If every face tells a story, Sean Penn's could be the great American novel. It's long and tough, complexly weathered, as if battered by hurricanes, twisters, unseasonable dry spells. The high hair, dudish sideburns and smoldering glower give him the aspect of a mug on a WANTED poster--a lifer more than a lover. The curved scar slicing through his right eyebrow is the signature to a portrait already rich in character. Other actors sell the moviegoer their affability; Penn's face is a confrontation with the dangerous unknown. It dares you to go on the bumpy ride that is so often a Sean Penn film: a journey that doesn't soar above your most brutal fears but burrows deep inside them. His gift is to demonstrate that a man could learn to live there.
That gift has won him (in these pages two years ago) the title of America's Best Actor--though, he jokes, "I don't think I've ever been in danger of being America's Best Movie Star." Or America's best-behaved one. That scar, for instance: it's the memento of a bar fight with a superbuff gym fetishist--a "mirror athlete," Penn calls him. In 1987 the actor did a month in jail for bopping an extra. His four-year marriage to Madonna made for all manner of naughty headlines. He has lost a few industry friends by making rude remarks about their career moves. In his 20s, Penn says, "I spent some time investigating the adventures of alcohol, like a lot of young American boys, and sitting around with a stupid smile on my face or being glum. One or the other."
At 43, he can still raise hackles, but now the fights are political: Penn visiting Iraq before the war (and then saying the Iraqis used him as a propaganda tool); Penn accusing a producer of freezing him out of a movie project because of his antiwar comments; Penn critiquing the U.S. invasion as if it were a screenplay. "There are incredible holes in the plot," he tells TIME. "The casting's terrible. This guy who is playing Donald Rumsfeld should be doing dinner theater. It's a really poorly thought-out movie, and it's killing people."
Most times, though, there's a smile on that craggy face. These days the hard-to-please Penn is invigorated by his life both at home--with his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, and their children, daughter Dylan, 12, and son Hopper Jack, 10--and on the set. "I'm pretty engaged with everything in my life right now," he says. "I haven't always been like this," he adds, unnecessarily. Fate has been treating Penn well recently, and he's returning the favor.
The two new movies he stars in--Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams--are, respectively, the opening-and closing-night events at the current New York Film Festival. "I've been lucky lately," he says. "Whatever anybody thinks of the films, these are strong directors. You know what your purpose is."