Actor-activist Sean Penn, Part 2

In the final night of the two-part conversation, the Oscar-winning actor-director continues his discussion of the “miracle of the spirit of the Haitian people” and also reflects on this year’s 30th anniversary of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Sean Penn is one of Hollywood's most versatile actors. Disappearing into his roles, he's given memorable performances in such films as I Am Sam, Dead Man Walking, Mystic River and Milk and won two Academy Awards. The son of two actors, the California native became interested in the "family business" in his teens and has also directed features and music videos. Penn is known for being a politically outspoken activist, as well as a passionate humanitarian. He was very active in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, co-founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.


Tavis: Welcome back. Good to see you again.

Sean Penn: Thanks very much.

Tavis: I want to pick up where we left off last night. We last night raised the name of President Bill Clinton who was essentially – if you are now the ambassador for the Haitian people around their issues, Bill Clinton was our ambassador asked by President Obama to lead the effort to raise money for Haiti.

What’s the top line of what President Clinton was able to do in terms of fundraising and has that money trickled down, pardon the phrase, to the Haitian people?

Penn: President is, without a doubt, the most significant foreign player in Haiti. You know, just running an NGO for the first time in these last two years, I think that I can say very safely that it is a difficult process to find proper capacity where the money should go.

Donors are very wary of the investments that they make and, when people are critical of President Clinton in this, I think what they have to understand is that most of the billions of dollars that were raised that they complain have not yet been spent would not have been in existence, had President Clinton not been there to encourage the raising of those funds. So we start there.

He is, I think and the Haitians would acknowledge this as well – the Haitians, I mean the Haitian government and most Haitians on the street as well – I think the great hope of partners of Haiti.

What happens is, we all associate everything that’s gone right or everything that’s gone wrong with President Clinton, and that’s quite a burden to have on him. He’s very involved; he’s very invested, he’s very constantly curious. He knows more about it than anybody else there. I think he’s been enormously supportive of the best efforts that have happened.

I think that the picture that he gets the title page on, which is both the celebration of the good works that have been done and most of the criticism, is gonna show itself, is gonna have an extraordinary legacy and it’s starting to peek through now.

I think that that’s also an example of his patience. Though he can be very demanding of individual organizations in the field, I think, in the big picture sense, he understands better than any of us that this is gonna take a long time, but it’s gonna work.

Tavis: By and large, though, would you say that the majority of the money that was pledged has or has not arrived?

Penn: Oh, it most certainly has not arrived, no. There needs to be. This is why the media, I think, plays a very important part in it also and this is separate and apart from anything that relates to President Clinton. It has to nation-state commitments and people coming through on the pledges that they made.

We understand that the world economy is in a different place even than it was during the donor’s conference that happened in New York a couple of years ago, but those pledges are the hope of Haiti. As I said yesterday, there’s a thing about Haiti that has to be understood when talking about donorship.

Martin Luther King once said that it’s fine to tell a man to pick himself up by his own bootstraps, but it’s cruel to say that to a man who doesn’t have any boots. There’s a lot of that still going on in Haiti. So when you’re dealing with donors, there’s a word that constantly comes up, which is sustainability.

The sustainability is an investment and understanding in the Haitian people themselves because it’s they that will create that sustainability. When you do it in theoretical programs, one time after another doesn’t work and hasn’t worked.

Frankly, my belief is that Haiti would have been better off today had there never been a single NGO there in these last 30 years.

Tavis: That’s a serious statement.

Penn: I’m quite sure of it. It has been a primarily destructive force, but that now, largely because of the leadership of President Clinton, the organizations are beginning to align in a way that is understanding that it’s not what makes you feel good that does good.

Tavis: You got to unpack that for me, though. I think I know where you’re going with this, but I don’t want to make assumptions. How can NGOs be destructive forces?

Penn: Well, it can be as simple as traffic. There’s too much traffic in the capital. There is what they call often the Republic of NGOs.

What happens is that all of these people that come in are paid stipends, high salaries, and are really careerist aid workers, also have careers to aid workers domiciles which means they’re pushing up the rents on those areas so that Haitians can’t afford to live in the very houses that they once did or of what’s left of housing.

Tavis: There’s traffic? There’s gentrification?

Penn: Yes. And it’s also a kind of the dependency that is so often talked about as something to avoid. You don’t want to create a welfare state, a dependent state and so on. It has to be looked at for what it is.

It’s a country where what’s available to people is $1 to $2 a day to begin with. Almost no clean water around the country. A child gets a fever in the United States and it’s high enough and sustainable enough, all of us can bring a child to an emergency room.

Most Haitians never had that opportunity. They didn’t have the emergency room to bring them to. Virtually every time your child has 102 fever, you wait for it to die and you have no clean water to give it.

So when you’re talking about a country that really is starting from scratch, people apologize for it. They’ve wanted to mask that and they do these little pocket projects that will last as long as those organizations stay there.

We’ve now seen an enormous flight of NGOs fading. This has been a good thing because those who have stayed are able to identify each other and, more importantly, the government is able to give them areas of operations and not have overlap and start to make this whole system work and be turned over to the Haitians.

Tavis: I know what you meant when you said a few minutes ago that former President Bill Clinton is the most important political player outside of Haiti. What does that say, then, about the current President Barack Obama and what his administration is or is not doing a couple years later vis-à-vis Haiti?

Penn: Well, I think that President Clinton coordinates very much with the White House and in particular with the State Department, not just with the Secretary for clear reasons, but also the Chief of Staff of the Secretary, who is the Secretary’s designee, Cheryl Mills, who has been, I would say, the most active deputy of U.S. efforts to help Haiti. She is an extraordinary woman.

While she serves at the behest of the Secretary of State for the world and for all foreign policy issues related to the State Department in the world, she is available. We all call her the Haiti Desk Officer [laugh] because virtually at three in the morning, she’s immediately responsive if there’s a need from the State Department in Haiti.

There’s been a great effort. There’s been a great change in philosophy. I think that the trade policies are going to be adjusted significantly to allow for what ultimately needs to be more Haitian export. The power structure that relates to import is a problem there.

One of the issues that I’d like to see the government be able to look into is a taxation on the Lotto. If I had it my way, they would nationalize the Lotto. It’s unlikely to happen because it would be politically rather inflammatory. But this is the only organization that’s been able to successfully tax the Haitian people.

Tavis: A couple more questions about Haiti, then I want to move to some movie stuff, the fun stuff. Of all the work that you are doing through your NGO, what are the two or three things that you feel that you have done the best? I’m asking this because you suggested earlier that NGOs can in fact be destructive.

Obviously, you weren’t speaking of your own, but what are the two or three things that you think that you’ve done best, things that you are proudest of? Because when you look at what happened after the earthquake, there was so much to be done. What do you think you’ve done best?

Penn: Well, in our camp management, we had the largest camp in Port-au-Prince at 60,000 people. We’ve relocated at this point 40,000 of them.

Tavis: Out of that camp.

Penn: Into safe housing and where they have community centers available for livelihood support, for matchmaking between skill sets and training. We’ve put two community hospitals from our camp now into the community that they’ve moved into. We still have 20,000 people under tents yet to go.

In the engineering, we’ve moved hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of rubble and demolished dangerous buildings. We’ve started a project with the World Bank where, in the next two months, we’ll have the first 30 of what we hope will be thousands of permanent structure homes built in the community.

Our medical organization has been one of the most dynamic in the country not only serving the area of operations where we’ve principally focused in Port-au-Prince and at the camp, but also nationwide when it came to the cholera response because we were the only ones in the air with supplies, and we had the largest supply of the intravenous needs related to cholera.

And our education support is starting to broaden, so I would say I’ve got a staff of 300, like I said, 95% or 97% Haitian, and I’m equally proud of all of them.

I find myself now a bystander to a Haitian operation and they’ve elevated the operation to a way that I never would have imagined.

Tavis: We all celebrated. You received just days ago that Joel Siegel Humanitarian Award presented to you by George Clooney for your work in Haiti.

The last question on this is why – given all that you’ve done, I could assume what the answer is, but given how much more there is to do still, why do you remain hopeful?

Penn: Well, I can tell you. When I went to Haiti originally, we landed and you see what you see on the streets. It was like nothing I’d ever seen from bodies to the stench of death to the extraordinary amount of devastation to buildings and so on, roads completely blocked.

And while there is so much legitimate criticism to be had, the miracle of what has happened in only two years is not just a miracle of infrastructure or clearing to make way for infrastructure. It’s a miracle of spirit of the Haitian people.

We came to a panicked and devastated, traumatized population, virtually everybody, and now you see this incredible life inside coming out of these people, incredible partnership now turning it into instead of us being there to help them, them showing us the way moving forward.

Haiti is taking on leadership both in the populace and in the government and that hand-in-hand with the support where they don’t have the boots to pull up on their own until they do. It’s a recipe for success that’s clear to any layman.

It just takes a visit to Haiti to see it and, once that happens, we have in terms of a trade partner, you know, you think of the carbon footprint, with the peril with China. Well, if we’re in an environmental world, then the United States has an obligation to invest in manufacturing in Haiti.

North America is one and a half hours away by plane and it is just strategically business-wise. It’s the socially responsible and ultimately dramatically more profitable investment to make, so Haiti’s gonna work.

Tavis: I want to shift to asking a few questions about you in the minutes I have left here. I read something the other day [laugh] attributed to you. You never know whether to believe everything you read, but it kind of sounded like you, so I’m gonna just ask about it anyway. I’m paraphrasing here.

It’s clear to me that you’ve fallen in love with the Haitian people, but this quote I read the other day said something to the effect that even you admitted that I’m not always crazy about humans, but I love humankind. I love this notion of humankind, although I’ve got issue with humans and have had for the majority of my life.

Did you say something similar to that, and what did you mean by that exactly? Because I’m trying to juxtapose that with how much you clearly love these people in Haiti.

Penn: Yeah, look. I’d phrase it this way.

Tavis: [Laugh] I thought you might want to rephrase on that. Okay, go ahead. Rephrase.

Penn: Here’s what that refers to. I don’t remember the actual thing that I said. What it refers to is I was never – you know, once I started to be known as an actor, for example, you might be asked to visit a hospital or a pediatric hospital. I’m not good at it. I’m not good at talking to strangers, whether they’re sick children or they’re – I’m just not good. I’m shy with it.

So when I get to Haiti, it’s the same thing. I’m kind of like I want to wear a shirt that says, “Tell it to a humanitarian,” you know? Because I’m there because I’ve got a lot of great humanitarians that work with me. I’m there as a facilitator. It’s what’s kept my mission clear there. I like it. When I go to bed at night and I think of humanity at large, I think of all those things.

Of course, I’m particularly touched and proud when I feel I could have had something to do with it, but I look at what I was trying to facilitate and then I look at the many people or many organizations that may have taken it on or taken it on and then birthed it into something bigger and better, and you can’t help but fall in love with the country that you’re working in, with the group that you’re working with.

It doesn’t matter where it is or whatever. My relationship to Haiti, as it turns out, it’s Haiti. I didn’t specifically choose it. It was a bit of an accident. But, yeah, whether it’s Haitians or Americans, you know, I have social issues, no question.

Tavis: I will accept your rephrase.

Penn: Okay.

Tavis: And I’m glad that you get along well enough with me at least to come see me a few times.

Penn: Great to see you.

Tavis: I appreciate that [laugh]. I was looking the other day at your discography, your long and growing corpus of work. I don’t know if it’s occurred to you or not, since you’re so early in the year, but it’s the 30th anniversary of “Fast Times.”

Thirty years since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” So let me just ask you to reflect upon that, if you might, three decades later.

Penn: Well, of course, the first response is age-related [laugh]. My first reflection is, at the time, I remember how fast I was running up and down San Vicente and trying to maintain the physique of the surfer and how much slower I would run that thing today [laugh]. You know, I maintained some friendships, in particular the producer, Art Linson, who I see all the time.

It represents a lot of things. It represents things particular to the movie, but it represents the beginning of what’s now been, I guess, a pretty long and very lucky run. It’s enabled me to do a lot of the other things that I’ve been able to do in my life, to be able to work in movies. Movies is a tricky road.

I had this experience the other day because I had been in Haiti until this last week and I came in because we had the fundraiser. I was rushing from one place to another and I looked out the window of the car.

It was the afternoon, but as they were preparing all the – people were starting to file in for the Golden Globes and I thought to myself, “I used to be in that business.” I was kind of still in Haiti in my head.

So, yeah, “Fast Times” was a long time ago and also a minute ago. You know, there are things that really seem like it was yesterday.

Tavis: You’re a long way from being done, thankfully and obviously, but has this journey over these few decades been vis-à-vis your Hollywood work what you thought it was going to be? Has it exceeded your expectations? Has it been about what you thought it was going to be? How would you characterize what this journey has been so far?

Penn: Well, in many ways, it far exceeds. I mean, I’ve had opportunities to do these things far in excess of what I thought. I thought I would work in the theater for a long time, which was my initial thought.

There weren’t a lot of young actors working until Timothy Hutton kind of rose. There weren’t a lot of movies like today there are. You figured you’d be older by the time you were working in things. Most of the product at that time was that.

On the other hand, it’s a struggle that I didn’t anticipate because I came directly out of a movie-going generation in my teens where the stories that were written and the people that made them did both. They made them, and now I feel that the way that films are made, by and large, is that they’re made on a budget enough to represent what the idea is and to sell it.

The movies that we often celebrate today as our best movies are midgets in comparison to the texture and investment that was what I grew up with. So I didn’t anticipate to have to fight tooth and nail every time out to try to get into the things that I was involved in, the basics. And I didn’t expect quite the celebrity culture that was gonna come.

You know, it’s really an infection that everybody’s embraced, so now it’s been good for me to have the perspective in Haiti and I expect that the only thing that anybody can do is, in their own way, try to at least invest that in the projects that they are involved with and, particularly, when I’m directing and I have ownership of that to do it. But it’s like starting over again each time in some way because you’re in a new environment with it each time.

Tavis: We’ve got 45 seconds here. Since you mentioned directing – nice segue. Thank you. I appreciate that. The Robert De Niro project? “The Comedian?” That’s happening?

Penn: It looks like it is happening, yeah. We’re just trying to figure out the timetable in which to do it, but it’s a terrific script written by Art Linson who produced “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Tavis: Sean Penn directing, Robert De Niro starring in a project called “The Comedian.” Sean Penn, I am always honored to have you on this program in part because I respect you not just for entertaining us, but also for empowering us with the work that you do. The work that you’re doing in Haiti is among the best work being done in the world and I celebrate you for doing that.

Penn: Well, I celebrate you back. It’s very important what you do and I appreciate it.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. Sean Penn, two nights of a conversation with him. Glad to have him back on this program.

That’s it for tonight. We’ll leave you with just a small sample of some of the memorable roll of films Sean Penn has given us over these years. Until next time, goodnight from Los Angeles, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.


Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm