarian response to the disaster, he reached out through first ex-wife Madonna to U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer to learn how he could help.

“Sometimes I slum it as a journalist” is how Penn explained his direct line to late Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, who agreed to dispatch 350 vials of morphine to Farmer to distribute as doctors were deployed. “And so we flew in. I had never been there before. It was quite an alarming arrival. In that warm climate, you’re landing to the smell of death,” he said. Entering post-disaster chaos, “it’s exactly like filmmaking. With higher stakes.”

The quake initially displaced 1.6 million people (65,000 remain without permanent housing), but the 60,000 at the camp Penn set up have since found a home, he said.

Galloway interrupted Penn to recall a journalistic visit to that Haitian camp, where an armed Penn negotiated with underworld figures trying to exploit the situation as tents brimmed with cholera victims.

When Galloway asked if Penn got his gumption from his late father, filmmaker Leo Penn (who was famously blacklisted during the McCarthy era), Penn recounted how Leo, a first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrant, fought 37 tours of duty for the U.S. military by choice, survived being shot down twice, “and you’re told you can’t work in the country.” Penn said such treatment would’ve made him bitter, but his father never was.

Penn, who appears in “The Gunman” (out March 20), likes the occasional superhero movie but said he’s generally depressed by today’s CGI overkill. He said he’s become choosy about acting roles and is more inclined to direct so he can tell stories meaningful to him.

“Most movies I watch for 10 minutes, unless they’re really good or really bad,” Penn said, laughing.

Galloway asked Penn to name his favorite filmmaker. Penn, without hesitation, called Iñárritu “extraordinary,” adding since “‘Amores Perros,’ I think he’s arguably the greatest director living.”

Other revelations: As a Santa Monica High School student, Penn read books by F. Lee Bailey that inspired him to want to practice law. However, he caught the acting bug after Anthony Zerbe (“The Omega Man”) visited SaMo High, and Penn began shooting amateur films in Westwood with his buddies, brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

And not only does Penn avoid Twitter, “I’ve never gotten into a laptop computer in my life,” he said.

To many, that might be more shocking than his “green card” crack.