May 11, 2024

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
ysl, eva

Photographs and interview by GREG WILLIAMS

I’m an island girl. I need to always be close to the water,’ says Zoë Saldaña. ‘As a kid in New York and the Dominican Republic we always went to the water. We always walked on the beach.’ I’ve come to meet Zoë a couple of hours up the coast from LA. She loves the area, promising me that the place ‘compels you to relax’. Downtime is something she takes seriously as she juggles her career and home life with three lively kids, a dog, a cat and two goldfish. We meet at the picturesque El Encanto Hotel in Santa Barbara and her husband of 11 years, artist and filmmaker Marco Perego Saldaña, and her goldendoodle, Dolce, are also waiting with Zoë when I arrive. ‘I feel that this is a part of California that if you never get to go to Portofino in Italy but you come here – then it’s OK, you’re not missing much,’ she says as she welcomes me. ‘This bay area is so beautiful. Everything slows down. And you hear the wind in the trees, and the water. You smell different smells of life. It compels you to choose different thoughts.’

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Born in New Jersey to a Dominican dad and Puerto Rican mom and growing up in both New York and the D.R., she now calls California home. ‘In New York I had the metropolis sounds of a city, the culture and access to the world just block by block. You can taste the world and hear the world,’ she says over coffee as we sit on a sunny terrace overlooking lush vegetation. ‘And then in the Caribbean, there was just sun, salt water, family and music – it was great.’ We take a walk with Dolce (full name: Dolce Vita Perego Saldaña), who Zoë soothes with whispered affection. ‘Beso, beso,’ she murmurs, kissing the pooch.

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

You reach a point in your life that time comes knocking, and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to this. You can’t miss any more moments with these people that are special to you’

Ballet was, she says, initially a way to cope with the move from New York to the Dominican Republic at the age of 10. ‘I was having a hard time making and keeping friends, finding my place, and feeling seen and understood. Even though it’s where our family is from, it was a big culture shock for us. Change is always new and scary at first. And my mom just took me to a ballet class…’ Zoë tells me she found the almost militant nature of training both a comfort and a challenge. ‘There was something about ballet and the bar – my teachers were so rigid and strict. And yet they were like true champions of the progress, effort, determination and sacrifice that I had to make and it became an obsession. It became my cave for 10 years of my life. I never felt that I really mastered it because I never got to be a part of a company, or be the prima ballerina, and I never got to dance in Romeo and Juliet or The Nutcracker. So I always felt like I had failed. After reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I realised that I did put in 10,000 hours in the span of 10 years. So I did become a master at ballet. Whether I was recognised for it or not, it doesn’t take away the fact that I did it.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

The ballet might not have become a vocation but it did lead to acting after the family returned to NY, with the then 22-year-old getting cast as a dancer for her first screen role in Center Stage in 2000. ‘I never had any formal training when it came to acting. But ballet gave me this connection to my body that I was able to use in those roles I was more qualified for.’ That led to acting opposite Britney Spears in Crossroads, having her first taste of a franchise with Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, inhabiting an icon in Uhura on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek series, bending the limits of CG with Avatar, kicking ass in Colombiana and joining the Marvel stable as green-skinned Gamora in the Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers films. Her work on both Avatar movies (with three more incoming) plus Infinity War and Endgame have made her the industry’s highest-grossing actress, and a sci-fi fan favourite. ‘I love science-fiction. I love action. And I love being able to incorporate what I can do [as a ballerina] into that.’


She is currently reading Nicole Avant’s book Think You’ll Be Happy: Moving Through Grief with Grit, Grace, and Gratitude and we discuss the idea of being present and embracing who we are now. ‘My folks are getting older, which hints of time passing and being this invaluable luxury,’ she says. ‘We spend a portion of our lives taking that for granted, we think it’s always going to be there and we’re always going to have time. And then you reach a point in your life that time comes knocking, and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to this. You can’t miss any more birthdays. You can’t miss any more moments with these people that are special to you.’ You’re born a daughter. You’re born a sister. And then as time goes by, you’re a wife, a mother, a professional. You acquire all these titles in your life. And then throughout life there’s this shift where you lose these titles over time. Nothing will ever change the fact that I’m a daughter, but the nearness of death becomes really present when you become older. So vacillating with that conversation is what I want to do. I don’t want to be afraid of it. I want to normalise it in my life, because I want to accept it.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I feel like a diamond now for the first time in my life. When I was being called a diamond, I felt so insecure. I was so unhappy. Now I feel a different strength, beauty, and curiosity

I ask about her fears. As an actor, as a parent, as a daughter. She pauses. ‘We describe children as fearless. They bang themselves up, fall – then they’ll just get up and try it again. And that’s one thing that we lose when we become older. We become so self-aware of our vulnerability and fragility. And all of a sudden, that fearlessness becomes just fear. I’m learning to make peace with that so that I don’t become this rigid person who becomes so afraid that I stop doing things. There’s so much more I have to do. But I just have to let go of the things that I did, that maybe I won’t be able to do at the magnitude that I was doing them. Tapping into the fact that that’s OK – it’s bliss.’ She laughs. ‘But it comes and goes. There are days in which I wake up, and I’m just like, “fuck, I’m old!” And then there are days in which I’m like, “This is great!”’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Maturing in Hollywood requires a certain fortitude, particularly for women. Halle Berry and Sarah Jessica Parker have recently been unapologetic about ageing and Zoë is cognizant of the tightrope women in the public eye have to walk. ‘I picked a medium in art that relies a lot on the visual – how young you feel, how young you look,’ she says. ‘You get so used to it and it becomes a bad habit where you sometimes spend all of your time thinking about how you look, and not enough time thinking about how you feel. I think we have to talk about that more. There’s so much more to women than their looks and youth. I find women beautiful when they’re five, and when they’re 95. In Hollywood, women are viewed like diamonds when they’re super-new and super-fresh. I feel like a diamond now for the first time in my life. When I was being called a diamond, I felt so insecure. And now I feel a different strength, a different beauty, a different curiosity. I’m ignited by other qualities besides my looks. And those people who see that in me now become so much more meaningful to me.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I dig into memories to help me transport. I write all over the script, give the role an animal and substitute the characters for somebody I know

We jump in her car and head for the beach. I want to go back to Zoë’s declaration that she has so much more to do. Her future projects include three more Avatar movies with James Cameron and more Star Trek. But first up is a project with Jacques Audiard that taps into her heritage and her dancing background, Emilia Perez. Billed as a musical crime drama, the picture follows a female lawyer in Mexico as she helps a cartel boss evade his enemies and become the woman he’s always wanted to be. Though Zoë has sung on a film before (most recently in animation Maya And The Three) she has never sung in Spanish or on screen. ‘I’m going back to my roots. I’m singing, and I’m dancing, and I’m doing a role in my native tongue,’ she enthuses, admitting that working with Audiard has been something of a dream since she saw The Beat That My Heart Skipped in a movie theatre in NYC in 2005. ‘I remember thinking, “I want to work with this director.” And the fact that I manifested it and then met Jacques Audiard and got to know the whole premise behind Emilia Perez, and the challenge that he was proposing of whether I was going to sing and dance… I was like, “OK!”’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

Audiard’s method of working with the same crews is also something Zoë embraces. ‘I like directors that are known in their field for being super-loyal to their people, because I love the crew. They become family to me. They’re the ones that I truly look up to. They’re so unconditional. They’re wonderful people. And whether I’m working out of the UK, New York, Los Angeles or Paris there’s a universality to crew people. They’re decent and they’re hard working.’

Part of the crew on Emilia Perez was famed choreographer Damien Jalet, who put the actress through her paces on a big dance number. ‘If Damien would tell me, “It’ll take you seven hours to learn this,”  I would double it. I’d need 14. I’m also dyslexic, I have ADD and I suffer from anxiety. I like to take my time with things. That way it becomes a muscle memory and I force myself to be out of my head. But it was an experience, and I loved it. When you’re a child that has a lot of trauma, and you grow up, and you’re constantly in conflict – as an artist, you’re made to believe that in order for you to be great, you have to be chaotic, and you have to live in conflict. It just becomes so exhausting.’


Zoë lost her father in a car accident when she was nine, the tragic catalyst for her and her two sisters’ move to the Dominican Republic. ‘When you learn to deal with grief at a very early age, it lives with you. It doesn’t go away, you manage it. And every now and then it comes up. If I hear the song Gravity by Sara Bareilles I always think about my mom and dad, because when he passed away they were not in a good place in their marriage. We didn’t have proper closure. I spent so many years thinking of what could and should have been. I never got to see them mature together. And that’s why the Dominican Republic was this bittersweet place, because it is paradise. The food, the people, the culture, the history – I love being Dominican. It’s just so powerful. And yet the reason why, and how, we got there was sad.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams
zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

I hear my grandmother’s voice every time I see my children sleep, and I pray over their little, sleepy heads, just like she did, just like she taught my mom to do. That’s a legacy I want to be. That’s immortality

As her now-single mom picked up the pieces of their shattered lives, Zoë recalls the impact her maternal grandmother made on her life. ‘My grandmother was always there. It was always us five – my sisters, myself, my mom, my grandma. It was great! It’s funny, my grandmother prayed a lot, and when she died [in 2019], the prayers stopped.’ Now, she says, she finds herself doing all the things her grandmother used to. ‘Everything that she told me to do my whole life that I would roll my eyes at! I hear her voice every time I see my children sleep, and I pray over their little, sleepy heads, just like she did. That’s a legacy I want to be. That’s immortality.’ 

We get out of the car and head to the beach below. An invigorating wind blows off the ocean, whipping Zoë’s hair as she leaps along the sea wall. This is a cinch for an actress who did months of parkour, archery and combat training for Avatar – and breath-holding for underwater worlds in Avatar: The Way Of Water. The physical discipline of it tapped into her balletic sensibilities. ‘I’m addicted to seeing myself do things that are unimaginable. For example, in theory, someone will tell me, “You’re going to follow these exercises, and you’re going to hold your breath for five minutes if you want.” I’m like, “Get the fuck out of here!” she says. ‘And all of a sudden, every time you do it, it’s three minutes, four minutes, five minutes… And then you find yourself doing it on your own time and teaching your kids to do it. They are dolphins, marine animals. And it’s particularly important to me because being an island girl, we all had to learn how to swim. You come out of the water, and you go back into it.’

As she dances on the sand, her coat billowing behind her and pelicans flying across the water, I ask what she next sees herself doing that is unimaginable?  “I would love to do a comedy – I only just did my first romantic series From Scratch in 2022. Before that I’d never been in a romance besides one that’s between two worlds when aliens are coming for you!’ I ask her about the fact that she is now, according to Wikipedia, the highest-grossing actress in the world. ‘I can’t grasp it,’ she says. ‘I can’t conceive of it. So all I keep doing is repeating what I’ve been told my whole life: be grateful. I know what it’s going to mean to so many young girls or boys out there who feel like they don’t belong, and they’re trying to find their place. Somebody did before you did, so that means you can, too.’ 

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

That doesn’t mean she’s invincible. Later, as we return to the warmth of indoors and a rehearsal studio, Zoë applies an ice pack to her knee. ‘This is the acceptance of my physical limitations,’ she smiles. ‘And learning to love my body as it is now. It’s a crazy, beautiful time.’ We return to the subject of gravity – something she seems to defy in her roles but that she’s now feeling and welcoming into her life. ‘I now feel the floor. When I used to dance, I didn’t feel it. My teachers would say, “Use the floor.” And I couldn’t because I was always jumping higher. You would do your grand jeté across the room, and then I would run back, because I couldn’t wait to do it again.’ That rigour is still a part of her acting practice. She’s worked with the same acting coach for over 20 years and breaks down roles in the same way she did when starting out. ‘I dig into whatever memories I have that may be similar that help me transport. I write all over the script, and I give the role an animal, I substitute the characters for somebody that I may know. Other times, it’s just endless conversations with the director, creating a very vivid backstory for the character – so much so I’m getting air in her lungs. For instance, the film that I did with my husband, The Absence of Eden, I play this woman who is undocumented. She feels like she has no choice but to flee her situation in Mexico and cross the US border. I didn’t want to do this technical research on the politics of how we feel about immigration. I felt the character is not right or wrong. She’s just scared, hungry and lonely. She is loyal. She’s the things that felt familiar to me. For Rita, the character I play in Emilia Perez, she’s so invisible. And that invisibility has turned into resentment. We’ve all experienced events in our lives where we have felt really strong, strong feelings and I channel that. It was incredibly enriching to play someone like her.’

zoe saldana, zoë saldaña, emilia perez, hollywood authentic, greg williams

‘One time, a really good friend gave me a critique that I wasn’t ready to hear, but I’m so grateful that she said it. She said, “I can’t wait for you to lower this guard down. You’re such a guarded actor,” And when I heard that I was taken aback, but she was right. I can’t watch myself. There’s nothing I do that I like. I like the movies. I love what everybody else does. I love the choices the director has made. I don’t like the way I carry out things. When I sit through a premiere and watch myself I’m cringing. I’m sick to my stomach. I think it’s because I just don’t want to deal with the fact that deep, deep down there’s always going to be that dancer in me that doesn’t think I’m good enough. That I just got here by chance.’

Zoë sits for a beat and processes this self-criticism. ‘There is a simple compromise though,’ she says. ‘Just do what you want. There are so many projects that I should do right now, but there are so many more I want to do. I’m going to see if by following that desire versus duty, that one day I will be able to sit through a whole thing that I’ve done, and enjoy it along with everybody else.’ 

Photographs, words and video by GREG WILLIAMS
Zöe Saldaña stars in Emilia Perez which opens in Cannes. By Saint Laurent Productions, Why Not Productions, Page 114 and Pimentia Films

hollywood authentic, greg williams, hollywood authentic magazine

November 13, 2023

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

Today I am taking Austin Butler home. To Anaheim, California, where he spent his formative years. Or rather he’s taking me, in a beautiful off-white 1976 Alfa Romeo Spider.

Roof down as we power along Mulholland Drive, he tells me, ‘I’m excited, my God, we’re going to my old elementary school. And to see my teachers from kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade. That’s gonna be surreal’. Why no tutors from later in his academic life? Because Austin, as we shall see, didn’t have a conventional schooling.

Obviously, to open up about childhood, friends and family to someone who isn’t a relation or lifelong buddy requires a degree of trust. But as he later puts it to his old teachers: ‘Greg and I have known each other for years. We have a really interesting relationship, because he’s been witness to some of the highlight moments of my life. You know, like after the Golden Globes or after the Baftas, he’s the first person that I see, even before my family, because he’s right at the side of the stage, taking pictures.’ We have been discussing the idea of an “origin story”, where we visit his childhood home and school, for about 10 months and now it’s actually happening. I have long been inspired by Dennis Stock’s famous LIFE magazine photo-essay where he took James Dean back home in 1955, and hope to get a similar insight into Austin from this trip.

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

So, we head off south of Los Angeles to Anaheim, I ask him about growing up in a small city that I know only from a single trip to Disneyland. He laughs. ‘We’re not going to Disneyland today. Maybe next time. I sort of grew up between the two theme parks. You got Knott’s Berry Farm and you have Disneyland and we were in the middle.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

Does he have happy memories, I wonder? ‘Yeah, I do have happy memories. I was such a shy kid at that time. I really didn’t mix with other children. I spent a lot of time in my room playing the guitar.’ How does a budding actor overcome chronic shyness? ‘I was going to lots of acting classes from the time I was about 12. And I think the thing that made me want to explore acting in the first place was that it gave me techniques to be able to deal with certain emotions that I may have repressed. So, it gave me tools to cope with the shyness. It helped me to find ways in which I could go about in the world.’ Austin smiles as we pull away from some lights and he makes a gear change on the Alfa, it being, of course, a “stick shift”, a rarity on these roads. ‘Real smooth between one and two,’ he says with some satisfaction.

We continue down Interstate 5 and his sense of anticipation grows. ‘So, it’s been 20 years, maybe more, since I was here.

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

‘What’s gonna be interesting is looking at the house that I grew up in. I don’t want to bother the people that live there now, I just want to see it out of curiosity, to see if it’s the same colour.’ He points to a sign for Ganahl’s wood yard as we make a right into his old neighbourhood. ‘I do remember this lumber spot. My father and I used to go here. My dad liked to build things out of wood.’

That was a hobby, though? ‘Yeah, he was a commercial real estate appraiser. So, he would appraise car washes, shopping centres, restaurants and so on. Before she had me, my mom Lori Anne was a dental hygienist, but after I was born, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. So, she started doing day care out of the house. And the first kid that she ever looked after was my best friend growing up, Brad. His mom was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs Betts. We’re going to see them today, which is pretty special.’

He indicates the skeletal curves of a giant rollercoaster looping up into the sky ahead of us. ‘That’s Knott’s Berry Farm,’ he explains. ‘And that ride there, I think it’s called the Xcelerator. When it first opened, my mom took me out of school to go there and we waited in line and we rode it and she said: “Want to do it again?” So, we got in line a second time and then the same thing. Again? We ended up riding it seven times in a row. We just loved it so much.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

My phone map tells me we are just over a mile from Austin’s elementary school. The reason we aren’t doing any time at his high school is that there isn’t one – his parents divorced when he was seven. They co-parented and he was home-schooled from the age of 12. ‘I started home-schooling right after elementary school, mostly because I didn’t want to go to high school. But it also coincided with my starting acting, so it fitted in with my schedule. Home-schooling allowed me the freedom to go on set.’

At which point we pull into the parking lot of Twila Reid Elementary School and Austin spots a group of people he hasn’t seen for close to two decades, including Brad, his boyhood friend, whom he hugs as soon as he is out of the Alfa. ‘Such a great idea to come here,’ he explains to Brad and a trio of his former teachers. 

They pore over photographs from school days and then take fresh ones to record the reunion (I shoot some to cover, just in case). Mrs Betts explains how Lori Anne looked after her Brad and other local kids (‘His mom was just the best’) and Brad shows off his childhood scars (by all accounts they were adventurous boys, building half-pipes in the garden and clambering over rooftops to hide). Austin points out the fourth-grade classroom where he was taught by Mr Payne, who, it transpires, can’t be at the gathering because of a First Communion commitment.

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

I loved to play pretend in class – I could be someone else

The teachers, meanwhile, confirm to me that Austin was indeed a shy boy. Mrs Betts, who taught him in kindergarten, says: ‘He was very nervous when he came over to our house. He always brought his own supplies. He brought his own milk jug once because we didn’t have the right milk.’ Austin hides his face in mock embarrassment. Later, he will say: ‘I wondered, when you asked whether they thought I was shy, if they were gonna say “no, he was really outgoing”. Because you tell yourself stories in your mind all the time. So, I wasn’t sure if that was the reality. Turns out it was. It’s why I loved to play pretend in class – I could be someone else.’

The meeting is easy and relaxed and, apart from a touch of diffidence, that shyness is hardly in evidence, although he becomes quiet when he sits in a chair and leans on a desk in the old first-grade room. (He dwarfs both – Austin is 6ft tall and has long outgrown the furniture.) ‘I haven’t been in a classroom since I was here. I just think about how it shaped me so much. You know, the care and the love and just the amount of thought that they had for you. And the feeling that your ideas mattered. That’s what I felt as a kid here – the feeling of possibilities, all because you guys were such good teachers.’ His little audience beams in response, clearly proud and pleased to be a part of Austin’s story.

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

Over in Mr Payne’s classroom, I ask Austin which of his childhood memories shaped his adult self. ‘Such a good question. I mean, everything from experiential things up. Remembering that the first time I had sushi was in first grade, when one of the mothers brought some in. Culturally, being a very shy kid, it brought me around other kids, so I had to learn how to socialise. And Mr Payne, he would go running with us or shoot baskets outside. He talked to us like we were adults. You know, you had that same sort of rapport and respect that I would see when other adults talked to each other.’

I wanted to know, given the games of pretend and the way Mr Payne engaged with the pupils, if acting was even on his radar at that point? ‘Only insofar as my dad watched a lot of films, so I’d go home and we’d watch a movie every night and he always loved watching classic films. 

The idea of being an actor didn’t feel anywhere within the realms of possibility. It felt very, very far from my reality.’ So, I ask, when did you realise it was a possibility for someone like you? ‘You know, I had just finished sixth grade by then. And my mother had remarried and I had a stepbrother who got scouted by a talent agent to do “extra” work. And we didn’t know what “extra” work was, so I just tagged along on the ride up to LA. And then they looked at me and said to my mom: “You got another kid? Does he want to audition too?”’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

And being a cripplingly shy youngster, you said..? Austin shakes his head at the memory, as if he can’t quite process it. ‘I don’t know what came over me that day. But I said: Yeah. And that was the turning point that got me onto a film set. Because then I began getting work as an extra. I was just a kid, but I started to feel the spark of the joy of the entire dance that is all these different departments and artists coming together to create one thing, you know? I just fell in love with that.’

Not every child extra makes it to acting and not every child actor makes that difficult leap to adult star. After a change of scene to the outdoor refectory area, I wait while Austin looks around, remembering the sights and smells of distant lunches, before I ask how Austin’s career progressed from being background talent to “proper” acting?

‘So, I was on a set with other kids and they all had managers and agents. I ended up getting connected to Pat Cutler, who became my first manager. And I owe so much to her because she got me into my first acting classes and had professional headshots done. She would coach me before auditions and she then set me up with my first agent. And then it was just a process of going to hundreds and hundreds of auditions.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

As with many aspiring actors, Mum was designated driver for this endless round of castings. Plus, I venture, there must have been the disappointment of many rejections?

‘Sure. Apparently when you are starting out you have to go to a hundred auditions before you expect to book one. And then you’ve got another hundred before you expect to book the second. At that time we were living here in Anaheim and so we would drive a lot. I mean, you got to see a little bit of the traffic today, but some days it’s two hours, three hours to get to LA. So, one way or another, we drove every day. We would drive to acting class and then go to an audition or sometimes I’d have two auditions in one day. And it just became a numbers game, where in a way, you’re auditioning for your career, not that particular job.’

Quite why Lori Anne looms so large in Austin’s memory and affections becomes obvious when he recalls that daily grind. ‘Every time that you have an opportunity to practise in a room that somebody else has paid for, it’s your job to just do the best that you can. And it’s not necessarily your job to get that job. It’s just to use every opportunity to grow. Those are the things that were instilled in me from a young age. I look back now and am amazed and grateful for the amount of time that my mom spent just driving to auditions and then waiting outside, before driving me to acting class and waiting for two hours and then picking me up and driving me back down to Anaheim. Trust me, I would be nowhere without her support.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

There are several moments where Austin turns away and stares into the distance, lost in thought. This is one of them. ‘Actually,’ he says eventually, ‘this is the first time I have been in Anaheim since my mom passed. Besides going to Knott’s Berry Farm once or twice and to Disneyland, I’ve never, ever gone back to the house that I was raised in and I’ve never come back to this school.’

There is another pensive silence before I ask him how the visit to his alma mater has been. ‘There’s something really comforting about it. A lot of feelings of nostalgia coming out. The smells of freshly sharpened pencils. Those are the same trees that were here back then and, you know, the sound of the leaves rustling reminds me of when I was a kid here. Those sensory things bring you right back. And it’s been nice to do it at this point in my career. To see it all afresh and remember those emotions. You sort of get on that treadmill of life and one day leads to the next. Taking a second to look back to where I came from, and remembering those memories, is kind of surreal right now. But really special.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

Taking a second to look back to where I came from, and remembering those memories, is kind of surreal right now. But really special

We take our leave of his tutors, but before we leave there’s time for a drink from the water fountain, a go on the swings and even some hopscotch. Playtime. ‘Baz [Luhrmann] always talks about that. Play takes you back to that feeling of just all those emotions that you go through as a child and being able to see it fresh and have that childlike play. He always talks about how it’s a screenplay. You know, you go and see a play. It’s all a state of play, that you’re trying to get back to that real creativity where you’re trying not to hold on to something too tightly. I think where I am now, is trying to figure out how to find as much freedom as I can in the work.’

Eventually we get back in the Alfa and head for the second stretch of Memory Lane – Austin’s old house. But the school hasn’t had its final say yet, as Austin almost explodes with surprise and joy when he spots Mr Payne driving by. They both pull over and embrace and it turns out Mr Payne is also called Greg and Austin recapitulates for Mr Payne how the teacher’s attitude to his pupils was a lifelong inspiration. After a few more minutes of recollections and reflection, we continue our drive until we and locate the single-storey, double-garaged 1950s house that Austin once lived in.

He lived here from the very start of his life – ‘this is the house I was brought home to from the hospital, you know?’ – and left when his parents divorced. ‘The front door used to be black. The house itself was blue. And there were hedges in front of the window. That tree is the same, though. Used to drop these purple flowers. We were always cleaning them up, but they were so beautiful, I didn’t mind.’

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So, what emotions does seeing the old home bring out? It all just reminds me of the child-like innocence I had back then. The time before any pain really hits you. It also brings back memories of the time before my parents got divorced. He bunches up his fist to emphasise the tightness of a family unit. ‘It’s weird, because it is 20 years or even longer, maybe 22, since I saw this place. But since then, in acting classes, I’ve come here in my imagination many times, you know, to bring out certain emotions from being a kid. But it’s amazing coming here as an adult and seeing the actual scale. Everything seems so much bigger when you’re a kid.’

As intended, Austin doesn’t disturb the current residents. Instead, we climb back into the Alfa to cruise the streets of his pre-teen life and he gives a running commentary on childhood lemonade stands and garage sales in the community. It’s beginning to feel like the kind of All-American suburban experience that Spielberg might have once created, a sensation confirmed when Austin suggests what we need right now is drive-thru at In-N-Out.

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The young assistant who takes the order for cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes is thrilled to see Austin. ‘This is not a drill,’ she says into her headset when telling her colleagues who the customer is. ‘Honestly,’ she confesses to Austin, ‘I was like dying to go home, but this is great. That’s $22.74. You wanna eat in the car?’ 

We do. And Austin salivates after the first bite. ‘Oh my God, it’s so good. These onions! When I was growing up, we didn’t have much money, so our version of a fancy meal was an In-N-Out burger or going to get a pizza or some other, you know, fast food. The taste of this burger takes me right back. And it’s still just as good as ever.’

‘Big fan,’ one of the other staff says. ‘You did a great job on Elvis.’ True. But it’s easy to think that Austin had a frictionless rise to superstardom, if you didn’t know about all those auditions or the many teen shows he featured in before fame found him. In fact, his dramatic breakthrough came not in film or TV, but theatre, in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh on Broadway in 2018, where he played opposite Denzel Washington.

Washington, of course, is famous for his support of young talent – he paid for the late Chadwick Boseman’s acting classes. He was equally generous with Austin, who had already sent Baz Luhrmann an audition tape of him singing Unchained Melody (during which, as he has admitted, he was thinking of Lori Anne and channelling Elvis’s pain about the loss of his own mother, Gladys, also at the age of 23). Luhrmann has said: ‘I then got a call from Denzel Washington, a cold call,’ he recalled. ‘I did not know Denzel. And he said, “I’ve just worked with this guy on stage. I’ve never seen a work ethic like it”. And I’m like, “OK, I must see him”.’

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We drive back to LA with the sun dropping in the sky, casting darker shadows, the light much better for shooting. We pass the Warner Brothers lot and Austin’s grin breaks out again. ‘I spent so much time there. They’re like family now after everything with Elvis. I love how the studios haven’t changed in style.’ He points to a giant billboard of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. ‘You can just feel the history when you’re in there.’

He points out Oakwood – now renovated and re-branded as Falls Green – a complex of more than 1,000 apartments, where young hopefuls trying to break into the business would stay, especially during pilot season, usually with their families or a guardian. ‘In my time it was the place where all the young actors who would come out from Texas or Georgia lived, hoping to make it. So as a kid this was where you would go for house parties and things. Short-term leases, everyone doing what they could to make the rent.’

Talk of struggling actors triggers a memory. ‘I remember when I was 17, that was the last time that I had this moment where I looked at my bank account and I saw I was not going to have enough money in about a week to pay for any gas or for my rent. And then I got cast in this job. And it allowed me the freedom to pay for my gas and a couple more months of rent and then I just kept working. Of course, you end up having to take certain things you might not want to. I’m so grateful for the work so I don’t want to downplay the gratitude that I feel towards those jobs at that time in my life. But sometimes there’s certain creative depths that you want to go into that maybe the material isn’t supporting. And so, I moved to New York when I was about 20 years old.’

And that was when theatre entered the equation? ‘Well, in LA, theatre wasn’t really part of the culture. But in New York, I started watching plays and I saw Mark Rylance on stage doing Richard III and Twelfth Night. He gave these incredible performances that just shattered any idea I had about acting. 

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The imperfections are where the juice is. That’s where you capture lightning in a bottle

I started going to a play every night, sometimes I’d go to two plays a day. And that’s when I knew that I had to do theatre, because all my favourite actors, you know, De Niro, or further back to Brando, they all cut their teeth on stage, because you’re only as good as you are that night.’

His embracing of theatre coincided with a fresh determination about the direction of his career. ‘There came a point where the material I was getting just didn’t feel fulfilling to me. I did a TV show when I was 23 right around the time that my mom passed away, she passed and the very next week I had to leave to go to New Zealand. It really started to shift my priorities. I said I would rather not work than take jobs where I’m not digging into the parts of myself that I want to explore. I ended up not working for about eight or nine months. I was still grieving for my mom, I didn’t have a job – as an actor you begin to wonder about your place in the world at times like that.’ I suggest it takes a lot of inner strength not to work for close to a year and to turn down job opportunities, even if you don’t think they are right for you. ‘And in the midst of it you don’t know if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But that I guess is what having faith is, right? So I took a lot of time off. But then my agent called and told me that Denzel Washington was doing The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. That changed my whole career.’

Austin speaks warmly of Washington both as an actor and a person. What did he learn from the older man? ‘From day one, that there’s no one right way to do anything artistic. When you’re acting sometimes you can have this idea that there’s a perfect way for the scene to go. But as you and I have talked about so much, the imperfections are where the juice is. That’s where you capture lightning in a bottle. It also proved a lot of things to myself, because I had to really go far outside my comfort zone. It pushed me to the edge of my capabilities. Anytime that I talk about acting I always have this hesitancy because it can very easily verge on pretentious or self-important. But when acting is not truthful, it feels like nails on a chalkboard. It’s so painful when you are not finding the truth. You go home and feel awful, you know? So for a shy kid to suddenly be on stage with these powerhouse actors was terrifying. But it’s like playing tennis with the greatest tennis players. You just have to get better. And that’s incredibly exhilarating.’ 

Photographs, words and video by Greg Williams
Austin Butler can be seen next in Masters of the Air in January and Dune: Part Two in March. The photos, interview and video pre-dated the SAG-AFTRA strike

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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