In his day, Harvey Milk did things many in the establishment would consider “radical” and “outspoken”. An openly gay man during a time when the gay rights movement had just reached full bloom, he became city supervisor in 1978, fighting off anti-gay legislation and proclaiming himself as mayor of San Francisco’s gay-populated Castro Street.
However, Milk’s historical career in politics would be a short one and ended in tragedy when he was murdered by fellow supervisor Dan White. The murder stoked a fire for civil rights in the gay community that continues to rage to this very day. Now with director Gus Van Sant’s latest film Milk telling Harvey’s courageous and incredible story, who better to fill his shoes than actor Sean Penn.
Penn is a figure in Hollywood not just well known for his great performances in his 25+ year career including Dead Man Walking and his Oscar-winning role in Mystic River. Like Harvey Milk, he is equally perceived for views considered “radical” and “outspoken” against the bungled Iraq War, response to Hurricane Katrina, and overall administration of President George W. Bush. It’s that sense of impassioned fearlessness he’s exhibited both as an actor and activist that first compelled the now-48-year-old to embody the persona of Harvey Milk.
“I don’t know if there was such a thing as being scared to make a movie, but there were challenges in this that were exciting for me,” Sean says, “But primarily, it started with Gus Van Sant that any actor with a hunger to participate in something fantastic wants to work with Gus.”
“So it was with Sant and [Dustin] Lance [Black’s] sensational script and it seemed like a no-brainer to want to do it,” he adds, “And of course, with that, I can lay on top of all of the particular values of this story that Harvey Milk’s life had, but that would take a long time. But those were the initial things. It was a wonderfully-written script with one of the great directors.”
As with many portrayals of larger-than-life political figures from Anthony Hopkins’s Richard Nixon to recently Josh Brolin’s George W. Bush, the latter of which co-stars in the film with Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and James Franco, Sean says he methodically studied every detail of the San Francisco city supervisor and gay rights activist to the nth degree.
“The documentary and also, the additional archival footage was, I’m sure, very helpful,” he says, “I say that a little vaguely because, with that sort of thing, the best way you could use it was that you watch a lot the same way you’d play music all day in the background and not necessarily be thinking about it. But just I kept it on all the time and all the synapses start to connect and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the music of that and you kind of dance with it. But, then, that and, of course, what Lance wrote, and it comes from all directions.”
“But it was clear, at least, in terms of, for a lack of a better term, character choice that the most exciting version of Harvey Milk to me is Harvey Milk,” Penn adds, “If you see the documentary, the guy of the movie star of that documentary, he’s an electric warm guy. So you just reach and reach and reach. You never assume you’re going to get all the way there, but you figure that with the help of a director and a screenwriter and all the things that a movie is that you can get the spirit of it out there the best you can.”
Penn also goes on to note that what he believes also contributed to his dedication in embodying Harvey Milk was the equally fervent dedication of his crew and fellow cast.
“I think Lance summed it up when he said those people being part of it created an extended family,” he believes, “You always hear about that one of the big parts of a director’s job is setting the tone and the environment on a set. And a kind of broader version of that, I guess, is just the spirit of something, you know, the way anybody in anything creative works, you try to let the spirit move you.”
“Well, there was a lot of spirit around and by spirit, it means, of course, practical information, which sometimes it can help, sometimes it can overload you, it depends,” Sean continues, “But from the cast of this movie, it was one of these movies where if the director’s job was to create an environment, he did. And that included that, all of those people being there was very guiding.”
The next thought one wonders when embodying someone so larger-than-life, how did that manage to stay with Sean between takes and on and off set?
“The answer is he did stay with me,” Penn replies, “How? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t given it a lot of thought. If something comes in and you ever been aware that it’s there, you leave it alone, so it doesn’t go away. In terms of humanly, one likes to think that with each day and each person that comes into their life directly and indirectly, that there’s growth of some kind, hopefully in a positive direction.”
“Certainly with him, but I can’t identify,” he adds, “Certainly, in a very immediate way, there’s been a lot of let’s say timeliness to this story that we’ve all been thinking of in reference to this recent experience that we had, but I can’t be more specific than that.”
When pressed further to elaborate, Sean’s clarification on his process proved to be remarkably simple.
“Well, my daily life consists of getting up at 6:00AM and making sure I got my words together, that my kids that are off to school are going to wake up in time if I leave before them for work and then, I’m at work all day,” he replies, “And then I’m exhausted going home, learning all my lines for the next day. I don’t know if I had a daily life, other than what is on the screen.”
We asked Penn to give us his thoughts on how the gay community in America would have been different had Milk not been killed.
“I think less people would have died of AIDS,” Sean believes, “I think Ronald Reagan would have been forced to address it. And it was a tragic loss. He wouldn’t have stood quietly and he would have known he is a leader and he happened to be focused on the gay movement.”
“And because the impression was that this was initially popularly the notion it was a gay disease and certainly huge in numbers of homosexuals died related to all of it, I think he would have advanced the argument a lot sooner,” he continues, “I think people are dead because he died too soon.”
Despite the promise of homosexuality becoming more accepted and normalized in America and around the world with the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, the fire in the battle over gay rights continues to be white hot. This year’s momentous and historic election of Barack Obama was marred by the passing of a bill known as Proposition 8 in California that now threatens to extinguish the national rise of legalized gay marriage. Sean shares Milk‘s potential impact on the movement.
“Even the word ‘issue’ about this, it’s only an issue because of ignorance in the first place. We don’t have an excuse of being ignorant of the law,” he expresses, “If we could have no excuse of being ignorant of human history, then, in fact, any support, for example, of Proposition 8 would be minimally manslaughter.”
“Because human history tells us there’s going to be teenage boys who are going to be hanging themselves out of a reach for an identity that they can’t get, in part, because of things like the issues like this, precious words like this, and all the things of the whole history of any civil rights movement has had,” Penn adds, “So as long as it’s an issue, it’s an obscenity. And if this movie is part of an engine that helps to reveal that, that’s going to make all of us who worked on this movie really happy and proud.”
When asked about how he feels gay activists will stand up to what has been the longtime fundamental disagreement shared by the religious in America of all stripes, in regards to their belief that marriage is solely between a man and a woman, Penn’s reply on the faith-based opposition was nuanced.
“I also think it’s important to remember, in the long run, that the tension is not between the gay and the faith community,” Sean notes, “The tension is between a gay community, which is in fact, really is gay and a pseudo-faith community, which has nothing to do with God, love, or anything of real faith. So it’s really just hypocrisy and hatred. So any community that really deserves the title of faith community really won’t have a problem with these issues.”
Sean says that his experience in doing Milk and in learning the incredible history behind it further cements for him a basic, fundamental ideal he not only believes is expressed in the film, but continues to struggle to be heard in the ongoing battle for homosexuality to be viewed more humanely by the eyes of the world.
“Well, Cleve Jones said something really great early on,” Penn recalls, “He put together a dinner with a lot of the people who had been involved in Harvey’s campaign. He said one of the myths is that we’re all just the same, it’s just the sex that’s different. In reality, we’re very different, it’s just the sex that’s pretty much the same.”
“And the difference, of course, is living with bigotry and oppression and all that sort of shit,” he adds, “And that was something where the focus went, the rest of it, some people, the guy gives them a boner, for somebody else, it’s a woman. So it approached the sex is the sex is the sex. The other part was really the heart of the picture.”