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Sean Penn: The Story Behind the Story

February 6, 2009 2:02 PM ET

Throughout his 30-year career as perhaps this generation's greatest actor, Sean Penn has gained a reputation — in the media at least — as a press-hating, paparazzi-punching malcontent. It was this Penn that writer Mark Binelli was prepared to encounter when he interviewed the Oscar-nominated Milk star for the new issue of Rolling Stone. "I won't say I was intimidated by him, but I was definitely kind of ready for him to be a pain in the ass," Binelli laughs. "I thought it might be one of those interviews where it's like pulling teeth. And it really wasn't the case, he was very super generous with his time and pretty laid back about everything."

The interview differed greatly from Binelli's last RS cover story with Brad Pitt. While Binell was sequestered with the Benjamin Button star in a private room surrounded by security guards, Penn sat shotgun as he gave Binelli an intricate tour of Marin County, California, where the actor and his family live. "He pointed out the street where, interestingly enough, the psychiatrist who came up with the 'Twinkie defense' that they used to get the [Harvey] Milk killer off lived," Binelli says.

(For the full interview, grab the new issue off a newsstand now — and check out outtakes from the Sean Penn Q&A.)

"We went to this very crowded brunch spot on a Saturday morning. We sat in a public park for a while, and then we went to this takeout chicken place and just sat a little table right in the parking lot, in this main street," Binelli says. "I could see pretty much everybody recognized him. But not a single person approached him because of that reputation, because he looks kind of like a scary motherfucker."

From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dead Man Walking to Milk, Penn is lauded for always delivering intense, nuanced performances. It's a keen eye for detail that allows him to fully envelope his subjects, and Binelli says Penn is pretty perceptive even when just hanging out. "At one point we were driving and there was one of those speed trap things," Binelli remembers, "And there was a cop car parked in front of it, but it was empty. And he said, 'You know how you can always tell if those cop cars are empty? See that one was parked way too neatly. If a cop was actually in it, cops park very arrogantly and all sideways.' "

In his Rolling Stone interview, Penn complains about the level of commitment showed by some of his fellow actors. "People are spending too much time modeling for some fucking clothing company instead of acting, and I resent that," Penn told Binelli. "It's like 'I'm sorry— are you going to do the Chanel ad today? I thought you were in the middle of shooting a fucking movie.'" While Penn didn't name names, Binelli thinks this was a veiled dig at actress Nicole Kidman. "They did that movie The Interpreter together, and right around that same time she became the face of Chanel," Binelli says.

However, Penn had nothing but compliments for Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler, raved about Milk co-stars Emile Hirsch and James Franco and surprisingly had complimentary things to say about the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man. "He said he saw it with his kids and he was surprised how much he liked it. He said Carrey was really good, and Zooey Deschanel was great," Binelli laughs.

Even though he wisely used Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder to soundtrack Into the Wild and is good friends with Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Penn is admittedly not a big music guy. "He said he's probably been to like 10 concerts in his life. I think he meant like big concerts," Binelli says. "He said he recently went to see AC/DC and they were great and he stayed for the whole thing, which is unusual for him." Penn also expressed interest in finally making a biopic on Phil Ochs, the political folk great who committed suicide in 1976 at age 35.

For much more on Sean Penn, from how he became Harvey Milk, why he doesn't get cast in comedies and why he might win the Oscar this year just for smiling a lot, check out Binelli's interview with the Academy Award-winning actor on stands now.

More Sean Penn:

The Essential Sean Penn, From "Taps" to "Milk"
Peter Travers on the Roles That Defined Sean Penn

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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