One thing Penn doesn’t want to discuss much is politics. But the topic is inevitable: After he wrote an article for The Nation on his visits with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban president Raul Castro — a longer version appeared on The Huffington Post — he was scolded by a chorus of journalists as being fawning and hopelessly naive, Penn, of course, gives as good as he gets. At one point in our interview, railing about the lack of commitment displayed by some of his acting peers, he says, “People are spending too much time modeling for some fucking clothing company instead of acting, and I resent it. 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.’
“You see wonderfully talented actors everywhere, which almost makes it sadder,” Penn says wearily, lighting another American Spirit. “It’s not about what kind of movies they make. I don’t care if they make love stories — there arc great love stories. Just let me know you mean it. I want to know you’re trying to write the Great American Novel every time. Fail all you want. But fucking try.”
So congratulations on the Oscar nomination. Did you get up early to hear it?
I’m 48 years old. I turned off my phone and was sound asleep.
Do you get excited by this sort of thing, or is it more about how awards can help a film like Milk reach a wider audience?
Well, we actually got more nominations than we expected. And frankly, the key was Best Picture — that’s very important to getting the movie out there, more so than my category. But I was very excited, because if we hadn’t gotten these eight nominations, we’d be straight to video right now. That’s just the nature of the beast.
When Gus Van Sant first approached you about this film, were you aware of Harvey Milk?
I was graduating high school the year Harvey Milk was killed, so I was in California, and I was certainly aware of it — it was national news, anyway. I didn’t know anything more than this openly gay politician was murdered alongside the mayor of San Francisco. I think it was only a month after the Peoples Temple [Jonestown mass murder] thing had happened, which was mostly San Francisco people, so it was kind of a crazy moment in Northern California.
Did you know gay people as a kid?
I never heard the word “fag” until I was in high school. I might have heard about homosexuals from Life magazine, but I never heard anything derogatory. Politically, it might have been discussed in my home. But it never landed. Did I know gay people? I later came to find out that there were gays in the theater world who were friendly with my family. I remember being at a party as a kid, and Paul Lynde telling my mother how sexy my father was, and thinking, “What’s that about?”
Playing a real-life person like Milk, with so much archival footage to look at, is there a danger of just doing an impression?
Yeah, but I don’t know how to do impressions. I can’t sing, either. So there’s that. The main problem was that normally, to tell a whole life in two hours, you want to get somebody more charismatic than the real person. And in this case, one could only aspire to that.
What’s Van Sant like as a director?
Among the best. God knows, there are directors whom I love, where you get into something one day where a scene’s not working — maybe it’s the writing, maybe your talent’s just not going to be able to rise to it — but at some point, you will point your finger at the director, and on your drive home from work that day, you’re saying, “That motherfucker. . . .” That never once happened with Gus. I have a pretty-photographic memory of attacks I might have made on a scene — whether it was two takes or 30 takes, I’ll remember every one of them. So I have 30 years of going and watching what directors did with those things, how they laid down that track.
You really can watch a film, see a scene and say, “I remember-doing that a different way, and it worked so much better”?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And Gus has great taste. He’s elegant. You feel that throughout the process.
Besides the script and the opportunity to work with Van Sant, was there political motivation in taking the role?
No. I certainly appreciated the politics of it. But that wasn’t a conscious factor.
It was strange watching the film post-Prop 8 — how eerily it paralleled that fight. And of course in Milk, they win out on the ballot issue, while we’re watching 30 years later having just lost on a similar issue. Were you surprised?
No. Only because I was talking to people in the system, including Mayor [Gavin] Newsom here, who were worried. I was surprised when I heard the numbers among black voters, which was fucking shameful. And, of course, the Mormons. What it comes down to is the churches are not operating like instruments of love. They’re hate machines. They’re ignorance factories.
What do you think Harvey Milk would have become, if he had lived?
The only significant speculation I make is if you look at the timing, what an incredibly powerful voice he would have been when the plague hit, which was a year after. You had an entire administration that never said the word “AIDS.” He would have pushed that issue, and there would be people alive today that aren’t. That seems a pretty safe bet.