Newsmaker: Sean Penn

It was, for the Hollywood A-lister Sean Penn, just another column-­inch-garnering role. Yet far from featuring in another film blockbuster, the role in question was the journalistic scoop of the year: a real-life meeting with the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” ­Guzmán at a secret location three months after his jail break in July […]

It was, for the Hollywood A-lister Sean Penn, just another column-­inch-garnering role. Yet far from featuring in another film blockbuster, the role in question was the journalistic scoop of the year: a real-life meeting with the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” ­Guzmán at a secret location three months after his jail break in July last year.

Assuming the guise of gonzo journalist in the mould of the field’s pioneer, Hunter S Thompson, Penn wrote his dramatic first-hand account of his meeting with the world’s most notorious drug trafficker for Rolling Stone magazine. The magazine published his 10,000-word opus earlier this week, thrusting the 55-year-old into the kind of media storm that the double Oscar-winning and one-time hard-drinking hellraiser has become well accustomed to.

Penn’s meeting with “El Chapo” – meaning “Shorty” in Spanish on account of the kingpin’s relatively short stature – is the star’s latest escapade in a colourful life that has seen him meet the likes of the Cuban president Raúl Castro and the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, and indulge in a range of social and political causes. Indeed, an encounter with a Latin American fugitive, who was recaptured to great fanfare last Friday, is just the kind of brush with controversy that has come to define Penn, who, said Mexican authorities, was key to the runaway’s ­rearrest.

You learn a great deal about the rugged-looking lady’s man in his “El Chapo” profile. He seemingly knows little about laptops and technology of all kinds; he enjoys dropping the odd swear word; and fancies himself as a bit of a wordsmith. Who could resist the lines such as “His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes” or “­Espinoza is the owl who flies among ­falcons”?

Social media has gobbled up his latest contribution to journalism, but many have spat it back out again. Some have cried foul over his professional ethics. Did, some asked incredulously, Penn really hand over his feature to Mexico’s modern-day answer to Robin Hood for final approval? As the article makes clear at the beginning, he did – and apparently, no changes were requested. For many, however, the howls of media anguish owe more to journalistic envy than to any real concern over Penn’s penmanship. Yet, whatever the merits and demerits of “El Chapo Speaks”, by simply reading his story you can almost hear Penn speaking in that cool cynical style that, by common consent, has helped mark him out as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

Sean Justin Penn was born on August 17, 1960 in Los ­Angeles County, California. His father was the actor and director Leo Penn; his mother was the actress Eileen Ryan. One of three brothers, Penn grew up in Santa Monica, and became childhood friends with the future movie stars Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, the sons of the ­Hollywood great Martin Sheen. Penn spent some of his childhood with a Super-8 camera making a number of amateur films. After flirting with the idea of attending law school, he passed up college in favour of the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre.

Following his professional debut on an episode of the American television show Barnaby Jones, he moved to New York. He appeared in the TV movie The Killing of Randy Webster in 1981, but made his feature-film bow the same year in Taps where alongside the budding actor Tom Cruise, he played a military-high-school cadet.

One year later, he made serious waves as the surfer Jeff Spicoli in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. After refusing similar roles, Penn appeared in the 1983 picture Bad Boys. Several films later, a young Penn was meeting with the approval of critics, who praised his acting depth. The 1985 political ­thriller The Falcon and the Snowman saw Penn earn great plaudits, but it was through his marriage to the pop icon Madonna that same year that Penn’s celebrity hit new heights. Madonna, an active publicity seeker, was the opposite of her husband, who made his contempt for the media more than apparent.

Four years of marriage to ­Madonna saw Penn make headlines for all the wrong reasons. On the film front, he starred alongside her in Shanghai ­Surprise in 1986. It flopped. A year later, he lost his cool with an extra who tried to take his photograph. He threw a punch, and served 34 days in prison as a result. In 1989, Penn and ­Madonna ended their disastrous collaboration, and ­divorced.

The year of the divorce was not all bad news, however, with the release of Casualties of War, for which he earned rave reviews. Two years later, he made his directorial debut with The Indian Runner. A limited-release feature, it saw box office takings of less than US$200,000.

Though he had expressed a wish to quit acting, Penn made a mesmerising return to the screen in 1993’s Carlito’s Way, alongside Al Pacino. In 1995, he starred as a death-row inmate in the powerful Dead Man Walking. This earned him an Oscar nomination. That same year, he directed The Crossing Guard, featuring Jack Nicholson and ­Anjelica Huston.

A role in the beautifully haunting war film The Thin Red Line followed in 1998, and in 1999, he received a second Oscar nomination for his role as a jazz guitarist in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. Yet, Penn, who married for a second time in 1996, to the actress Robin Wright, would have to wait until the turn of the century for Oscar glory, for his 2003 role in Mystic River and his 2008 role in Milk.

But as recent events have shown, acting and filmmaking have not been Penn’s only concerns. He made headlines when he visited Baghdad ahead of then-American president George W Bush’s 2003 American-­led invasion of Iraq. A renowned critic of the Bush administration, Penn thought the invasion was pure folly, saying at the time: “Sacrificing American soldiers or innocent civilians in an unprecedented pre-emptive attack on a separate sovereign nation may well prove itself a most temporary medicine.”

His friendship with the socialist Venezuelan president Chavez met with the disapproval of the United States’ right-wing media. And just as he interviewed “El Chapo” following the ­Mexican’s incredible prison escape, so he questioned the ­Cuban leader Raúl Castro, weeks before the 2008 US presidential election. Here, and during a seven-hour conversation in Havana, ­Castro intimated his willingness to open up a dialogue between Cuba and the US. The re-­establishment of diplomatic relations came in July last year.

As well as indulging political inclinations, Penn, whose actor brother Chris died in 2006, has also become known for his humanitarian work. In 2005, Penn involved himself in the rescue effort that took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that struck the US Gulf Coast. And following the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, he visited the deprived Caribbean nation, helping to dispense food and other types of assistance. He established the J/P Haitian Relief ­Organization, with the aim of lifting the ­Haitian people out of poverty.

Somehow, in between his acting, directing, political, humanitarian and journalistic commitments, Penn has also found time for a much talked-about private life, following his 2010 divorce from Wright, an acclaimed film and TV actress in her own right, with whom he has two children. The mercurial Penn has enjoyed relationships with some of Hollywood’s most beautiful and celebrated acting talents, such as Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron. He was even engaged to the striking, South African-born Theron before she called things off last year.

But could he be rekindling his romance with Madonna – now both wiser, calmer versions of their younger selves? This week, gossip magazines floated the idea that the ex-spouses were an item again. But just as Penn’s romantic link with Madonna appeared in the US press, so too did age-old rumours of a domestic-abuse incident between the two. Claims that Penn tied up and beat Madonna in 1988 have, however, been denied by the singer. She signed a statement in support of her ex-husband, who is suing Lee Daniels for defamation after an interview in which the writer-director appeared to infer Penn was involved in domestic violence, saying the rumours were “outrageous, malicious, reckless, and false”.

Penn’s latest exploits with “El Chapo” – and the manner in which he has shrugged off criticism – have reaffirmed him as his own man. In one scene from The Thin Red Line, Penn, who plays the battle-hardened First Sergeant Edward Welsh, says: “What difference do you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” Penn might have asked himself that very same question any amount of times. But for a man who has rarely left the limelight, he has just as surely answered it.

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Source: art & life

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