Since nearly every interview with Sean Penn immediately notes that he lights cigarettes with the regularity of old women on prune juice, Sean Penn lit his third cigarette before our interview had begun. He spent that time gazing at me as if I were some sort of fantastic form of quartz. He is, and will always be, one of Hollywood’s foremost geologists, digging up jewels of roles, which he then polishes like a rock tumbler. He lit a cigarette before finishing the other one and smoked the two simultaneously. Soon, he was smoking fifteen cigarettes at the same time. He put on his sunglasses, took them off, and put them on again. It’s a useless actor’s ploy, and he was being ironic, I’m sure of it.

“Acting is about acting, like you’re acting until you’re not sure you’re acting,” he says. “Then you’re acting. If I know I’m acting, I’m in control, and what I see is the loss of control. When I lose control, I gain it. So in losing control, I become more controlled.  I become focused. I become so focused that I’m not sure what I’m looking at. I become a pair of really strong prescription sunglasses.”

He watches several women watching him and then he watches himself watching them and then the whole thing gets out of hand and everyone is watching everyone and the moment is filled with style and substance.  The key to Sean Penn is substance. What that substance is probably comes in powder form. I ask him about that.

“I don’t do drugs; drugs do me. I don’t need drugs to get where I’m going. I need a car. Or feet.  Have you heard of driving or walking? Why ask me about drugs? Why am I here?”

I remind him that he’s promoting a new movie, which he directed.

“When I direct, I act.  That’s why, when I was an actor, I wanted to direct. I act like a director until I’m not acting and then I act like I’m directing without interference from the conscience. It’s a superid thing. I can’t be controlled by the underego. If I am, I can’t see what’s in front of me, and a hundred and ten percent of directing is seeing what’s in front of you, specifically through a camera. I don’t find directing difficult. What I find difficult is acting like I’m a director. I’ll never escape being an actor. I realize that. I realize a lot of things, and what I realize, I must realize again and again, until I realize that I’m not realizing it.”

I ask him about his political life. How does he balance his creative life with his work as an activist?

“I take a lot of heat for that. A lot. People ask me about Steve McQueen. Fuck Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen isn’t in Iraq. I’ve been to Iraq, I think. What I saw there might change my life, if I let it. But I can’t. If I’m affected by what I see politically, I won’t see with political clarity. It’s back to realizations. I have to act politically in order to be political, but it’s an act. It’s an act grounded in so much acting that I’m wondering if somebody could provide me with a script before I speak out politically. To act is to be, and to be is to act, but that’s not the question. The question is whether I want to act like I’m being. I mean being anything. And the truth is somewhere below that, but also above it. And to the side of it. I tend to see one or the other. If I see all three at once, I smoke.”

He lit a cigarette and peered at the sunset beyond his home, a location not to be disclosed here.

“I like the sun,” he says. “The sun can’t lie.  The sun can do a lot of things, like burn, but it can’t lie.  The sun can’t say, ‘I’m not burning you,’ because you know it’s burning you. A producer’s the opposite of the sun. A producer will burn you and say, ‘No, Sean, I’m ice.’  I don’t need ice, especially lying ice.  What I need is the truth of the sun.  If I could be one thing, what would I be? The moon. The moon also doesn’t lie. There’s nothing for it to lie about it, even if it could lie. There’s not much story there. And I’m drawn to that. I may make a movie about the moon one day, something lunar and cold, but only if I can act like the moon. And that would be dangerous.”

What about his penchant for violence? I duck when I ask the question.

“When I’m violent, I think of my motto. ‘Be here: Wow.’ And suddenly, I’m acting violent, only I’m not acting, or I’ve reached the absolute limits of my acting. Violence is sublime. You might ask if that conflicts with my political beliefs. Yes. I’m having trouble with that lately. The day I stop having trouble is the day I’m in real trouble. Trouble is its own reward but also its own nemesis. I am the nemesis of my nemesis, which is myself. One day, I’m going to quit smoking. I hope you’re around for that, because I’ll smash your head into the table and then ram your skull into the concrete. I may be acting, but you won’t know. You’ll be unconscious.”

At that point, I decide to end the interview. Sean Penn lights a cigarette. I must resume the interview.

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PAUL A. TOTH's Airplane Novel, already a Midwest Book Review Reviewer's Choice and the 9/11 novel, is available now. His other novels include Finale, Fishnet and Fizz. Click here to visit his sites.

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