Though he’d likely deny it, actor Sean Penn is bona fide Hollywood royalty as the son of film-world notables and sibling to entertainers of note. And then? A life shift toward a kind of public service not prized in Hollywood had him hitting Haiti after their earthquake and cholera tragedies. Which he’s more than glad to talk about in this episode of The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
Penn Against the World
Carlos Watson: I love that you’ve been interested in the world, and I love that you’ve always been someone who’s kind of been active in the world and not just thinking about what’s in your backyard. What has brought you to that interest in the world? What’s taking you to places like Venezuela and places like Haiti and other parts of the world?
Sean Penn: Probably privilege. The fact that I can get on a plane, that I could make time in my life is the first excuse. Secondly, you can get, I think if anybody is awake, you can get a bit drowned in the monoculturalism of what our conditioning here in the United States is, whether it be through one language culture, principally one language culture. And we also have, I don’t know the exact statistics, but somewhere in the area of 30% of Americans is all it is that has passports. So when we hear about world perspectives, we have curiosity about the world, we’re hearing it typically from people who’ve never traveled it.
So when I had the opportunity based on just blessings in my own life to travel, I think I followed my nose toward areas that seemed to have, at least at that moment, a particular connection, whether negative or positive, to my own country and culture. And I wanted to see the other side.
Watson: And did you go on a little bit of, and maybe the obvious answer is yes, but tell me a little bit, I assume there was a little bit of a political evolution and awakening that you had. Was there a moment or an event that caused you to become more engaged in politics and life and the world and thinking about questions like privilege, or was it a gradual thing?
Penn: Well, I think it has a lot to do with, and I suppose everybody has their own version of this story, but I can do the math so easily because my birth year ends in a zero, and it was 1960. So I grew up as a child when the Vietnam War was the war show on television and covered in a way that we saw in diminishing ways in wars that followed, whereas a young kid, you’re seeing it both on television, you’re hearing it in family discussions, and you’re also seeing it based on the muscle cars that are up on blocks on the driveways of the older brothers that were all overseas fighting.
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, and there were a lot of young men that were over overseas fighting, and many that never returned to those muscle cars up on blocks. So it was part of early development to ask a lot of questions and to also have a certain skepticism about the adult brain that would bring us to or accept wars.
Watson: Were your dad and mom similar? Did they also bring that kind of skepticism to the game? Or was this something that you got to on your own, or on your own along with your friends?
Penn: Well, I think in particular, in any kind of political or activist’s vein, my father would have been the principal on that, and not the least because he had grown up in the last era of universal hardship in the United States, which was the Depression, and then came forward in the civil rights, working with the civil rights movement, the unionization movement, and ultimately blacklisted after having fought for his country, because he’s a first-generation Lithuanian, Spanish-Lithuanian.
So to go over, he flew 37 missions on a seven-mission life expectancy. I think their unit broke the record and their aircraft was disabled twice having kind of stumbled back over Allied lines, and then to come back to this country and not be allowed to work because of a certain kind of social-democratic belief system? But my father was somebody who was never bitter about that. He always saw it as a kind of a learning curve for a country he had deep belief in.
I took more time to get to really focusing on these things. I had sponged a lot of that off of him and had those interests sort of, or feelings in my cells somewhere, I guess. But I think that I was much more self-involved as a young man and able to be because there was no Depression. I grew up middle- and lower-middle-class, but safe and an extraordinary childhood and young adulthood. We had not, my generation had not widely known discomfort as his had. And so I think it took me moving towards really … once I had children and was forced between a rock and a hard place, to consider where the world was going to go forward.
The Political Penn
Watson: How do you think about President Trump’s success? I know that’s a big, broad, open-minded question, but I know I can tell just from this conversation that you’re someone who looks at things from a variety of different angles. Not only getting elected the first time, but then having another 70 million-plus people experience four years with him and say, yep, I want more.
Penn: Well, this is revealing the ugliest part of the American soul. The success being the leading edge of kind of a flood. A flood of poison water that we’ve built societally for a long, long time. The success is examining that which can only be embraced in an acknowledgment of a culture of cowardice and a kind of toxic racism, a self-celebration and entitlement.
He is everything simple; that is actually what we have come to call success. Even in his business career, that never had anything to do with a spiritual success. I separate that from a religious one, in the sense of, there is no aspect of what he brought that was the rising of kindhearted culture of generosity, of love, of humanity, of care. It’s instead narcissism, solipsism, sociopathy, hatred, snake oil. And it is the ugliest part of a beautiful culture that we have in the United States, of a beautiful system or experiment of governance that we have in the United States.
But he really is only the face of it. There’s a complicity. All of us have had to look in the mirror. I know, for example, I am still a sucker for the silver lining and in all the ways I thought I was or had evolved notions socially, politically — they’ve really been challenged in the last four years. And certainly in the last year. I’m as cynical as anybody about movements. You take it from the kind of the bullshit side of the Me Too movement, which was a lot of self-satisfying speeches. And then you look at the real side that’s always been here.
You look at the George Floyd murder, which is the only thing that anybody can refer to it as, a murder. You find that without any safety valve, without a noble and elegant leadership, despite political flaws, or statesmanship … with Donald Trump at our helm, you’re on your own to recognize your own complicity. I think it demanded it more. And that’s the silver lining. To check in with how you may dismiss things for their pendulum-swing radicalism too easily, and not find ways to offer yourself to the balance that will lead the justifiable equality of men and women forward.
I think this is in the ether now. I really feel, at 60 years old, I’m sort of glad I got to indulge some of the pettiness of what I’d been. But I’m more excited for my children that the options will be better than indulging pettiness.
Beyond Politicians as Props
Watson: Sean, who’s the most intriguing world leader you’ve ever met?
Penn: Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton. I think with Fidel Castro, because the engine of his passion, his political passions is so much more aligned with that mortal enemy called the United States. His love of Franklin Roosevelt, initially of John F. Kennedy, the little boy who wrote Roosevelt a letter asking for a $10 bill. His political genius was, and of course that puts me in a position of being someone who can identify political genius … extraordinary philosophical depth politically.
Going back to his books of prison letters —a recommended reading for anyone, no matter what your political thoughts were — none of this is an apologia for the worst of what happened with the revolution or him. But he certainly was an extraordinary person to spend time with.
And Bill Clinton, you could answer this in terms of a head of state. You can answer it in terms of someone who, for whatever flaws people perceive in him and for whatever triumphs people perceive in him, certainly was able to represent the kind of aspirational ship as a communicator in an extraordinary way.
But more so, just as an individual, to meet him later — I had met him once as president of United States. I got to know him principally after his presidency and all the rumors one hears are true. Which is that he’s the end product of an incredibly curious life and that there is no subject he can’t speak on knowledgeably. And so I found that extraordinary.