Sean Penn: My Critics Are 'Failed Actors, Like the Fox Anchors' Who Envy Me

In a very syrupy interview with Tavis Smiley Wednesday on PBS, leftist actor Sean Penn talked about his role in "Milk" and how "the criticism people get tend to be from failed actors. Like the Fox anchors who are just clearly very envious." I suspect that's a shot at Bill O'Reilly, and I would expect Bill to reply.

Smiley honored him for his embrace of humanity, and wondered if America could yet celebrate a film about gay liberation:

SMILEY: Before my three minutes is up with you - this whole show goes so fast - I want to come back to the close of our conversation by talking about the thing - respectfully, and this is just my own opinion - that I honor about you as much, maybe even more, than your acting gift, which is your embrace of humanity, and I want to know where that comes from. What is it about you that allows you to stand in your truth, to raise these issues, to not bite your tongue, to embrace humanity? Where does that come from? You've always been that way or you grew into that? Help me understand that.

PENN: I think that it relates to acting, in a way. And I appreciate you saying it, but to the degree it's true with me. I think that the demand inside, if there's a final demand, it's to feel your own life while you're living it, and that's the demand of what you have to be searching for in a character also, when you're playing a character. And so it's all one thing to me because it all was based on that, and so when you're not involved in the world, you're not involved in the movie. When you're not involved -- I get very bored guarding myself from feeling the world around me, and so I do find myself drawn to participate.

SMILEY: And how do you juxtapose the feeling that you get from doing that, the call to do that, with the risk you take in so doing?

PENN: For example, the criticism people get tend to be from failed actors. (Laughter) Like the Fox anchors who are just clearly very envious; the failed actors, and that kind of people. And what they don't know is that you're raised on resilience as an actor to that.

SMILEY: I'll leave it at that. That's about as straightforward as it comes.

Earlier, Smiley urged Penn to tell him about how he embraced humanity in the making of this movie:

SMILEY: Did you see this script -- this screenplay, as the telling of the story of a gay man who made history or a movie about humanity?

PENN: When I first read the script I would say that I saw it as a movie about people in this situation which is very present. It's present in all stages of politics, of people's, I think not right, but the human need for equal rights and all of those things that become an emotional story.

And that can be in a fiction, it can be in a biopic. But I didn't -- you know, you're aware. I do live in the broader society and I'm aware as I'm reading it of the particularities of the gay aspect of the story and so on, but they're not dominant in the way of perceiving it originally.

It becomes very important in terms of the motivations of the storytelling and the performances of all the characters, because it's a particular kind of oppression that's been experienced for forever leading up to it that has so much to do with the choices that they make and the needs that they have and the obstacles that they're up against, but in terms of playing a character in a movie, whether it's a real person or so on, it's really so much more to do with personality than sexual orientation or job description or any of that.

Then Tavis wanted to know if Penn was disappointed because America, as backward as it still remains, isn’t exactly breaking through the turnstiles to see this movie:

SMILEY: I want to move beyond this. The back story of why I asked that question, which I will turn into a question - I ask that question in part because I wanted to know what your reactions were when you first saw it, because I wonder whether or not there was ever a thought through your mind at this point in your career that a story like this, no matter what you thought of it, could sell, could work, could be celebrated - never mind all the great acting skills you bring to the table.

Could a story like this be celebrated in this America? This ain't the America that it was a hundred years ago, but any thought ever to whether or not you wanted to invest yourself in a project like this that no matter how good you were going to play this character, that it really wouldn't get off the ground?

PENN: That's always a question that you have. It's not always the deciding factor, but it's always a question. And increasingly, I think, with time and the investments you have in stories that you've been involved with or in the people that you're involved in the making of it and the way it's important to them, you become increasingly aware of the possibilities of distribution.

Because whether you're making a film that's very personal or for very broad appeal, the intention is to share it with as many people as possible. And it's very difficult with stories like these, and it's not until it gets certain accolades or things that happen to it that it has a chance at all of that, of getting a wider audience. But I think when something is strong enough in you and it hits you hard enough, and that's very difficult to identify why or how, that you go forward with it nonetheless.

PS: One reason the Academy Awards broadcast has been sinking in the ratings is the tendency to embrace arty or edgy movies that critics love, but few people have seen. There are some exceptions this year – Dark Knight, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the surprising nod for Tropic Thunder – but most of the “celebrated” films have seen meager returns at the box office. Milk, for example, has grossed only 23.8 million dollars to date in limited release.

Tavis Smiley Sean Penn
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