With 'El Chapo,' Sean Penn Continues His Activist Transformation

Sean Penn hasn't been in a blockbuster thriller since he played a tormented father in "Mystic River" 12 years ago.

That movie was known for its third-act twist. And Penn on Saturday provided his own unexpected turn when Rolling Stone published the actor's interview with on-the-run drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on the day after Mexican naval forces recaptured the Sinaloa cartel leader, surprisingly injecting Penn into the zeitgeist.

"I want to do this monologue and then go into hiding," host Ricky Gervais said barely 10 seconds into Sunday night's telecast of the Golden Globes, ground zero for pop culture. "Not even Sean Penn will find me."

Penn materialized seemingly out of nowhere on Rolling Stone's website with an epic tale of meeting one of the most-wanted men in the world at the time he was most wanted. Friday's news story about the capture of Guzman, already a wellspring of extravagant tales and conspiracy theories, suddenly became a whole new level of wild.

The drama in the article was fodder enough: coded messages sent via Guzman emissaries, secret plane rides over unknown topography, covert conversations at jungle hideaways -- all enhanced by the fact that the man orchestrating it all was a famous actor.

But Penn is, of course, more than a famous actor. He has transcended Hollywood to become a culture-wars lightning rod, a polarizing force in a polarized age, who continually finds new ways to seize our attention.

"That guy -- he's like Rasputin. He'll always keep coming back," said Tom McCarthy, director of the journalism-centric film "Spotlight," on the Golden Globes red carpet.

Penn has had a complex career. He gained early popularity as the stoner Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and had a host of colorful roles in the 1980s, but was better known back then for his tabloid escapades (punching a photographer, marrying Madonna). He moved beyond that phase to become a serious, submerge-into-the-role actor -- as an inmate in "Dead Man Walking," as a mentally disabled parent in "I Am Sam," as Harvey Milk in "Milk."

Then he moved beyond that phase too. He visited ravaged places, from post-Katrina Louisiana to Pakistan, and founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization after Haiti's devastating earthquake in 2010. These activities -- along with his provocative relationships with far-left figures such as Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez -- began to overshadow his acting career.

Even before Saturday, Penn had turned into a different kind of celebrity. He wasn't using his acting to gain attention for his activism; he was an activist who happened to occasionally act. Penn had just one significant film role in the last three years, in the quickly forgotten "The Gunman," which he co-wrote, in March. On the evening the Rolling Stone piece broke, Penn was presiding over one of numerous Hollywood-themed parties taking place in Los Angeles on Golden Globes weekend. But it was not for any of the feted pieces of filmmaking; it was for his Haiti foundation.

It's a rare space for an American celebrity to occupy -- one not shared even by the most prominent Hollywood advocacy types, for whom the lines blur much more easily. Is George Clooney in the headlines because of "The Descendants" or Darfur? Is Angelina Jolie being talked about because she's directed "Unbroken" or written a powerful op-ed about her medical choices? It's hard to know where notoriety for one realm ends and the other begins. But with Penn the acting and the activism were severed at some point. Can you name his last three films without Googling?

The Rolling Stone story continues this transformation. Readers might have noted how little his movie career came up in the 10,000-plus words of the piece. Penn makes four references to himself as a journalist or writer -- three more than he does as an actor, celebrity or star. If much of the world sees Penn as a dilettante, it's clear that's not how Penn sees himself.

Penn's ability to travel freely and clasp hands with enemies of the U.S. has long angered those on the right, and this was no exception. Conservative pundit Meghan McCain summed up the indignation of many ("What the hell exactly is wrong with Sean Penn?!?" she tweeted), and others took a more comedic tack. "Only Sean Penn can make me sympathize with Madonna," Breitbart.com editor Ben Shapiro wrote.

Not everyone in Hollywood, at least, was as critical. "I think it's a fascinating thing that he got to do that. He got to get some very incredible details of the story on this man," said actor Oscar Isaac, who has Latin American roots. Guzman "doesn't sound like a very nice guy. But just as a study of a human, [the piece] is fascinating."

Actor Matt Damon suggested Penn's actions weren't as scandalous as the coverage had it -- though notably he saw Penn as pursuing the meeting for more day-job reasons. "It's nothing new, actors going and seeking out meetings like this," Damon told The Times. "It's part of what we do to do our job really well."

Yet even among those on the political left, there was reason for criticism.

Penn seemed to blithely enjoy the access that law enforcement craved and that working journalists, many of whom have been intimidated and injured by cartels, cringed at. For Penn, there was a flipping of the script in being able to walk in and conduct this interview, unharmed if not unafraid. Journalists typically use clout to gain access to celebrity. Here a celebrity used clout to gain access to journalism.

That Penn seemed to offer only minimal misgivings toward Guzman's crimes -- or, for that matter, seemed oblivious to how the drug kingpin might use the sit-down to enlarge his own myth or folk-hero status -- only made things worse.

Of course, the soft-pedaling isn't a Penn-specific syndrome; any journalist who gains access to a subject few else have interviewed will tell you that he or she has to be on guard that gratitude doesn't spill into softness in the piece. And by the sheer equation of journalism -- curiosity plus bravery equals the highest form of the craft -- Penn comes out on top.

At the Globes, Jane Fonda, another celebrity who gained notoriety for a trip to enemy territory, turned up as a nominee, offering a reminder of the timeless issues that activist celebrities pose.

As with Fonda, Penn's latest act raises a larger question of privilege and public service. Is he nobly leveraging his celebrity to improve the world, or simply using it as thin license to indulge his vanity?

Is he speaking out on behalf of what he believes is right, or abusing a power that wasn't his to deploy?

There may be no second acts in American life, but there are third acts in the lives of actor-activists. Penn has fully embraced his. And we're left to untangle its contradictions.

Times staff writers Deborah Vankin and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.

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This article was written by Steven Zeitchik from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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