One of Hollywood’s established names, Sean Penn has built up a body of work made up of stellar performances. He can always be counted on to take on deep, thought provoking roles, eschewing others that may be more glamourous but ultimately shallow. Here, we take a look at four of his most interesting roles.
Sean Penn was commended for his skilful portrayal of Death Row inmate Matthew Poncelet, who is dealing with his last days. In this drama based on a true story, Penn remains in complete control throughout. There is no space for exaggerated histrionics, no dramatics for drama’s sake. This results in a very human character portrayal, one painted in different shades. These shades become apparent as Poncelet’s initial pride gives way to anger and acceptance, after emotionally reconciling with the consequences of his actions. His measured approach invites the audience not to just focus on his character but allows them to think critically about the death penalty and how it affects not just prisoners but the families and the community at large.
Even while playing a hapless slacker, Sean Penn manages to show off glimpses of the ability that we’ve come to know and expect from him. Penn plays a naive drug pusher named Daulton Lee, who becomes a spy for the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. A lesser actor may have let this character slip into the archetype of a typically dazed slacker but Penn delivers shots of manic energy in just the right doses. He does this while still managing to make Lee seem like a man who is never able to grasp the gravity of the situations he finds himself trapped in.
3. I Am Sam
Penn’s transformative acting ability is on full display here, as the mentally handicapped but delightful Sam Dawson. He plays Sam with a heart-breaking honesty that comes to the fore when he loses custody of his daughter. Although audiences are used to seeing strong elements of Penn in his characters, Penn throws himself into the role, bringing a very interesting dynamic to the father daughter relationship. He grounds his character against a good supporting cast that includes a promising turn by young Dakota Fanning. This gives us the sense that no matter how awkward Sam may seem in our world, Sam’s earnest approach is very real to himself. Even as Sam struggles to connect with the world, Penn’s approach makes it easy for us to connect with Sam, especially when he yearns to be a father to his daughter.
In real life, Sean Penn is known for his activist streak and has picked roles that zero in on current and relevant social issues. Yet again, Milk is based on a real life story. This time Penn takes on the story of politician Harvey Milk, an advocate for gay rights in California during the seventies who was gunned down. Penn unabashedly portrays Milk’s openness and is a bright spark, allowing Milk’s charm and personality to shine through. He takes the audience along for the ride, even encouraging us to indulge and feel Milk’s passion for his cause. He manages to successfully draw us in, despite the inevitability of the tragic end to Milk’s story. Penn’s efforts garnered him his second Oscar for Best Actor, in what was a strong field of nominees that year.