November 5, 1995
Penn's Crossing
By WILDER PENFIELD III

Sean Penn, at 35, seems to be as brooding, as driven, and as drawn to darkness as the people he creates on film.

He tells me: "I don't think of writing or making movies as therapy."

But his work denies his words.

Both of his movies, The Indian Runner and now The Crossing Guard - both premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, both strong and dark - show the results of probing self-analysis and powerful self-directed change.

The more Penn retreats from acting and withdraws behind the camera, the more his character seems to be revealed on the screen. And that character has a marvellous maturity.

"The part of acting I like is intact in writing," he says. "And the part that I hate about it and I felt was damaging to me, is not necessary."

That's the part that requires him to rise instantly to other people's occasions.

"I like it when all the personal surgery you do isn't run by the clock."

So, no, he would not act in his own films.

"If I'm directing," he says, "it means I've got a job all the time.

"And why subject myself to something that's unpleasant."

The Crossing Guard, opening Nov. 14, is a Bergman western, a duel in which both characters really want to be the one who dies. Life in this world refuses to be meaningful, and fate refuses to be ironic.

"After The Indian Runner," he says earnestly, "I realized it was really important to pick something that was going to have some kind of enduring interest. It took a long time to come up with something I knew would last me.

"And then, being a new father, the nightmares you have along with the joys became more actively a part of my day-to-day swerves and sways.

"And when I heard that Eric Clapton's kid went out the window - the fact that it was Eric Clapton made it very identifiable - how do you possibly deal with this kind of loss?"

The question lit a fire under his writing. The Crossing Guard became "an adventure into unanswerable pain, and seeing what adjustments one makes in order to live on."

Jack Nicholson's enthusiasm overcame a lot of doubts about the subject matter.

He plays the vengeful father of a little girl killed years earlier by a drunk driver (David Morse of St. Elsewhere and The Indian Runner).

The accident is not shown. "For me the movie was never about specifically the loss," says Penn. "It was much more about the ways in which we paralyze ourselves, and prevent ourselves from moving into the unknown territory where change is, where growth is, where hope is, to find the things we can pick and choose and control. It is much more about (David Morse)'s investment in guilt and (Jack)'s investment in rage, and how these dead ends lead to greater losses."

Morse has three little kids with his wife, actress Susan Wheeler. He says: "I don't have sympathy for somebody in that situation. I had to ask myself, 'Who was the man before all that happened.'"

Penn does sympathize. He says he always feels for the bad guy "because he's got to be hurting. Is there such a thing as malice? I haven't found it yet. It's a smokescreen for fear."

Penn will have nothing to do with smokescreens. He parks his trailer home in the ashes of the $4 million house he bought with Madonna and shared with Robin Wright.

"That fire - you'd be surprised - was very liberating," he says. "You realize how much energy in your subconscious goes into Things. And when Things aren't there any more, when they're eat-en by this blood-red heat and black smoke, you sort of feel like, if it wants it, it can have it. I was able to save the pictures of my kids, and the dogs, and I really haven't had a bad moment about it."

The one character in the movie who seems intimately connected with happiness is an artist who becomes the Morse character's lover. She offers love as an alternative to darkness, dancing as an alternative to despair. She is played by Robin Wright. Yes, the estranged mother of Penn's children.

Penn admits the part was written for her. "She's the only young actress with weight," he says.

And playing the Jack Nicholson character's ex-wife is Anjelica Huston. Yes, Nicholson's own ex.

Nicholson and Penn had talked at length about who would be right for the part.

Said Penn: "The list of great actresses is pretty short, and Anjelica's on it."

They agreed it would be worth risking some discomfort in the present for the more lasting satisfaction of doing it right. "Any time I'm in doubt," says Penn, "I try to remember 50 years from now when nobody knows about this stuff.

"It was not hard. I asked her to do it, and she said yes. And to what degree their history played into their playing I wouldn't be in a position to presume, but they did great work in the scenes."

Yes, directing Wright in her own love scene was "a little tense." I ask: How could it not be impossible?

He says: "I don't spend a lot of time telling anybody what to do. For my purposes I'm very good at casting.

"And with material like this, which is so driven by their choices and their behavior, actors tend to be much more informed about their particular place in your story than you could possibly be.

"But with this cast I can't give myself a whole lot of pats on the back for having that faith."

Penn has said of Madonna that she is "untapped" as an actress. Would he tap her?

"Given the right material," he says. "She's sort of a specific presence in the world and in my life. I don't think I'd write for her. But if I wrote something and then thought she might be interesting in the part, I wouldn't run from it."

And Penn flashes the kind of grin that inspires hope.

THE PENN FILE

THE COUPLE: Sean Penn, writer, actor and director, and Robin Wright Penn, actress and mother of their two sons.

THE MEETING: In a coffee shop when both were still married, he to Madonna, she to Dane Witherspoon, a co-star on her soap Santa Barbara. They stared at each other for 10 minutes. They later acted together in State Of Grace. Then they got together, apart, together, etc.

THE FESTIVAL: Wright Penn will be here with co-star William Hurt for Eric Dignam's drama Loved. Penn may not make it -- he's still in Australia shooting The Thin Red Line with old pal Terrence Malick of Days Of Heaven fame.

GENES: Mother Eileen Ryan, actor; father Leo Penn, director, married 38 years.

ACTOR: Taps, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Bad Boys, Slab Boys, Racing With The Moon, The Falcon & The Snowman, At Close Range, Carlito's Way and, soon, Dead Man Walking.

DIRECTOR/WRITER/PRODUCER: The Indian Runner, starring David Morse and Viggo Mortenson, with Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson and Patricia Arquette, and now The Crossing Guard, starring David Morse and Jack Nicholson, with Anjelica Huston and Robin Wright.