March 13, 2023

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

I’m with Brendan Fraser – Oscar nominee for his brutal, beautiful, poignant lead role as the morbidly obese Charlie in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Ever since the footage of him crying during the film’s six-minute standing ovation in Venice went viral, I’ve wanted to give this man a hug.

We are in LA, a town Brendan hasn’t been around much over the past few years. He lives in upstate New York now – not quite a pariah, but he has not been headline news for a very long time. This year, though, he has come back to Hollywood. The Whale sees him in conversations about roles and major awards that he has not been in for a very long time. There is flesh to press. He has an awards campaign to run. Brendan is back, with a return to the glory days of the 1990s on the cards. Back then, he was very much the next big thing – an all-out comedy-action movie star mostly. This time? He is an Oscar-worthy actor.

I suggested we go for a drive and Brendan has brought along an interesting car. It belongs to his friend Brett. As metaphors go, the car is tough to beat. Brendan, 54, driving around LA in a ’71 Chevy pickup – it’s three years younger than he is, white with a turquoise roof. The vehicle is gorgeous, but it, also, has not been seen around town much recently.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

“Oh this is so much fun!” Brendan is at the massive wheel. “Oh my God,” he gasps. “Where’s my gear stick? Here we go… I haven’t done this in a long time.” The Chevy rattles off. I think we feel safe. “Woo. You feel the road? Where’s my indicator? This baby has suspension like a shopping cart. It’s not like you can’t see it coming…”

It is also raining. It is only meant to rain 36 days a year here, but today it is pouring. Non-stop.

I’m surprised by how much trimmer he is than when I saw him just four months ago at the Venice Film Festival, the day after the premiere of The Whale.

Brendan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in December 1968, the youngest of four boys. Their family shifted about a lot: California, Washington, Ottawa, Ontario, the Netherlands, Switzerland. But it was Hollywood where he settled, after graduating from college in 1990. He was handsome, with an inviting but unusual charisma and these amazing eyes. Back in the 1990s, they were all wide-eyed wonder and innocence – kind of his selling point to the blockbuster masses. Now, though, they are a window into his soul, still as curious, a little weary perhaps, and packed full of empathy.

We drive down Sunset Boulevard. He points out, through the rain, the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue on the corner of Holloway. “Hey Bullwinkle! Rocky! Looking good brother!” he calls with the window wound down.

Brendan’s in LA for the Critics’ Choice Awards – where the very next day after we meet, I photograph him highly emotional, gripping his award, having won for Best Actor. The part really is that much of a boon for him, and as we drive on, hitting Sunset Plaza, memories poke out that remind him just how far he has come.

“I was once splat into this piece of real estate,” he points out, recalling 1997 – the George of the Jungle year when Brendan would make his name as a sort of more buoyant Harrison Ford. A swashbuckling and suave matinée idol you would take home to meet your mother, but who, unlike Ford, would not break your heart. “It was my back and ass,” he cackles of the ginormous poster that wrapped the building. “I was in a loincloth.”

George of the Jungle, in which he played a man raised in the jungle who has to fit into Western society, came after Encino Man, in which he played a man frozen for centuries who has to fit into Western society. It must have been odd for the two biggest films of his career – before The Mummy – to parade him as a fish out of water. When I tell him George of the Jungle is a great film, one that my children adore, he shrugs and says, “It’s a piece of cinema.”

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

Then Brendan moves on, pointing out the Chateau Marmont, a place that he would stay at after he moved out of LA.

He gets out of the truck, the rain is still pouring and the pavement is lined with puddles. He spins a large black-and- white umbrella on the wet ground, seemingly lost in his own world. Then he is splashing in the rain, I’m humming the big song, encouraging him to mimic Gene Kelly – which he does.

In George of the Jungle, he was all pecs and muscle. In The Whale, he is so large that he is dying. He is a star in both.

By the time The Mummy 3 came out (2008), Fraser had multiple injuries from stunts – which required a lumbar laminectomy, a surgery that removes the back portion of a vertebra in the lower back. He got divorced in 2009 – from the actor Afton Smith. They have three sons. Seven years later, Fraser’s mother died. His work had effectively gone on the back burner until Aronofsky – who famously resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke with The Wrestler – came calling.

So, I say, as he climbs back into the dry of the driver’s seat, we won’t call it a comeback, but… Well, what do we call it? What is different this time? It was not as if he vanished after the rush of success he found with The Mummy – Brendan has worked consistently. But it has been a while since he had attention. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” he says. “And, yes, I have been off the welltrod path. Perception in Hollywood of others has the attention span of a clownfish. If you’re out of sight you’re out of mind. And Hollywood is also a heat-seeking missile – if you’ve got a signature out behind you, you will be chased. Otherwise, you do not show up on the radar. Every actor goes through a variation of that, and I haven’t been lost in the wilderness, but I probably would’ve done well to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back. But I was always still there.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

“And so, I don’t know if I went away,” he continues, “or it went away from me, but when I first met Darren and read The Whale I knew it would change everything. I read it and I went, ‘OK, this is a game changer.’ I mean, it’s a big risk, as it should be. In art, you should take risks. You should go towards the danger, because that’s where growth will come from. And The Whale is ultimately about changing hearts and minds. That’s the hope. The aspiration.”

As we drive through the city Fraser talks about how, when he was in George of the Jungle, he was his own wardrobe – “I looked like a Weetabix… a walking steak which I wanted to eat but I couldn’t because my body weight would change.

“I mean, I was the archetype,” he says of his late 20s. “The iconography of male physique out in Hollywood is such that you maintain that look because it’s money. And, if that goes away, guess what else goes away? All the attention and currency attached to it. I know about this. I have been someone who lived the full spectrum of being a fit young guy who is an object of desire, and that is a standard that’s hard to keep as your body inevitably changes. It gave me body dysmorphia.”

What is amazing to me – and should be pointed out – is that while, I think, on paper this sounds like Brendan having a rant, he is absolutely not. He has that calmness that often comes with experience of life’s trials.

The city is his own museum. He talks about 1994’s Airheads, the daft, fun, rock’n’roll romp about a band who hold a radio station hostage until they play their demo tape. He points out Whiskey a Go Go, where he did “research” for Airheads. He was not, he says, a club guy then. “I was so boring – I wouldn’t go to parties; I was too busy trying to get a good sleep.” But he enjoyed going around the clubs with the Airheads lot, and that is the thing with Brendan. He has issues with the business, sure, and how it rushes in and churns people out. But he loves it. He is clearly pleased to be back.

“Oh, the Directors Guild,” he pivots. “I’ve been to many a screening there… That was a car wash. What’s going on? Oh no, all right. Not anymore. Oh jeez, I’ve been out of town for a while…”

We move on. He points out a building where he used to live, an old-style one with a little archway and balcony. It was around the time of George of the Jungle, but some of the planters he bought back in 1997 are still there. He gets out to have a look. The ceiling once fell down into the bath. It was a rickety old place and he left when the blockbuster cash came in. He strolls back to the car.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

“Good to go.” He is thriving. “People have respect for this car,” he smiles. “They’re like, ‘Oh, here’s an old buddy on the road today. Be careful…’” He stops in a slight panic. “I’m not in gear. Son of a gun…” He fiddles with the stick. “There it is. How accustomed we are to all those digital screens. This is fun. Screens almost make driving too easy, too safe.”

We pass In-N-Out, California’s legendary burger chain. I ask if he was an In-N-Out man? “I was a devotee once. If I still ate that stuff, I’d say we need to get a Double-Double.”

Which brings us neatly to Charlie in The Whale. The film is part family drama and part siren call to pay much more attention to how we treat those with obesity – it is about what is inside that actually counts and what caused the pain that leads one to become obese. Casually, I say that I think the fat suit he wears for the role is remarkable.

“With respect,” he interrupts. “I got to stop you. You’ll never hear me call it a fat suit.” I apologise, head hung; I am a chunky 260lb myself and immediately the penny drops. He remains gracious. “That terminology is prevalent in the world – it’s how we speak, and we haven’t yet assigned new names to words that we can retire. And the way we refer to people who live in obesity should be amended, because that kind of prejudice is the last shelter or domain of bigotry that we still give a pass to. That is not necessary, because we all know better than to treat one another with disdain for how we present to the world. Slim or large-bodied people – I’ve been both – so I have a frame of reference.

“People who live with extreme obesity all say someone in their youth, when they were very small, spoke to them in a way that was recriminating. The mean words find a home in their psyche and their neurology forms around that. There are real health consequences as a result. It is not fair that the permeating attitude is that being complacent or lazy is a cause of the state of your body mass index. I mean, there’s science to back this up.”

He pulls over next to the now permanently closed ArcLight on Sunset. This subject is his passion, and he is a little feisty now; he clearly cares.

He spent time in obesity clinics to prepare for the part.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

As we sit by the side of the road, with sodden car after soaked truck skirting past, he stares out the front into the middle distance. A twinkle of a smile from the old movies is still there, but Brendan is burdened and flawed much like all of us.

We get out and I take some photos against the stark white boards that now cover the cinema’s frontage. The rain is kicking up a level. “I just remembered,” he laughs. “I’m from Seattle. This is good.” Then, a little later, “Yeah. We’re getting soaked.” The returning actor, the veteran car, the unusual rain, even the boarded-up iconic Cinerama Dome, all complement the day’s narrative. He’s been away a long time and it’s clear a lot has changed.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

He is sad about the ArcLight. He wants to get people away from streaming devices and back to the cinemas. He thinks of the magic of Star Wars – queuing around the block. He first saw Star Wars in London, on a family trip, and he enjoys diversions in our conversation like this. He tells me how he fell in love with London, and how there was a time he wanted to speak in a British accent, and wonders whether that, possibly, led to him wanting to do funny voices as characters in the movies.

The rain intensifies and we get back into the Chevy. The windows steam up and the truck feels increasingly like a cocoon. It feels very private.

I note that he has lost a lot of weight since I last saw him, in Venice when he received that memorable standing ovation. Is that because he is a happier man, or because he thought he should as part of this year’s awards campaign?

“Well, more on one and less on two,” he says. “I never gave myself a hard time for whatever weight I was – there are plenty of other people in the world to do that for me, and I know a lot about that shit. Plastered across every British skuzz tabloid, I said skuzz tabloid, who make money from snapping people when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the beach with their kids, so they can sell their fucking rag.”

We are approaching the end stretch and head for his hotel. Brendan has a Zoom he needs to get back for.

Could he, I ask, have made The Whale without experiencing the difficult years that he did? “Hell no,” he says without pause. “The fuel that makes that engine go is love. I know what that is now. I know how deeply I love my kids.

brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography
brendan fraser, the whale, hollywood authentic, greg williams, greg williams photography

“[My character] Charlie is a recluse. He retreated into himself with dire consequences. He’s lonely. He misses his partner. He misses what his life could have been. And the secret superpower Charlie has, is he can see the good in others, when they can’t see that in themselves…

“And I’ve certainly known people like that,” he continues, smiling. “There are people who I’ve met who aren’t with us anymore, without whom this role would not have been possible for me to perform. If I’d not felt like there’s somebody out there with a bigger brain who’s always in my corner and who I can ask any question to. And now, when those people are gone. And some are gone from my life now. Well, I’m realising now, aged 54, that it’s my turn to be that guy. I’ve got to step up now. You know, I have three kids, and they’re really fine young men, and I don’t worry about them when I am gone, but I do want them to uphold those principles.”

We pull up to his hotel. The locks on the Chevy doors are stuck. We try, but it is impossible to shift them. He’s on the phone now, “Hey, can you ask Brett to come down?” He’s dangerously close to missing his Zoom. “Funnily enough, we are locked in the car.” And there we are, prisoners of the Chevy. And that could stress someone out.

Once again, he’s incredibly gracious. I have read that random people come up to Brendan and tell him their troubles. I wonder, does he, like Charlie perhaps, also see the good in others they can’t see in themselves. I ask: why does he think people feel they can open up to him. “I don’t know. Maybe because they feel they know me. It’s either that or my wide-set eyes.”

I’m not having that; I explain that it seems to me that he’s an incredibly empathetic person, and empathetic people often get that. Is that fair? And all of a sudden, there is George of the Jungle talking in his trademark style: “I like this thought – thank you for that.”

The Whale, for which Brendan Fraser earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, is out now

I first met Ana in 2016 at the Cannes premiere of a movie called Hands of Stone, which was about the Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, in which she played Felicidad Iglesias, the fighter’s wife. She did not speak English then. Fast forward to 2022 and the world premiere of Andrew Dominik’s film Blonde in Venice, in which she portrays Marilyn Monroe, and she is now fluent in the language. I think Blonde is an extraordinary film and Ana is extraordinary in it. She is Cuban, of Spanish heritage, not perhaps everybody’s first choice for Marilyn Monroe, but she absolutely owns the part.

Ana came to many people’s attention in Blade Runner 2049 as the VR love interest, Joi, and then in Knives Out with Daniel Craig, but the world really sat up and took notice when she put in a scene-stealing performance opposite James Bond himself, playing the Cuban/CIA spy Paloma in No Time to Die. (I thought I could detect a similarity between Paloma in Bond and her Marilyn in Blonde. I was lucky enough to have been on both sets, and I thought there was a Monroe-ish ditziness about Paloma when she first appears on screen that completely evaporates when she explodes into action. You can read Ana’s reaction to this theory below.)

Those who hadn’t been paying attention hailed her as an exciting newcomer when they saw her performance as Paloma, but she had enjoyed a lengthy career before that, with three films in Cuba before she moved to Madrid when she was 18, where she starred in a teen TV drama and made more movies. Eventually, in her mid-20s, she decided to head for Los Angeles, where she made a further 15 films (learning her lines phonetically for the first few until her English lessons paid off) before shooting Blonde for director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them SoftlyMindhunter).

Andrew became a friend of mine in the 12 months leading up to the film’s release. He visited us at our house in LA several times, and when we got to Venice for the premiere of the movie, we hung out for four or five days and we swam together every day and shared each other’s meals (incidentally, he’s a really good swimmer). On the way to the premiere screening, I asked him what his next job was and he said there was nothing concrete on the table. Blonde had dominated his life for so long, he hadn’t been able to think beyond its completion and release. But he said that having an empty slate felt like ‘freedom’ now that the movie was finally out in the world.

The conversations recorded below were conducted in Venice, where Blonde – and Ana – received a 14-minute standing ovation. This had effectively been 14 years in the making, the length of time that had elapsed since Andrew first optioned Joyce Carol Oates’ source novel.

The big problem in making a movie about Marilyn Monroe is: who is going to play Marilyn? She is the kind of person where it doesn’t matter what the film is supposed to be about, it’ll be about her. Look at The Misfits [her last completed film, directed by John Huston, with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift]. In Arthur Miller’s script, she’s supposed to represent a guiding star to these broken men. She’s sort of bringing them back to life. But really what’s happening on screen is that she’s a pilled-out chick in a desperate situation and there’s three creepy dudes trying to fuck her. Because with Marilyn, it doesn’t matter what the movie is supposed to be about, it becomes about the actual situation in real life. So, for Marilyn, you need an actor who, when they’re on screen, the viewer doesn’t care about anything else. They must be like the sun around which everything else revolves. And it’s a tall order to find a person who has that magnetism and charisma and who also happens to look like Marilyn Monroe. Not just a look-a-like, but someone you could believe as her and understand what the fuss has been about over the decades.

Why did I choose Ana? It was love at first sight. I first saw her in a movie called Knock Knock. It was her debut Hollywood film. She played one of two young women who invade Keanu Reeves’ home and terrorise him. It was an instant thing. I just thought: you know, that girl could play Marilyn Monroe in Blonde.

ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

I had already been working on making a movie of the Joyce Carol Oates novel [also called Blonde, and which the author called “a fictitious biography” of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe] for quite a few years. The option had come and gone a few times. In fact, Joyce gave me like a free option on the book, but I still had to pay dues because Blonde is a remake of a CBS TV miniseries from 2001, which most people don’t realise. So, I had to do a deal with both Joyce and the producers of that TV show as well.

Then, when I finally met Ana, she looked nothing like her evil schoolgirl in Knock Knock. But, you know, it was a pretty easy decision to cast her. Once you’ve seen her actually do a scene, you realise she’s got a kind of emotional forcefield that radiates from her. And she can just infect you with it. Whatever Ana feels, you feel too. She traffics in feeling. And that’s what makes her so compelling.

ana de armas, venice film festival, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Also, one thing I really admire about Ana is that on set she will always make the space that she needs. I shall give you an example. It was only the second day of the shoot. I already knew she was good, but obviously we were still finding our feet on set. That day she had to do a scene where Marilyn sees her mother for the first time in 10 years. And Ana has to walk in and burst into tears. So, it’s the first take and she comes in and it’s just unbelievable. She just explodes with emotion, and I just wasn’t expecting that intensity. Not on the second day of the film. I couldn’t believe it – it was more than I could have hoped for.

But then it turns out the camera operator blew the shot. And I’m like, sorry Ana, you know, we have got to do it again. So, like the pro she is, she says, OK, and she goes back and she does a second take. And it’s really good. However, it’s not as good as the first time. But before I can even say that to her, before I can even get those words out of my mouth, she’s already saying: I want another one. All right, so we roll again. You have to understand that it’s a really, really high-pressure situation because of that unusable first take. Now we have an OK second take in the can, but we all know that isn’t what the scene could be. So, there is tension in the room and she has got to deal with that and produce all this emotion for a third time.

ana de armas, venice film festival, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
ana de armas, brad pitt, venice film festival, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
ana de armas, venice film festival, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
ana de armas, brad pitt, venice film festival, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Ana leaves the room. We can’t see her. She has gone back to her mark outside and we’re just looking at this empty space. This goes on for about 60 seconds, which is an eternity when you’re waiting for a take. Then, after what seems like an age, she reappears and she just stops at the entrance to the room. She stands in the doorway, and she just stares the whole room down. Then she walks back to her mark. And then it’s another 60 long seconds and that tension is at absolute fever pitch.

And then she goes, and she does the take which is in the final film, and it’s so moving that when I was watching, a teardrop rolled down my face and hit the monitor. And that’s what I mean about making the space. She’s not going to let anybody else get in the way. She’ll take what she needs to make that performance work and she’ll put pressure on herself if that’s what she needs to do. She is going to make the whole thing be about her, which is what actors should do. It is just really admirable and I fell in love with her all over again.

The other thing you need to appreciate about Ana is that she’s always right. Occasionally on Blonde, various departments would complain about her being difficult, right? She’s doing this and doing that and it’s not what we wanted or agreed. So, then they’d send me in there to talk some sense into her. And I’d walk into her trailer, and she’d say: Andrew, look at this, don’t you think this works better this way? And it did. She was always right.

I think other people didn’t appreciate that she had been around movie sets for a long time, she knows how they work. As far as the English-speaking world is concerned, she seems like she’s a new thing. But Ana has been working professionally since she was a teenager. So, despite her age, she’s really an industry veteran. She’s also got the instinctive feel for where the weaknesses are in a script or on a shoot and where the strengths are. She’s just a real pro.

ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

I left Cuba to live in Spain when I had already done three films. It was a country I always heard a lot about, from my grandparents and wider family. It was always, Spain, Spain, Spain. So, from a young age, I was always curious about it. And, yes, there was ambition involved. I wanted to go out and do more than just Cuban films. Plus, two of my first films in Cuba were Spanish productions, so it made sense to go to Madrid, not least because of the shared language. When I first met Greg in 2016 on the set of Hands of Stone, I really couldn’t speak any English at all and then, a few years later, I am cast as Marilyn, an American icon. Looking back, it seems bananas.

I came to the project about three years ago. Andrew, of course, had been on it much longer. Fourteen years? At least 11 years before he met me. Just think of the passion and the conviction that you need to pursue something like that, to have to fight so hard for a project you believe in for 14 years. That’s not a joke. Most people give up way, way sooner than that. But he felt this movie deep inside. He had to tell the story and he knew that he had to tell it in the way he did in the final movie and it’s incredible.

Andrew, he is a great director of actors. Even though we were dealing with a very specific character – Marilyn Monroe – he gave me so much freedom to do whatever I wanted. He trusted me. We just really, really bonded. We created an incredible friendship, and we ended up feeling so comfortable with each other. We talked about everything to do with Marilyn and fame and we got to love her and this movie. We like and we respect each other and I think we both believe in each other. And the film.

One thing is for certain – if it wasn’t for Andrew, I would never have been in this movie, I would never have got to play Marilyn. I don’t think another director would have thought of me for the role. Nobody but Andrew would have taken the risk. I think it shows how progressive his thinking is, that he could see Marilyn in this Cuban actor and he wanted her for the part. I quickly learned that Andrew doesn’t compromise on anything. He just wants to do what’s best for the movie.

And we owe a lot to Brad Pitt that it got made. Andrew claims Brad worked harder as producer on this movie than on any of the films they’d made together that he’d starred in, and the stories I heard back that up. He was always in meetings, he always had Andrew’s back, he really pushed for the film, always trying to get people to give us more money. He did exactly what a producer should do.


ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Of course, my first task when we finally got the green light for Blonde was to research Marilyn. To try and get inside this woman’s head. I wasn’t even certain the part was right for me, to be honest. In the beginning, I thought I would be dealing with someone completely different from me. That Marilyn and I were from completely separate worlds and very different times and environments. As time went on, I found we had a lot of things in common and that there were unexpected parallels between our lives. With a lot of the emotions that hit me when I least expected it, I realised I could connect with [them] from my own experiences.

It was partly about her being a woman in what was a very exploitative environment, trying to make people take you seriously as an actor. I can relate to that. In many ways it hasn’t changed. The industry still puts you in a particular box and those are the type of roles you have to deliver. But those limitations don’t interest me that much. I don’t want to be in a box and I think Marilyn was really smart, she knew how the business worked, and she tried to get out of her box. I think she was ambitious and wanted to do better work, to grow as an actress. That’s an effort I am familiar with.

But also, we had common memories and feelings from childhood. Such as the ideas that you form about your parents on how you want to make them proud and, you know, how they love you when you’re a kid and how that love evolves and how your relationship with your parents changes once you are an adult. While we were filming, I filled my trailer with photographs of Marilyn from every stage of her career. They were up on the walls as reminders of emotions, of her state of mind at a particular point in her life. Because she was, of course, very expressive. You could see what she was thinking just by looking at her face. I think we found a suitable image for every scene we shot – there was always a picture I could go back to and see what she was going through.

So, eventually, I realised after all my investigations and research and talking to Andrew about Marilyn and all the rehearsals we did, that I was more in touch with this character than I thought. And when we started shooting on day one, I didn’t think about it anymore. When Andrew said ‘action’, I was just “on” as her and that ran until the last day. I didn’t question myself any longer about whether I was the right Marilyn or not. Not once in nine weeks.

It’s a movie about Norma Jeane, who hasn’t really been seen since Marilyn Monroe came into existence. I think once the filming was done, there was a feeling of rest, of letting go. And then, we had finished, and I had to say goodbye to her and it was off to film No Time to Die.


ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

Greg Williams asked me if there was a crossover between Blonde and Bond. That he saw a little of Marilyn in Paloma the CIA agent. Well, what happened was this. I was scheduled to shoot No Time to Die and then Blonde, but my schedule changed because we had to wait for Daniel [Craig] to recover from an injury before we could do our action scenes, so the Cuban part was pushed back to the very end of shooting the movie. Which meant I had to do Blonde first. There were two days between finishing that film and starting on Bond, so there is no question some of Marilyn informed Paloma. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I think it just happened because I didn’t really have time to say a proper goodbye to Marilyn. I was suddenly on the plane, right to London and I was Paloma. I think the combination of characters just happened naturally. I was really happy, though, because it felt like Paloma was a Cuban version of Marilyn.


ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography
ana de armas, blonde, on set, hollywood authentic, cover story, greg williams, greg williams photography

I was very nervous before the premiere. But in a good way. Good nerves. I had seen the film lots of times, but never on a big screen and never with a crowd of other people. And afterwards I was like: what just happened? It was beautiful and magical. It was a whole new experience watching it like that. I saw new places and new scenes and could really admire the work and the energy of the other actors around me. I sat next to Adrien [Brody] at the screening, and he was crying and I told him to stop it, and he said: ‘I can’t.’ Then I started sobbing and he said to stop, and I said: ‘I can’t.’ And then there was that ovation, my goodness, what a night.

I think truly I am most happy for Andrew. I feel, given all the delays and things that happened with the movie and the scary moments, that Blonde couldn’t have arrived at a better time. I mean, we thought that maybe this movie would never come out. Yet it somehow worked out to be the perfect place, the perfect year, the perfect moment. And I feel like I sat with this movie for so long that it really doesn’t matter what happens with it in terms of success. Personally, I already know how I feel about it and how proud I am of it and of Andrew. And that’s not going to change, whatever the critical or public response to it is. To me, Blonde feels more special than just a movie. It feels like we lived many lives making this film.

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Ana de Armas stars in Blonde, out now on Netflix

April 9, 2022

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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.

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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.

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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 ColumboStar TrekMagnum 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