June 1998 | Rebecca Lee | Total Film
“Suppose you were walking down the street, and this stranger asked you, ‘How many times did you fuck your boyfriend today?’ You won’t reply ‘Once,’ and ‘In this position,’ and `It wasn’t very good’. You just don’t do that. And that’s what it can be like in the celebrity world. You’re cattle, people have the liberty to ask these questions and you should be goddamn comfortable answering them.”
Robin Wright Penn is far from your typical celebrity-wife-ex-model-turned-Hollywood starlet. Indeed, so far removed is she from these roles —choosing to be genuine, natural, honest and funny over all the false glamour and pretence of Hollywood (despite living in LA) — that you’d never guess she was any of them.
In a suite in one of West London’s semi-swank hotels, Ms Wright-Penn is perched on a chair with her knees up, sucking on a lump of sugar. She is wearing barely a trace of make-up and looking — well. “I know,” she offers. “Hammered and jet-lagged?”
The Texan-born wife of actor-hothead Sean Penn (and the mother of his two children), who starred opposite Tom Hanks in ‘Forrest Gump’, Morgan Freeman in ‘Moll Flanders’ and Robin Williams in ‘Toys’, can also actually act. And all from the rather humble, rather embarrassing beginnings of ‘Santa Barbara’, the cheesy, set-wobbling US daytime soap which took away four years of her life and gave her three Emmy nominations.
“I remember being so in lust with Joe Bottoms, one of the actors on the show,” she grins. “Y’know when you have such a crush on someone you laugh all the time? Well, I would do that a lot when he came into a room. This one time he said something and I went ‘Aieeee!’ and laughed so hard I spat, like a hock delubey-snot, and it landed on his face.” She squeals and slaps her thigh. “And of course he went with it, Well, er, thank you.’ That was just about the most humiliating thing I… Oh no. Fuck, no!”
At the age of 32, Wright-Penn has finally, as any shrink would doubtless conclude, found a happy place. Driven by instinct and challenge rather than money or instant notoriety, she opts for manipulating her talent against exploiting her wholesome good looks.
A model since she was 17, though not in the Naomi and Claudia league (“I was too short and American looking“), it was only Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, her first success full big-screen role, that relied on her angelic features. As it goes, Wright-Penn categorically scorns the whole exploitative sex-bomb babe thing. For while everybody, from movie stars to TV personalities and singers, seem only too willing to take their kit off for any photo opportunity, she refuses to do it even in movies.
“I have a real problem taking my clothes off in films,” she says, picking up another sugar-lump and throwing it into her mouth. “I won’t do it. That’s not to say I won’t ever take my shirt off if it’s not appropriate and comfortable, but you won’t see me doing 9 1/2 Weeks, I can tell you.”
Her fear and loathing of flesh-baring isn’t unfounded. She actually did a full-frontal nude scene in ‘Moll Flanders’, although at her insistence it never made the final edit.
“I was annoyed that I did it,” she says, “because I had to go through all the pain, but Pen Densham, the director, was a decent enough human being to cut it out at my request. At the end of the day, the question is what is scared. Yes, I know, it’s expression of art or portrayal of a person or a true story, but hey man! This is my body.”
Wright-Penn is now awaiting the release of her next movie ‘Loved’. Directed by Erin Dignam, her best friend for the past 10 years, it’s a deeply harrowing film in which she takes on the role of a rape victim. Then she’s up for a little light relief—if a certain bespectacled director happens to be reading. “I want to do a romantic comedy. A Woody Allen film would be great. I’d love to do a scene, just one scene in a Woody Allen film.”
Anything is possible for one of the few great, multi-faceted actresses in Hollywood whose sexual allure falls second to ability.
“I just go for what I feel,” she says, “and if I can’t feel something, then I’m not gonna be able to send or share enough of the message with the audience, and that’s what I believe we’re here to do.” She spits the soggy sugar-lump into her hand with disgust, grimaces and flicks it into an ashtray. “I don’t think acting is a job,” she concludes, wiping her fingers on her jeans. “So it’s not about the physical perfection of a person.”
Loved is due to have a limited UK cinema release this summer.