Sean Penn is an award-winning actor with an impressive slew of well-reviewed movies to his credit and is known for having an acute sense of social responsibility. He's one of nine thespians in history to have won two Academy Awards for Best Actor, but he has also stumped for a congressional candidate, worked with folks seeking to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, taken part in a rally for women's rights in Iran and, most recently, founded a group dedicated to humanitarian relief in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
He has fans and detractors for his work on the screen and in the trenches, but it would be difficult to find many people who don't believe that what Penn does comes straight from the heart and with an almost frightening intensity.
The audience at the Avalon Theatre in the Fallsview Casino Resort on Thursday evening appeared ready to hear Penn and his interrogator, Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley, go through a decidedly friendly question-and-answer session. When Penn was introduced, after a short video clip of some movie highlights from his career, the ticket holders gradually rose into a standing ovation.
There were some questions from the crowd as well, but they were all videotaped in advance and sorted to cover material that wouldn't be dealt with to any large extent during the first portion of the show. Penn was in good form and Brinkley led the actor through the past and into the present with alacrity.
Penn was prompted to talk about actors he knew (DeNiro, Brando and Nicholson), the beginnings of his political awakening (a father who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and the televised Watergate hearings) and whether an acting teacher makes a difference in how an actor approaches his craft.
Not surprisingly, Penn mentioned that a good acting teacher can help, but added the personal note that while he had a great coach, he felt that he was "an actor who needed to learn how to act." Phrases like "perishable skills" and "an actor's tool kit" came easily to him, but they also told a certain truth, that acting is a job for which one needs to be prepared.
He was prodded into talking about music that influenced him and responded with tales of songs by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Ochs that were particularly important. Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" from the "Nebraska" album eventually led to the movie script for "The Indian Runner" that Penn crafted years after hearing the tune; Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag" was quoted at length and the lyrics to Dylan's "I and I" were recited.
Brinkley and Penn covered topics like Penn's interviews with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, plus the earthquake in Haiti that affected him so much that he created an organization (J/P HRO) to bring medical aid to the Haitians.
WHEN: Thursday evening and 9 tonight
WHERE: Fallsview Casino Resort, Niagara Falls, Ont.
TICKETS: Start at $90