Rolling Stone‘s Mark Binelli spent a few days rolling around Los Angeles with Sean Penn for our latest cover story, tackling everything from the actor’s childhood as a surfer vandal to his earliest role alongside Tom Cruise in Taps to how he prepared for his Oscar-nominated performance in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Binelli shared his story behind the story, as well as more from Penn on his proposed film with Eddie Vedder and favorite authors.
What role does music play for you as a filmmaker? Do you listen to anything while you’re writing?
It’s a big part of writing. For Into the Wild, my anchor piece was “Miles From Nowhere,” the Cat Stevens song. The lyrics of that song are killer — it’s exactly the story. I was going to use that originally in the film, and then Eddie [Vedder] started writing this great music.
At one point, there was talk of you directing a film with Vedder as an actor, right?
Yeah, years ago. It’s a script that I wrote. He was game, but at the last minute, he had some concerns. He was in his first marriage, and there was some pretty sexual stuff in the script, and whoever the actresses were going to be — he was a pretty faithful guy and didn’t feel like hurting his wife’s feelings.
Can you talk about the script?
No, because I might make it at some point. I actually talked to Brad [Pitt] about it for some time, too.
In profiles, you’ve expressed ambivalence about acting. Is this part of not feeling like you have many peers?
No, and don’t misunderstand me — it’s not that I don’t have peers. I just feel sad about where the culture of my profession is. The people who I feel are still part of an old school are the people that I relate to. But generally, the job of directing is the job I’d rather be doing.
Would you ever act in a film that you directed?
My “get rid of the question” answer is that I’ll already be employed at the time, so why do it?
Do directors who are also actors direct in a different way?
A lot of critics sometimes get into analyzing the way actors direct versus non-actors directing. And they really always miss it. It’s one of those things where, by not being practitioners, they just came up with something that made sense to them. The thing that’s very close in the process is writing and acting, not directing. Directing’s very different. I know that when I write and direct, I can offer my actors certain things that very few directors are able to, if they didn’t write the material.
Your tabloid moment in the Eighties took place way before the Internet.
I’d have killed somebody. I don’t think Entertainment Tonight started until the year of my divorce [from Madonna]. I think back about what it was like when I was in the middle of all that shit, and it was so lightweight compared to now.
James Franco said in an interview that you text-messaged Madonna right after your kissing scene in Milk was first filmed.
I don’t know where that — I certainly might have. I don’t know. It would not have stood out to me. It was just another day. She’s a friend of mine.
What writers have been important to you?
David Rabe has been the most significant playwright. Fiction writers: Bukowski, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Cormac McCarthy.
You know McCarthy, right?
I’d like to say I know him. I knew him 30 years ago. I haven’t seen him since. I read everything he puts out. He’s a great writer in a way we don’t have them. I had a producing deal for a while with Child of God, and we were trying to get that done at one time.
Wow. That would be a tough one. [The book revolves around an Appalachian necrophiliac.]
[Chuckles] A little bit dark. It’s funny to say to people, “It’s Cormac McCarthy, but it’s a little dark.”
Is there a character you’ve played who has stuck with you the longest?
I’ve had things linger: accents, stuff that you get so in the habit of doing. I wondered about it with the Harvey Milk stuff. “Am I going to be walking like this?”
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