Friday 24 October 2014

Sean Penn, Hollywood A-lister who became a beacon of hope in Haiti

Movie star tells how he found a new role after marital breakdown

Published 08/03/2014 | 02:30

Actor and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, Sean Penn, pictured here presenting the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award to Noorzia Faridi of women's rights group SAWERA
Actor and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, Sean Penn, pictured here presenting the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award to Noorzia Faridi of women's rights group SAWERA
Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders  (left) with 2014 Front Line Defenders Award winner Noorzia Faridi, Actor and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, Sean Penn and Front Line Defenders Chairman and Co Founder, Mr Denis O'Brien (right), pictured as Mr. Penn presented the Award in City Hall, Dublin to Ms. Faridi, of women's rights group SAWERA
Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders (left) with 2014 Front Line Defenders Award winner Noorzia Faridi, Actor and founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, Sean Penn and Front Line Defenders Chairman and Co Founder, Mr Denis O'Brien (right), pictured as Mr. Penn presented the Award in City Hall, Dublin to Ms. Faridi, of women's rights group SAWERA
Sean Penn

Sean Penn has had a nap. Having rescheduled our earlier arrangements for a sit-down interview, he took the opportunity to crash out for a couple of hours in his suite in Dublin's Four Seasons Hotel.

"I took a pill. It was a pill and a half," he says with an emphatic lift of those famous eyebrows.

Now he needs a coffee and he quietly takes a seat amid the hubbub of the busy hotel lobby without seeming to raise even the scarcest flicker of surprise.

His nails are bitten down to the quick and he has changed out of his earlier suit – which he wore for the presentation of a Front Line Defenders award to a human rights activist – into more comfortable attire. He has on a pair of battered light grey corduroys with a black jumper which is doubtlessly expensive but again, well-worn.

Only his rather bouncy shock of dark hair marks him apart as a Hollywood A-lister. His next project sees him go behind the camera as director. He prefers it these days to acting.

"I prefer to go to work in my own clothes," he says, again with added eyebrow emphasis.

In July, he will start filming a movie about Africa, based on the Liberian conflict.

There is a sense of thoughtful weariness about Penn (53) that is not all about the jet-lag.

It is well documented that the two-time Oscar winning actor has, understandably, no particular fondness for giving interviews – and we are under the strictest of instructions not to mention his private life.

But with all the paparazzi photographs of him out and about with actress Charlize Theron, including a supermarket shopping trip with her adopted son, there seems little more for him to expand on that subject in any case.

His face visibly lifts at the mention of Eve Hewson – the actress and daughter of Bono, with whom he worked alongside in the 2011 movie, 'This Must Be The Place'.

"A very talented, lovely, lovely girl," he says, adding: "The sky is the limit," of her future prospects in Hollywood.

He is engaging company, displaying flashes of real humour and candour.

Our discussion of Haiti is where he becomes animated.

Penn was singled out as being "the single largest surprise" in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake which registered 7 on the Richter scale and which wiped out the lives of between 46,000 and 85,000 people and left 1.6 million homeless.

The actor set up a camp for 60,000 people on a golf course in Petionville which is considered to have been superior to all those set up by professional NGOs. He calls his relief agency, J/P Haitian Relief Organisation, "the airplane that was built after takeoff." Though still CEO, it largely runs itself these days, thanks to the Haitian workforce. Penn is still a regular visitor. He was there last week and is flying there again tomorrow, en route to Venezuela.

He says his most useful asset in Haiti was "common sense." Other NGOs would use theories tested in Brazil or Ethiopia – but they didn't work in Haiti.

Some detractors have derided his efforts, accusing him of selecting a cause 'within convenient commuting distance of Hollywood'.

"I agree with them," declares Penn. "It makes sense – it's why I think the United States has a certain responsibility."

"I mean, they're our neighbours," he points out. "Absolutely true," he says again of the criticism.

"But it was just the one I fell into. It was where something happened and I was free. I won't tell you that my commitment (initially) was on the level it became," he admits.

"I was going for two weeks. And would I have gone at that point if it had been in the Congo? I don't know if I would have made that long trip, I don't know."

"That's very fair criticism, I don't know what it means – I don't know what they're doing," he adds scathingly of his 'keyboard warrior' detractors.

Penn had earlier explained that the whole reason he went to Haiti was because he had just recently come out of a divorce from the actress Robin Wright which, it appeared, would drag on for two years into his son's graduation.

As a result, he "cleared the professional decks" for two years and then eight months after that, his son, Hopper, had a skateboard accident that nearly took his life.

"He's 100pc today but it took 56 staples in his skin and a lot of pain which was medicated through morphine," he reveals.

He made a quick recovery and with mother and son wanting to spend time together, Penn suddenly found himself with a clean slate. Having been married and had children in the house for the past 18 years, he was now "free-wheeling."

"About four days into what was the initial boredom of that, the Haiti earthquake happened," he explains.

Having assisted afterHurricane Katrina in New Orleans, he knew that "civilians can be a help and not necessarily be in the way."

Through TV reports of the initial aftermath he lear-ned that there was precious little IV pain medication on the island – and yet amputations were being conducted regardless.

Penn picked up the phone and called President Chavez in Venezuela before making contact with health activist Paul Farmer, Professor of Global Health at Harvard, who had come in from the countryside to Port au Prince in Haiti.

"I was able to be introduced to Paul Farmer through telephone by my first wife Madonna. She had worked with him in Malawi," he explains.

He assisted in the shipping of 350,000 phials of morphine to the region and did much of the transportation himself. "I did a lot of night shifts," he revealed.

He spent the bulk of 2010 in a small tent living on a golf course. He remembers the lack of electricity in the first two weeks.

Emergency relief trucks drove over the rotting bodies in the streets and there was rubble strewn everywhere. He got into the state of mind where he looked at the small improvements being made daily.

It was only afterwards that he realised how bad things were.

The interview is over and Penn is keen to escape for the evening.

Last in Dublin in 2010, he noticed how dark everything was and how quiet the pubs were.

He senses a lift in Ireland – but is keen to see the evidence for himself.

Irish Independent

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