While he has had his share of tabloid press over the years, it is for his searing performances in films as diverse as "Casualties of War" (1989), "Dead Man Walking" (1995), for which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and "Hurlyburly" (1998) that have established his reputation as one of Hollywood's finest actors. Since the early 1990s, Penn also has proven his mettle as a capable director and screenwriter.
Now gracing cineplexes as the fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen's lovely mockumentary, the 39-year-old actor is once again receiving raves. Charming and polite, Penn is willing to speak his mind, although with perhaps a bit more circumspection.
In recent interviews, particularly a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, the actor candidly offered his opinions, and the ensuing press coverage created a small brouhaha.
"I get in trouble when I mention names," he recently joked when commenting on a recent romantic film that left him cold.
Emmet is a genius on stage (Penn took a crash course in the instrument to learn how to properly position his fingers, although he allows, "I don't think you'd want to hear the original recordings [of his playing]") but a jerk when not performing. He mistreats everyone in his life, particularly his one great love, the mute laundress played by British actress Samantha Morton. Since Morton had no dialogue, the situation was slightly frustrating for the actor at first. "It sort of grew like it does in the movie," said Penn. "At first it's, you know, 'Give me something!' You're monologuing in a way and you don't intend to be but the person won't speak back, so ... bit by bit you start getting used to it. She's so expressive it's not like you're not getting anything. It's just different."
Like many actors, Penn had long harbored a hope of collaborating with Woody Allen. "He and I had talked about a couple of things in the past that for one reason or another weren't right for one or the other of us," he said. "I had always wanted ... I like the idea of doing stuff with people who have, and he's uniquely like this, a committed, other take on the world and movies. So I would read a Woody Allen script predisposed to hope to want to do it. And I read this, and I knew halfway through I wanted to do this."
But he was also cognizant that working for Allen was an anomaly in how he normally selected a film role.
"This movie would not be an example of this, but when it's acting, money would have to be involved in that choice. It would have to be a movie that I felt I could make some contribution to and something I felt was a good piece of work. The same as before money mattered ... I'd much rather be directing movies than acting and then something like this comes along, and I think it's no secret that you don't make money on these movies, I catch myself reading the thing, saying yes. It's torture but there are worse tortures."
So, how does he know which parts are right for him?
"[You get this] feeling like you can't think of five other guys you'd rather see in the part, which happens quite a bit. I read a script and say, you know, you really should get so-and-so to do this."
Don't expect to see Penn in a big-budget action flick, either. "I can't do that. I see guys do these things. ... I've seen good actors do five movies in a row, the only thing the movie's saying is if you've got good abs, you can kill people and don't look back. And I hate it. I just couldn't do it."
Instead, look for him to return to his first love, directing, though he won't be like Allen and direct himself.
"Jokingly, I've said if I'm directing it means I already have a job, I don't need to," he said. I don't think I would be able to be fair to myself or the other actors. It wouldn't be for me."