He has jumped into riots, protested wars, drunk with dictators and aided natural disaster relief. Now, Sean Penn has taken his boldest step yet in what appears to be a never-ending quest to ensure he is remembered as more than an actor. He found the world’s most hunted criminal and asked him some questions for Rolling Stone magazine.
Why, you might have asked, would Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sit down with the guy from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?
Because while you know Penn as a box office regular, the cartel kingpin knows him as a rebellious activist. Penn has been using his Hollywood power to jump into high-profile conversations for nearly the entirely of his career, from humanitarian moments in New Orleans and Haiti to political kerfuffles as controversial as this encounter with Guzmán.
“I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals,” Penn wrote in his Rolling Stone piece, published on Saturday. But as he was gearing up to meet the people who would eventually lead him to Guzmán, Penn said, he was in his “rhythm” – this was the kind of story he has been working toward for years, and not just because it might lead to a movie eventually. The escaped fugitive was “interested in seeing the story of his life told on film,” if the project involved Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Presumably, he did not foresee that contacting two extremely famous actors would lead authorities to his capture last week.
A Mexican law enforcement official denied media reports that the Mexican government has requested to interrogate Penn. But the official added that “lines of investigation” could include Penn, without specifying how.
The actor’s drive to be at the heart of the action seems to come from basic curiosity. A 2006 profile in the New Yorker describes how Penn drove into the thick of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 because he wanted to see it for himself. The adventure ended with a shopping cart crashing into his windshield.
“He’s not taking a secondhand opinion. He really wants to know what’s going down,” actor-director Dennis Hopper told the magazine.
As his success continued on screen, Penn’s growing reputation allowed for his curiosity to take him to more dangerous and exclusive places. In 2002, he traveled to Iraq. In 2003, after the invasion of U.S. troops, he went back, this time to write about the experience for the San Francisco Chronicle. Penn enjoyed the experience of playing reporter enough to try it again in 2005, this time in Iran. Reporting, he told the New Yorker, was just like acting.
“You wake up in the morning with an interest in listening and expressing,” he said. “It all feels the same to me. Acting is Everyman-ness, and loving Everyman. Finally, you’re reaching out to people’s pain.”
Penn, who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, wasn’t approaching turmoil in the Middle East as an unbiased journalistic observer. He had previously taken out an advertisement in The Washington Post condemning President George W. Bush on Iraq, and later called for his impeachment. “The needless blood on your hands, and therefore, on our own, is drowning the freedom, the security, and the dream that America might have been, once healed of and awakened by, the tragedy of September 11, 2001,” Penn wrote to Bush in 2010.
Though he allegedly tried to interview Bush, Penn never made it to the White House. Instead he veered toward a different brand of world leader, developing relationships with Cuban President Raúl Castro and Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez.
Penn visited Cuba for Christmas in 2005, “under the auspices of religious tourism,” with his then-wife Robin Wright and their two children. The family was introduced to Castro in a private midnight meeting, where they discussed the actor’s trips to the Middle East, Latin American history and gay rights. Penn wrote about the encounter in a 17,000-word story for The Nation, in which he also describes meeting and befriending Chávez. When Chávez died in 2013, Penn called him one of the “most important forces we’ve had on this planet.”
This is apparently what piqued Guzmán’s interest in Penn.
“He asks about my relationship with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez with what seems to be a probing of my willingness to be vilified through associations,” Penn wrote in Rolling Stone. “I speak to our friendship in a way that seems to pass an intuitive litmus test measuring the independence of my perspective.”
When he flew to the post-disaster scenes of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, Penn was accused of showboating. He responded by saying he hoped those critics would “die screaming of rectal cancer,” then founded “J/P Haitian Relief Organization.” The non-profit held a benefit gathering the same evening as the Rolling Stone interview Guzmán with was released.
“I’m just another a– trying to feel good about himself,” he told Esquire last year. And why shouldn’t I? That’s what everybody should try to do.”
“I’d seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike,” he wrote. “I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.”
It’s just the kind of thing that would make a captivating movie, perhaps one day, starring Sean Penn.
Timeline of events in the life of actor Sean Penn
A timeline of events highlighting the screen career, personal life and political activism of Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn:
- Aug. 17, 1960 – Born in Santa Monica, California, to actor-director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan.
- 1974 – Appears as an extra in an episode of the TV show “Little House on the Prairie,” a show his father directed.
- Dec. 18, 1981 – Penn begins film career in “Taps,” playing cadet captain Alex Dwyer.
- Aug. 13, 1982 – Penn stars in cult classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” playing surfer-stoner Jeff Spicoli.
- Aug. 1985 – Marries pop star Madonna in a Malibu ocean-bluff ceremony buzzed by photographers in helicopters.
- Aug. 29, 1986 – Penn and Madonna star in “Shanghai Surprise,” which garners negative reviews.
- June 24, 1987 – Penn serves more than half of a 60-day jail sentence for punching an extra on a film set. He was on probation then for punching another man he accused of trying to kiss Madonna in a nightclub in April 1986.
- 1988 – Penn charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly kicking a photographer and breaking his camera.
- 1989 – Madonna and Penn divorce.
- April 13, 1991 – Has first child, Dylan Penn, with actress Robin Wright.
- Sept. 20, 1991 – Directing debut in the crime drama “The Indian Runner” based on a Bruce Springsteen song, “Highway Patrolman.”
- Aug. 6, 1993 – Penn and Wright have their second child, Hopper Jack Penn, named after actors Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
- 1995 – Picks up first Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in “Dead Man Walking.”
- April 1996 – Marries Robin Wright.
- Oct. 2002 – Penn buys $56,000 advertisement in the Washington Post and publishes open letter to President George W. Bush asking him to end the Iraq War. The letter helps spark Penn’s friendship with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
- Dec. 2002 – Spends three days in Bagdad and meets then Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, an associate of Saddam Hussein, shortly before U.S. war with Iraq.
- 2003 – Wins Academy Award for best actor in a leading role for performance in 2003 Boston crime-drama “Mystic River.”
- Jan. 24, 2006 – Younger brother, actor Chris Penn, dies accidentally from an enlarged heart and effects of multiple medications. His brother is known for film roles in “Rush Hour” and “Footloose.”
- Aug. 2007 – Tours Venezuela with Chavez, who praises Penn for urging Americans to impeach Bush.
- Jan. 22, 2009 – Earns second Academy Award for best actor, for portraying gay rights icon and politician Harvey Milk in “Milk.”
- April 2009 – Files for divorce from Wright.
- Jan. 2010 – Flies to Haiti to help with relief efforts after massive earthquake.
- Feb. 2012 – Stands beside Chavez when Venezuela expresses support for Syrian government during 2011-2012 Syrian uprising.
- March 2015 – Stars in his latest film “The Gunman.”
- Jan. 9, 2016 – Rolling Stone publishes a story from October 2015 interview involving Penn and fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was recently captured after his latest escape from prison.