April 10, 2022

ana de armas, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Everyone on the mailing list is automatically entered into a draw to win this 16×12″ Studio Stamped Fine Art print of Ana De Armas in LA. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the list at: 

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This shot from my archive was taken on a rainy day in Los Angeles. I went to Ana de Armas’ house to take some pictures and then she drove me around LA, taught me some salsa dancing (in the middle of the street), and we went over to Pinks for a hotdog. 

This image sums up everything I try and achieve in a picture – possibly better than any other I have taken. Ana is so unselfconscious. Her cheeks are puffed-out with the hot dog and there’s a mischievous smirk and a tilt to her head that is effortless.

leica, leica q2, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

I like this one in colour. When I first took it, I imagined it as a black and white (my go-to), but then I saw the red and white of the Coca-Cola bottle echoed in the pillars in the background and realised it had to be colour.

It’s easy to think that the ideal portrait is one where the pose is conventionally beautiful, cosmetically perfect. This picture really illustrates how that isn’t always necessary. You see far greater inner beauty when you witness someone just being themselves. 

Words by Greg Williams


April 10, 2022

sean penn, hollywood authentic, cover, issue 1, greg williams, greg williams photography

You are looking at the inaugural issue of Hollywood Authentic, a project that is very dear to my heart, and one that has been gestating for the past 20 years.

Over that time I have developed a particular approach to my shoots, aiming to give people an insider’s perspective and the sense of an authentic, first-person interaction with my subjects.

There is a precedent here: back in the day, movie stars would allow photographers and writers into their world. A magazine like Life, in a window that spanned the 40 years from the ‘30s to the ‘70s, would regularly publish intimate profiles of the actors of the day. This type of journalism gave us so many of the iconic images we remember. And brought the magic of the dream factory to a wider audience.

That’s what Hollywood Authentic is all about. It’s a love letter to the movie industry – and not only the one based in California. Our aim is to make you feel that you are breathing the same air as the artists – whether that’s fight training with Sopé Dìrísù or returning to Warner Bros Studios 20 years after my first visit, and discovering that what was a few sheds on an airfield is now a world-class facility playing host to Eddie Redmayne and Jude Law for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

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Photograph by Gary Oldman

The method, whether I’m on set or in someone’s house, is the same. Put them at their ease. No team, just my camera and video camera. I record a chat and then hand it over to a team of great writers. It means the pictures and the conversation has an unusual intimacy. Star of Bridgerton Season 2, Simone Ashley, for example, came over to my place in LA, cooked my family and I a curry and opened up about the position she now finds herself in, representing South Asians in her role in the drama.

For issue one, we naturally asked ourselves who the ideal cover star might be. Who is genuinely Hollywood Authentic? And how could we acknowledge, too, that at this moment in our history the world seems to have been turned upside down. For me there was an obvious choice. Sean Penn has always been one for going his own way and speaking his mind. When we heard that he was in Ukraine at the start of the terrible conflict there, we knew we wanted to get his insight. The war in Europe also brought back personal memories for me of being a kid under Russian bombardment in Grozny at the beginning of my career when I worked as a photojournalist. I wanted to hear what Sean had to say.

Luckily for us, he understood what we are trying to do here and agreed to meet. Hanging out and driving around Malibu with him, and being welcomed as a guest in his home, was a genuine privilege. As I write this, he’s heading back to Ukraine.

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Greg Williams, Founder, Hollywood Authentic


April 9, 2022

jessica chastain, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Highlights from this year’s SAG, BAFTA and The 94th Academy Awards. 

lee jung jae, hoyeon jung, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Lee Jung-jae and HoYeon Jung, Screen Actors Guild Awards
reese witherspoon, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Reese Witherspoon, Screen Actors Guild Awards
himesh patel, ariana debose, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Himesh Patel and Ariana DeBose, BAFTA Awards
troy kotsur, emilia jones, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Troy Kotsur and Emilia Jones, Screen Actors Guild Awards
stephen graham, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Stephen Graham, pre-BAFTA Awards
kristen stewart, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Kristen Stewart, pre-Oscars
bukky bakray, lashana lynch, lady gaga, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Bukky Bakray, Lashana Lynch and Lady Gaga, BAFTA Awards
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Javier Bardem, pre-Oscars
daniel-kaluuya, joanna scanlan, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Daniel Kaluuya and Joanna Scanlan, BAFTA Awards
cate blanchett, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Cate Blanchett, Screen Actors Guild Awards
will smith, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Will Smith, Screen Actors Guild Awards
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Paolo Sorrentino and Filippo Scotti, BAFTA Awards
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Rachel Zegler and Lady Gaga, BAFTA Awards
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Penélope Cruz, pre-Oscars
alana and este haim, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
Alana and Este Haim, pre-BAFTA Awards


April 9, 2022

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How important is a little bit of nonsense now and then to you?
Nonsense to me is, among many other things, at the very core of being human – it’s essential to keeping me sane.

What, if anything, makes you believe in magic?
Nature makes me believe in magic. I am in awe and intimidated in the face of the force of nature – the vastness of it and its power. It makes me feel that anything is possible – like a drop of water in the middle of the Sahara desert… magic.

What was your last act of true cowardice?
I just saw a cockroach which sent me into an emotional spiral. I felt like it was crawling on me and I screamed my lungs out!

What single thing do you miss most when you’re away from home?
I think of the whole world as my home. But I have also not lived in my family home [Algeria] for my whole career. I always miss my family – I miss my family all the time as they are not where my current home is either – they are in France and I am in America. My work takes a lot of space in my life and I grew up being encouraged by my artistic family to follow my dreams; but by doing so I am away from them – so yeah, I just miss them. At this point I haven’t seen them in a year, but I hold them in mind and they are in my heart always.

Do you have any odd habits or rituals?
I still suck my middle two fingers like when I was a child from time to time… Whenever I do, my brain releases serotonin and I feel comforted.

What is your party trick?
I play the ukulele bent over backwards while doing the splits… LOL!

What is your mantra?
I am good enough.

What is your favourite smell?
The grass in a field after the rain.

What do you always carry with you?
Love to give to others. 

What is your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in cheap cones!

Who is the silliest person you know?
I’m honestly right up there… I am goofy and I am clumsy. Dancers can be incredibly clumsy, which I know sounds odd. 

What would be your least favourite way to die?
Drowning. Or worse: drowning and being liquefied in a pool of sulphuric acid…

Sofia Boutella, actor, dancer and model, left her home country of Algeria in 1992 during the civil war there. She was 10, and journeyed to France with her mother, an architect, and father, a composer, and they settled there. She had studied classical dance since she was five, and at 18 made the French national rhythmic gymnastics team. But while dance has always been a passion (she names Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire as inspirations), and her career as a professional dancer has seen her perform alongside Rihanna and Madonna, lately, acting has taken precedence. You will no doubt remember her break-out role as the lethal, high-kicking blade-shod double-amputee Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Since then, there have been many more roles and she is currently filming the lead in Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon.   

*Arguably one of the most memorable (and quotable) scenes in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is when Mr Salt mumbles, ‘It’s a lot of nonsense,’ to which Wonka replies, in a sing-song voice, ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.’


April 9, 2022

sope dirisu, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

There is this practitioner called Peter Brook, a famous theatre director, and he says: an actor walks across an empty space and there’s just already so much story. So before you open your mouth you’re already performing, you’re already telling that story.

When someone walks into a space, you immediately have a story about them, be that their skin colour, the way they cut their hair, the clothes they’re wearing, whether they walk with a limp or not, the shoes they have on. There’s so much story that’s given before they even open their mouth and tell you what their name is. And I think that’s the same for all of my characters. 

sope dirisu, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

For example, when I was doing His House, there was a man called Mawan Muortat who was our Dinka expert [the Dinka people are a large ethnic group in South Sudan]. And I just watched him all the time to see how he moved; he’s a lot taller – South Sudanese people are a lot more, what I suppose you would call, lankier. So I was just interested in the way that they move and that grace that they have, because I needed to try and incorporate that in my characterisation. 

The same with Elliot in Gangs of London… because he boxes, because he’s been in the army, and he’s been a police officer, there’s a physicality. He’s got this entire story of violence that he’s carrying with him. And I think it’s important to be able to tell that. When you see his silhouette from a way back, you think, ‘OK, that guy looks like he can handle himself’. So I try and make sure that I’ve got that physicality by day one of shooting; that I’ve practised that.

sope dirisu, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
sope dirisu, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

And then everything else is sort of built on top of that. The way he speaks; where his voice is in his body comes from the muscularity or the size of his chest. And that speaks to his history as well, where he grew up and who he needs to be for different people – I think there’s definitely an element of code-switching with him. 

That’s not really perceptive, but it’s important for me to know that it’s there because the detail of a performance [is important]. The more detailed I am, the more the audience can pick up on it, and even if they don’t pick up on it, it’s really important to me that it’s there. Because that’s just the work I’m doing. It’s the job. 

Written by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù


April 9, 2022

sean penn, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Sean Penn is a man of many parts: Oscar-winning actor, writer, director, campaigner. Just don’t call him an activist. He dislikes the term, considering it devalued. Or a multi-tasker (‘the very idea makes me puke’). In truth, he is a reactivist, lending his celebrity muscle – both literally and figuratively – to any situation he feels will benefit from his involvement. He rolled up his sleeves and pitched in post-Katrina in New Orleans, in the horrific aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (where he lived on the ground, literally, in a tent for nine months) and across the whole pandemic in the United States, where he promoted both testing and mass vaccination. Very much on his mind right now are the terrible events unfolding in Ukraine.

I recently spent a day with Penn, who is now 61. He is excellent company – intense, engaged, candid and, yes, funny. He talked at length about his humanitarian work, his father, the pressures of celebrity culture, the glue that binds his acting, directing and disaster relief efforts together, and his wife Leila George, whom he clearly loves very much. Even though they are going through a divorce. Nothing is entirely straightforward with Sean Penn. 

During our time together, he drove me around Los Angeles, showed me his Malibu neighbourhood, his parents’ place and his house. Here I was struck by the wall of family pictures and the room where he keeps his many awards. What suprised me was just how many of the latter there were, not only the two Academy Awards (for Milk and Mystic River) and various critics’ gongs for those and Dead Man Walking and Into the Wild but also for his work outside the movies. He has been awarded the Hollywood Humanitarian Award and the Producers Guild Stanley Kramer Award (for “Illuminating provocative social issues”), the Peace Summit Award (decided by Nobel Peace Prize laureates), won The Alliance of Women Film Journalists Humanitarian Activism Award (shared with Sandra Bullock), been declared, with Ann Lee, Variety’s Entertainment Philanthropist of the Year, received a raft of awards and commendations from the US military and even been knighted by the Haitian president.

sean penn, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

He is, of course, aware of how much sneering, sniping and cynicism his interventions, both physical and vocal, have generated in some quarters of the media. Accusations of grandstanding, poverty tourism and white saviour syndrome have dogged him over the years. In most cases he has heard it all before and it is water off a duck’s back because Penn knows exactly why he is drawn to troubled parts of the world. He does genuinely agonise about how much of a difference he can actually make, but as he said when he was pulling people through the filthy waters of a flooded New Orleans: ‘You have to do something.’

When we met, Penn had just returned from war-blasted Ukraine, where he met with President Zelensky. He was clearly moved and angered by what he had witnessed and his admiration for the people trying to hold off the Russian invaders shone through. Again, he fretted over whether making public appearances and documentaries (he was filming for Vice while he was there) was enough and whether, if it came to it, he would take up arms. 

One person who believes that Penn’s presence was a positive is Zelensky himself. After he visited the capital, the president’s office issued this statement: ‘The director specially came to Kyiv to record all the events that are currently happening in Ukraine and to tell the world the truth about Russia’s invasion of our country. Sean Penn is among those who support Ukraine in Ukraine today. Our country is grateful to him for such a show of courage and honesty.’ 

What follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity, the section introductions and anything in square brackets are mine but, for the most part, this is Sean Penn in his own words.

sean penn, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Penn can’t hide his admiration for the man who won the popular vote on an anti-corruption platform in 2019, praising his ‘passion and courage’. I suggested we hadn’t seen such powerful leadership in decades. He agreed, but also explained he thought it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.

SP: I originally met him on Zoom, before the threat of more than the border war became real. This was early on in the pandemic in the US. We first started discussing a potential documentary about his country that wasn’t focused particularly on the war. And since then there’s been a lot of exchanges between us. Then I went and met him face to face the day before the invasion. And I was with him during the invasion, on day one.

I think back to the guy that I met before the Russians came. He was very charming, and very bright and very charismatic, and I immediately liked him a lot. But I don’t know if it served anybody’s reality to be convinced war was going to happen at that point. And it wasn’t as though it was going to make any sense if it did. So, you would reserve some part of you to hope that reason prevails. I’m speculating, of course. And if you are convinced that war couldn’t or wouldn’t happen, you are not fully challenged with the incredible burden and the incredible demand of courage, otherworldly courage, that it would take to be the president of that country in those circumstances. So, seeing Zelensky the day before invasion, I would say, it serves to reason that he would not have felt fully tested. And then seeing him the next day, it struck me that I was now looking at a guy who knew that he had to rise to the ultimate level of human courage and leadership. I think he found out that he was born to do that.

You must remember, Zelensky wasn’t always universally popular before this war. There was that guy who was going to run against Zelensky in the next presidential election and who was polling pretty damn well and had a real chance. One of the Klitschko brothers [Vitali], who had been world heavyweight boxing champion and was mayor of Kyiv. I spoke to him in November for the documentary I’m doing. This was long before the invasion, but we know that the war has been going on for years at the border, since the annexation of Crimea and so on. And there was a lot of criticism of President Zelensky in there. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, it’s just politics. Well, what’s the mayor doing now? He signed up to serve under his commander-in-chief, President Zelensky. That’s how unified that country is now. That’s Zelensky’s legacy.

Penn refers here to a compelling 2015 documentary called Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Netflix). It is about the peaceful protests in 2013/14 that turned into an uprising, where the Ukrainian riot police (Berkut) beat protestors mercilessly and eventually fired on them, deploying snipers as the people tried to tend to the wounded. The resilience shown in the film helps put today’s Ukrainian resistance in context. 

SP: When we’re talking about the biggest picture of all, the biggest, most important [group of people] in our lifetime as an aspiration is the Ukrainian people. The Russian intelligence agencies must have looked at their stubbornness and resistance and said: ‘But it can’t sustain.’ Well, in the short term, the next few weeks or months, that’s a no-brainer. Yeah, it’s going to sustain. Go back to 2014, because they showed the world who they are back then. And so when you watch Winter on Fire, it’s a very easy transposition into today.

I’ve been to Ukraine twice. I’ve been in Mariupol. I was at the frontlines in Mariupol in November [2021], since when it’s been incredibly assaulted by the Russians. I’ve spent time in Kyiv, in Lviv, everywhere in between. But you don’t even need a passport to appreciate what’s important for us to understand – just watch Winter on Fire. It might be about the people in 2014 but they’ve been the same people every single day and never more so than now. They are together like never before and, as I said, that’s the historical legacy of Zelensky, because he’s the man who did it. They’ll never be able to take it away from him that he unified the Ukrainians to fight for their country. 

Sean idolised his father Leo Penn, who died in 1998. He has credited Leo with instilling in him ‘pride of service’ and the desire to give something back to society. Leo served in WWII, then became an actor, appearing in several movies before being blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies and refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee  (HUAC).  Penn senior subsequently became a director, working on classic TV series such as Columbo, Star Trek, Magnum PI and Little House on the Prairie. Sean got his first exposure to the acting life on the sets of such shows. Given the situation in Ukraine, and that the morality of armed conflict was very much on Penn’s mind, I asked him about his father’s war service.

SP: He wanted to be a pilot. But at that time in World War II they were training pilots who had never flown aircraft before in just eight weeks. This was to fly the Liberators [the Consolidated B-24 Liberator was a four-engined heavy bomber, nicknamed the Flying Coffin because it only had one exit for the crew of 10]. And, in the final stages of your training, you would have to pass a soloing test and he crashed the plane. Obviously, he survived it. But, once you fail that test, you’re not going to get another shot.

So, he became a tail gunner and a bombardier in a B-24 with a crew in the 775th Squadron [of the 458th Bombardment Group of the USAAF’s Eighth Airforce] called McNamara’s Band, named after the pilot [also after a popular song – there was a B-29 of the same name serving in the Pacific]. Myron McNamara became a top tennis coach, scout and pro player after the war, touring with the likes of Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad [he was also one of the first to spot Jimmy Connors’ potential]. My father’s group were flying low-altitude missions over Germany at night. They were stationed in London. They could be called out of a pub to go on a last-minute sortie at one in the morning. So, they’d get on the plane and hit the oxygen masks and clear their heads of the booze and go to bomb Germany.

And it was a seven-mission life expectancy. The first seven missions were not voluntary. You had to do it. After seven missions it was voluntary, because the life expectancy was so short. They broke the record, in terms of the volunteer flights. They flew 37 missions in all. Incredible.

They were shot down twice. And, in both cases, they were able to get the crippled aircraft, the Liberator, over allied lines before bailing. So, the second time it was winter and the fuselage had been blown out and my dad’s hands were frozen to the tail gun. And, like out of a movie, McNamara stayed on board until the last of the crew, other than my dad, was out. Then he went back and pulled my dad off the tail gun, virtually tearing the skin off his hands. And then they jumped. And they survived. So, obviously, in our household Myron McNamara and my dad were heroes, with the medals to prove it. 

And then I started playing competitive tennis when I was a teenager. I was pretty good, ranked 300 in the juniors in Southern California, which was the epicentre of the sport at the time. Whenever the best college teams were playing, you’d go. So, UC Irvine was playing Pepperdine and, in the programme, I saw that the coach of UC was this guy called Myron McNamara. 

I went up to him at the break and said, ‘Excuse me, coach, do you know Leo Penn?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you Leo Penn’s son? You get that motherfucker on the phone right now’. And I called my dad on a payphone and Myron said, ‘Get down here’. My dad came along and they stayed close friends till they died. Myron passed first and then my dad a couple years later, aged 77.

I wanted to get away from wars, both old and new, for a few minutes. So, I asked Penn about the process he uses to cope with wearing so many hats and the different tools he needs to fulfil his many pursuits, from being a Hollywood movie star to managing refugee crises.

SP: I’m not overlapping different projects like I once did, which took away from me, my work, my beliefs, people I care about in a lot of different ways that I  wasn’t even aware of. 

But all the things I’ve got to be a part of – from movies to travelling to Ukraine – all seem like part of the same structure to me. It’s like you are building a house. I know how to bang a nail through wood, I know how to measure the wood and cut it. I know how to build basic things till somebody who knows better gets there to. In the same way, I know how to lay a foundation as an actor, as a disaster relief worker, as a founder of an organisation or whatever. As a director, as a writer in film, they’re all the same thing. 

You’re making a movie, it’s exactly like making disaster relief, although the stakes are higher in disaster relief. Same toolkit, basically the same job, just that you get presented with different architecture by the different architects that you work for as a builder.

sean penn, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Penn has played a wide range of characters, from murdered gay mayor Harvey Milk to murderer Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. I wondered if there was anything that linked his choice of people to portray.

SP: It sounds like I’m trying to be fancy, but it’s about choosing roles that have clarity about the times in which you live. In my case, I think the best answer is that I chose the roles, when I could, which represented an area of life I was actively asking questions about – about being human or about something culturally or politically current. Something I was actively interested in, I guess, is the simplest way of putting it, not what I’d done before but something that felt important to me, so that I wasn’t answering an old question that I’d already come up with a satisfactory answer to. I think most of the projects that I’ve directed or wrote or adapted or played a role in the writing of were things about the questions eating at me at that time. 

None of this is a purist thing. It’s just what it is. There’s a David Bowie documentary called Bowie, by Brett Morgen, which is due out this year. Bowie makes the point that artists should also try to make a good living, even though those that do are often called sellouts. He says, ‘I never thought that poverty was purity and I would never take anything away from an artist because they made some money.’ I get a lot of credit for being a purist, which is not what I was. My career is basically stumbling through, trying to build a single structure in a way that, once people look back at its form, they can say: ‘Oh, that’s what that guy was about.’ 

Penn has been married three times, and during his first marriage was famously driven to distraction by stalking paparazzi, sometimes striking out in frustration. ‘I just wanted to be an actor. I didn’t want to be the poster child for rebelling against the paparazzi,’ he told me. During our time together he visited his current wife (apparently soon to be his latest ex),  Australian actress Leila George, whom he was clearly still very fond of, blaming himself, his commitment to outside causes and his antipathy towards the Trump administration for the rift.

SP: There’s a woman who I’m so in love with, Leila George, who I only see on a day-to-day basis now, because I fucked up the marriage. We were married technically for one year, but for five years, I was a very neglectful guy. I was not a fucking cheat or any of that obvious shit, but I allowed myself to think that my place in so many other things was so important, and that included my place in being totally depressed and driven to alcohol and Ambien at 11 o’clock in the morning, by watching the news, by watching the Trump era, by watching it and just despairing.

And as it turns out – this is going to shock you – beautiful, incredibly kind, imaginative, talented young women who get married to a man quite senior to them in years, they don’t actually love it when they get up from their peaceful night’s sleep and their new husband is on the couch, having been up since four, watching all of the crap that’s going on in the world and has decided that 10:30 in the morning is a good time to neck a double vodka tonic and an Ambien and say, ‘Good morning, honey. I’m going to pass out for a few hours and get away from all this shit.’ As it turns out, women as described, they don’t love that. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen with us, but I know that this is my best friend in the world and definitely the most influential, inspiring person, outside of my own blood, that anybody could ask to have in their life. So, now, when I wash the dishes, I don’t answer my phone. If I’m with my wife for a day, I don’t have my phone on, even though I’m juggling a lot of things. I don’t juggle them better by taking more calls. I can have my phone off and not watch the news for 12 hours now. And even when I’m stressed, I’m never stressed the way I used to be. Because we’ve all had our heart broken at some point. So, if I get a call asking for my help, I know it is important to the caller, but now I think about my end, its impact on friends and family. I’m dealing with the micros now, not the macros. Although I still need vodka and an Ambien to get to sleep at night, I don’t use them to hide from the world now like I used to. I hope I’ve learned not to let everything overlap with me anymore. And that I really put priority in my family, in my wife, in my life, in ways that I can plan and control. That’s the theory, anyway.

Penn mentions the CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) non-profit organisation here, which he co-founded with CEO Ann Lee during his time in Haiti. It operates in disaster and war zones, offering medical, food and infrastructure aid/advice. CORE worked in Puerto Rico following the devastating Hurricane Maria and North Carolina and Florida after the double blow of Hurricanes Florence and Matthew. It also runs Covid-19 vaccination programmes in the USA, Brazil, India and Puerto Rico and is at present in Poland offering help and support to Ukrainian refugees. 

SP: Look, my intention is to go back into Ukraine. But I’m not an idiot, I am not certain what I can offer. I don’t spend a lot of time texting the president or his staff while they’re under siege and their people are being murdered. I’d probably send one message through the chief of staff. ‘Here’s what I’m looking to do that I think would be of value. You only have to answer me in one of two ways: don’t come or come and do what you’re planning, or come, but here’s where you could be more helpful.’

I’ve got plenty to do with CORE on the receiving side of refugees in Poland. I’m shooting more for the documentary, but I’ll be doing a last-minute assessment of what value that will have. People will argue this, and there’s a million debates that I understand, but long term, we don’t have any tangible evidence that documentaries really change anything. We just don’t. We only know they can give hope.

And then, at some point, CORE is going to have to try to cross over the border to add to the resources that are so short for those still on the Ukrainian side of the border. Now with CORE, of course, I’ve had a decade in war to establish leadership outside of my own, and I have great people. CORE doesn’t fall apart if that bus hits me tomorrow. In fact, my contribution now is principally to share their message. Yes, I get hands-on in periods of starting up, like when I go back to Poland or if we begin operating in Ukraine itself. By hands-on, it might be just morale boosting because people like knowing that the founder recognises what they’re doing. And some of them might be movie fans or whatever. But CORE is mostly run by Ann Lee now and by the other department heads throughout the world in the areas of operations where we work. Good people, all of them.

I photographed in a few hot zones when I was a kid. My first war, when I was 19, I got smuggled into Burma with the Karen guerrillas. When I was 23, I was in Grozny for the Russian assault in ’95. I went in on what was probably week three or four of the battle and it looked like what Kyiv could become in weeks from now. Smashed. The greatest relief in my life is that I decided I wasn’t going to do that sort of photography any longer. I asked Penn if he was apprehensive about going back into a war zone.

SP: Well, I’m never like a conflict zone journalist who stays months or years in a place that’s really sketchy, and never someone who had no choice but to be there and live there. Nor am I a soldier. Statistically, I’ve never really taken any risks at all. And that includes 2003 Baghdad, when I was on my own outside the Green Zone. I was there about five days. You probably had a one in 100 chance of getting killed.

The only possible reason for me staying in Ukraine longer last time would’ve been for me to be holding a rifle, probably without body armour, because as a foreigner, you would want to give that body armour to one of the civilian fighters who doesn’t have it or to a fighter with more skills than I have, or to a younger man or woman who could fight for longer or whatever. So, where I am in life is short of doing that, but if you’ve been in Ukraine [fighting] has to cross your mind. And you kind of think what century is this? Because I was at the gas station in Brentwood the other day and I’m now thinking about taking up arms against Russia? What the fuck is going on?

I think that we can be fascinated by conflict but also intellectually be very anti-war. If you have seen war, and I’ve seen a little bit of it, there’s a rite of passage while you are in or near it that has to do with some basic questions you ask yourself: how would I react? Could I keep enough oxygen in my brain to make clear judgements? Are you going to be damaged by being in a war, emotionally or psychologically? Because there is always a cost to you or your loved ones. I think that there is a certain part of my own pursuits that is influenced by those questions that on some level demand answering. And so, yeah, I think it would be just not honest if I said that wasn’t a part of it. 

Sean Penn stars in the Watergate-based series Gaslit, out on Starz, the US TV network, premiering 24 April. 

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Robert Ryan is a best-selling novelist and screenwriter, and in a previous journalistic life wrote for Arena, British GQ and The Sunday Times


April 9, 2022

simone ashley, bridgerton, sex education, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

‘I like making breakfast; whether it’s a smoothie or just scrambled eggs, it’s the first thing I think about, to be honest, in the morning,’ announces Simone Ashley. But her signature dish is curry. ‘I’m South Indian, so I’m Tamil, and the food… I mean my mum, she cooks the most amazing food.’ Today, in honour of Mum, Simone is making us a vegan curry. It’s vegan ‘because it’s just easier to do’, though she was vegan for a while, but started to eat meat again on the set of Sex Education, the Netflix series that turbo-charged her career. 

Today’s recipe is, says Ashley, nothing special, just a go-to from a book. First up is the rice: ‘The trick is getting your ratios right. Ratio of rice to water and just low heat. You don’t want it to burn at the bottom, you don’t want it to overcook. Just take your time with it.’

Then she takes command of the kitchen, asking for a vegetable peeler – ‘This is a weak peeler!’ – and adds coconut oil, garam masala and black mustard seeds to butternut squash, not to mention the ready-peeled garlic she’s brought with her, as if she always travels with ingredients to hand. ‘I love cooking,’ she says. ‘I don’t really get to do it much with traveling around all the time and being on set, so it’s nice and a bit therapeutic to use my brain in a different way.’

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Simone Ashley, now 27, says she grew up on Disney classics. ‘We always had The Jungle Book playing or Snow White… We went to Disneyland all the time.’ She knew the words to the whole of the remake of
The Parent Trap – ‘Me and my brother used to recite that film in the car whenever we had long journeys’ – but admits that she thought the Lindsay Lohan character was played by real twins. 

Then in adolescence it’s fair to say she developed very non-Disney tastes: one favourite film was Boogie Nights, and another, Kill Bill. ‘I loved Uma Thurman in Kill Bill… Everything about that film, the colours, the cinematography, the music, everything, and just how driven this character was.’ Tarantino’s world was, however, a far cry from her own, growing up in Surrey with her parents, both academics, who were first-generation immigrants from India. She did the normal teenage things like waitressing and getting fired from a hairdressers – ‘I messed someone’s highlights up and I washed them off in the wrong way’ – and claims that unlike her Sex Education character, she was not ever part of the cool gang at school.

‘I failed at everything in school. It was just my attention that was bad,’ she says. And she also failed to learn Tamil or Hindi, which her mother encouraged her to do. In the end, Mum got her playing French video games to try and get her to pick up the language, reasoning that as she’d been named Simone, French might be the answer. It wasn’t. ‘I was awful – at maths, all of that stuff. Just had no interest. And my brother would force me and sit me down, bless him, and get me to revise, get me to study. He tried so hard and I just had zero interest in it. I was very stubborn in that sense. If I didn’t like it, then I just wouldn’t do it.’

That stubborn streak paid off, though, when she found acting. She says now that she was just determined to make it work. Shortly after her first job as ‘a background artist’ in Straight Outta Compton, she did more TV work in the UK and then landed the role of the bubble-gum-bubble-blowing Olivia in Sex Education.

During lockdown she moved to LA to try and jump-start things stateside. ‘I do love LA,’ she says. ‘I have more fun here, when I’m out here, and I eat better; I think it’s the sun. It just makes me feel a bit more energised and proactive.’ She spent her days walking a secret hiking trail through Griffith Park to admire the view of Los Angeles spread out below while eating sandwiches. And then occasionally she’d hit the road. ‘I used to drive a little Mustang when I was living out here, and I loved it. I’d always have Fleetwood Mac blasting and I’d just take off.’ The music was inherited from her dad, she says: ‘I grew up listening to that kind of music. The Doors, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood.’

Ironically, the next job required Ashley  to relocate back to the UK for Bridgerton, the hit period drama, famous for being colour-consciously cast. Ashley is front and centre of Season 2, so front and centre
that when she looks out of her hotel window on Sunset today, what stares back at her is an enormous billboard: ‘When I wake up and I’m getting hair and makeup done or I’m having breakfast or a coffee,
I’m literally looking outside at mine and Johnny [Bailey]’s and Charithra [Chandran]’s faces!’

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She’s been overwhelmed by the response to the series: ‘We’ve seen such really positive feedback from people seeing people that look like me and Charithra on this show,’ she says. And she admits that the role has changed her. ‘I used to think, “Oh, I want to just be seen as an actress”, but I now realise that in this line of work you are representing and you do have a voice. I think a part of me was quite scared of owning the fact that, yeah, I am representing a minority. And I think it would be quite naive of me to think I’m just an actress, because, to think that is to think that the problem’s been solved and that we are in an industry and in a world where it’s completely normalised, and we’re far from it. Hopefully, in 20 years’ time it won’t be an issue, but we’re not there yet.’

She confesses she hasn’t talked about this before because ‘there is something quite scary about owning that position’. But then she smiles. ‘But I can have so much fun with this and I don’t need to be afraid. And it’s not about just me. It’s about sharing space with so many other amazing South Indian, South Asian actors.’

It sounds like she’s had a revelation. ‘Whatever industry you’re in, whatever you do, we all have a voice, we all have the power to speak,’ she says. ‘And I think that’s something I’ve never addressed in my life until now, when I’m dipping my toes a bit further in, I guess. Yeah it’s a bit scary, but it feels limitless when it’s positive, like you can just keep going downhill, like on a bike, speeding forward. It’s like when you’re on a swing, that stomach feeling. There’s nothing to stop you.’ And we’ll eat to that.  

Peter Howarth is the former editor-in-chief of Arena, British Esquire and Man About Town


April 9, 2022

fantastic beasts, eddie redmayne, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which is set decades prior to the Harry Potter series, feels strangely prescient: Newt Scamander must help Professor Albus Dumbledore and a band of outsiders to stop the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald from seizing control of the wizarding world. As Dumbledore says to Newt, ‘The world as we know it is coming undone. Grindelwald is pulling it apart with hate.’

fantastic beasts, jude law, harry potter, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts, jude law, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

But let’s rewind. Last October, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first of eight Potter films, was re-released after 20 years. In that film Richard Harris played Albus Dumbledore (after two outings as the wizard, he was replaced following his death by Michael Gambon), and today the role of inhabiting the character’s back story in the Fantastic Beasts films belongs to a bearded Jude Law. In the new film, Law is reunited with Eddie Redmayne as “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, an experience that he says ‘is like spending time with an old friend… He’s both great fun and very entertaining to be with, interested and interesting. And he’s also someone that takes it to another level when it comes to prep.’ Director David Yates, who directed four of the Potter films and all three Fantastic Beasts movies, agrees: ‘Eddie works harder than any actor I know. He is an absolute workaholic and a perfectionist. I think the thing I love about him most is he’s transformative.’

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The first Potter book was published in 1997, with a print run of just 500, after author JK Rowling was famously rejected by 12 publishers. Warner Bros bought the rights for a reported $1 million, and the first Potter film was shot at Leavesden in Hertfordshire, in a former aircraft engine factory that had previously provided the setting for GoldenEye and The Dark Knight.

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fantastic beasts, ezra miller, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

Warner Bros Studios at Leavesden quickly became the exclusive home to the franchise and then, in 2016, to its extension, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. One of the Potter series’ biggest achievements is the way in which it helped to cement the UK’s status in the special effects industry. On the first Potter film, complicated visual effects were done on the west coast of America, but by the second, they were assigned to the UK. As Tanya Seghatchian, who executive produced several Potter films, has pointed out, ‘Now we’re recognised as the leading provider for visual effects in the world. Every facility is fully booked and that wasn’t the case before Harry Potter.’

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In 2009, when I was invited on the set of the sixth Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it was eight years since the release of the first movie in the franchise, and Leavesden studios had already morphed from what had been essentially some sheds without sound stages into something altogether slicker. I was struck by the scale of the vast metal hanger at its core, but also by its capacity for intimacy. Cast and crew had pushbikes to pedal from one location to the next, Hogwarts’ Great Hall was built to scale and the Weasleys’ small, cold and dark living room had a strong smell of washing powder which was at odds with its dankness. Daniel Radcliffe, an engaging Harry Potter on screen and a thoughtful young man off it, explained how he learned to dive for an underwater scene in The Goblet of Fire in Europe’s largest film-making tank, which was set up in a corner of the studio. 

Fast forward to the pandemic and it is Eddie Redmayne whose swimming skills are called into action. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, a sequence in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore in which Newt enters summer waters had to be shifted to night shoots in Leavesden in December. Not the warmest of prospects, but achievable at the Warner Bros Hertfordshire studios, which in the decade since my visit have grown even further into an astonishing state-of-the-art operation.

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Director David Yates told me that he likes ‘the infrastructure of making a blockbuster; it’s like having a big train set’. A huge train set: Christian Mänz, the Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor on Harry Potter and then Fantastic Beasts, has a team of 1,500 people working on the creation of visual effects. He also collaborates closely with Stuart Craig, production designer on all eight Potter films, and whose job it is to bring the wizarding world to life. Craig has described asking JK Rowling about the geography of Hogwarts: ‘She immediately took out a pen and paper, and made the most extraordinarily complete map on a sheet of A4. I was still referring to that map on the eighth film.’ 

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore was written by Rowling and Steve Kloves, who wrote all the Potter screenplays. If production designer Craig creates the universe, then VFX supervisor Mänz augments that reality. The Fantastic Beasts films are set in the historical past, with this latest taking place in the ’30s, in the build-up to World War II, and featuring global locations that have been specially created at Leavesden. For example, to prepare a scene set in Paris, 90 digitally-scanned locations helped recreate a version of the French capital so that the team could work out what could be physically built and what then had to be digitally recreated. 

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Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Grindelwald, explains the benefit of such technical expertise: ‘We didn’t have to pretend. It’s a minimum of green screen work; everything is there.’ Law, too, is enthusiastic: ‘It’s a total dream for actors because you just step on [set] and you don’t have to do an awful lot of imagining. It’s all there with trams and cars and shop fronts or vistas and views, whatever. And we jumped through various cities around the world at various times. Being on something this scale is very rewarding.’

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fantastic beasts,eddie redmayne, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts,eddie redmayne, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
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fantastic beasts,jessica williams, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts,jessica williams, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts,jessica williams, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts, jude law, harry potter, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
fantastic beasts,mads mikkelsen, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

Amy Raphael is a journalist, critic and novelist. She has written for The Face, NME and British Esquire; her books include the biographies of Mike Leigh and Danny Boyle