Robin Wright Penn for “White Oleander”

One of Hollywood’s most accomplished stars, Robin Wright was in Toronto promoting her latest film, White Oleander. In this candid interview, the acclaimed actress talked to Paul Fischer about life with husband Sean Penn, acting and keeping her life and career in check.

It is hard to imagine that Robin Wright has not had any training as an actor. Yet in an industry of stars, Wright Penn is a character actor. Take White Oleander as a prime example. Unrecognisable as a big-breasted hypocritical born again Christian in this adaptation of the best-selling novel, Wright Penn sees herself as a character actress despite “never having been given the tools” as an actor. “It was never instilled in me of how to play. You know these are the rules and regulations, of how to submerge yourself into a character that’s different from yourself. I don’t have the tools, so it’s more observing and I have always been a good mimic.”

In White Oleander, Penn’s 24th movie, the 36-year plays one of three foster mothers in this cinematic journey of adolescent Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman), playing a character in every sense of the word, who is as far removed from the dainty, quietly spoken and down-to-earth actress as you can get. “I’ve always wanted to play these kinds of roles,” possibly because they WERE so far removed from her own reality, admitting that “it scared the shit out of me to get into this business; but my brother and I were from a divorced family, so we would perform for my mother, all the time. My brother is incredible and he can do ANY accent and can play any character, so we would mimic people and perform for my mom. But the thought of doing it in front of the camera was you know, with millions of people watching you, was never an endeavour of mine,” concedes the actress.

Born in Dallas, Texas, but brought up in San Diego, California, she started her professional career as a model, both in Paris and Japan. After finishing high-school she decided to become an actress and got a role in the daytime series “Santa Barbara” (1984), for which she was nominated three times for an Emmy. It was at this juncture her confidence rose “and I was given the opportunity to do film. Then I felt the difference,” explains Robin.

The actress recalls being groomed for film by a very specific agent who recognised Penn’s abilities. She laughingly recalls auditioning “for every John Hughes movie ever made, always coming in second to Molly Ringwald.” Then came The Princess Bride in 1987. Thanks to its success, she got the starring role in Denial (1991) alongside Jason Patric, with whom she fell in love. In 1990 she was in State of Grace where she met Sean Penn, by whom she had a daughter, Dylan Frances, and a son, Hopper Jack. She has since been critically acclaimed in the likes of The Crossing Guard, Moll Flanders and the blockbuster Forrest Gump. Yet she continued to avoid the trappings of movie star, admitting she never had a plan for her career. “You know it’s also getting older and having more experience and gaining the awareness of confidence, because I never have been confident.” Even now with her success, she knows too well her limitations. “I tell you, if I can’t do that role and I know I am not capable of doing that, I don’t want to do it, so give it to somebody else.”

She didn’t have the confidence to play Starr in White Oleander, but she concedes that “maybe I was ready to be scared,” which is ultimately why she really wanted to do it. “It’s scary just because it’s the fear of failing, and you HAVE to fail when you act and you HAVE to go over the bar, to come back to what’s real.” Which is why she prefers these radically different roles “more than playing someone whose closer to my self and more self reflective. It’s almost harder doing those than this yet it’s so much fun.” Robin was genuinely shocked when director Peter Kosminsky offered her the role. “I am NOTHING like the character in the book, and I called Peter and I asked him: Are you sure you’ve seen me? Do you know that I’m not somebody else? I said because you know I can’t weigh more than 115 pounds, I’ve tried, I’m flat-chested, I have no hips”, all of which are the antithesis of this character. “Peter said I want to go against type, but I wanted double D, big, you know I just would have felt her.” It was fun preparing to play this character. “I just love getting dirty.”

One of the dominant themes of White Oleander is the destructive power of beauty. Though she refuses to label herself as a movie star, she is very clear when asked whether beauty can be used as a weapon. “I looked up on the internet a description of the flower, White Oleander and it was so intense the metaphor it was almost like suction, the destruction of whatever ate that flower, animals, whatever other plant touched that plant and that beauty is power. It’s such an insidious depth, that it’s used in society, that its part of our industry, as competition that you’re set up, but more than that within the film, the vein of the film, whether it’s the foster parent’s influence on Astrid, or the Mother’s, it’s very female where it’s like that coating of you’re going to learn and going to be my skin and the ability to separate and enjoy beauty is power in a healthy sense is so difficult to do. You know you learn it from their mothers and their mothers, and their mothers, and I just feel like its insidious, like that slow turning screw, it’s just so deep, written in the teachings and the culture, and it’s very female.”

There is no correlation between many of the characters Penn has played to her own identity, and she loves that. Yet, despite her appearance in some of Hollywood’s successful films, she admits that “I am not successful, in terms of Hollywood.” Hard to believe when you see her track record, but the actress equates success with fame, and doesn’t believe that on that level, she is successful. “Famous is celebrityism and I don’t want that,” says Penn. “I know that I’m not that. Everybody knows who you are, I can’t imagine living that life, but I don’t think I consider myself famous.” Yet ironically, she is married to an actor who is more than just successful.

“Everybody, worldwide, knows who Sean Penn is” and she could never abide that level of celebrity. Oh I can’t fucking imagine being him,” she says half laughingly. Yet through her marriage, celebrityism has become unavoidable, much to her chagrin. “It’s a drag because it’s a drag for him, so therefore it’s a drag for me”, she confesses. “He doesn’t welcome the fans. He’s private and yet he’s got a big mouth, so I said: Well okay how are WE supposed to live in that dichotomy, because on the one hand he’s all over magazines and politically very loud, and everybody knows who he is, but he is tortured by it. It’s hard for people to understand that he’s making a statement artistically, and he is, and a big one, and he’s the best out there, but he just doesn’t want to be bothered when we’re at the park with our kids, and I don’t blame him.”

Asked if she will work with him again, either as a co-star or be directed by him, Penn smiles. “I’m sure we’l do it again, but I like to take breaks. It’s so great working together, but I need like a two-year break.”

Penn gets to challenge herself further next up in The Singing Detective in which she plays three roles. “That was an extraordinary experience and Robert Downey is amazing.” As for Robin Wright Penn, she may not consider herself a star, but she remains one of Hollywood’s luminous actors.