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Sean Penn and the Squared-Away Individual

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There are few actors left who embody the ethos of old Hollywood. Sean Penn is one of them. We got together at his place for a face-to-face exploration of Sean’s life and career. We discussed how his childhood in Malibu helped him create the iconic Jeff Spicoli, and how his first acting coach still shapes him today. We speak of his friends — Brando, DeNiro, and Scorsese — legends whose reputations, work ethic, and willingness to keep learning shaped their characters and their lives. Spending an hour in his presence is a masterclass in the pursuit of being a better creator, and a better human.

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David Duchovny, Cameron, Sean Penn

David Duchovny  00:00

The actors that I respected or loved growing up. Well, not growing up, but when I started acting, you didn’t know so much about them, and that was important for their acting, because then they could become other people for you up there. And then we entered into this stage of history where we wanted information on everything. And then we then we entered into the internet age where we have information on everyone and everything. And then we entered into the age where celebrities share freely information, whether it’s curated or not, we don’t know about everything and anything. And I still have this kind of sense of privacy about me. That’s that it’s not arrogance, and it’s not secrecy, and I think Sean shares it because he’s from the same generation as me, and it’s it’s a protectiveness of the job of the magic trick of acting. The less you know about me, the more freedom I have to become someone else. And that was a fear of doing this podcast, was, you know, the more I talk about myself, or the more I reveal aspects of myself, which I want to do, because that’s important for this back and forth that I have with people like Sean. There’s a certain fear, you know, that that it kind of takes away a little of my ability to do magic on the other end, I think it’s important to remember that as we’re listening to all these podcasts that they’re there. If there’s a reticence, it’s not necessarily shame about one’s behavior, it’s not necessarily regret about what one’s behavior. It’s not necessarily a failure. But when you’re talking about people that transform as a living then you’re talking about the ability to remain hidden, and that goes into all aspects of your life.


David Duchovny  01:56

I’m David Duchovny, and this has Fail Better a show where failure, not success shapes who we are. Sean Penn is a fantastic actor. He’s had iconic roles in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dead Man Walking, and just think about the range between those two roles. He won Best actor awards for Mystic River and milk this year, starring in a new movie called Daddy O, written and directed by my good friend Christy Hall. Go see it. He’s an author. His Bob honey books were not critically acclaimed, so what? But I like them that’s more important. He’s also no stranger to controversies off the screen. We ended up talking a lot about the craft of acting, including how he studied with legendary acting coach Peggy fury, maybe the best part of this interview, though, no zoom, we were in person, face to face, in the house, his house. We were drinking water because we were talking so much. Sean was smoking. I was happily enjoying the second hand smoke. Here’s our conversation.


David Duchovny  02:57

I kind of want to start at the beginning, because it’s my feeling that, like people’s sense of success and failure, their own, like interior sense, is created very early on in life, you know. And my sense of you is you have very strong sense, interior sense of what works and what doesn’t, of what succeeds and what fails. And I just wanted to go back to like, what’s a growing what growing up in Malibu, your dad being a director, your brother being, you know, an actor, and kind of getting you into it. And what were the stakes? What was the vision? What did you fall in love with?


Sean Penn  03:46

Well, here the way I’d answer that is, so I grew up in the San Fernando Valley till I was nine, turning 10. But even seven, eight years old at that time was a very different time than now. And you know, my biggest memory of that time is whenever one wasn’t at school, they were with their five, six buddies on Schwinn bikes riding around the all over the valley, and you’d go for hours and hours, miles from your house, and your parents wouldn’t worry about you. There was no cell phone to bother with that stuff and and I remember, you know, like in terms of work when I go, because we’re going to move to, like, what, how we gage success with something. And yeah, then, from very early age, I never liked too much when I had a dictated chore, but when I noticed a certain part of the yard that would feel better, more squared away, I could be, you know, on my hands and knees for 10 hours getting every stray pebble out of there and getting that dirt swept under those trees and and this, they always gave me a great feeling of accomplishment when things were squared away. And after I we came to Malibu, and that’s where an end 10 to 17. Until I was 17, I never had a thought of being an actor. I was on a trajectory in my own fantasy to be F lee Bailey. I wanted to go out and fight the good fights in criminal justice as a criminal defense attorney.


David Duchovny  05:44

So you’re going to defend you weren’t going to prosecute?


David Duchovny  05:46

But before that, you hadn’t had a discussion with your dad about, what is what do you do?


Sean Penn  05:46

I was going to defend this. I could, I could defend anything in my sense of it. I could, you know, the you give me a debate, I you, you give me Charles Manson, I’ll get him off. And then it was literally upon graduation that I realized I had not paid any attention to the notion that your grades would matter to get you into higher education and ultimately law school. And there was no part of my body that was ready to go voluntarily back to school after that, after graduation. But by that time, and then, about the last year of high school, I started making these Super Eight sound movies with my friends, things that were motivated by my younger brother, Christopher, where he had, he had, you know, discovered the sound on film, you know, the magnetic strip, and I was watching he and his buddies make these little movies. And or those movies, his movies were all about the Vietnam War. I shouldn’t say all they started out doing little crime stories, you know, capers him and Charlie Sheen running around and, you know, playing cops and but it was amazing to me because, you know, this is before anybody had a video camera or anything. And these super eight cameras and a little edit kit, and you could start making they, you know, talking movies. So I think that without knowing, and I had found interest in what my dad did, which was directing film, and it was about camera angles, it was about that was in my head. And so I started doing that high school.


Sean Penn  07:27

Well, I sure I’d had my kind of go to work with Dad days throughout the years as from being a little kid on but that was more about checking in on set in the morning, having a donut, being introduced to some of the actors, seeing the first couple of takes, and then slipping out the door and walking around the studio lot, finding the back lot, which was interesting, but not in a connective way of wanting to pursue that as my own life, just as an observer. And then in the absence of, you know, it was, it was always the guys who didn’t do homework, you know? And I was certainly one of those. We were the ones available to shoot at night during the school week. And so I found myself having to plug in as an actor into the movies that we were doing, and it was okay. And then the actor, Anthony Zerby, came to did Career Day, and it’s when it all clicked my senior year of high school. And I said, because there was no thought that I could go ask people to entrust millions of dollars to me as a director, you know, as a 17 year old, barely High School.


David Duchovny  08:36

That was what that was, the thought on your head at first was, I’m going to direct, yeah?


Sean Penn  08:42

And then talk to my dad at that point.


David Duchovny  08:45

What was it about Zerby? Was it something that he said or just, I see, it’s possible you can have a life like this.


Sean Penn  08:52

I don’t know that I ever took in that this was actually a serious minded career, that this was a serious even growing up with my parents, who were both actors and certainly very respectful of the of the craft of acting, it didn’t had not really clicked to me to consider it anything other than what shows up in the movies, and that there was actually something to apply yourself to here to build characters, to help tell stories, and the way he talked about it. And then I tilt down, and I see his boots, and they were these, I guess, like floor shine, 1970s zipper boots. Sorry about serving now, yeah. And I thought, well, those look cool. And that became what I thought were actor shoes, so I went out and got me a pair. And voila, I went, got into acting school and and I got with a repertory company out the valley called the GRT. And that was a great experience, because I was, you know, doing everything from. And selling tickets to lights and sound and and building sets. And then, you know, over time, it let you start to be in the shows and doing other a lot of shows around different equity waiver theaters in LA and this is where it comes to, like, my sense of, I don’t know, completing something or succeeding at something. I remembered that was going to a lot of theater at the time, because I was I had become sort of obsessed with this craft of acting and and I remember almost every time I went, I never had to worry about being great at it, because I just knew I was better than most. I’d watch a performance on stage and think that’s not intimidating to me.


David Duchovny  10:51

Right, I had a similar response. I had a small part in Chaplin, many, many years ago with Downey, and it was when I was just starting, and I was intimidated by the names on the call sheet. And then I got there, and I watched down, and I watched Kevin Kline, I watched Dan Aykroyd, and they were great, but it wasn’t a different language than the one I was trying to speak, right? I’m not saying I was as good as them or anything, but I knew it wasn’t this magic. You had a place here, right? I thought it felt that way.


Sean Penn  11:21

Yeah, and Same, same. For me it was, it’s as same. Still today, it’s what it is.


David Duchovny  11:25

Yeah just the sense, yeah, being in the right place, yeah? But at some point you found your way to Peggy fury, right? And that was, and it sounds like that’s where you started to maybe put your own technique together. Is that right?


Sean Penn  11:44

Yeah, what I what I found that I had easily and Peggy busted me on this right away. I could be, what would you call it natural, and that would be somewhat restricted to my own experience, meaning it wasn’t going to play for period, and it wasn’t going to play for things very far outside of my own nature. And so how to build the blocks to feel free in another character’s nature, and to exercise one’s imagination to find that and that. That was a formative moment, because while I was not as a teenager looking to be an actor, you know, you get to your mid, mid, later teens, there’s a whole lot of reason to want to find some cash to do some things you want to do. And my father was directing a an episode of a Kojak. And Kojak, like some of the shows today, would take a lot of their scripts from the headlines right. And the mob was using miners to do hits. And that was a big New York Times piece at the time, because they wouldn’t get life in prison. And so there was this young Hitman character. And he said, why don’t you come read for it? And, man, I stayed up all night the nights leading up to that audition, first, first audition, and again, not in pursuit of being an actor, but, you know, there was a check involved here, and, you know, I got it down, and I went in and it was, I can’t remember, you know, what I would call what I Did, other than maybe it was just very flat. I did not get the part. So then the actor who played that hitman, yeah, was, do you remember the actor, Barry Miller? He was, he was the one that jumped off the bridge at Saturday Night Fever.


David Duchovny  13:56

Oh, yeah.


Sean Penn  13:58

So he had shot Saturday Night Fever. This is the period. It hadn’t come out yet. And I’m in senior year high school, I think. And my dad said, come down see this actor do the part you.


David Duchovny  14:14

That’s an amazing that’s an amazing thing to say to you. Can you imagine saying that to a young actor who might be smarting over not getting a role, and come, come watch this. It’s a great thing to do, but.


Sean Penn  14:27

Maybe because there was no part of me that had a vanity attached to acting, because I wasn’t thinking I was going to be an actor, right, right? So I thought, yeah, oh, okay, you know, I’m the wrong tool for the for the job. Let me see what the rest.


David Duchovny  14:42

That’s very, that’s a very kind of enlightened way to look at it, even at that age, because I know that my nature goes to not, I’m not the right tool, but I’m not the right tool for anything.


Sean Penn  14:54

Yeah but he can’t surf. You know? This is like, this is, well.


David Duchovny  14:59

See, I think you’re strong. You’re strong.


Sean Penn  15:01

So I go down there, this is how they think the universe a lot. And I’m watching this guy, and I’m thinking myself, the I’m watching the scene I auditioned, being being shot. That’s he got that word wrong. He’s supposed to walk over there then, but he’s not, he’s free, and he’s doing that. And I thought, you can do that, that was a big that was a big turn on moment.


David Duchovny  15:29

Yeah, I had that in an acting class, the first acting class I went to, because I thought, like you, I knew nothing about I thought it was about saying words in a certain way at a certain time. I remember doing an audition where I was convinced that I was going to say, refer to the car Alfa Romeo as an Alfa Romeo, and they were going to die. They were like they were just going to die laughing. And it was dead when I said that, they just assumed that I didn’t know how to pronounce the word. So it was like that. And then when I went to Marsha half Rex class, this woman in New York, you know, it would take three hours to get through a scene, because she’d stop you and she’d say, just explore the place. Say your thoughts, right? Say your thoughts, say your thoughts. And wasn’t about the words at all, right? And that kind of freedom is so invaluable.


Sean Penn  16:19

Yeah, I had it also. I mean, it’s interesting. You say, explore the place, because isn’t that a thing? I mean, I remember when I got into piggy, furious classes, and I would go and I would watch Jeff Goldblum was in the class, and I’d watch him, and I think he’d be doing a scene, and I think what’s he looking at you almost were more interested in trying to figure out what he was looking at than whatever the scene was.


David Duchovny  16:49

I’m still that way with him. Always, I’m always looking at what is he looking at, even when I say my commercials.


Sean Penn  16:57

And it’s so focused and something so specific. You just drawn to it, so I started looking at things that I realized I’m not looking at. I still don’t see what Jeff Goldblum is looking at.


David Duchovny  17:16

How did Peggy Ferry put that like? Well, what did you come away with?


Sean Penn  17:22

I remember.


David Duchovny  17:23

That you have to this day.


Sean Penn  17:24

I remember who letting me. I did a scene from James Leo Hurley. He all fall down and piggy let me come in and do the scene twice. She gave me some little notes, and then she, and this was the first scene that I did in acting class. And then she’s, she’s, you know, you, you’re sitting there next year seeing partner.


David Duchovny  17:48

You’re 17.


Sean Penn  17:50

18, 17 yeah, August, baby. So I got out of high school 17, so I’m sitting there down on La Brea in this love studio, and Peggy takes a long look at me, and the whole class is there waiting to see what Peggy thinks of what she just saw. And she said, you know, if you were washing dishes in the scene, I would have believed you, but it was like washing dishes, and she wanted me to step further, yeah, and you started to connect the dots, of allowing your own imagination to find what that you know the truth of something, let’s say that you started to find the choices that you could make that gave it levels and, you know, somewhere to go, poetry, yeah, I mean it best.


David Duchovny  18:52

And I mean, I think back to what you initially said when we first started talking, which is that you don’t like to be told what to do, it’s so it’s kind of like I see you finding that spot in the yard that you’re going to square away. I love that term square away that you use because it’s not poetic, but it but in the in the doing of it is the poetry I think.


Sean Penn  19:11

Well, this is my whole aim in life. I want to you know, if I could get you see what I’m doing around this house, and I do, and I know where everything I own is and if I don’t, if it’s too much for me to know where it is, it’s not in storage, it’s gone. It’s either I don’t, I don’t want it. I want a gravestone that legitimately says Sean Penn, a squared away individual.


David Duchovny  19:37

With a square headstone.


Sean Penn  19:39

So I’m getting a little closer every day.


David Duchovny  19:41



David Duchovny  19:41

Uh, just like ringing the bells on this idea of failure and success. Is there a difference to you in the making of it and in the actual seeing of it later a performance? You know, you can feel a certain way during performance. There’s always that tension of, is it coming off or isn’t it, you never really know. And that’s that’s the beauty of it too, is like, Fuck, this is exciting. I could be fucking up here badly, right?


Sean Penn  20:29

Well, and we’re also most often in the hands of a director who can either have found your best intentions and let you discover that you actually gave them to him or her, and they’ve woven it in such a way that you’re delighted that you didn’t fuck the whole thing up. And the other thing can happen where you know somebody just doesn’t get what you were doing, and they take all the wrong bits and put it all the wrong and you’re subject to that. And so there’s a lot of deep disappointments that happen, because it extends beyond your own performance and how that’s taken care of. And I mean, as a director, I’m sure you too this. You’re sort of the bodyguard of everybody’s performance, absolutely and so. And I will always with my principal actors, invite them in the cutting room and make, you know, say, hey, you know, in many, many cases, I’ll say, okay, here’s where I am with this scene. But you’re going to remember connections you were making on that day. I’m going to go out for a few hours. You stay here with the editor and show me, and you get a lot of really good stuff out of that, you know, Jack Nicholson was great that way, like I would, I would, literally, I once brought him up. He San Francisco, huh?


David Duchovny  21:56

The Crossing Guard?


Sean Penn  21:57

This was on, it was, it was either on, no, this was on the pledge in particular where he came up, when I was living in Northern California, and stayed for five days, and we would socialize at night. But I didn’t touch the editing room for those five days. I just wanted because I already had my cut I could revert. But I probably took 75% easy, 75% of the adjustments that he made in in the cut that I had presented him. And it was just him working with the editor and so, especially with, you know, someone very experienced and talented like that. It’s a win, win you know.


David Duchovny  22:42

Can you, can you put into words what the angle was, or was it just the sense of, as you mentioned earlier, you said, You know what you were feeling on certain days. As said, you know what you were dealing with, and you’re looking for those moments. Is that kind of what you thought he was doing?


Sean Penn  22:58

Yes, and it could also be, we go back to Jeff Goldblum, what were you looking at? Because, hey, Shawnee, maybe you want to pick up a shot on that thing. I don’t even know why I did right? But then I realized that’s what he looked at. I have the shot he’s put the shot in when he’s looking at it, and that’s where that look is coming from. And, man, isn’t that interesting on screen.


David Duchovny  23:23

And not in the story? Zero on the story? Not just not literal, not literal, right?


Sean Penn  23:29

Yeah, and that goes a long way with great actors. And I try to have great actors all the time, so you have a lot of people who have a lot of good input. But it’s funny because the word like this success with things. I think that making movies is hard. I mean, from as an to me as an actor, it’s really hard. It’s a lot more work as a director. But a actor is the one that has to, you know, sit there all day, carrying the imaginary world in that way, doesn’t know how the director is going to pace the work.


David Duchovny  24:05

And we’ve already established you’re a guy who’s not great with authority or being told what to do. There’s that, yeah, so you’re bringing that with you, which is just a protection, really. I mean, it’s smart.


Sean Penn  24:17

Well, there’s protection. There’s a director who is as much as anyone responsible for my career, Harold Becker and and I love him, and he’s but boy, as a young actor, I must have driven him crazy and I but here’s what happened, is that there’s a scene in the movie taps, which was the first movie that I did, first big movie, or whatever, and where Tom Cruise opens fire on the national guard from this building, and that’s going to start a war between these cadets at this academy and the National Guard. Tim Hutton heroically runs into this room to grab him off the M 60, and gets lit up by the National Guard on the way, and he’s taken down. And I go as written, I go after my best friend Tim’s character to drag him to safety after he’s been shot. He’s riddled with bullets. And I come to set, and they’re ready to rehearse it, and Tom’s there. Tom looks to us at the door. He says something about it. He’s great, very excited about starting this war. And he turns to his gun, and he’s as he sets the fire. Tim runs in. They go, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Tim has a big fall, and then okay. And Sean comes in, and I hit the deck, and I start scrambling towards Tim to get him cut. Harold Becker says, Sean, there, you dropped right out of our frame. And then he starts to describe all the squibs they have built into the wall behind me that you won’t see if I go to the deck. And I said, well, what do you want? He says, You just run it. I said, this, they’re shooting tons of automatic weapons into this room. There’s no this became a five hour standoff because I couldn’t. And of course, in the end, I got, you know, the the producer comes down everybody’s.


David Duchovny  26:32

Around 19 now?


Sean Penn  26:33

Yeah, so, and they’re saying, okay, just do one like we’re asking you to and we will then take the time and resquib the wall, and we’ll do one your way. And I know my way is the one that’s going to work, cut two. Tom, and I come back to California after the movie’s done. And we were spending a lot of time together at that time, jogging partners and and then, and then the, you know, cut to the months pass, and the movie opens, and we go to the AVCO theater.


David Duchovny  27:11

You haven’t seen it yet.


Sean Penn  27:12

I saw the premiere. Yeah, Premier. People are polite at premieres. We go the next day because it’s our first chance to see a move, a movie. We’re in with the public in our lives, and we wait till the lights are out, go the back seats, and, you know, like anybody was going to pay attention anyway, and we’re sitting there, and it’s crowded, people, people came out. It was reasonably successful movies, I recall. And it gets to that scene, and here goes Tom with the gun, and there goes Tim getting shot, and there goes Sean, and I knew by now not hitting the deck, just running in like a bulletproof man dragging Tim out of him, and the guy sitting right in front of me says, hit the dead asshole to the screen all right, as I’ll never listen to it. Director again, no more bargaining.


David Duchovny  28:14

That is awesome. You mentioned you talk about like success and failure, whatever box office movies, it’s all kind of exterior put on by some other metric. But Spicoli, you created a type in what seven minutes of screen time, a type that lives on to this day through, you know, like Bill and Ted, like, just, just that whole thing. It’s kind of an amazing thing to think at that age, to have that small a role and to have that kind of imaginative impact.


Sean Penn  28:56

Well, yes, and see for with that I read when I read Cameron Crowe’s book fest Times at Ridgemont High. Some people don’t know it was a novel and that he’d gone and spent a year back in Heisner.


David Duchovny  29:10

It was originally a Rolling Stone magazine article or.


Sean Penn  29:14

No, it wasn’t. No, he he was that guy, and almost famous that kid. But even when he was not a kid, when he was now, you know, 19 or whatever, he still looked like a kid. And so he went back and did another year of high school when he was working at Rolling Stone. And I think maybe it was to do an article. And it ended up being that he wrote a book, a novel, of that year, and I knew not that I was in, you know, had my own interpretation to bring I knew that I that I knew who Cameron was talking about, because this was eight out of 10 of the guys I grew up with.


David Duchovny  29:55

In the valley.


Sean Penn  29:56

It no here, once I was here the surfing community. Here, and you know, it was 25 hours a day smoking weed, right, which I never did. Since then I have, and it doesn’t suit me very well, but I knew the behavior. There was one guy in particular who was, let’s say, the brand that gave me the biggest giggles, you know, who grew up here in the area, but it was, they were all speaking the same Greek, yeah, and so Cameron had written that what I did, Cameron had written.


Cameron  30:37

Well, Sean, I’ll tell you, surfing is not a sport. It’s a way of life, no hobby. It’s a way of looking at that wave and saying, Hey, bud, let’s party.


Sean Penn  30:48

So it wasn’t so much an invention as a an observation gig, you know, and then adopting that rhythm and and I found it, you know, fantastic to do, because it was a public secret. If you weren’t a surfer, you hadn’t heard it yet. So to be the kind of messenger of you know, there’s hundreds of 1000s of these guys out here right now, and there’s going to be a lot more,


David Duchovny  31:17

Get to know me, and it must have been fun to be in that guy’s space.


Sean Penn  31:22

Oh, yeah.


David Duchovny  31:22

Because he he had a good time. He did not, he did not sweat too much. Yeah, you know, you talk about certain directors that you felt put you in a box or didn’t listen to your intuition. But beyond that, what? What do we learn from these kinds of so called missed opportunities or failures in our work.


Sean Penn  31:43

Well, I think the same things that we learned from the things that we would call our successes creatively. So, like so, for example, after making my the first movie that I directed was the Indian Runner. And, you know, there’s this thing of especially for those of us who learn on the job, not going to film school and so on. I think it’s fair and necessary humility to say that we learn how to make a movie by about the day we rap. So what I did is, right after I wrapped, and when I was having Jay Cassidy, my editor put an assembly together, and I was letting myself have a couple of weeks to get my eyes fresh. Well, the timing was such that Martin Scorsese was making Cape Fear down in Florida with Bob De Niro. And I called Bob and said we asked him if he would ask Marty if I could come down and watch him work and and he, he let me come down. And what was refreshing was that he was second, you know, I wouldn’t say second, guessing himself. He was just as humble to it as as I found myself being. You know, he kept, it was his first, I think it was his first anamorphic movie. And he was calling everybody, you know, makeup girl or this one over to the monitor, saying, you know, am I using the frame well enough? And I thought, you know, you just, you got to keep that openness and that obviously within that this guy’s command of cinema is and the grammar that he’s got retained from just being a great expert on and knowledgeable about why the cameras here and there versus there, and what It’s saying visually and to varying degrees we are. We’re all dependent on understanding that stuff. We can’t just get away with just shooting willy nilly. We can try it, but it’s not likely to work very well, and it’s not going to be very satisfying work, but it’s great to have something that the magic of it is always going to be a little bit bigger than us.


David Duchovny  34:00

Yeah, and that’s the area between the preparation and the letting go.


Sean Penn  34:06

For sure.


David Duchovny  34:07

Yeah, and it takes certain amount of balls to let go after you prepared, and it takes a certain amount of humility to not show everybody how much you prepared, because people love to see storyboards and.


Sean Penn  34:17

A lot of performative prepared excellence. That’s where you’re going to get a disappointment. Yeah, in the Premiere yeah.


David Duchovny  34:25

But I’d say what you’re describing, I think the way I hear you telling the difference between you coming off the Indian Runner and going to see Scorsese work, it feels like into the wild. You work that way, because that’s not a that’s not a narrative, literal movie that’s a meditation of some kind.


Sean Penn  34:44

Again, how things so I’m very proud of into the wild, and I go back I’ve watched it recently, and I thought, thank God I I thought to get that shot, or thank God I was open to hearing Eric Goody his idea on this shot, or how and things worked really well. But now, when I go back further, this is a book I’d read 10 years earlier, and I had tried to get the movie rights to it, and the parents were not yet ready for a movie to be made about their son, and I certainly respected that and but I told them, If that ever changes, and 10 years later, they called. For 10 years, I’d been making that movie in my head, and it was done. I read the book, cover to cover twice in one night. 10 years earlier. I didn’t pick it up until I had a screenplay written. I wrote the screenplay without rereading the book, and then I went back and did some polishes, and I took some of John crack hours prose and put it into either dialog, because he’s great, wonderful writer and and, you know, went and explored the places and all of that. But the movie, essentially, the shot for shot was almost entirely, I had been making it for 10 years.


David Duchovny  36:19

So you just knew it. You know what’s right? You just feel it when you point the camera in a certain direction, and you don’t have to debate it with yourself or with anybody else.


Sean Penn  36:28

Yeah, that was 10 years of subconsciously shooting the movie in my head.


David Duchovny  36:36

Here’s a weird question, did you continue to shoot the movie after you wrapped. That’s the thing. That’s the fucking thing, isn’t it?


Sean Penn  36:47

Oh, sure.


David Duchovny  36:48

Oh, you should feel that way, but you don’t actually want to go back and shoot. You’re just, it’s just a, it’s kind of a, well, maybe you do, but it’s a game you kind of play with within your head, with yourself.


Sean Penn  36:57

Well, what I do do, and I think, but for the economy of it, we would all have built into our budgets a week or two to reduce stuff in a few months after you even post for a while.


David Duchovny  37:13

Right? Well, like with with Bucky fucking dent that I share with you.


Sean Penn  37:17

Couple months of love, yeah.


David Duchovny  37:18

Thank you, I had originally written that for me to play the son. Couldn’t get it made. Couldn’t get it made. Couldn’t get it made. I lived with that movie, that idea for that movie for 12-14, years, aged myself out of the sun. Had to look in the mirror and go, This is ridiculous, if you’re trying to do that. Started thinking about playing the Father, and that’s how it came about. But I, when I, when I shot that movie, I had had it in my head from both angles, son and father, for many, many years. And I just want to share something. You may or may not like me sharing this, but you were, you are such a friend to creators. And I’ll just say this because we were watching that film here on this computer. We’re both terrified of the computer. We finally got it to play. Neither of us wanted to pause it because we thought we couldn’t get it going again. And you, you needed to pee really badly. So you, you turned away from me, and you peed into a bottle while you kept your eye on the screen, and I have to say that is one of the most respectful things that anybody has ever done to my work, is to actually pee into a bottle and not take.


Sean Penn  38:35

Well, I was engaged with what I was seeing that it was just us boys after all.


David Duchovny  38:39

Yeah, absolutely. But it’s, it says a lot about you to me that you did that and thank you.


David Duchovny  38:49

I think for you, like for me, Brando was the guy, and I always got the sense of failure with Brando, Justin, just in the in and I could be projecting this completely. Because I don’t know that didn’t know the man, but there was something in him that didn’t think enough of acting in the world as a man, and that there would have to be more. Is failure baked into the act of acting to the to the pursuit of acting? Is there some kind of moral, masculine failure?


Sean Penn  39:52

What I would I know from my time with him, he had a great respect for acting. And I mean, even in the end, when you could get him talking about what childish, you know, nonsense it is, and we’re just lying for a living, and all of that stuff. But when I was falling in love with film, and particularly my late teens, whether it was Robert De Niro or Al Pacino Dustin there, there were actors who were doing something new and and with filmmakers that were doing something really new. And it had been started, I would say strongly, by Marlon and and Kazan. Yeah, did watching Bob, of all of them particular, because there wasn’t much to know about him other than what you saw in the performances, right? He was not doing talk shows, he wasn’t hardly ever doing print interviews. And I admired that, and I appreciate that as a audience. When I came to fall in love with acting, it was in that idea, you know, to just be an actor, yeah? But as life calls out to different people in different ways, right? And and when I started to feel that I had to build on what had become a profile? Yeah, I found that for me. I don’t want to say that other things mattered more, but I certainly would have looked to people like Marlon and so on and said, well, if you do your job well enough, you can have been exposed. You can have stepped out there on something that’s Sean Penn’s opinion that might otherwise clutter the track for an audience watching your performance, but you take in the risk benefit. It was not a question, and I did see, you know, there were plenty of times after Marlon had been outspoken for decades on many things that it didn’t impact my ability to watch him right now, Marlon is particular, that he’s endlessly watchable, but I just decided to kind of take the chance with it, because we are who we are, and we Were called to what we’re called to and I started to blend them all. So whether I was acting or writing or directing or engaged in some kind of activism, it was all just what you did that day, along with putting your pants on


David Duchovny  43:01

Beautiful one another thing that I a quote of Brando’s that I had read is somebody asked him, and I’m relating this to you a bit because of what you said about how you you swirled everything together. Became your life. It was there was it’s not acting, directing, writing, being a force in the world. It’s just, it’s you, Sean, and so there’s so you’re open. It’s what I’m saying, you’re open to attack. It’s not just like, oh, call me a bad actor, whatever. Call me a bad director, whatever. It’s like, this is me. I’m doing all these things. And somebody asked Brando, what do you do when you read these things about yourself in the papers? You know, doesn’t it upset you? And Brando supposedly said, I just tell myself it’s all true, and then it doesn’t bother me.


Sean Penn  43:58

You know, there are two things you we could, you know, do a whole podcast on him, but, or, or all podcasts could go on all the day about, but he, he was the most charming non people pleaser I’d ever met. Yeah, he was never reluctant to, to tell he was the guy who if you had a little spinach stuck on the side of your mouth, he’s going to tell you, he might ask you why you have that spinach, or he might put spinach on the side of his mouth at a fancy dinner party, just to see If anyone would say anything, and they won’t.


David Duchovny  44:41

Yeah, but I guess I would ask you, not directly if you want to answer, and I don’t want you to answer things that you don’t want to answer. But where do you put the hurt for that, for the misunderstanding? Because, I feel you know you’ve been misunderstood from time to time. Where do you does that hurt? Where do you put it? How do you square it?


Sean Penn  45:10

Well, it’s strange, because I probably would have had a different answer only 15 years ago. Everyone knows it now, because of social media, everyone knows the hurt of and the and what we what we take of reputation. You know, it’s an interesting thing you’re saying, like.


David Duchovny  45:36

Fame is belongs to everybody now, because the under, the the underside of that.


Sean Penn  45:40

Yes, and the attacks, right? Suffering attacks belongs to everybody now. You know the answer for me is, you got to keep moving woodwork. It’s a big one.


David Duchovny  45:57

Hey, you were just working on a table this morning when it came in.


Sean Penn  46:01

There’s what are you working through?


David Duchovny  46:02

What happened.


Sean Penn  46:04

Well, is a point at which your your healing becomes your life and and so it’s all just a joy to me, and I don’t have time to read the bad things, but because I gotta get the sawdust out of my hair at the end of the day, and that by that time, I gotta have a few bad tonics and call it, but with children, what it takes, like talking to one’s kids and learning as you go as a parent in general, but specifically related to the new social media stuff and the way kids get hurt and hurt each other with that stuff and or just maybe overexpose underdeveloped parts of themselves when they’re young, and then have to pay the price for that later. And I think the you know talking about reputation and and taking care of one’s reputation is a different thing today than it was 15 years ago.


David Duchovny  47:05

It’s more of a brand now.


Sean Penn  47:06

Yeah, but yes, and there was always the problem of dad why should I care what other people think? And God knows, I get that right. And so I guess the reputation is with with your future self, because so many of, for most of us, we know when we’re being ups, so the care is to be taken in, right, down by that, I mean, affect your reputation as much as you can control as much as you live it, whether it’s misinterpreted and criticized or not, in advance of your own vision as you possess. So you may not be ready to settle this part of your clock, but don’t put it on display, because that’s not where you’re going. You know, put on display where you’re going, right kind of fuel in it, right? When, when they, when they, when they want to take you on.


David Duchovny  48:08

Well, it gets back to your your origins, where you know you’re somebody’s telling you who you are. Don’t do that. Don’t fucking do that.


Sean Penn  48:18

And it’s even dropping into a big wave. It’s kind of like, you know, that wave is what Marlon is saying. You know, it’s all true. Yep, it’s bigger than me, and I’m dropping into that motherfucker, let’s go, you know? And it’s gonna, it’s gonna take care of me, or it’s not right? And that’s true with this, you know, a range of attacks. I mean, the guy, there’s been an awful lot of good things that have come out of the well, both, both the legitimate attacks and the legitimate ones. Because men, once you’re able to walk through the fire, those deeply unfair or untrue things, you kind of say, well, I’m no stab wounds. I’m so tight, I’m still here round two. Yeah, hit the bell.


David Duchovny  49:10

Yeah, shame ever come into it?


Sean Penn  49:13

Fuck yeah, sure. But that’s not when. It’s illegitimate. That’s when, and it’s not necessarily when you’re attacked. It could be in a private act that no one knows about, our private thought, just when you when you fail, that that future, the the obligation you have to your better self you know, or your your more mature self, and to the people that it affects.


David Duchovny  49:38

That’s being a parent, being a family, person.


Sean Penn  49:40

Yes, it’s being a friend. It’s being a partner with so much being, you know, you, of course, you, you, we are under constant self review.


David Duchovny  49:50

Been watching, I’ve been watching a lot of basketball, seeing the reviews. I want to read you one little bit of your writing here, just to to end because I told you, I, I really, I really enjoyed this book a lot. And yeah, and you’re really daring people to like it because you’re, you’re, yeah, you’re engaging in wordplay and alliteration that you know can be annoying, and you’re being annoying on purpose, and you’re and you’re purposefully, if it was an acting performance, creating a performance that’s going to alienate people to not look closely enough at what you’re really doing.


Sean Penn  50:39

You look you’re gonna have. I knew that people were gonna either read this book and they were gonna be with me in the many giggles out loud it gave me while writing. And that’s not because, oh, it’s a funny tale or but because, approaching something like this, I’ve already put myself in the reader’s shoes, I clearly enjoyed it, because I’m by writing your reading, right? So it’s like, are you in on the joke, therefore able to giggle through the insanity of this? Or do you think the joke’s being played on you, and that would maybe say something about the reader.


David Duchovny  51:20

Yeah, yeah, but you know that readers are going to get pissed off by that.


Sean Penn  51:24

Yeah, yeah, not only by that, but also, you know, by some of the things that maybe would, maybe would be and they did. There was some people that I think fell to attribution. So if your character thinks a certain way. That’s you and I, and that was made personal as well.


David Duchovny  51:44

Well, that’s, that’s just the way criticism goes now. I mean, it goes with acting criticism as well. That it’s the laziest and the easiest thing to do is to try to draw a direct parallel between the performance, the writing, and the person, which is exactly what I was going to do right now, because I’m an idiot, but I just wanted to end with this. This is the last line of the book, and it has nothing to do with Sean and Bob, honey, a being unbranded, unbridled and free. I hope that’s true.


Sean Penn  52:21

Feels that way. All right, man, thanks.


David Duchovny  52:23

Thank you, bet.


David Duchovny  52:38

Just getting my post Sean Penn interview, stuff down the next day, the day after, really enjoyed the conversation with Sean. One thing that I ran out of time on missed was a discussion of Daddio, the new movie he’s got coming out, which was written and directed by a friend of mine named Christy Hall. First time director, did a masterful job. And I wanted to talk about because it was similar to what happens later that I did with Meg Ryan just recently, where it was, it’s two people, it’s it’s me and Megan, what happens later? That’s it, and there’s Sean and Dakota Johnson. That’s it in in Daddio and Christy Hall, like Meg, Ryan manages to keep, keep the plate spinning, the ball afloat, whatever metaphor you want to use for just two people holding a screen. And in hers, it’s really just two people in a cab holding a screen. Meg and I had a big, you know, good looking airport to play around in. Christy has limited herself beautifully to a taxi cab where Sean is driving Dakota from the airport. And not to give anything away about that movie, I think it’s terrific, but it was a real it’s a real cool, give and take between an older guy, played by Sean, obviously, and his what you’d call patriarchal wisdom, or stereotypical patriarchal wisdom, and a younger woman. And I don’t know, would you call it millennial wisdom, more modern kind of take on the world, and neither is validated completely or discounted completely. There’s kind of a meeting in the middle between these two, let’s say, partial points of view, and it’s definitely something that I want to get the word out there about as well, Daddio.


CREDITS  54:46

There’s more Fail Better with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like more of my behind the scenes thoughts on this episode. Subscribe now and Apple podcasts. Fail Better as a production of Lemonada media in coordination with King Baby. It is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Dani Matias  . Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Our SVP of weekly is Steve Nelson. Our VP of new content is Rachel Neil. Special thanks to Carl Ackerman, Tom Karpinski and Kate D. Lewis, the show’s executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova, Kramer and me, David Duchovny, I mean, the company dammit. The music is also by me and my band. Lovely Colin Lee. Pat McCusker, Mitch Stewart, Davis Rowan and Sebastian […]. Special thanks to Brad Davidson. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me @DavidDuchovny, you know what it means when I say at David Duchovny. Follow Fail Better wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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