x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Many roads for the cowboy poet

Sean Penn has dropped out of two film projects, an action could doom both productions. What's going on with the rebel actor two years from 50?

Sean Penn with his wife, Robin Wright Penn, has recently dropped out of two large film projects
Sean Penn with his wife, Robin Wright Penn, has recently dropped out of two large film projects

Sean Penn has dropped out of two forthcoming film roles. Just like that. The producers of the Farrelly brothers' Three Stooges remake and of Asger Leth's La Scorta have all been plunged into chaos and are reportedly weighing whether to find a replacement or postpone shooting plans. What of the central figure to this mystery? Why has Penn so suddenly shrugged off two major parts? Naturally, varied reasons are being touted across Hollywood to anyone who'll listen. The man himself has said it is a move made for family reasons, plausible enough given that both he and his wife, Robin Wright Penn, have filed for divorce separately in the past two years, only to then halt the proceedings. This most recently occurred in April.

Others say it's because the more "artsy" actors in this world are suffering in the face of budget cuts, and thereby "taking a break" sounds better than admitting you're sulking about the roles on offer. But then maybe, just maybe, it's because with more than 50 films on his CV, two Oscars notched up in five years and two big films due out in 2010, Penn feels like sitting back for a bit and having a year of doing nothing, or anything; whatever he likes, in fact.

In some circles, this is also referred to as a gap year. But what would Penn's gap year look like? Traditionally, gap years start off with some kind of perfunctory job; a few months idling in a shop maybe. Penn doesn't need to worry about amassing a decent hourly wage to finance his travels to Thailand, so given his fervent interest in politics, perhaps an internship in the White House would be more suitable.

It was during the last Bush administration that Penn's political beliefs revealed themselves. In 2002, he paid $56,000 (Dh206,000) to The Washington Post for an advertisement in the form of an open letter, condemning Bush's plans to invade Iraq. A year later, he paid $125,000 (Dh459,000) for a full-page in The New York Times with further criticism. In other controversial moves, he has befriended the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and in 2005 visited Iran to cover the presidential elections then for the San Francisco Chronicle. (He's a pretty nifty writer too, of course). "I'm actually angrier and more radical than I was at 20," he told The Sunday Times in 2007. "The thing to do is to find out how to channel than anger in ways that are productive." In recent years, Penn's film roles have echoed his interest in politics: Milk, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and All The King's Men, for example, but a spell doing the photo-copying in the White House could prove an even more effective outlet.

It would then be time for our 48-year-old "golden gappie" to embark on the more philanthropic part of his year out. For teenagers, this often means teaching English in Cambodia or Sri Lanka, or helping to lug trees about and build bridges in remote parts of South America, just like Prince William did. Given that Penn's first wife, Madonna, once referred to him as her "cowboy poet", we think he could be gainfully employed at a ranch in Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park. A helpful website (www.gapyearforgrownups.co.uk), offers three volunteer weeks of wrangling and gadding about with a stetson, helping to drive the cattle in. Giddy-up, Sean.

Alternatively, as he used to shoulder the reputation as a Hollywood bad boy, then on the same website he might note a job as camp counsellor to teenagers in Canada. It would be a role in which Penn could discuss anger management, having been through therapy himself. He could tell his charges about his 60-day prison sentence in 1987 for attacking a film extra and his scraps with paparazzi during that period, or warn them against the danger of dysfunctional relationships, using his four-year marriage to Madonna as an example.

And after that work, like all good gappers, he can pencil in travel time. Again, given his anger, a few weeks spent cross-legged meditating in an Indian ashram might not be a bad idea. Gap years are, after all, supposed to be spent being tattooed, having your hair deadlocked and, above all, "finding yourself". But most likely, his journeying will also have to include somewhere with a good rip tide, because Penn has been a devoted surfer since moving to Malibu with his family when he was nine years old. There, he fell in with the budding neighbourhood brat pack, which included Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen and Rob Lowe. But although they dabbled in amateur filmmaking, surfing was Penn's biggest passion, and he has since called the sport a spiritual art form. A couple of months spent cresting the waves in Hawaii would round things off splendidly.