July 03, 2020

Sean Penn

Actor Sean Penn discusses his efforts to expand coronavirus testing access through his non-profit, CORE. The organization initially offered free drive-through tests in Penn’s hometown, Los Angeles, and is now in a dozen cities. Penn urges people to come together in this moment of crisis rather than focus on partisan politics.

GUEST Sean Penn
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VO: He’s one of Hollywood’s leading men, playing a leading role in a real life crisis. This week on Firing Line.

“I know you’re angry! I’m angry!” (Harvey Milk)

VO: It was as gay rights activist Harvey Milk that Sean Penn earned his second Academy Award. Penn has been a death row inmate

“Thank you for loving me.” (Dead Man Walking)

VO: And a wartime commander 

“What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?” (Thin Red Line)

VO: Penn’s desire to make a difference led him to New Orleans after Katrina, and Haiti after the earthquake

SOT: a lot of people are suffering

VO The relief work he’s doing these days began right in his own backyard

CNN SOT We should be testing, retesting and retesting. 

VO: What does actor/activist Sean Penn say now?

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HOOVER: Sean Penn, welcome to Firing Line. 

PENN: Thanks very much. Good to be here.

HOOVER: You are a two-time Academy Award winning actor, a director, an author, and you have been involved in humanitarian relief work now for more than a decade. We saw you making rescues yourself in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and you spent months in Haiti after that devastating earthquake in 2010. And you have founded a nonprofit called Community Organized Relief Effort right there on your shirt, CORE, which is on the frontlines of the current COVID-19 pandemic. And I am grateful that you are joining me. Listen, did you ever in your wildest imagination think that you would be administering humanitarian relief aid in your own hometown, Los Angeles, California? 

PENN: No, not at all. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a real adjustment to make psychologically. When we’re working overseas and particularly in what are typically considered third world countries, and you get a text message from a friend, you just immediately say, ‘in the field, we’ll call back later.’ To consider it being in your own hometown. And thinking of that is ‘in the field’ is a very it is an odd paradigm shift.

HOOVER: Your organization Core has decided to focus on testing. 

PENN: Yeah

HOOVER: And you’re offering free drive thru testing to the country’s most vulnerable populations. First, how did you focus on testing? Why did you pick that area to focus on? 

PENN: Well, I woke up to the morning that was COVID-19 and knew that I had under my feet an infrastructure and I had great people in disaster response. We had worked through the cholera epidemic in Haiti as well as post-earthquake and had some relationship to infectious disease in that sense. So we went to the governor, to Governor Newsom in California and said, hey, you’ve got a team here, is there a gap we can help fill? He guided us to Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, who with the Los Angeles Fire Department had already set up a very good testing system. So, but the problem was that on all their test sites in Los Angeles, it was manned by 20 to 25 firefighters, which meant that those firefighters would not be in the field. And, you know, responding with their paramedic corps, with their brushfire corps, and all of that. So we were able to go and get trained up by them and then build trainers out of our own people and be able to start recruit. And so it’s something that we were able to take off the hands of the Fire Department because anybody who’s gotten a little bit of will and a little bit of thought is able to learn how to animate the testing aspect of it 

HOOVER: You’ve started this drive-through testing on March 30th in Los Angeles and are now managing testing sites in five states and are expanding to several others, including Navajo Nation. You were in Chicago just this week with the mayor of Chicago. How many tests have you administered now? 

PENN: I’m going to be guessing because I might be in the weeds on that. I’m more in the field these days. I think about a quarter million. 

HOOVER: It seems like the key to your collaboration, or the key to your core effort, a strategy is to build partnerships in order to fill gaps. 

PENN: Absolutely. And it’s partnerships. Initially, the one thing that we hope will be replicated by other groups with other local governments, municipalities, whether on a state or local level. The way that we’re going to make a real impact is not so much with our 250 thousand tests to date or whatever that number actually is. But the replicability of this kind of match between government, government and an NGO or community organization on whatever scale that they’re able to do it. It’s the way that I believe the whole country can get tested when these disasters happen. You know, I think President Obama recently used the analogy about pulling the veil back. Well, it’s not only pulling the veil back on those things that might be criticized in government. You pull back the veil on government in general and you’re going to find that, yes, all of the big tools are there, but they are not there to the scale that would allow, for example, mass testing. You don’t have the human resources when it comes to contact tracing. One of the difficulties in using the National Guard is, you know you don’t, a lot of people are not going to be very cooperative with information if it’s a man in uniform or a woman in uniform knocking on their door saying, who have you been around lately? So being co-citizens in that way,  working with groups like the National Guard, those things are very important. So it’s, it’s really about being willing to have faith in each other, and go in. And when you come to a city or state locality that has political leadership, that embraces it and takes a leap of faith, you do see an awful lot of magic happen.

HOOVER: Two things. One, are there local municipalities, do you find that they’re eager to work with you? And are there states — you know most municipalities are blue areas, right? You know, cities tend to be more liberal. What about red cities? Or, you know, more some of the more conservative places. I’m thinking Oklahoma City or Jacksonville, Florida. Have you thought about expanding into those places? 

PENN: Well, we’ve worked in and what I would say, friendly and unfriendly environments. Within any unfriendly environment you will find some people in leadership. For example, we work in Atlanta, Georgia. Their Mayor Bottoms has been great and supportive. I think she just genuinely has concern for her constituents. There you have a governor who’s on a planet unknown to me. So, yes, it is a little more difficult in those circumstances. But the bottom line is that it is, you know, any thinking person knows this isn’t about… I’m not in the opening-of-economy or not-opening-of-economy business. There’s no reason for me to distract myself with, you know, with a shared opinion about the opening aspect of it. What is certain to me is that testing is a partnership between citizens at large and it’s not bordered by states. We should all be getting tested, for the public, for the surveillance, is a big part of it so that we start to understand this virus. But also so those families that would otherwise be affected by someone who tests positive, that person can be isolated. I think we should all wear masks, whether we are red, blue or parading in the streets. If only as a sign of solidarity with these hospital workers who have put themselves on behalf of other human beings in the line of duty they have. What we can do is put it on just to say I salute you. That’s all we have to do. 

HOOVER: If we can get to the place where we’re testing as much as we need to. What does that look like? Is that every American can get tested as much as once or twice a week? 

PENN: Yeah, that’s what I, that’s what I, you see the tell. The important thing that everyone needs to know about the PCR is diagnostic tests, meaning we’re not talking about the serology antibody test. We’re not in the serology test business at this stage. All we do is the diagnostic test that says, yes, you’re positive or your negative. The test result is as reliable as the isolation that you give yourself between testing and result. Anybody can pick it up in between. So I do think that if people are diligent, if they get tested twice a week, and it’s absolutely, not only possible, we as a country could easily test twice a week. And the test doesn’t take long. 

HOOVER: What about the people who are nervous about getting tested. There are people who are reluctant still. What do you say to them? 

PENN: Again, they gotta look hard at the people they love and then make that decision and get past that fear. 

HOOVER: I’d like to show you something President Trump said about testing just recently. Let me show you what he said and get your reaction on the back end. 

TRUMP: “What we’ve done on testing, we’ve now tested more than the entire world put together. The entire world put together, we have many more tests than they do and better tests. And the reason we have more cases is because we have more testing.”

HOOVER: We actually have not conducted more tests than the whole world put together, although we have completed more raw tests than any other individual country. You know, it’s widely acknowledged the federal government was behind the ball and botched the initial phases of testing. What is your response, what’s your reaction to the federal government’s response on testing?

PENN: It goes without saying that none of us are clear. If there is a national strategy, none.. and federal guidelines, as it relates from social distancing to testing to every other aspect of procurement and manufacturing of PPE. You know, the way that the president said it, I would part ways just in the sense that knowing what we see on the ground and talking to people, because most of the work we do is in very marginalized populations. When those people, be they white, black, brown, anywhere in the country see that they have an opportunity to be tested twice a week, that’s when we will feel like a success. It doesn’t do me much good to get into talking about the White House. It’s gonna be our failure as a country, as citizens if we don’t, between advocating in our own ways for that production, etc. And and and to follow this up, we’ve put out, with Core, a manual. It’s open source on our Web site. It’s a kind of  idiot’s guide to setting up test sites. It’s not a complicated thing to do. You need the PPE, you need the tests, and you need the lab relationship. That can happen all over this country. And the success will be when every American has the opportunity to be tested twice a week. And the more Americans that opt in on that program, the sooner this thing’s going to be disarmed.

HOOVER: There are a lot of people who don’t wanna get tested twice a week. They don’t want to wear a mask. What do you think about incentivizing them to in some way? Maybe either tying it to unemployment benefits, tying it to PPP payments, the small business loans program. What about the– you know do you think people will just do it through the goodness of their own hearts? As you said, looking at their own family, or is there a way to mandate it or encourage it? 

PENN: The first thought is that it’s about leadership. This is– you know the idea– It’s not only the United States. Every part of the world is doing their own thing on this. And some of them in more interesting and successful ways than others. But nobody nobody’s bulletproof. And I think it really, I don’t see a better path than leadership. And if it has to be leadership in the state, then so be it. I do think the President of the United States, whatever conflict I may have, if IF – and I’m not suggesting this could happen or not – but the incredible legacy that he would have, no matter what’s happened, no matter how horrible certain things may appear and be for certain families across this country already. If he did attack this in a way that was, that moved forward quickly to where people could be tested twice a week, where the scientific community could have the surveillance that they need, I really believe that opening this economy will happen sooner. This is, at the very least, a mandatory rehearsal that this country has to have to understand preparedness, to understand solidarity, to understand how to group together and take these things on whether it’s a pandemic, a dirty bomb, all or a hurricane, or all the other things that are coming our way. This can be a great bonding moment. I just encourage the president and all the governors, you know, I’m spoiled because I come from a state that has done that. And I know and that doesn’t make our state bulletproof. But we are blessed to have Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti because they really have bid as much as possible within the complexity of a political position doing an extraordinary job. And now I’m in New York City, where I think that if there’s another governor that that I would be excited to work with, it would certainly be Governor Cuomo.

HOOVER: You sound a lot less partisan now than people think of you in the past, because, you know, I presume it’s because you’re in the trenches, you want to get things done. And the politics maybe aren’t front of mind. You tweeted, “Rage and skepticism have their place. No question. Still, when dynamic local or state leaders combine forces with dynamic constituency, they cannot be denied. Those who don’t believe that become the problem.”

PENN: Yeah, I think I got a little bit tired of myself believing that my dinner table passion conversations were translating or or were being productive. And I’ve always had great relationships with people of varying opinions. I’ve had bitter arguments. Sometimes that has to do with, you know, my own travels, the way the lens through which I’ve seen the world may be different from other people. But, you know, in humility, I am also just one more person saying, what the hell is going on? We’d better work together. In all aspects of this, but COVID- 19, we have the duty to make this a silver lining. We all think about the various silver linings possible every day. We have to to keep ourselves somewhat sane. But there are so many possibilities of that and it’s really the only way we’re gonna honor these tens of thousands of people that have died from this thing who were here with us — grandparents, fathers, mothers, etc., even some children, — they were just here with us alive a minute ago. And now we imagine them piled up like wood in the rain. And the only way that they get an honorable passing is if we commit ourselves to the silver linings.

HOOVER: How do you understand how partisan every element of this pandemic has become? Even the debate about reopening? I mean, last week there were protesters in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, your home beach, protesting the beach closures. The president is criticizing people who disagree with him. It seems like every aspect of this can’t be removed from the partisanship. How do you think about that?

PENN: Well, what we see, like, as I said, principally in quite marginalized areas, is that the larger number of people who are the most vulnerable and the most without — and who have been before this COVID-19 — they are the ones who are, largely, most concerned about opening too fast. And I do find it upsetting to see that people who have–  large groups of people who have never known any oppression or going without of any kind suddenly on their own behalf are saying, “free me, free me, free me” without real concern that the… Part of that, as I can be empathetic to because, living in quarantine is not something anybody expected to do. I just think we are in too much of a rush and too many people who are the haves are making the argument for opening without listening to those who don’t have the same access to health care and what that’s going to mean for their families if this thing goes wrong. 

HOOVER: But why do you think that, why do you think there’s a rush to get back? Do you think it’s politically driven? Do you think it’s just all about the economy? 

PENN: Well, I think there’s been so much misinformation that people are fatigued where they would be otherwise inspired. You know, it’s one of those times where you got to look the country in the eye and say, actually, we have to sacrifice completely. We can’t do it halfway.  And if we do that together, we can make all this go much quicker and much more effectively and save a lot of lives.

HOOVER: Do you think that we have done what you just said? We have stepped up to meet the moment. I don’t mean necessarily political leadership, maybe some have, maybe some haven’t, but the Americans and the American people basically took the guidance and went home.  

PENN: And I think largely, largely that’s true. But the guidance has been chaotic. And so we… You know, yes, it’s in the American people to stand up, that I’m seeing. I see it with our volunteers. And we’ve got 450 of them in their own neighborhoods working, doing this stuff for their own communities. So are Americans willing to step up? Yes. You go to the stores, you see some diligence. You also see, you know, the wiring that it takes to really do this, right, has to, again, be hammered into us when we go online and we read our newspapers when we watch the news on television. We’ve got to have a streamlined thing because it’s hard every day to realize what where your hand goes, what it touches. How far away you are from people. What is the air and the aerosol? What did they tell me yesterday different from today? What part of it is common sense? And I think common sense is another level of step up we still have not fully grasped in a harmonious way.  

HOOVER: You’ve made a career out of being an activist, being a rabble rouser, maybe earlier in your career, before your humanitarian relief work. Is there any part of you that empathizes with the protesters or feels sympathy for them? 

PENN: Oh, yeah. Well, I would say this: when I see people, you know, doing the unmasked, you know, kind of feels a bit hateful in its demonstration, weapons over shoulders and so on. What I see is people who are scared. They’re scared of not mattering. And we’ve got to work on that, and we’ve got to care about them as much as we do anybody else. And I do. You know, I can get infuriated watching that. And that’s — but that is where we go to leadership, and I think that we all can see where leadership harnesses the best in America and where it doesn’t.

HOOVER: How do you think the question of leadership is going to impact the 2020 election? 

PENN: You know, as of 2016, I opt out of this conversation. Look, what happened is on us. It’s on us for whether people are for this, happy with this administration, and those who are desperately unhappy. But, you know, those who wanted someone else in the White House evidently did not work hard enough, and I count myself in. They won, that’s the Electoral College. And now it’s up to America, whether they’re going to re-embrace that or change it.

HOOVER: During the primaries, you told Jimmy Kimmel that you’re increasingly focused and excited about the younger people and yourself deciding what the strategy should be and what’s at the heart of what the principles we stand for are. So in terms of those principles that we stand for, who is going to be a better leader continue us through COVID-19. Is that Joe Biden or is that President Trump?

PENN: I think it’s some brilliant 25 year old who’s got better digital fluency than either of them. And I think, you know, we are in an inverted possession of wisdom these days. You know, it used to be always us — I was hoping to do age into the older, wiser set. But I look and I think the greater wisdom is in the youth. I think that the way to change this country right now is to say, let’s take your lead. Because it’s their future. And I think that they are an oppressed society. Their dreams have been limited by our mistakes, and — or threatened, certainly. You know, I remember mountain caps, snow caps that were, had been there, you know, in time and in perpetuity and they’re gone now. And you talk about these things, this climate issue. COVID won’t be the existential threat, but it is the existential opportunity. I think climate is probably the first one and nuclear proliferation is the other one that I’d be more concerned with. But again, yeah, I would lower the age of  — what is it, about 36, 37 you’ve got to be to be president of the United States? 


PENN: Let’s take 8, 10 years off of that and we’ll be in business.

HOOVER: Listen, final question. As an artist, as you look at this pandemic, do you — are you finding a deeper meaning or understanding about why we’re experiencing this now?

PENN: Here’s a funny thing, when I was first in Haiti, 2010, after the earthquake, a lot of people who I would run into who thought I was there to make a movie about it. And it wasn’t for years that I actually ended up, till I ended up considering what that would look like. And what I thought was that the only way if hit the human heart with this story is that it could not be a drama. It has to be a farce. Like MASH, that great movie. We knew in our guts, in our hearts, we knew this was going to happen. Something like this was going to happen. So, I think that, you know, if I look at it through that lens… Like most things, until we can make fun of ourselves, we can’t grow. So I think that that would be the presentation that I would go to.

HOOVER: When are we going to make fun of ourselves again in the movies? When are people going to be back in the theaters?

PENN: That’s an interesting — look, I wondered when people were going to be back in the theater once everything started streaming, there was a lot of social distancing in that sense beforehand. 

HOOVER: Already

PENN: I hope that we get over being digitally connected a bit and realize that what does matter to be together, whether it’s in a movie theater when the time is right or not. And my biggest hope is that, you know, like what happened after the Vietnam War, and let’s remember, it took 10 years to kill 58,000 Americans, it took a few months to kill ninety thousand Americans in this one. So this is going to be with us. And then in the aftermath of that war, United — American cinema was its golden age, the greatest American films probably of all time. Where once we had been through that common horror together. And so it’s my hope that, you know, one of the collateral silver linings is we’ll be wanting to go to the theater to see things that connect us and are thoughtful, and not only those things that take us outside of our reality.

HOOVER: Sean Penn, keep doing your good work on and off the screen. Thanks for coming to Firing Line.

PENN: Thank you very much. 

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