Oscar winning actor Sean Penn talks about his divorce to Robin Wright, and its benefits to humanity, life in Haiti and his son’s skateboarding accident in the July issue of Vanity Fair. The interview is not online yet, but here’s a preview:
New York, N.Y. — “She is a ghost to me now,” Sean Penn tells Vanity Fair contributing editor Douglas Brinkley of actress Robin Wright Penn. “We spent all those years together…. Now she’s just gone.”
Brinkley travels to Haiti, where Penn talks about Robin, their son Hopper’s life-threatening skateboarding accident, and what he’s doing to help rebuild the nation post-earthquake. When Penn was presented with a military coin and several honorary certificates of commendation for his service in the Haitian crisis, Lieutenant General P. K. Keen “gave me this look in the eye–a look of pride,” Penn tells Brinkley. “It meant more to me than any movie award.”
When Hopper sustained a head injury in a skateboarding accident, Penn and Robin pulled together at the hospital, praying for their son, Brinkley reports. “He underwent risky surgery due to intense bleeding of the brain,” Penn says, “and he pulled through.” Brinkley reports that Hopper’s brush with disaster was life-changing for his father. Feeling a karmic debt had to be repaid, Penn started the painful process of re-assessing his life’s priorities. He drove out to Palm Springs to spend time with T Bone Burnett, the composer-producer who helped Bob Dyl an find Jesus in the 1970s.
Since January, Penn has lived full-time, with the exception of a couple of brief trips–one to Washington, D.C., to testify on the Hill for more Haitian relief–in a tent not much bigger than an army surplus locker. Penn–along with the organization he started with Sarajevo-born philanthropist Diana Jenkins–was recently made official “camp manager” of Port-au-Prince displaced persons facility that has housed some 50,000 earthquake survivors. “I wanted to give back something more to help struggling people, but I didn’t know how to best do it,” Penn tells Brinkley. “I was for 20 years in a relationship with Robin and 18 years with children. I didn’t have time to commit to anything–for real–in places like Iraq, except to denounce the war. But now I’m single. I can lend a hand.”
Penn had been Hopper’s guardian, he tells Brinkley, and “he had just gone back to being with his mother on an experimental basis. I was putzing around at home, missing Hopper….I had never been to Haiti before. I couldn’t fathom the high death toll. So, like everybody else, I started tracking the news. I saw all those traumatized people getting Civil War medicine on TV. People were being given ibuprofen or alcohol for amputations. Hopper had been saved by IV pain medicine. It comforted him so much.”
Penn has been in Haiti for five months, but is scheduled to shoot a movie in August. Penn, though, is committed to Haiti for the long haul and says he plans to return as soon as possible. “There is no exit for me until there is more life than death,” he tells Brinkley. “I can always see light in any situation. It’s just the way I’m made. I’m capable of making foolish commitments. Of being a fool. But I can see the light very clearly in terms of the ‘big picture’ for Haiti. It’s a pretty damn distant light. But the brightness of the Haitians’ eyes is enough to make you giddy. There is a strength of character in the people who have, by and large, never experienced comfort. That’s exactly the character that our Main Street culture lacks and needs in the United States. In other words, we need Haiti.” Penn calls his work there “a reciprocal thing….They have returned to me something I had lost–my humility.”
Despite different backgrounds and, in some cases, political leanings, Penn’s work is widely praised. “In a humanitarian crisis you can be a neutral–always pinching your knuckles white,” says Keen, who ran the Ranger Task Force during the 1991 Gulf War. “Or you can operate an NGO the way Mr. Penn does….Mr. Penn has brought both international attention and resources to Haiti. He intuitively knew how to both work with the U.N. and break its bureaucracy down. He’s proved a willing candidate to collaborate with us. I applaud all the leadership he has shown. He doesn’t have to do this.”
The July issue of Vanity Fair is currently on newsstands in New York and L.A and will be available on national newsstands Tuesday, June 8.
Alex has written for Vanity Fair, Barrons, Bloomberg and Condé Nast Traveler.