Robin Wright Penn
Robin Wright Penn’s reputationas a Hollywood turncoat is well-earned. For one thing, she lives in Marin County, near San Francisco, with her two kids—daughter, Dylan, 18, and son, Hopper, 15—and her husband of 13 years (minus time off for a couple of brief sabbaticals), Sean Penn. And for another, her primary commitment over the last decade has been raising her family. That has meant that despite having the sort of deep talent and uncomplicated beauty that could have kept her flush in romantic comedies and Oscar nods for years, Penn has been the prototypical choosy-mom when it comes to picking which parts in which movies she’s going to leave the house to play. Many of those roles have involved quirky, beleaguered wives, mothers, and women on the verge, in films such as Unbreakable (2000), The Pledge (2001, which was directed by her husband), WhiteOleander (2002), A Home at the End of the World (2004), and Breaking and Entering (2006). But more than just her discriminating taste, Penn’s work is the reflection of an informal system of beliefs about acting: that it’s an individualprocess more than a craft; that there’s no room for pretending; and that if you’re going to do it, then you’d better mean it. Penn’s Northern California neighbor, the legendary directorFrancis Ford Coppola, recently spoke to the 43-year-old actress, who appears in the new film State of Play, and who opened up about her earliest (X-rated) cinematic experiences, what it takes to create a (real) character, and the evolution of her eclectic (and uncalculated) career.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: So, Robin, I know a little about your family, what you were like as a kid, and where you went to high school—that’s always somehow a telling bit of information. But maybe you could just talk to me a little about how you got interested in this acting and creative stuff.
ROBIN WRIGHT PENN: I think the inception of my interest in arts was when I was around 9 or 10 and I started dancing. I was really convinced that I was going to go to New York and be onstage in A Chorus Line. Then that idea was sort of usurped from my life because we moved to San Diego.
COPPOLA: From where?
PENN: From Los Angeles. And I think it was really destructive, because I’d had this dream for so many years, and suddenly it just vanished and there wasn’t a substitution.
COPPOLA: Were you going to classes or something as a child that couldn’t continue in San Diego?
PENN: Well, it was just the quality of theater, the arts, and the teachers didn’t exist down there. I was in limbo for so long in school. But I had gotten out of regular classes on independent study—I only had to be there about three or four hours a day during most of the later years. So this acting thing was not in the cards—ever.
COPPOLA: Had you participated in school plays?
PENN: Never. No way. Scared the shit out of me.
COPPOLA: Community theater?
PENN: Never, never. I think I always viewed acting as a kind of exhibitionism if you were going to show your heart in that way. And it was unfathomable to me. How could you do that? How could you be that vulnerable with strangers? And yet, what I think it was is that acting seemed verbal, and I’m a very physical, tactile person. I always loved to dance and move. I probably should have been a mime or something like that.
COPPOLA: But it sounds like, as a child, you had a pretty deep impression of acting, if you said, “Oh, this shows my soul!”
PENN: Yeah, but probably because I had been exposed to certain things. I mean, it was just by happenstance that I wound up seeing an Ingmar Bergman film when I was a kid. I think I was at a friend’s house across the street, and her parents were movie buffs. I’d never seen anything like it.
COPPOLA: What film was it? Do you remember?
PENN: I think it was Persona .
COPPOLA: [laughs] Oh, my goodness.
PENN: I remember seeing that at 9 or 10 years of age. Then there were these other weird neighbors who lived in Woodland Hills, this very hippiefied couple. He was a veterinarian—there were always tons of animals in their house. I remember going over just to hang out with his animals and they were watching Deep Throat  with Linda Lovelace and drinking their white wine in the middle of summer . . . I remember they said, “Oh, Robbie, I don’t think you should be watching this. Would your mom let you watch this?” And I said, “Oh, god, yeah, she’d let me watch it.” [laughs] So it was Persona and Deep Throat—I think those were the first film experiences.
COPPOLA: Was it sort of traumatic for you, seeing Deep Throat at 9 years old? I mean, I didn’t understand those things until I was 14 or 15 . . .
PENN: [laughs] I think it brewed inside me for so long. What seeing Deep Throat at the age of 9 instilled in me was this great fear of, Oh, my god, is that what you have to do to be an actress? I mean, those were pretty intense examples of baring one’s soul. You’re like, “Whoa, if that’s what acting is . . .” I don’t think I was putting that together at the time. But later in life . . .COPPOLA: You said you were doing some sort of independent study. Usually one parent is leading that. Was it your mother, your father, or both of them?
PENN: My mom. My parents had divorced.
COPPOLA: So you were living with your mother?
PENN: Yeah, and my brother, in California.
COPPOLA: Did your mother have artistic interests or aspirations that you kind of picked up a little?
PENN: Not as far as dance or theater, but she is definitely a creative animal—a bold Texas lady. It’s funny that my brother and I are both in the arts. He was a dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, with [Mikhail] Baryshnikov.
COPPOLA: As you approached junior high and high school, did you have any other interests? Or were you pretty much focused on this vision of acting as soulful and personal and mysterious?
PENN: No. I think that after Linda Lovelace, acting was not even a consideration. At the time, I was just interested in dancing. I’d get out at lunch, and, when everybody else would go back for their fifth and sixth periods, I would get on the bus and go to my dance class for eight hours.
COPPOLA: So you were pretty far along . . .
PENN: I was very much along, until we moved to San Diego for my senior year of high school. Then, it was like that life was over.
COPPOLA: Were you popular in high school?
PENN: I was very much a loner. I had two girlfriends. I had more male friends—I’ve always been more comfortable with guys. I don’t get that chick-vibe thing. And yet, I was chosen for homecoming queen.
PENN: But I was not popular at all. I actually thought it was going to be like the scene in Carrie , with the pig’s blood. [laughs] That’s what it felt like—like I was being set up.
COPPOLA: What was your feeling about your beauty at the time?
PENN: Well, I think that the whole idea of beauty distorts your ability to not only find yourself, but to have a healthy sense of your identity. I mean, in high school, it was all based on some approval of whether or not you were pretty enough to do—dot, dot, dot. There was always somebody prettier, somebody with better tits, somebody with longer legs. I got into modeling after that . . .
COPPOLA: You did?
PENN: Yeah, I was pushed into that by . . . You know, you’d get discovered at a roller-skating rink, and someone says, “Ooh, I can make you a book.” And then I went to Europe and I didn’t want to come home. I loved Europe so much.
COPPOLA: What cities did you go to on that tour?
PENN: Paris, Rome, Milan . . .
COPPOLA: So, the modeling centers.
PENN: Yeah, I mean, I was traveling and I landed in Paris after doing the full backpack-youth-hostel summer. And then I didn’t want to leave, and I had to work, so I signed with the agency Paris Planning and moved into a house with five other models. I worked a lot, but no runway stuff—just print. I lived there for a year, and then in Milan.
COPPOLA: Did you learn French?
PENN: I speak French—poorly, but I speak it. COPPOLA: I’m going to take a little leap forward to your life now as a film actress. What do you look for when you first read a script and how do you evaluate if it’s something you want to do or not?
PENN: I think it’s more of a gut instinct, meaning it has nothing to do with how big or how small the role is or how many lines I have. It’s more like, “Am I sharing something? Am I participating in telling the story?” I think my first instinct is to go there. Then it’s, “Can I do something with this person? Can I bring something to the viewer that helps in that arc?” You know, I’m typecast a lot as the soulful wife whose husband has been fucking around on her. It’s just consistent. I always get the depressed woman, the internal, tortured, soulful-mother role. And a lot of times, you can’t really go very far with that. You just become the depressed wife. I don’t even know if I’m answering the question . . .
COPPOLA: No, you are.
PENN: Because, it’s like, I’m over it, in a weird way. If something incredible came along where the other elements were there—i.e., a great director, an incredible script, great actors to work opposite—then I’d go play that soulful, tortured wife again. But I’m ready to feel something else, I guess. I’m ready to do a Woody Allen comedy. I want to do, like, Annie Hall for 2009. I was talking to [Robert] Downey Jr. about it the other day. I was like, “Let’s do a Woody Allen–type film and write it together.”
COPPOLA: Well, often actors ultimately take control of the means of production. It’s that impulse to say, “Let’s not just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. Let’s be more pivotally involved.”
PENN: I think it’s happening now that I’m just growing up. [laughs] That’s what it feels like. I think I’m just now leaving the nest of being inhibited. I was a big put-it-off-for-another-week person—you know, raising kids and saying, “Well, I don’t need to do it now.” But it’s time. I’m ready.
COPPOLA: How many kids do you have?
PENN: Two. One is going to college in September, so it’ll just be the three of us.
COPPOLA: Well, let me take another step now. Let’s say you’re going to do a film, and so it all begins. Now, I know there are different philosophies about preparing. With some films, you rehearse for two or three days, and you do that by reading the script and discussing the role and maybe visiting some of the locations. And then there are a number of directors—I’m one of them—who really always have a two-week rehearsal period. How do you feel about rehearsals?
PENN: I think it’s a necessity to have that kind of time, to have real rehearsals and explore with each other. The beautiful surprises that come of that only benefit everyone when you’re on the set, because everybody then has a foundation. I never used to want rehearsals, because I was like, “Oh, no. I’m more spontaneous. I’m a natural. I’m a one-take person.” But that was because I didn’t have any training. I was going off instinct.
COPPOLA: Had you ever done any theater at all before you had a movie career?
PENN: None. I had no training. I was on a soap opera for four years. I was contracted.
COPPOLA: But they rehearse right on the day—so they don’t rehearse, basically.
PENN: Exactly. [laughs] I picked up that bad habit.
COPPOLA: With theater, you would have had a minimum of four to six weeks of rehearsals.
PENN: I can’t even imagine what that would be like. I’ve never gotten a few weeks on any film I’ve ever worked on. Maybe you get a week, but you’re not rehearsing every day. You’re doing things like fittings and camera tests. But it’s usually a week, max. Actually, I’m lying, because Anthony Minghella was one of the only directors I’ve worked with where we did a lot beforehand.
COPPOLA: On the film he did about the landscape architect?
PENN: Yeah, Breaking and Entering.
COPPOLA: That was a personal film for him.
PENN: Yes, very personal.
COPPOLA: But he was a theater director before.
PENN: He was so smart and such a great listener.
COPPOLA: And a wonderful man.
PENN: His forethought was amazing. He had all of these ideas. When we were coming to what Jude [Law] and I thought were these revelations, he would watch in awe—even though he had the answer 14 days before. But he welcomed that. He was a true teacher, someone who helped guide you. And he gave us a full week of that, where we sat in a room and talked. He would say, “Robin and Jude, you come in and we’ll talk about these particular scenes in the movie. Then the next day I want you to come in and we’re going to talk about what’s not on the screen and what happened 10 years ago, when your characters separated”—which we never know about in the movie. That was incredible because there was so much private life that was rehearsed, talked about, studied, and absorbed. And then we could go in and actually practice the printed word, and improvise those scenes. He would say, “Okay, now throw the script out.” That was my acting class experience, I would have to say. COPPOLA: Well, I guess what I’m driving at is that the two weeks is there not for you to read the script over and over so when you do it in the movie it’s like old hat. If you and Jude were playing a married couple, then there were maybe 20 years of things that happened to your characters before we see them onscreen. Maybe they’re not in the script, but they’re in the characters’ memories. I think of the actors as having a bank account in which there are a million memories: the first time they met; the first time they broke up; the time they got mad at each other. So you fill those accounts and plant those seeds during rehearsals, and then they bear fruit later when you’re making the movie.
PENN: Now I want to do the two weeks. You’ve got me going . . . But nobody has the money to do that anymore.
COPPOLA: Yeah, but nobody has to be paid. I mean, I know it’s against the rules, but everyone does the pr at the end of the movie for free. Why not do the rehearsals for free? You can’t have a movie without two weeks of rehearsals. Or you shouldn’t. Or it’s harder.
PENN: Okay, I’m going to tell a funny story, and I know you’ve heard it, but it’s about Al Pacino
working with you on The Godfather . Somebody said to him, “Whoa, Francis Ford Coppola. You got to work with him, and you had all this rehearsal period. What were you thinking in the scene when you’re sitting in the chair?” I think the scene they were talking about was this one where Al is sitting in the chair in the office. It’s this really slow push in on him, and he’s completely still. You have no idea what he’s going to do. Is he going to snap and kill somebody? So this person says, “What were you thinking, Mr. Pacino?” And Al goes, “Well, actually, I was thinking about when I had to pick up my cleaning.” [both laugh]
COPPOLA: Well, we can talk a little bit about what you’ve just identified, because all my life, I’ve thought that during that two- or three-week rehearsal period, little by little, the actor is becoming the character. By the end, with Al Pacino, for example, you could just say to him, “Al, go across the street and buy an ice cream,” and he’d go across the street and buy the ice cream in character. You wouldn’t have to tell him how to do it—he’d know better than you, because he is the character. So if I said to Al, “Get in the chair and kind of just sit there,” he’d be thinking about his cleaning—but it would be Michael Corleone thinking about his cleaning.
PENN: Or about killing Fredo. [laughs]
COPPOLA: But then I realized just recently that I’m wrong. The actors don’t become the characters—the characters become the actors. I mean, look at Gene Hackman. Even though each character he plays is different, there are still those things about him—his funny way of laughing, his funny way of grunting—and it’s in all the characters he plays, even though the characters are totally different. So I concluded that the character turns into the actor, which is, in a way, the same thing as the actor becoming the character, but it’s more realistically what happens, and the rehearsal just gives you the chance to let that metamorphosis take place.
PENN: Oh, absolutely.
COPPOLA: Let me ask you this: What makes you connect with your director?
PENN: Gosh . . . Being understood. And I would say that goes for both sides. I think you have to have an understanding of each other’s ideas and visions, regardless of whether you agree with them. You have to speak the same language.
COPPOLA: Is it different with a male director or a female director? They say that men, when they’re lost, don’t want to stop at the gas station to get directions, and women say, “Let’s stop at the gas station and get directions!” If you could possibly generalize, do you think one or the other of the genders tends to be willing to fly blind longer? Does one gender or the other tend to be more willing to fly off a cliff?
PENN: I think it depends on the individual. Anthony Minghella, to me, embodied both. He was very female in the way he communicated.
COPPOLA: Oh, I understand what you’re saying. I mean, I feel that I’m a very feminine person—I like girls, but I’m very feminine.
PENN: Well, you like to talk. You do like to stop at the gas station as well as jump off the cliff. I haven’t worked with enough female directors to compare, but I just think the difference in working with different directors has to do with a tone. There’s something in the great directors that I’ve worked with where I feel a safety and security. There’s that confidence given that it’s okay to jump off a cliff, because, you know what? If jumping doesn’t work, then we’ll go back to the gas station and ask for directions. And I like that kind of strength. And then Rodrigo Garcia, who I did this little film with called Nine Lives , is an example of someone who understands the way women speak, so there was this safety net there of being understood—because, man, that’s the beauty in connecting with somebody in this business. [laughs]
COPPOLA: Well, it’s like having a dance partner. I mean, you can dance with anyone, but it’s best when it doesn’t really matter who is leading.
PENN: It’s almost like relinquishing control, and you’re both leading, actually. Because I think it is our instinct to control. You know that anonymous poem called “Footprints”?
COPPOLA: Tell me—I don’t know it.
PENN: Well, I think it’s about god. This man says, “I was walking on the beach, and there used to be four footprints as we walked”—meaning that god was next to him. And then he says, “And I looked down and suddenly there were only two,” meaning, you’ve left me, you’ve abandoned me. And then he says, “No, what you missed was that I was carrying you the last half.” So the relief that you come to in trust is where the character becomes you.
COPPOLA: I’m 70, and I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I just recently got this understanding.
PENN: See?COPPOLA: Well, if I can learn something, then I’m happy. [laughs] So you just did this film, State of Play, with a lot of interesting actors—notably Russell Crowe.
PENN: I really loved working with Russell. He’s a very present actor. You don’t feel stymied in any way when you’re in a scene with him. It actually was sort of like dancing.
COPPOLA: And what’s your role?
PENN: I played Ben Affleck’s character’s wife, though we really don’t have any scenes together. He’s a congressman in D.C., and he has an affair that’s all over the news. Russell’s character, Ben’s character, and my character went to college together—we were best friends, and Russell’s character was always in love with my character, but I married Ben. So it’s this sort of love triangle.
COPPOLA: And then I see another project you’ve got is this other film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which Rebecca Miller directed. What was your experience working with her?
PENN: Incredible. I just love her as a filmmaker. Personal Velocity  and The Ballad of Jack and Rose  are two of my favorites. She’s very prolific in her poetry—as a writer, she’s so detailed, which couldn’t be more of a blessing. I read the novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee [which Miller wrote], before we did the movie, and then I got to hang out with Rebecca for a year because our financing fell out, so we had a full year of rehearsals, just the two of us.
COPPOLA: Where did that happen?
PENN: I would meet up with her in New York because they [Miller is married to Daniel Day-Lewis] have a second home there. So we would hook up every chance we got.
COPPOLA: Tell me a little bit about the film.
PENN: I mean, in a nutshell, it’s about this woman, Pippa Lee, who comes from a very dysfunctional family, and then she chooses security when she gets older. She marries a man who is almost 30 years her senior—Alan Arkin plays my husband—and she has children and creates the boundaries that she never had in her own youth. And then, in the movie, it’s like the onion starts to peel, the façade starts to fall away, and her true identity surfaces. She basically has an identity breakdown. Who she really is can’t be kept under the lid anymore. She needs a connection, and she needs that sensuous person inside of her that was stifled for so long to come back out. But, simultaneously, you get to see how fucked up her life was before, and why she had to choose to become this other woman.
COPPOLA: When will that one come out?
PENN: We don’t have a domestic distributor yet. With this wonderful recession we’re in, I think people are a little bit wary of these eccentric—
COPPOLA: Yeah, we can’t call them art films anymore. We now call them independent films.
PENN: Alternative films.
COPPOLA: I call them personal films, but that’s my code for art film.
PENN: See, though, that’s the truth. That is what they are. But they’re hard to sell . . .
COPPOLA: That’s why I love what my daughter Sofia does so much. You never hear of some studio hiring her to direct some project—everything she does is personal to her, and that’s what I aspire to. I guess she learned it from me talking about it, and she has put that into her mode of operation. In the old days, the dilemma for actors was always between doing theater or doing film. But today there’s a new dilemma between doing industry productions and these independent productions. How do you feel about making that choice between those two extremes?
PENN: Well, sometimes it’s not much of a dilemma, because, as they say, you have to heat your pool. [laughs] So occasionally we have to pick the big-money jobs, and sometimes there is more compromise there artistically. But at the end of the day, it is a job, and we have kids to raise, and a life we want to live. So we kind of think of it as, Okay, it’s ideal if there is actually a meaty part that we get to play in that big movie, but we also make money to be able to give it to charities, so I want to have that extra cash flow for that as well. So I’ll take the compromise sometimes—if I can get it. But I can’t really get those jobs anymore. I don’t get offered those kinds of roles. I mean, State of Play is a big film. I’m not in it very much
. . . [sniffs] But that’s okay.
COPPOLA: It’s funny, because years ago, when we had Zoetrope [film studio] up here in San Francisco and we were totally running out of money, my then-young colleague George Lucas was saying, “You’ve got to get a job, Francis. They’re going to put a chain on the door . . .” And so I did The Godfather, which was big. It was an industry picture—I don’t even know why they wanted me to do it. But, ironically, that is a film I did only because I had kids and no money and I wanted to survive, and it somehow turned out to be artistically well considered.
PENN: Ya think, Francis?
COPPOLA: Not that it was any fun to make, because it was absolutely no fun to make. [both laugh] But my point being that sometimes you do the big project to make a living—or, as you say, “to heat your pool,” which is a great expression—and you do sometimes find, oddly enough, this other artistic fruition too.
PENN: Exactly. And the decisions aren’t necessarily made on that basis, unless you’re broke, and you’re all, “Okay, now I really just need a job.”
COPPOLA: So what’s in the future for you?
PENN: I’m ready to continue this work of actually not being afraid. [sighs] I just feel like it took me a long time to grow up and to stop being inhibited in my work. I would read scripts and go, “Oh, I’m not right. I could never do this. I could never achieve this character. This would be better for somebody else.” I remember calling directors numerous times and saying, “Oh, you should cast so-and-so instead of me. They’re much better for the role.” COPPOLA: Who were some of the people you suggested? That will tell me who you admire.
PENN: Oh, my god, I don’t know . . . You know, Lili Taylor, who I love. Or Samantha Morton. I can’t remember. But I think I’ve been ready for a few years to just blow open the doors. And I really want to direct something. I think I’ll start with a documentary and get my feet wet. But I don’t have that fear of jumping off the cliff, where before, I always used to just stop and ask for directions, and you would kind of see that reticence in the work. So now, I’m completely rejuvenated when I get out there, and I’m ready to do more, play more.
Francis Ford Coppola is a celebrated film director, producer, and screenwriter. His new movie, Tetro, comes out in June.