In Pierre Morel’s new action thriller, The Gunman, Sean Penn plays an ex-Special Forces government contractor suffering from PTSD who discovers the organization he once worked for in the troubled Congo has put a price on his head. When he attempts to track down those responsible for targeting him, he finds himself caught up in a relentless game of cat and mouse across two continents. Penn stars opposite an impressive supporting cast that includes Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Peter Franzén, and Jasmine Trinca. The movie is based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and was shot on location in Barcelona, London and South Africa.
At the film’s recent press day, Penn and Morel discussed the appeal of the action genre, the emergence of a new geriaction sub-genre starring aging actors in lead roles, Penn’s preparation to play Jim Terrier, how his acting process has evolved over the years, the importance of choreographing fights that are coherent with the story and characters, shooting the surfing and bullfighting sequences and working in multiple locations, Morel’s collaboration with composer Marco Beltrami, Penn’s humanitarian work, why he’s not sorry for the green card joke, and his latest directorial effort, The Last Face.
It used to be there were a few guys you went to for an action movie, and thanks in part to Pierre’s film Taken there are now lots of other actors who get to do action movies. Was action something you’ve always wanted to do?
SEAN PENN: I’m more of a movie-by-movie, take-each-one-as-its-own-animal person. I was in Europe talking about this. These kind of questions come up a lot. I thought Harrison Ford had made a whole career out of a lot of this stuff. I didn’t think it was considered a new trend or things like that, what I call geriaction. (Laughs) There were aspects of this that had nothing to do with that also. Admittedly, there’s a tremendous amount of action. One can’t say it’s not an action movie, but it’s a different kind of movie also. Many of these things are wink-at-the-audience movies, but this was more of a straight line. It wasn’t like that. There were a lot of consequences to the violence. That appealed to me more. Though as an audience there are some movies which rely on a lot of humorous quips and things like that or banter between characters in a buddy action picture. There’ve been a couple of those that I’ve enjoyed as a kind of guilty pleasure, but this was a very different thing to me and it just appealed to me on its own terms.
Sean, what got you motivated to want to take a hand in the writing of the story?
PENN: It’s funny because Pierre is sitting here. He and I have both traveled some similar roads and interests. While he was busy choosing locations and actors and all of that stuff, I was in rooms just bringing some authenticity to some of the NGO stuff and working with consultants on the military side. It was really that, because I’d spent a lot of time working on projects specifically with former Special Forces and private contractors in my other job. We wanted to make sure that we could be as close as possible to the reality of it.
What was it like working with a supporting cast that included Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Javier Bardem?
PENN: What can the answer be? You’ve just named off some of the best actors working period. We had a great time working with them.
How did you get Mark Rylance who’s won three Tony Awards and is considered one of the greatest classical stage actors in the world to do a movie like this?
PENN: I put my teeth in his ankle about 20 years ago, and I’ve been slowly dragging him to the edge of the stage where I could pull him into a movie, and the timing worked out on this one. It was just incrementally dragging him.
Sean, I assume you don’t kill people for a living, but in your preparation for the role, what did you discover about the mind set of playing a character like that?
PENN: What’s interesting to me is there is a disconnect between that which is trained as a facilitator or an implementer, and in this case an operator. The training is done in a way that’s depersonalizing of all of that. Of course, in our story, things get personalized as happens in the real world. So, the experience of working as a facilitator in an emotionally detached way using things one has learned or seen is not an unfamiliar thing to me, and using it to take life, of course, is not my story.
PENN: One of things I would say is that it’s an interesting movie in that way because it’s a movie about a very conflicted man killing very bad men largely in service of himself, which is very different. This is why when the conversations about the Liam Neeson movies come up — here you have a 6’4”, melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man fighting strictly for his children — I don’t really see the comparison. (Laughs)
What was interesting to me was the fact that your character has this ticking time bomb in his head. Was there research into the effects of combat and violence on the brain?
PIERRE MOREL: It’s a disease or a condition that actually does exist. It not only pertains to military people but also to sports people (athletes), like those football players who have suffered so many serious concussions. It applies to boxers, too. It also happens to military people who are close to bombings or massive shocks. So yes, it does happen and it’s different from PTSD. It really is a physical condition that does exist and does impair capacity to act.
Was that something that was always in the script? Or was that something that Sean, as a writer, you wanted to put in?
PENN: No. I always have to squint when I’m trying to remember. We went through so many things I can’t remember what was originally in the movie and what we put in.
MOREL: It wasn’t there.
PENN: Yeah, I think so.
The surfing sequence reminded me that you grew up here in California and were friends with Rob Lowe and Charlie Sheen. Were you always serious about what you were going to do in the entertainment business as an actor or as a director?
PENN: Well, just to set the record straight, I didn’t know Rob Lowe at all, but I know it’s been written about quite a bit. I was aware of him because he was acting. I was aware of him in the neighborhood. He was acting as a kid actor, I think, and I knew Charlie Sheen too through my younger brother. I mean, I think Charlie can still do a movie and not have it be geriaction. We’re different. But I knew those kids were in the neighborhood, and then they started working with my younger brother on making Super 8 films. I got involved in that and really was fascinated by it or excited by it from what would have been considered a 17-year-old’s Super 8mm directorial point of view. Then came the big world, and in the big world it was not imaginable to me that there was anyone I could go to and say, “Give me X amount of millions of dollars to put on my back as a director.” So, that moved me into acting, and then the process of it caught me for a time very seriously.
I’m so impressed you’re such a good surfer.
PENN: It’s a lot of cuts. We had a very short window in which to shoot that in the right light.
PENN: We talked early on. The Krav Maga style of fighting is something that I was interested in because I had seen it applied and knew that philosophically it was different. There was no root in sport. It was much more martial than art. The tactical advantages of that, if I can use that term, are what are being gone to in the world of those operators. So again, it was an accuracy issue.
How was it shooting in Barcelona and would you like to film again in Spain?
PENN: Many years ago, John Cassavetes asked me when we were going to make a movie together, and it seemed very clear that he had written it for a suburb of New York. And I said, “Well, I think maybe there.” And he said, “No, no, no. We picked the town with the best restaurants.” Barcelona is that town and it’s diverse. It’s a great place to make a movie, I think.
MOREL: If you want to gain weight.
PENN: Yeah, it’s that.
MOREL: Shooting was fine but I gained weight.
What was your experience working on location in South Africa?
PENN: There are good restaurants. You can find them if you get the right tour guide. We didn’t shoot much of the film in South Africa. We did a little bit. I was at the time preparing another film that I was going to be shooting over there, and that’s an experience I’m sure I will be talking about when that film comes out. This film we were principally in Barcelona and London, and we just had a few days follow-up in South Africa, so it’s really not that relevant to the conversation.
Sean, you have a tremendous physique in the film. How did you prepare?
MOREL: It wasn’t Barcelona food, I promise.
PENN: Yeah. There were a lot of preparations for this movie. By the time we got there, everything was whatever it ended up being. When you move around a lot, things happen. There’s that. I’ve said before I don’t like necessarily to talk about training regimens. It’s actually not too interesting.
MOREL: Not really different. When you start talking about the action in any movie, in my opinion, you just want to make the action coherent with the movie itself. So, you pick the right style. You pick the right type of combat so it makes sense with the characters. If you make a movie which involves ex-military American Special Forces, they’re not going to fight like Kung Fu fighters in a Chinese movie. So, you just choreograph accordingly. There’s no reason why this man would be jumping in a scene with wires. My goal is always to make fights that are coherent with what the story is and what the characters are.
There were some very intense fights. Were there any accidents, bruises or bumps?
PENN: Little ones. We got away without anything serious happening. I mean there was an extraordinarily achy body by the end of the film, but that’s cumulative.
For both of you, I’m wondering if there are certain action performances and action films that are sort of the gold standard that you keep in mind when you’re setting out to make your own action project?
MOREL: (Laughs) No. It’s no specific ones. Since I was very young, I got fed and I grew up with lots of action movies. I couldn’t pick one that was specifically what I would try to reproduce. There’s no interest in reproducing. I’m just trying to make the action scenes the best way I can and once again that work with the story, because the worst thing you can do, which is slightly off your question, is a movie and have action pieces that don’t really fit. I’m always trying to blend all this so it works well. If I was to give you any references to movies that are like this, it would be all about that — not really action movies but movies with action in it and they blend in properly, not just action for action’s sake.
Pierre, how was it having another director on set? Or did Sean just stay back?
MOREL: He stayed back. Actually, in a way, it’s a very good thing because Sean is a producer, a writer, a director, and an actor, and he knows all the tricks of the trade and the basics.
PENN: Well also, I don’t know all the tricks of the trade. In fact, I got to learn a lot watching him.
MOREL: He does know a lot so it’s actually very easy in terms of communication on the set because the understanding is immediate. He knows what I’m talking about in terms of intentions and camera angles and whatever. It’s just, “Oh, I get it. Fine.” So it’s actually a good thing.
Sean, taking a credit as a producer, what does that mean exactly for you on a film like this where you’re the star and one of the writers as well?
PENN: It means I can keep Joel Silver at bay, and that’s the only reason for it.
MOREL: Three years. You’re right.
Can you talk about shooting the bullfighting sequence in Barcelona where bullfighting has actually been prohibited since 2011? Did you think about moving the action elsewhere?
MOREL: Yeah. We have to apologize to the Catalan people for that. We took the liberty to reintroduce bullfighting in Catalonia. I’m very sorry about that. If there’s a Catalan in the room, I apologize. I guess it was just convenient to let them go back to Barcelona rather than for some curious reason go to Madrid just to attend a bullfight. So, we shot some of the bullfights in Madrid and some of the actual movie in Catalonia. It’s a little freedom we took once again.
Was it difficult to film the bullfighting scenes in Madrid and what do you think about bullfights?
MOREL: It was not difficult actually. We just shot in the existing event. We were at a big three-week event, and we shot a couple of fights there almost like a documentary. So it was not difficult. What do I think about it? It’s a tough question. I think it’s a thing that is so deeply rooted into the Castilian, not the Catalan, culture that you can’t just say it’s wrong. There’s a reason for it to be there and still be there. Now, killing animals for fun, I cannot agree with that. Nobody can. So it’s a long conversation if you want to discuss why they’re right and why they’re wrong.
PENN: I think the tradition is an extraordinarily important thing to respect, but also it’s 2014 and it’s barbaric.
MOREL: It is.
For both of you, this is not necessarily what the movie is about per se, but it does shine a light on the Congo, and I was curious if that was kind of a nice aspect of getting this movie out there?
MOREL: I think it is. Although it’s not a message movie or a political movie, I think it’s interesting and important to say in a country where such terrible things are happening. It’s been going on for 25 years now. There’s been genocide. There’s been millions of people that have been killed. And it’s all about resources. So, it’s interesting to say if it opens the eyes of the moviegoers to the situation and what’s going on. Yes, of course, I think so.
PENN: I do, too. I think if it functions in any broader way, it’s sort of on that subconscious level in the sense that if somebody younger perhaps is interested in this movie and they see the movie, then if there is a report on the Congo or on some similar situation about exploited resources and people that are paying the price for it in their own countries, maybe their ears perk up and they listen. Again, there’s no aspiration to change the world with a picture, but I thought that it was a good real-world reflection within it.
MOREL: I always try to have scores that don’t overcome too much the action or the image. It takes too much space, especially for these movies which need to be realistic. So, you can’t go lyrical with the violence and everything. We had that conversation, like how much the music is supporting, how much it’s driving the pace, how much it’s just keeping you on your toes. The tension is still there because of music, but it doesn’t become too much. It’s a very delicate balance and I think we achieved that.
Sean, I know you’ve helped the people in Haiti. How did that experience inform your portrayal of your character in this movie?
PENN: Well I think that Pierre and the Production Designer (Andrew Laws) got that stuff really, really right, and we had conversations. But again, all three of us actually had had some awareness of how that stuff worked. In this case also, we were dealing with a kind of Christian organization which has its own hierarchy issues and connections. There’s some history there that’s worth exploring on the internet in terms of interventions and mining issues and so on.
Did you pick this project because you wanted to bring attention to humanitarian work?
PENN: I’m going to make a guess that some of it had to do with that and maybe some of the ways in which we approach some of that stuff and what influence I was able to have on that. But I also think that it’s because of what’s happening. We are now in the all-time record-breaking humanitarian crisis in terms of displaced people in the world and other issues and conflict. I have a feeling that this is going to be filtering into a lot of people’s filmic system and that more scripts that one reads will have aspects of these stories because they’re surrounding us and they’re affecting us more and more directly all over the world. There was the seed of it in there that interested me about it and I had some personal investment in, but I think that it’s probably going to become a bit ubiquitous as we go along in the next few years.
I was curious as an actor how your process has changed and developed over the years? Is it the same process as it once was and how has your experience informed that change?
PENN: I think initially it was because I wasn’t what I would call a natural actor, and that in learning how to approach material and how to free myself within it, there was an awful lot of work I had to do quite consciously for many years. I think the more that you do it and the more that it becomes an adaptable process and that you’re constantly checking in with your toolkit, but not always, you’re increasingly less conscious of it and you give to that. I like the idea of feeling prepared for a brand new thing. And so, each movie is that. One of the things that affects that also, and especially in film versus on the stage, is the director, because the director’s process is one that you do benefit from being in sync with. I often think this with Clint Eastwood, who is kind of a jazz musician, and he wants all those musicians to show up and just play it. He wants that to be the take because it captures it. One person might be able to play this better in another take, but you’ll never have the unified magic. So you prepare towards that goal. Or, you work with another director and it’s another kind of process and so on. So, you get to know your director and that part of it, and then you bring your toolkit with you, and hopefully you’re not having to think, “Is it a ball peen hammer or is it…?” You’re just able to grab it and go.
PENN: For me, as a director, the process on each movie is quite different and it varies between. A lot of that can be because, for example, in some of the movies I’ve made I’ve worked with much less experienced actors, and others I’ve worked with much more experienced actors, and you approach it very differently relative to that. I think those are the two driving differences.
Sean, at the Oscars, you made a statement that you were there to honor movies and not necessarily reward box office success. Can you talk about how you feel about your own career in this context today of where every weekend it’s, “What’s Number One for the movies? How big is your global total? What’s your rating in markets to get movies made?”?
PENN: Reflectively, I can say that I have about a 35-year perfect history that has immunized me, which is I have absolutely [no idea]. If I tried to guess what movie would be popular with an audience, either a movie I saw or a movie I participated in, I would be wrong every single time. It’s not that I wouldn’t invest in the culture of that concern, but I have no skill set for it. In fact, I would say I really, really, really don’t like most of the films that become popular. I feel alienated from the world that embraces them. So, that doesn’t help in my sense of things. (Laughs) So, I don’t think about it because I don’t know how to.
This is basically an action film but yet there was some laughter in the theater. Are you hoping when you do something like this that the audience will appreciate getting some humor? Or are you surprised when I say there was laughter?
PENN: No. I’ve laughed at things that I’ve found out later I wasn’t supposed to laugh at in movies or it wasn’t intended. I mean, a movie is supposed to be reacted to by the audience that sees it, not by me. My sense from most of the people that I’ve spoken to that have seen the movie, and what this bad guesser is thinking, is that people that go to see it more than not will enjoy it a lot. But I don’t go into the theater at that point. I mean, I’ve finished my work.
Considering what you said about having no gauge of what would be a hit or a success, are you prepared for this to potentially become a franchise? Is it a role you would be willing to revisit?
PENN: Look, I’ve never looked at a movie as beyond a movie. And in that case, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about that. I hope the best for this movie. We worked hard. A lot of people worked hard and invested a lot of work in it. I’ve got projects I want to direct and those are what I’m focused on.
You just said you want to direct some more. Do you still appreciate or enjoy or are thrilled when you get to act? Do you see yourself giving that up and just becoming a director-producer at some point?
PENN: I think with anything that I do, when I get on the railroad track in the tunnel, I’m going to run as hard at any time to stay ahead of that train. So, whether I’m doing it and it’s enjoyable, or I’m doing it and it’s not enjoyable, what’s satisfying is when you’re working with people who are working as hard as you are. I think if I could remember what it feels like after it’s done that I would never do it again, but it’s a perishable awareness. What happens is that you finish and you go, and then if you’re proud of the work that you did and the relationships are good, and you came away with affections and respect for people you worked with and that’s the common thing you shared, you think, “Oh, well that might be a nice thing to do again.” Then you get there and you say, “Ah, what did I do?!” (Laughs) I don’t know. Acting began 20 years ago. Probably after about 10 years of working in movies, it got to be a tricky thing for me. I guess what I would say is this, that I can enjoy acting only if I’m working with a director who I’m in sync with.
Sean, can you talk about your non-profit organization, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which you founded?
PENN: We started as 30 Americans, 23 relief workers and 7 doctors, with the intention of distributing morphine and ketamine, which we had access to, to trauma centers and hospitals that were doing the traumatic surgeries immediately after the earthquake in 2010. That was for that period of time. We became an emergency relief organization that has expanded now. We have 350 permanent staff which is dominantly Haitian. About 340 of the 350 are Haitian. It’s Haitian-led in country. It’s a development organization now. It has sectors in relocation, education, health, and engineering. The engineering sector does retrofits, construction, rubble removal, and demolition. And that’s all intertwined with the work of getting people that were displaced and relocated into housing. The first camp that we had was 60,000 people. They’ve all been relocated and now we’ve been working on seven other camps. We’re down from 6 million approximately that were displaced to about 65,000 remaining displaced total over the country.
Sean, following the Oscars, there was a lot of buzz about the green card joke. A lot of people, especially the immigrant community, were offended because they felt it was not appropriate. What is your take?
PENN: I think they could be a bit more cheerful. My feeling about that is that when you identify yourself with fundamentalist thoughts or identity seeking that pursues a common enemy, you are very likely to miss irony and you will render yourself a foolish individual or large groups of individuals that I’m really happy to have them be, because I think what’s most offensive is where attaching a protective sensibility to something is actually that which is meant to create self-censorship in people’s interactions. I think when somebody as special as Alejandro makes a film as special as Birdman was, if he has a friend on stage, that maybe that friend wants to let him know he won privately for a moment before the room knows, and he did because there was a history there. I wanted him to know it first and he did. And that’s who I was talking to. So, I don’t give a fuck about all those people.
PENN: Well I’ve visited so many places in Mexico when I’ve traveled, because growing up in California, you’re close. And growing up as a surfer in California, you’re close to a lot of good stuff down there. I also spent a lot of time many years ago in Mexico City, which I found to be a fascinating city. The air was a little choky at that time. It’s better now. There’s no place in Mexico that I haven’t enjoyed being in, but I don’t want that to take back what I said about the other thing. It’s really stupid when you recognize that we have a diversity problem that you don’t recognize the irony that we don’t get great movies like Birdman if we don’t encourage diversity in this culture. And for that to go over heads makes me think. There’s a thing in the movie business that I always thought was important. You always have to consider the possibility that everybody else is wrong. And they were.
I’m curious how you reconcile your own personal views about guns and gun violence with how it’s portrayed as entertainment?
PENN: Well, do you have an assumption of my personal views on guns from your own perspective?
I’m just basing it off other quotes I’ve read.
PENN: The problem in quotes that you’ve read is that they have been written largely inaccurately. We do understand that we are all as readers and as writers limited by what’s happening in editorial and what’s sellable and so on, and it’s at the worst stage ever in my recollection. So, when I read about these things, the question for me in this context is that it opens up a complicated issue. I did not feel any issues about it is the simple answer, but the reasons why I didn’t and what my feelings are about guns are a lengthier conversation.
Sean, have you finished your other movie as a director, The Last Face?
PENN: Almost, almost.
Will it be out before the end of the year?
PENN: This is a conversation I’m having on Monday with people who have the say about that.
The Gunman opens nationwide on Friday, March 20th.