BY ANNE-MARIE GUARNIERI | May 1, 2009 | People
When actors reach a certain level of fame, they seem to split off into two groups: In the fi rst group you have those who’ve become better known for their personal lives than their work— Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lindsay Lohan. In the second are those who manage to maintain some semblance of privacy despite being household names—Natalie Portman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Penélope Cruz.
Robin Wright Penn stays firmly planted in the second group. How she manages to do this while being half of a major Hollywood couple (her husband, Sean Penn, is decidedly not a wallfl ower) becomes evident when you speak with her. She’s equal parts thoughtful, cautious, wary, and warm—a combination that welcomes you in while making it clear that she’s totally in control of where the conversation will go.
But with two high-profi le projects either in or on their way to theaters—Universal’s big-budget thriller State of Play and indie drama The Private Lives of Pippa Lee—Wright Penn could find herself closer to the spotlight than she might prefer.
In State of Play Wright Penn plays Anne Collins, whose husband, Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a hotshot congressman, has been thrust into the center of an investigation involving the murder of his mistress. The film also stars Russell Crowe as a grizzled journalist and friend of both Stephen and Anne who is a little too invested in reporting the story.
“I’ve been a huge fan of Robin’s for a long time and consider her one of the best actresses out there,” Affleck writes in an e-mail message. “Getting the opportunity to work with her was a huge part of the appeal of this movie for me—and daunting. She’s incapable of pushing a moment falsely, even a little bit, and is as impressive a person as she is an actress.”
Wright Penn, 43, follows that up with this summer’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, in which she plays a woman trying to reconcile her reckless New York City past with her suburban Connecticut present. Based on the novel by Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur) it’s a meaty role bolstered by an all-star cast: Alan Arkin, Julianne Moore, Keanu Reeves, and Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively (who plays Pippa’s younger self).
On a recent spring afternoon, the actor talked to Gotham about studio versus indie films, the perils of Facebook, and weathering marital storms.
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GOTHAM: Your two most recent films seem right in line with the trajectory of your career, which has been a blend of blockbuster projects like Forrest Gump and straight-ahead indies like the upcoming New York, I Love You. Is that mix of commercial and independent intentional?
ROBIN WRIGHT PENN: That’s a good, broad question. Yes, indie versus studio; I don’t really gauge quality between those two. The only difference is your trailer is a bit smaller and you have less time to shoot the indie films. [Laughs.] It’s really about the material, and who you’re working with. Pippa was something we had been trying to do for a year, Rebecca and I, but we couldn’t get financing together. That was truly a passion project. It’s such a great tour-de-force role that I was dying to do.
G: Was Pippa developed with you in mind?
RWP: No, no. It was a novel. And [Rebecca] was thinking of a 50- to 55-year-old-actress. So my agent, Kevin Huvane, called Rebecca and said, “What do you think about Robin?” And Rebecca went, “Oh my God, I wasn’t even considering making her 45 to 50.” And he set up a meeting with Rebecca and myself, and we fell in love and just started talking about it—for a year. We had a year to prep and explore. How great to be able to work with the writer. It never happens.
G: And what about State of Play?
RWP: I really wanted to work with Russell and Ben, and it was an interesting story. A lot of my story got cut out. There wasn’t a lot of room for what we shot. But it was a great experience, and Russell is very good. I was hoping to have more with Ben as well.
G: A large part of that fi lm focuses on the media and their ability to manipulate the truth based on the way they tell a story. Do you think the media have had it right when it comes to you?
RWP: I’m not in the media, which I’m so grateful for. [Laughs] I kind of only do this kind of press, for movies, so personally I haven’t been poisoned by that kind of manipulation. And where it’s tricky in print is [those instances where] it’s taken out of context. You don’t get the full emotion, you don’t have that liberty when you’re confi ned to print because they pick and choose what your quotes are. That’s frustrating sometimes. It could be a pronoun that’s missing that changes the whole tone.
G: What do you read for information? Papers, blogs, magazines?
RWP: [For] news, probably the Internet or whatever comes up on the screen, or I’ll watch CNN. But otherwise, no, I’m not a blog wonk or anything like that. Not into the Facebook “social networking” thing. I’d rather sit in the living room and have a conversation with a friend.
G: You have two teenage children, Dylan, 18, and Hopper, 15. Are you pretty sensitive to what they read? Or are they beyond the age where that’s a concern?
RWP: Yeah, I think they’re beyond it. I mean, they buy their trash mags and watch Entertainment Tonight and all that stuff, but I think it’s so boring because they’ve lived it for so long that it’s not of interest. They’re both Facebook oriented with their friends, but we’re always telling them, “Be cautious, just watch out, because you never know….” It can get so out of hand, I think. But it’s the new world—texting and e-mailing versus conversation.
G: In Pippa your character has a really tough relationship with her teenage daughter. What is it about teen girls and their mothers?
RWP: [Laughs] I know. Girls are hard. Girls are more complicated in a different way. I feel like boys kind of wear their heart on their sleeve, and because it’s on their sleeve it’s immediate what they feel: “I hate you. OK, I don’t hate you anymore, I’m sorry. This is why I hated you.” And it’s over. It’s the gender thing—trying to communicate, being understood. Mothers with daughters, there’s such a push-pull.
G: Also, in the film your character says, “Marriage is a matter of will,” that love isn’t enough to sustain it. It broke my heart just a little….
RWP: That is so true, man, that is so true. That’s the work, but that’s what you sign up for. And it pays off beautifully, it really does. The outcome, the reward is so great because then your love grows out of those hard times. You have a companion, a partner in it—you’re going through the hard times together, and you come out on the other side. And another wave of difficulty will arise and you’ll have that experience of how great the reward was last time. That conditioning of faith is what prevails.
In addition to her work with Raise Hope for Congo, an organization dedicated to bringing an end to the epidemic of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Robin Wright Penn volunteered her time on Haze, a documentary about the 2004 alcohol-fueled hazing death of 18-year-old Lynn Gordon “Gordie” Bailey Jr., a student at the University of Colorado. “This kind of awareness needs to be raised,” she says. “I’m hoping to get that video out to high schools, seniors that are moving into that world. We’ve got to face it: Kids are drinking, they’re partying. It’s not about identity-shaping—it’s become a need for them to bingedrink.... We showed it to our kids; they were shocked.”
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