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How far would you go for enlightenment? Westerners have long been drawn to the spiritual mystique of India, while many find what they're looking for in return home, some vanished without a trace or even end up dead if we got a call today.
He's not gonna be the same person, the left, to be honest. Maybe it's better if you don't get that call. I'm Caroline Slaughter, the host of the new podcast Distrait, where we investigate those who pay the ultimate cost in search of spiritual awakening. Listen to a story on the I Heart radio app, Apple podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. Hey, everyone, John Heilemann here and welcome to Hell and High Water High podcast from the recount and I heart radio with big ups to the one and only rizza for our dope theme music.
Joe Biden has been warning us for weeks that America was about to plunge into a, quote, very dark winter when it comes to covid. And now while winter is here and it's not only extremely dark but frigid and forbidding, past few weeks have been the most lethal so far, coronavirus pandemic, but death totals routinely exceeding 4000 a day. And the overall tally in the US now nearing 450000. But alongside these grim figures, we now have another set of numbers whose rise is a cause for hope instead of dread.
The one point three million doses of covid vaccine being administered every day across the country. The rapid, widespread manufacture and distribution of those life-saving doses is a public health imperative and the paramount challenge facing the new administration of Joe Biden. But when it comes to actually getting tens and ultimately hundreds of millions of shots in arms, the task falls not to the federal government, but to states and cities, hospitals and clinics and an array of nonprofit groups working together on the ground where the rubber meets the road.
Last week, I got to watch one such collaboration in action out in my hometown of Los Angeles, where the city of L.A. and its chief executive, my pal Mayor Eric Garcetti, the L.A. County Department of Health, the L.A. Fire Department, the USC School of Pharmacy and the high tech health provider Carbon Health have turned the parking lot at Dodger Stadium into what may be the world's largest covid vaccination center, a place that Garcetti calls vaccination. Because in this dire pandemic moment, a rubber construing expanse of blacktop in Chavez Ravine, where thousands of Angelenos are driving up and getting jobs in their arms each day without even getting out of their cars has replaced Disneyland as the happiest place on Earth in the middle of the entire operation.
Running the show was an NGO that goes by the name of core community organized relief effort. And at the core of Core is one of its co-founders, a 60 year old actor, writer and director whose film work or whose activism and humanitarian work or whose controversial political stances or all of the above you are almost certainly familiar with and who happens to be our guest this week on the podcast. And that would be Mr. Sean Penn. The state of the battle against covid-19 is a race against variance and virulence.
And we at war have to maintain a kind of worst case scenario position in the sense that we just need to get needles and arms as quickly as possible. And we were hoping that the inventory builds.
If you were to look up the hyphenate artist activist in an illustrated dictionary, right next to it would likely be a picture of Sean Penn. First, the artist side of the ledger. Penn has been making movies for 40 years, earning five best actor nominations and taking home two statues and along the way staking a decent claim to being the preeminent thespian of his generation. In the 1990s and 2000s, he cranked out a remarkable string of performances. Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking, Emmet, Ray and Sweet and Lowdown, Jimmy Markham in Mystic River, Sam Dawson.
And I am Sam Harvey. Milk in Milk. Valerie Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson in Fair Game, many of them consistent with and illustrative of his extremely liberal politics. Which brings us to the activist side of the ledger, which first came to the fore in the context of Penn's opposition to the Iraq war and his fierce condemnation of the George W. Bush administration. He went to Iraq in 2002, the first of a bunch of global travels that would get him a lot of attention, a lot of it negative from conservatives, while at the same time he was getting increasingly involved in humanitarian relief work starting out in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
He went there kind of on the down low, but where he really came above the parapet and was seen as taking a big role in those humanitarian efforts was in Haiti after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. And that was the beginning of the organization that he now runs. The organization core that first took root as a relief effort in Haiti is still in Haiti. And it became from 2010 to now, about 11 years into that organization, has become a very central focus of a lot of his efforts.
They have gone into places that have been beset by natural disasters and tried to deal with the human and infrastructure fallout in a lot of those places. Core has also been in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, in Florida, after Hurricane Michael, in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. And on the covid front, they have become a really significant major player. Over the course of this past year, they have opened up 49 testing sites in the United States. They have administered over four and a half million covid tests, which is a pretty significant contribution to this effort.
They now have roughly 200 staff and volunteers operating at that Dodger Stadium facility, which started out as a testing site in the fall and then transitioned in early January into a covered vaccination site currently processing seventy five hundred or eight thousand vaccinations a day. Their official capacity is about 12000 vaccinations a day. But Mayor Garcetti told me he thought they could do as many as 20000 a day and hope to be doing as many as twenty thousand a day. If only they had enough vaccine for that.
They desperately need more vaccine. They are waiting for the juice, and when they get it, they'll be churning out a lot, a lot of vaccinations at twenty thousand a day.
So I ran into Penn last week, as I said, when I was out there filming at Dodger Stadium for my show on Showtime, the circus. We started talking and I reminded him or tried to remind him that we had actually met once before in our lives back in 1986, when I was a college student at Northwestern University, he was a young actor, had just appeared in the movie at close range, an early role for which he got a lot of praise and started to come on people's radar as maybe like one of the most kind of significant actors of his generation.
We spent some time together in a hotel suite. I was afraid of him because he had taken recently at that time to punching reporters and paparazzi. I did not want to be punched. So as an effort to try to avoid getting punched by Sean Penn, I made a point of No. One avoiding talking about his new wife, Madonna, at the time. And I also made a point of opening a bottle of tequila early in the interview, which led to a really, really good interview and a very, very long night.
Sean Penn remembered none of that when I saw him, but we still had a nice enough conversation that by the end of it, I said to him, Hey, man, you're doing really incredible work here. Maybe you should come on my podcast. And he said, sure. And so while here we have Sean Penn on Highwater. Has America had any plus response he would be expelled from school, this president betrayed on his own behalf this country?
This is this is something where flamboyant terms are often used. And in fact, in this case, these these unnecessary deaths is unnecessary. Hardship on our economy is all in the service of a smokescreen related to a president who believes the stock market is his Trojan horse to victory. And instead, it really is doing severe damage that we will be paying the price of for generations to come. Hey, Sean Penn, great to have you here on Helen Highwater.
Good to see you, man. Good to be here. Thank you. That was you talking about the now ex president who presided over the bulk of this pandemic. That was a pretty scathing assessment of Donald Trump and one that a lot of people share. Do you sense already that things are different and better with a new president in the White House, or is it basically it's so far it's just too early to tell whether this new administration is going to make a difference.
It's not too early to tell. In fact, I think we have an obligation to go charging into something optimistic here. Certainly the broad strokes of the policy plan in terms of the covid response that President Biden has outlined, checks all the boxes for the things that we have been working in the space for the last 11 months have been feeling and consensus. Now it comes down to the implementation. And the hope is that the resources, both the financial resources as well as the stock on on vaccine will be going more directly to localities, to cities for implementation because the public health departments have consistently failed.
And that may be when we look at the anatomy of this three dimensionally down the line. That may be because those departments of public health were not properly resourced in advance of covid-19 to be able to step up to a pandemic. So it's not really about casting blame, but we do know that there are direct arteries to get these vaccines to people that have not yet been employed. And I'm hoping very hopeful that the Biden administration will be able to identify those.
We saw each other last week in the Dodger Stadium parking lot. And in that cold open you mentioned, Korkor is your NGO basically, right. Community organized relief effort. And you guys have partnered basically with the city of L.A. and some other government entities to get that thing up and running. Just talk a little bit about the process by which you became involved in doing this. We'll talk a little bit more about course history in a second, just about this particular thing, because I think it's a subject of great fascination to see, you know, the mobilization that's happening on the ground.
This is a hugely ambitious undertaking. You guys are right in the middle of it. That's why you know your answer to that first question, very wonky, right? It's about implementation, about infrastructure and about all the blocking and tackling that needs to be done. And Biden has correctly sketched this out as this giant kind of wartime effort to try to get the country vaccinated so we can get past this thing. Just tell me about how you guys got involved in working in the Dodger Stadium project, which started out as a testing site and now is a vaccination site.
Just tell that story. Well, as an organization, we had had some limited experience in infectious disease during the cholera outbreak in Haiti, which is where our organization began 11 years ago. So when this thing came to the world, including our home, this country, our state, California, we thought we'd raise our hand and see how we could contribute to the effort. So I had spoken to Governor Newsome, who guided us to Mayor Garcetti and the Los Angeles Fire Department, who were already beginning to stand up sites.
By that, I mean testing sites. It was right in the beginning were, you know, a good day would be 100 tests. All of these sites were being completely operated by Los Angeles Fire Department. So that meant that those high skill set workers, city workers, were not going to be available to the other demands. That would be the case on any fire department. And we felt that so many of these were were jobs of skill sets that could be taught and trained very quickly, which would allow the firemen and women to get back to their day job, be that as paramedics, firefighters, etc.
. So we started recruiting and training and from the community, from, you know, average Los Angeles residents, mostly very young people who wanted to raise their hand and help out their fellow citizens. And we built upon that, built upon that. We also wanted it to be a revenue source for those people. So we principally pay our people because a lot of these are, you know, like throughout the country, so many people had lost their jobs.
So we built the corps to where in Los Angeles we're at about 500 staff and volunteers, principally staff and then nationwide and internationally, another thousand and change, who are again working from within their own communities. And then we were able to work in partnership to evolve the systems that began with testing and all of the logistics involved in that. Communication strategies, software setups for the input and the notifications for the contact tracing. All of it became kind of second nature in the partnership with L.A. Fire.
We were lucky in Los Angeles because we had leadership with Mayor Garcetti, who, for reasons he'll have to explain, welcomed an NGO to come and direct partnership with the government. An organization, which is what we had always pursued wherever we worked, because we felt that anything that you can do anywhere, really anywhere in the world, if it doesn't in some way support and participate with governance, that you're not going to leave a very sustainable imprint. It's kind of an amazing thing, right?
I mean, just the numbers, you guys. I'm forty nine testing sites in the United States. You get 20 in California alone. You guys have done free testing for four and a half million people since last year. You guys are out there on the ground with the vaccination, your supply limited as you suggested, but you're cranking out thousands of vaccinations a day at this point. If you had more vaccine, you'd be cranking out more. I think Mayor Garcetti said to me that he thought that you guys could do twenty thousand a day if you had the juice, right?
Correct. You guys are hard core on this. Right. And we're very deep involved in this. And it's all private money. This is the thing. It was stunning to me that you said to me the other day, which was there's no federal dollars involved in this. This is money that you guys have raised some money, obviously, that's from the city. But it's all kind of astonishing facts. And a lot of ways, I think a lot of people look at these things and think it must be a just a government program that's in place out there at Dodger Stadium.
But it's not. Yeah, that's kind of the bloodletting. Part of my job is scratching and kicking to these dollars that most certainly should have been coming from the federal government and from the county of Los Angeles from whom we've received not one penny. Again, part of the reason this was able to ramp up these reasons is you had people like Jack Dorsey with his Start Small Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, Mike Rapino at Live Nation, who all contributed to coursework in ways that let us scale up, you know, as quickly as we did.
And then you had a mayor in a city where he didn't wait for the dollars that are due, the city for the work that the fire department has done for all of that testing. Also, we had, you know, good partners in curative lab that was able to offset because we were included on some of those that paid through insurance, because if someone has insurance, to be clear, we do try to offset the costs with that. If someone doesn't have insurance, they're tested for free or vaccinated for free.
People can come in whether they're documented or not. I like to make those things also clear, but without those partnerships, we wouldn't be anywhere. And we are still, as I'm talking to you today, looking to the county of Los Angeles, looking to the state of California and the federal government for dollar one. And this has been a multimillion dollar emergency response. Emergency response and development are very different from each other. You can budget development, but emergency response, you can't, you know, wait for the dollars to come before you get the needles in the arms.
You've mentioned Jack Dorsey, right? The guy has now put thirty million dollars into core. Right. You've got deserves a hat tip, right. That's not a pocket change, even for Jack Dorsey. Thirty million dollars, not pocket change. Well, and that's just speaking about what he did for Core. He put one third of his personal wealth down. It's now tripled over the course of covered in that fund is three billion and change for covid response worldwide focused particularly on the way in which covid affects women and girls.
So this this is not just about testing and vaccination on his side. He's, you know, looking at the abuse that's happened is the result of quarantining and and so on all down the line. You started court in response to the earthquake in Haiti. You've been involved in a lot of disaster zones ever since then. Right. And so when covid came along, you would learn a bunch of lessons over that period of time doing the kind of work you've done that you're now applying here.
Talk a little about what you now know about the big takeaways here. Right. You said a second ago, if you're not a government partner, it's not sustainable. You need to have a government partner for the thing to have lasting impact. Right. But there are other things that you've learned along the way that it's like this is how this shit gets done, bypassing bureaucracy, other things like that. So just talk about what the cumulative lessons are.
You feel like you've learned in a decade of doing this kind of work? Well, what they would call development one day is given a lot of lip service, but not a lot of action is working, starting with the partnerships. Yes. As I said, with governance, but just just as significantly with communities. But my biggest take away from the very beginning to now remains the same, which I've always described it this way you could have a lot of criminals on a sidewalk.
But if there's a kid in the middle of the street and a truck is about to hit that kid, there should be no planning session before you take the kid off the street and put them on the sidewalk, you'll sort out protection from criminals after that. And where we are now in the United States, you know, I was listening to that playback of what I said about former President Trump on a same planet. This is a man who all would concede is guilty of negligent homicide on the grand scale, that isn't a flamboyant thing.
That's just what it is. And that same kind of what I consider clear thinking is what has to be practiced in emergency response. And we have to, you know, stop retreating to the comfort zone that while it's going to be OK tomorrow, there's nothing that we can do about it. All the standard stand downs every citizen in this country has to recognize, first of all, how blessed we are in the sense that for all of us and I don't know if it's going to be six months or two years before everyone in this country is vaccinated.
But for every one of us, the light is at the end of the tunnel because of the incredible genius of these scientists who were able to develop these MRI technologies. And yet throughout most of the world are people for whom that light has not shown at all because they don't have access to the Pfizer biotech or to the Moderne a vaccine or to what is likely to come on board here this week with Johnson and Johnson or AstraZeneca in U.K., most of the world is in waiting for knowing even when the first shots are going to come.
So I think we should really buckle up and get this thing done, get our masks on, keep our distance and be responsible and get through this period so we can reach out and help the rest of the world.
Before I ran into Europe last week in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, I was talking to Garcetti. I think, you know, L.A. is my home. And one of the reasons Eric and I are friends is that, you know, I grew up out in the far west San Fernando Valley and we have the shared bond of L.A.. I know you're an angel. You know, you're born Santa Monica, born in Burbank, Santa Monica High School. Right.
OK, so, yeah, we went to high school just a few miles from each other over one little hill. Right. And Eric said, you know, jokingly, when people are doing the check ins, people are starting to call Dodger Stadium back Zeland, the happiest place on Earth. And I told him my dad died a few years ago and he was a huge Dodger fan. And we went to Dodger Stadium a hundred times when I was a kid growing up.
And for the first time, I really felt like it's lucky that my dad passed away when he did because I would not have wanted him to have to go through covid live it up in Simi Valley in an assisted living facility and being scared I would have to get him out of there. You know, I would have been terrified and living out there in the middle of all this, but I imagined him going to Dodger Stadium to get a vaccination if he were still alive and how emotional that would have been for him.
And another kind of great Dodger Stadium memory. And then I see the protest at the stadium that blocked access to people to get to the vaccinations. You got a bunch of anti VAX people, a bunch of right wing nuts who managed to block the entrance to Chavez Ravine and turned away people who were out there getting to get to that happiest place on earth, to get to safety, to get to to vaccination. I mean, I'm not stunned because I know there's an anti back movement in the country and I know there are people who are afraid of the vaccine or conspiracy theories about it.
What do you do about that? How do you guys handle that? Both as a practical matter, like make sure that vaccine stays open, but also the larger challenge of trying to overcome the fact that there is a lot of resistance out there, ideologically driven resistance, fantasy of the people who live in an alternative reality. People are not wedded to science. This is going to be a big challenge to get the country vaccinated. When you have that, that's a small symbolic representation of a much larger problem.
What happened at Dodger Stadium? Yeah, look, in the same way, you know, we can have pop up tents that are covering our our workers that are doing drawing and building of syringes blown down by the wind. We got to just pick it back up and continue as as the teams did yesterday, once the police department was able to shuffle some of those yahoos away, you know, shame on them, that they would intimidate people who are actually going to save their lives by making this a safer place and saved their children's lives while they go out there and spout this coward based ideology.
My read on this because the science is so clear and it doesn't take any kind of genius to recognize that, that these are people who but for their anti whatever it is, positions would consider themselves non existent at all. It is this idea of negativity being a kind of proxy for thought. And so we just have to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and continue on. And I do think that those problems will diminish our our bigger problems, which we have not yet really had to face because we haven't had the inventory to face it, are going to be not in those who are antifascist, but those who are scared of it, those who are reluctant for it.
And we have to remember that the Tuskegee experiment isn't ancient history. This is nineteen seventy two when it ended. And as a result, we've got communities whose fathers, grandfathers, mothers have passed on, you know, concerns to to their offspring that are legitimate concerns. I mean, these are communities that were. And continue to be in so many ways abused and to whom we have the highest responsibility, highest responsibility, again, you one serves another in the sense that these are communities full, chock full of the very people who take care of us in hospitals.
And they're there in these multigenerational homes in many cases where they're going to be exposed to this thing and more likely than some of the more privileged among us. And so, you know, while the Twiggs are going to get under our feet, like these Vantiv actors and so on, we got to really stay mission focused on the rest of the people, the good people that deserve care. Yeah, you know, I talked about my thing, my my dad, again, you know, my dad who moved to L.A. in 1958 from Milwaukee.
And as I said, a huge baseball fan, favorite baseball player. When he moved out there was Hank Aaron. I grew up living in the church of Hank Aaron in my house. Right. So Hank Aaron, you know, we know what happened just the other day. Right. He goes and gets the covid vaccination as an explicit effort to address the thing you're talking about, which is that there's this justified concern about vaccinations in the black community.
Largely, he goes and says, I'm doing this because I want everybody to know in my community that this is safe and he's dead 18 days later, not because of the vaccine we know, but immediately the most predictable thing in the world happens. That meme starts to spread in the black community, which is, you know, they killed Hank Aaron with this vaccine and it's out there. Right. And as soon as I saw it, I thought, man, this is not just bad.
It's like the worst possible thing that will live now as a ghost story in a lot of black neighborhoods all over the country with older African-Americans saying, you know, I see told you, I told you we shouldn't trust that vaccine that killed Hank is what's going to happen. And I just don't know what to do about that. I mean, I know the right answer is good information, combat's bad information, but it's a body blow when you're talking about how do you get those communities vaccinated that need this vaccine most?
Well, yeah. I mean, how do we get them vaccinated? We don't we get to the point of offering them the vaccination. The people are going to get them vaccinated. You know, we went through this when we transitioned from what had originally been called the JP Haitian Relief Organization into what then became in partnership with then we when we founded Core Core Community Organized Response. So we started in Savannah, Georgia, and we were doing preventative training cert training in communities of color for hurricane response.
And we very quickly knew that the best way to get older people prepared to get them to be willing, for example, to trust the Weather Service enough to evacuate when necessary in advance of hurricanes, was not going to be by us knocking on their doors and spewing whatever our line was on it. It was going to be working with the young people, their children, their grandchildren on the street in these prevention techniques. And it was going to be then a little girl to walk up to the door, knock on the door of her grandmother's house and say, Grandma, you have to put together a go back.
This is what you have to look for when there's going to be an evacuation order. It's going to come from within the community. It's going to come, as we all said and heard a thousand times from religious leaders, community organizers and in that community I am extremely optimistic about. I was in Fulton County two days before Christmas, really just kind of learning from and talking with New Georgia Project Nerka NAACP and look at the young people who were meeting up in these parking lots at seven o'clock in the morning to do canvassing for the the senatorial election.
I had gone there with a concern that one or the other, if not both of the Republicans were going to run that race by the by the time I left to come back here for Christmas, I would have bet money that it was going to go Democrat. And why? Because that community organizing is working and is being generated to a higher exponential degree now. And obviously, Stacey Abrams deserves an enormous amount of credit, but it's not only for elections.
I think what's built out of what she and others did and I think intensely in Georgia, is something that's going to spread like wildfire throughout this country. And and it's been proving itself. It proves itself with the Black Lives Matter movement. And there is a citizen activism that will be the answer to how we get to those black communities. It won't be us doing it. It'll be from within.
Yeah, I did not mean to sound quite as condescending and patronising as I did when I said get them vaccinated. I just want everybody to get vaccinated. I want to try to facilitate the uptake of this thing in every community, especially the ones, as you point out, where that have been hardest hit and where so much of the frontline health care work has been done. It's a good time, actually. Take a break. I want to talk about.
Some of these broader issues, the challenge you're talking about in the next segment of hell and high water, so stick around, listen to a couple of commercials and catch us on the other side.
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My primary interest has been that the United States or I should say its media at large when they demonize foreign leaders and therefore demonize in many cases, their populations. This gets me interested to see what's the perspective from that from that place, as they might have found it strange that our chief of the secret police, who became the president of the United States, had a son who was being voted in Florida with the governor as the brother. And some things went wrong with our election.
When you look at it from those countries, it seems kind of banana republic and we look at the same the other way. So I've just been interested in trying to to to see it without watching it on Fox News or CNN or The New York Times and to see if I saw something different. And I've written what I think about it and and I'm willing to be called the names that I've been called. So that's it. I'm just interested.
We're back with Sean Penn. And that was Sean Penn himself talking to Stephen Colbert a few years ago.
The question that was asked there, which I think was a really good question, because it summarized a whole bunch of stuff that's happened in your life, which was, hey, man, you go and hang out with Raul Castro and you hung out with Hugo Chavez and you hung out in Iran and you've gone to Iraq and you've done all this stuff. You know, these are unpopular people. These are bad people in the eyes of a lot of people.
Why do you do that, Sean? That was the question and answer that you gave was your answer there. But I do want to throw it into that first part of the podcast we were talking about. We got to Georgia, started talking about some broader political issues, so. That Banana Republic, part of that answer released rung out to me, though, because you were talking about the 2000 election and now if you played that clip today and didn't know that it was from twenty sixteen or twenty seventeen, whatever it was, you'd be like, it sounds even more relevant here in twenty twenty one.
You've been a lot of these places in the world. I'll ask you about Chavez and Castro in a second. But you've been a lot of places in the world and as you said in that clip, tried to see America through the eyes of people in countries that are routinely demonized by a lot of people, certainly conservatives in this country and a lot of the mainstream media in this country. How do you think the world is looking at America right now, people in those places, places you been as they have seen what's happened over the last four years and particularly over the last few months with a would be autocrat trying to invalidate the results of a free and fair election and trying to stage a coup, having a of an insurrection on Capitol Hill, people cops ending up dead.
And now a large part of that party, which is the minority party, but only by a little bit, still standing there saying no, that this election was invalid. They're still standing by it, like in saying that this guy implicitly, sometimes explicitly, this president, Joe Biden, is an illegitimate president. That's the message of Kevin McCarthy. That's the message of much of the Republican Party right now. What's the world think about that on the basis of your experience, having traveled to a lot of places that have a lot of views about the United States?
Well, the sober within theocracies, the sober within authoritarian governments and by the sober, I'm talking about the citizens within those countries led in those ways, I would think at this moment are are quite legitimately afraid. They're afraid for the symbol that has has given them hope. They're afraid in terms of the diminishment of foreign aid and the work of the foreign service, which has been so paralyzed and compromised by the Trump administration. All of these things have been deteriorating.
What is a lifeline to so many and frankly, is a lifeline for us as well. You know, just in the greater conversation of the importance of allies and and that's allies both governmentally, but also allies in thoughts of equality for people which you find throughout the world with the Castros, with Hugo Chavez. One of the things, you know, it was never for me about as I said in that that quote, you know, I was curious.
And what my curiosity led me to do was just to look at another side of it, not to contradict all of the criticisms, because obviously they're extremely legitimate criticisms. But the biggest story that keeps getting drowned out is that in both of those cases, you had the dominant population of those countries who were given no identity as human beings at all. And while there were very good people that were hurt very badly and killed in both of those revolutions, you also had leaders in Castro and in Hugo Chavez who at least to begin with, offered identity to the poor within their country, that the government in Venezuela collapsed so terribly.
Certainly was, partly because of when Elvis left the building. And when you have that kind of populism and the dependence on that, when you have the paranoia of the position Chavez was in, that is not getting competent people in the ministries, but rather people that he can trust and and corruption is built out of that systemically, then you're going to have this fall. But I can say that the United States did not help. The United States has complicity in that fall because there was no recognition of what the inception of the revolution was.
Yes, so, well, there's a lot to say about all this, but there are a couple of things that just come to mind. One is it seems like now one of the things that twenty twenty into twenty, twenty one has done is it's made even people who are great defenders of American exceptionalism. You look at what has just transpired and this is not like a debatable point. This is Banana Republic shit. And I can't imagine but that I've not been outside the country.
I've traveled a lot in my life, but I've not been outside the country since it hit. You know, probably you haven't been either or if you have been very little like everyone else. We've all been trying to stay locked down and stay safe and travel restrictions and all that. But I can't help but imagine that for people who I've always thought American exceptionalism was bullshit and who would like to see America taken down a peg, we've done it to ourselves.
We're just another fucked up, corrupt country where power struggles take place in ugly, violent ways at the seat of government. There's no patina of specialness anymore after what happened and what continues to look like it's going to happen going forward.
Yeah, you know, one of the things that has been said quite a lot recently is that this last four years gave our institutions a stress test at our institutions so far held up. But typically you'd want the stress tests to be done on a prototype. So where's the comfort related to this country, how the rest of the world looks at this country? Well, we still have some of the greatest institutions of learning anywhere in the world. We have young people who have mobilized in ways we've never seen before.
President Obama talked about it in his observations of of the peaceful protests that were going on after George Floyds death. You know, there's an awful lot to be optimistic about, but none of that optimism is going to mean anything if we don't really take a look at the anatomy of not only these last four years, but of a culture that allowed for the last four years to happen. And it's been on the march. And frankly, I have a perception of celebrity that I look at it as as a virus of its own.
And we tend to raise the lowest common denominators of celebrity. And that's what we did when we got the this failed businessman who turned fake billionaire on a TV show and made him president of the United States. So you have been like if you think about artist activists that hyphenate. Right, that gets applied to some people out there. And you just talked about lowest common denominator. There are a bunch of people in Hollywood we could name, some of them.
We won't, but we can name people who really are just the worst dilatant. Right. You are not in that category. You're out there doing the spade and shovel work. Right? You guys are out there doing work. There's not dilatant work. Right. But the artist activist hyphen, it doesn't apply more strongly. It does to anybody but you because activism is such a big part of your life in these last two decades, really right through the first decade of this.
I mean, probably going back before that, but really from the early Bush administration through now, activism has been as big a part of your life as as your art has been. I would say, at least in terms of public perception. Right. That's number one. Number two, people really fucking hate you for it. I mean, that was kind of the premise of that Culburra interview, is that you get beat up partly because of some of the company you've kept.
Some of the places you've gone have been very unpopular, not just because they're unpopular, but because some of the things you've said, you know, you embrace Chavez in a very full throated way, said Dodge, said he was a great friend of yours. The world had lost a great person. He criticized people who called him a dictator. You've taken a lot of opprobrium. And I'm curious about just at the at the highest level. First, do you think that activism is as important to you or more important to you than your art, number one?
And to the extent that you do, what is it been like to have to in a non glib way? What is it like to be as roundly despised for a lot of activism as you are? Some of us have really thick skins, but it's still hard to be criticized as vociferously and consistently as you have been over the course of last twenty years for this work.
What I've always said when I get flak and maybe, you know, hate is that, you know, worst thoughts have been thought of better people. You know, I don't really consider myself an activist. I don't really consider myself an artist. I'm one more citizen in this world. That's it. And I've got the access to the things that I can do. I have the thoughts that I have. I hope they lead to productivity, to things that are better for people.
I'll make mistakes, but I would like to see less of the dilatant culture. You know, we see it everywhere. But what what gets me up in the morning is, is what I saw in those parking lots at seven o'clock in the morning and in Fulton County, you know, really, really brave, engaged stuff.
So I guess the question is whether you regret any of the praise that you've given to Chavez in the past. You've said some nice things about him, talked about after his death, how you were close friends and how you would miss him and so forth. And I do wonder, on reflection, whether you've had any reason to think twice about any of. That or revise and extend your views as a fuller picture of Chavez's behavior has become clear. I mean, it still amazes me how much of a boogeyman he is in America, Hugo Chavez.
I mean, he still resonates so heavily in our political culture that, you know, you had this wild conspiracy theory that Donald Trump's lawyers put forward in the aftermath of the election, where it was like this election was stolen by Joe Biden and Hugo Chavez somehow came back from beyond the grave and somehow manipulated through some voting machines, manipulated tens of thousands of votes that had somehow flipped the election to Joe Biden. Obviously a ridiculous assertion on 27 levels. But the notion that we'll just throw fucking Hugo Chavez's name in there in the middle, that'll scare the shit out of these masses.
So Hugo Chavez becomes part of a conspiracy theory, which is ridiculous on its own and becomes triply ridiculous by the fact that it somehow involves a dead man in the middle of a Hugo Chavez stole the American election. It's like, dude, he died like eight years ago. What the fuck are you talking about anyway, Sean, given the actual record of Hugo Chavez, I do think it's worth asking, you know, whether there's any element of your relationship with him that you or your assessment of him that you now regret and want to say anything about in terms of like, you know, second thoughts?
Well, no, because my assessment of his rule was never celebrates any of those things that remain to be critical. What my my curiosity initially was in going down there, it was satisfied in the following way. And this is a media issue because this is where we're getting our information as Americans in this and we're very modern, culturally minded. So it's easy to put a black hat somewhere else and lose track of taking a look in the mirror. Sometimes every major news broadcast and talking about President Hugo Chavez called him a dictator.
Now, I think there was a perfectly legitimate use of that word as an adjective to describe the way in which he governed, but not as a title when you've gone through 14 world observed elections and have been elected in each case. So I wanted to see the news media talk about President Chavez and criticize any dictatorial acts. You know what's ironic about it as well? And I will offend many by saying this while on a personal level, I like Hugo Chavez very much.
Hugo Chavez also sent three hundred and fifty thousand vials of morphine and ketamine to Haiti, where our children were having No. IV pain medication until that was sent. But in terms of a governing principle. It was so familiar to me when Donald Trump was governing because I had seen the exact same populism, the exact same threats registered against opponents and people cowering as a result, the conversation has never been, in my view, properly had about how important it is that the media maintain a fact reporting position and not kind of inherently so editorializing.
It is an incredible thing that the very people who are most harshly critical of. Hugo Chavez himself and Hugo Chavez of the world do not seem to recognize the Chavez and shared genetic code in Donald Trump. It's amazing to me that you can have a Marco Rubio or someone who would, you know, who would claim that the Castros or the Chavez were the worst possible kind of thug, authoritarian dictator, et cetera, et cetera, and then vote with Donald Trump cozy up.
Donald Trump suggests that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. They don't see it. It's not even a question of like ideology. It's just. Have you ever read a book? These characters are painted from the same palette one way as a red shirt. The other wears a red hat.
Right. I mean, it's just amazing to me. The blind spot, it tells you when people are these are not stupid people. So it tells you that it's not that they're too dumb to grasp the significance. It tells you that there's something else going on there in terms of what they're willing to accept in their own country versus what they're willing to cut the convenience of criticizing another place.
And the other thing I think that comes up in this that I've seen around the world, especially in countries that are adversarial to the United States and in leaderships that are adversarial. So many secretly admire the United States and want respect and every chance we have to speak respectfully, even in criticism. For example, if you are a poor voter in Venezuela at the time of Chavez and your kids are getting access to school for the very first time, that's because you voted, you stepped out.
And the United States is calling him a dictator on every news channel. You're not going to feel very respected. And I think we should watch our words never not call out injustice, but let's not put fuel on the fire where a lot can be gained. I remember very, very well having a conversation with Chavez about the handshake that was extended to him by Obama at the climate conference, I think, in Brazil that was photographed and seen around the world.
And I would talk to friends at the State Department at that time based on the conversations. And I said, you've got them in the palm of your hand. Now's the time to work this. And inevitably, you know, round the corner was another kind of assault, you know, in American media. And Chavez at that was random assault. And he went back to his corner. Yeah, I guess in a way, the administration had Chavez in the palm of their hands.
I mean, literally had Chavez in Obama's hand in a way. Anyway, this would be a great time, I think, for us to take a break. We have talked now extensively, Sean, about your activist side and about core. But if we've done the activist side, we've got to do the other side of the hyphenate, right. The artist side. So let's take that quick break. Listen to some ads. Then we will come back and talk about Sean Penn, his artistry, his movies, and Jeff's Pockley, most importantly here on hell and high water.
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Yes, I'm registered in this class warfare. This is U.S. history, you grew up right there. Will there come in?
Oh, please. I get so lonely when I hear that 30 times ring and all my kids are not here. Sorry I'm late. It's just like this new schedule's totally confusing. I know that Mr. Spig column in The Guardian. He ripping the car? Yeah. But what's your problem, no problem at all. I think you know where the front office is. You, Dick. That was Sean Penn and Ray Walston from my favorite Martian in one of the most important movies in the history of modern American cinema, Fast Times, Ridgemont High from 1982, a time when almost no one knew who Sean Penn was.
And that part was like everybody I went to high school with. I mean, I read a story once that was like kind of learned treatise about the notion the dude became part of our vernacular to some to some extent that you're just because he was an important part in the linguistic etymology. You know, the dude became part of the wider culture. That was the thing obviously in our in our youth are you're a little older than me. Not that much.
Our shared culture dude was like, you know, like like I said, dude, every third sentence through most of my youth. But it was not like outside California thinking that somehow spookily Penas because had kind of popularized the word due to the point where now of course, that's part of the vernacular pretty much everywhere, not just in America, but around the world. Yes. How do you feel about that?
Proud, I bet. Well, I would say that the one that I have more remorse over is the common use of the word awesome, because awesome was once a really powerful word. And I think it's it sounds now more like girls gone crazy saying woo hoo, right?
Yes. And in fact, you know, it's funny, I heard I think Chuck Schumer was on television the other night with Rachel Maddow trying to use the word awesome in the proper way is like this is awesome to be Senate majority leader. I don't mean it. And he didn't say in a peculiar way, but he basically was trying to say not in a teenage girl way and it in the proper use of the word. So I play this piccalilli thing only because, you know, look, we're not going to do inside the actor studio here.
But, you know, the career is incredible.
I think you had five best actor nominations, right, total, and there were within 10, 12 years of each other. So you were kind of like knocking them out every couple of years. It's an incredible body of work. Aside from Dodger Stadium the other day, the only other time I've met you was in 1986 or 1987 when the movie at Close Range came out and you were playing Brad White Wood Jr. in that movie, a movie that I bet very few people listening.
This will have seen Jamie Folie movie. Christopher Walken played your dad, your brother Chris was your brother in the movie. It's an incredible movie. I recommend anybody see it who hasn't seen it. It's a true crime story where you have a moment in that film that every film critic in America wrote about and said Sean Penn is going to be a major American actor. I remember this clearly because I was writing about it. That's how we met. I was writing something for the Daily Northwestern.
I ran the Arts and Culture magazine at Northwestern. Somehow I ended up in a hotel suite with you doing an interview for what was going to be a cover story in our magazine about you. And a lot of people were writing about the arrival of this important young American actor. And from there, you just kind of like went on an incredible tear. Right. What do you remember about a close range?
That was a really great experience in the sense that, you know, I think only a handful of my experiences before and since then, whereas collaborative with a director. So it was great that way. We also started off with really interesting source material in the script that Nick Kisan wrote. I was lucky to be part of that. Yeah.
You are newly married at that point to your first wife, who was a somewhat famous woman who was in the music business, if I remember correctly, was her name again.
Yeah, well, actually got engaged during the shooting of that movie. Yeah. I mean, I'm not misremembering the notion that there was kind of a collective sense of, you know, Fast Times, Ridgemont High was a popular movie star, actually was a popular character in popular culture. But it was not like a movie that people said, oh, a serious actor on the rise here. It feels like a close range. Was the movie where people sort of identified you as this is someone to watch as someone who could really move the needle in this world.
Am I right about the. I am sure that that was a significant moment for, you know, people's perception of me or rather the opening up the perception because I benefited greatly from getting the opportunity to do things that were pretty diverse fairly early on in my career. But I think that confidence takes you a long way. And I think there was a real confidence booster in that, partly because I became more confident in the process of filmmaking during it, because of the affirmation, collaboration.
And when I talk about confidence and I think this applies to so many things in life, you know, my confidence as an actor was never based on feeling I'm so good. It was so much more fueled by feeling I'm really a lot better than so many that are are practicing this same craft. And then as you go on, you know, you can be overrated in a particular moments and then underrate, you know, year kicked up and down and you're watching the greater landscape of it.
And you're seeing that it's not just about the diverse roles. One gets to play it as the perception, but in terms of the aspiration, it's seeing other people who are doing work that's may be in a completely kind of different cultural perspective and so on. I think still till today, whenever. Seemingly for the moment, retired Daniel Day Lewis gets out there, it's kind of like the idea of raising it to the level that he so often does is what Marlon Brando once called, you know, like summoning up the Inquisition.
So you really are always looking for those like him, people like that, that are going to keep your engines going and keep you inspired. But your greater confidence comes from those who aren't, because you kind of you you feel that you have a place in the game because you're going to the movies you watch on television. You see a lot of SUB-STANDARD stuff, although because there's so much content today, and while I am not a fan of the loss of the the movie theater experience of thought provoking films, it is pretty encouraging to see how many extraordinarily gifted actors are doing work.
And by the way, in these television shows are much quicker schedules. I look at it like they're miracle workers on some of these really accomplished shows. So I think about this period from, you know, 95 to 2010, those 15 years, right, you know, starting with dead men walking, I had the privilege at some point as a reporter to meet Sister Helen Prejean and the book Dead Man Walking a book about this woman on death row crusading a nun in Louisiana.
Movie gets made. Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean. Sean Penn plays Matthew Poncelet, a racist guy on death row. That movie sort of kicks off the run that I was talking about before. You made an incredible profusion of interesting movies for 15 years, much lauded the all these Academy Award nominations. You win two of them for Mystic River and for milk. What's interesting about that run, though, Sean, it seems to me, in addition to you said a second ago, a diversity of roles or comedies that you're in, but more dramas you worked with, fantastic people, fantastic scripts, fantastic directors, gave fantastic performances.
But what stands out to me, thinking about that run and the reason I mentioned dead man walking very much aligned with your politics, right. You were in Fair Game where you played Joe Wilson in the Valerie Plame story. You were, you know, milk, obviously a story about Harvey Milk, an important figure in the history of gay politics in America. You made a lot of movies that were not just all the things I just said, but also very simpatico with your politics.
It's striking to me. I'm not sure you could replicate a run like that. Now, no matter what your talents are like today, those just kind of movies don't get made that much. Right. It seems kind of like a real golden age in that moment. Well, I think it's almost like a paradigm shift question because. I wasn't being dismissive of the idea or self-effacing of the idea when I said not considering myself an artist, yeah, I certainly consider the work an art form that we get to contribute to.
But my personal experience with it and when you talk about that run of movies. On some level, of course, I recognize when we particularize it to these movies and would those opportunities be there, but the way I experience my life is that the things that are called activism or the thing that's called acting or when I write or when I get up and do carpentry, it's all one thing at the end of the day. So it would take me hearing from you that that was all that long ago, because I've been doing the same thing in other ways every day since.
And I think that it's about projects. I think you're talking to somebody who organizes their life in projects. And that project could be a movie. That project could be a carpentry project. That project could be a novel. It could be what we're calling activism. But I think that we're I feel I've got purpose is and focusing myself on projects. So I don't know about the curvature of the movie landscape and where things are going to land and whether or not myself or others are going to have experiences like those.
But they morph into other things that give a sense of continuity. And I think that even in just the movies themselves, I think you're always when you're reading a script. I always felt that the more it was one movie that the body of work, as it were, were somehow a continuation of what am I interested in at the time that I'm doing it? So I'm not getting stuck in something that I've already thought through, passed through. And I'm trying to evolve onto and it's hard to do is hard and much harder to do as an actor than as a director.
As a director, you really have control over the decision of what material at what time. And I've written most of the things that I've done as a director. It's harder when you're an actor for hire and you're hoping you're going to get a script that matches what you're interested in at that time. I've been, I think, luckier than most on that. Let me ask you one last thing before I let you go. You've now recently written a couple of novels, right, Bob?
And just do stuff. And Bob Hardy sings Jimmy Crack Corn. And I saw you quoted in 2018, 2019. Maybe you said that you no longer had a, quote, generic interest in making films and that being a writer will, quote, dominate my creative energies for the foreseeable future. Just explain that it does feel like between again, what I will label your activism and some of this writing work. You're doing it, you're still acting, you're still an active actor.
You still have a career, but you're not. And we're cranking out the amount of work that you did for a period of time. What is in that? What's the reason for why you no longer have, as you put it, a generic interest in making films and why the shift towards writing? What's what's behind that? And do you stick by that?
Well, there's a couple of answers to that, because God knows, a fella has to make a living also, and especially given the stuff that I'm involved in, you end up devoting a lot of your personal money to those things and then you have to pick up the pieces after a pandemic and figure out how to do that. So that is a motivating force. You know, being willing to get up in the morning and put myself into the shoes of another character.
And at this point in my life, where were what I would prefer to be doing is being kind of the master of my own destiny creatively and just be able to on my own clock and not on call time, printed on a call sheet, be able to write. But I don't see that that luxury is coming my way anytime in the immediate future. Yeah, you made a comment the other day, Dodger Stadium, I'll end with this, just to be clear how serious you are about this covid work.
You made a comment at Dodger Stadium about how much of your not not giving numbers, but you hinted at the thing you just said a second ago, which is that this is not being a cheap thing for your involvement has cost you not just time and effort, but you've devoted a fair amount of your personal resources to the core workout.
Yeah, and it's not been as predictable like in the past 11 years of this organization. Whenever I've had to personally put a stimulus into a project or whatever, it was always in the context of, all right, then I'll find myself a job and so on. But in this case, because we don't know when film production gets up to a certain level and all of that, we don't know and what the future of the culture of theaters is. And going back to it just on a pure level, the girl I fell in love with is the movie theater experience, the event cinema, which really is gone in the sense that most of what's in the theaters is, you know, these big franchise pictures, very rare to be able to get the kind of movies that I fell in love with into a theater.
And so the motivation, aside from employment, to get up in the morning and throw something into a library of 10000 books, which is essentially what the new theater is. People are on their home entertainment centers and they're saying, maybe I'll read that book and many, many books. There's just doesn't have the specialness of the film going experience that I fell in love with. So basically, you're telling me for people who love seeing Sean Penn in films, even though you don't really want to make movies anymore, you're going to have to keep making movies because you're broke.
And basically the lucky break from it's like basically a lucky break for all that time. I'll tell you, I want to tell you, this is if I if I make a movie or something on television, that would be something that I'd have to feel very strongly about. I suppose that there are other ways to make a living then to come into something less than committed, make a good paycheck and make everyone else pay the price. So if I do something, I'll certainly do my best to do it well.
Man, thank you for taking the time today. I'll say regardless of where any particular person they feel about Sean Penn's politics, and there's obviously a wide diversity of opinion about that. The work you guys are doing out there on the ground in Dodger Stadium and elsewhere at core is just is the Lord's work, you know, and I'm not a religious man, but seeing it in action last week, seeing what you guys are getting done out there, it is inspiring and really cool.
And everybody should be down with that program. And we're going to put up some information on some very specific information about how to give money to Kaup for anybody who wants to try to help get this country vaccinated. There are a lot of groups doing good work, but I have not come across one that's doing better work than what Sean Penn's group at core is doing right now. And they deserve, I think, everyone's support. And Sean, I thank you for taking the time to talk about that and some other things today here offline.
Thanks very much. Helen Highwater is a podcast from the Recount and I Heart Radio. Thanks again to Sean Penn for being here to learn more about his organization core and its work on covid and its other relief efforts or to make a donation to support that work. The work of superimportant, they're very serious about it. And every dollar that you put into that would be dollars well spent, it seems to me. Go to Correspond Sorg. And if you like this episode of Hell and High Water, please subscribe to the podcast and leave a nice rating for us on the Apple podcast app.
That's how people find out about what we are doing here. I am your host and the executive editor of the recount, John Heilemann. Grace Weinstein is a co creator of Hell or High Water. Alere Jackson and David Wilson engineered the podcast. Justin Shamal and Diana Roten handled the research. Stephanie Stender is our post producer. Sari Sopher is our producer and Christian Fidel Castro. Russell is our executive producer.
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