Getting Into Acting – Sean Penn
From the very start, Sean Penn was no stranger to the arts industry. He was born in 1960 California to actor, writer and director Leo Penn, and actress Eileen Ryan, and his two brothers also followed their passions as actors and musicians. Before he became the household name that we all now know, he got his film making start by making short films with childhood friends and fellow future stars Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen.
When he was 18 he studied with one of the most influential acting coaches of the 20th century and student of Sanford Meisner himself; Peggy Feury. It was at this point that Penn became ‘obsessed’ with acting, ‘studying with Feury four days a week, five hours a day, often sleeping on the floor of Feury’s studio’ (Backstage). He studied with Feury for 2 years, alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, before he decided to move to New York where he not long after scored his first film role in Taps (1981). Only one year later he would star as surfer Jeff Spicoli in acclaimed Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). This film has since been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’, and his character Jeff Spicoli ended up as number 9 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. Already Penn’s performances were starting to garner him a reputation as one of the most exciting up and coming actors around.
It was Penn’s role as Mick O’Brien in drama Bad Boys (1983) that marked his shift to meatier roles. He starred in gritty dramas The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) and At Close Range (1986), before he received his first mainstream critical attention. It was his role as a racist murderer on death row in Dead Man Walking (1995) that netted him his first Academy Award nomination for Actor in a Leading Role (he’s now had five and won two). On directing Penn in the film, Tim Robbins said ‘one word that I would say is really key to understanding Sean is honesty.’ Just as Sanford Meisner believed, ‘the goal of acting is living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.’
For the next decade, Penn was no stranger to the Academy Awards. He was nominated again for his role as an egotistical jazz guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and once more for his portrayal of a mentally handicapped father in I Am Sam (2001). Jessie Nelson, the director and writer of I Am Sam, remarked on Penn’s process for the film saying ‘it’s like, the more spontaneous, chaotic, and real a scene can get, the more he thrives on it. He doesn’t like when things get too staid or choreographed’, once again showcasing Meisner’s belief that ‘the foundation of acting is the reality of doing.’ His first win came for his role in Boston crime drama Mystic River (2003), before following it up with another win as politician and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in Milk (2008).
Since his first film Taps, Penn has appeared in five films nominated for Best Picture; The Thin Red Line (1998), Mystic River (2003), Milk (2008, The Tree of Life (2011), and Licorice Pizza (2021). Whilst still acting, Penn has turned his attention more towards directing and producing. Along with several music videos, he was directed five feature films which have all been critically well received. He made his directorial debut with crime thriller The Indian Runner (1991), before continuing with feature films The Crossing Guard (1995), The Pledge (2001), Into the Wild (2007), and The Last Face (2016). Almost as well known for his acting as for his humanitarian work and political views, Penn most recently spent time in Ukraine filming his upcoming and ongoing documentary 2022 Russian invasion of the country.
As well as his documentary work, Penn can currently be seen acting in new series Gaslit (2022) alongside Julia Roberts, which provides ‘a modern take on the 1970s political Watergate scandal centring on untold stories and forgotten characters of the time’ (IMDb).
Other upcoming acting projects in production include Black Flies and Daddio. Since his first film role in 1981, Sean Penn has continued to bring an honesty and depth to his performances, often humanising divisive characters. As he says himself, ‘I’ve always operated under the notion that audiences don’t always know when they’re being lied to, but that they always know when they’re being told the truth.’
Billy Milionis is one of the few Australians to have ever studied under the legendary master teacher, the late Sanford Meisner. Billy has also studied story structure and scene analysis techniques with John Truby and later at UCLA. He has also spent several years doing improvisation in Hollywood with the L.A. Connection. In addition, he trained in the technique of Stella Adler, Practical Aesthetics and Lee Strasberg’s method.