It was one of the more ferocious scenes in The Pledge, and when Sean Penn, who was directing it, called "Cut!," he expected Jack Nicholson to be drained to the point of dropping. But Nicholson turned to an assistant, bummed a cigarette, flashed one of his wolfish, insouciant grins and said, "We all have our little secrets, Seany." It's a story Penn likes to tell because it illustrates a point: like all other terrific actors, neither he nor Nicholson can tell you how he does what he sublimely does.
We think of Penn as an angry actor. That's not entirely fair, since he was first noticed as a hilariously stoned surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And one of his four Oscar nominations was for playing a sweet-souled retarded man in I Am Sam. But he won an Oscar this year for mobilizing an implacably vengeful rage as the father of a murdered girl in Mystic River. Before that, he turned his anger into the rancid sullenness of a tormented guitar player in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown and made us sympathize with an unapologetic killer in Tim Robbins' death-row drama, Dead Man Walking.
Let's call him a necessary actor. The movies always have a place for at least one causeless rebel whose choler is both enigmatic and unappeasable. Maybe, at 43, Penn has learned to speak politely in public. But it's one of our great guilty pleasures to watch him surface those terrible emotions we all feel but dare not share.
From the Archives
The Penn Method: He has caused commotion on and off the screen. Now Sean Penn has two big films, a real home life and a healthy view of his job
Next Guy Laliberté