Lone Ranger

By Ken Tucker
Updated December 26, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Sean Penn is one of our Entertainers of the Year

Sean Penn has spent decades proving his versatility, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Sweet and Lowdown to I Am Sam, but this was the year that showcased the absolute extremes of his range. With his performances as the working-class Boston tough in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and the tweedy academic in need of a heart in 21 Grams, Penn generated some of the best reviews of the year and his career. When the actor explains the link between the two parts — ”In both of these movies, the codes of behavior, of honor and responsibility, are called into question at moments of great stress, and the interest lies in how people behave in stressful times” — he could also be talking about his third notable, albeit more poorly received role of the past year: as a real-life political activist who went on a highly controversial fact-finding mission to Baghdad.

Talk of the trip stayed off the Mystic set (”Nobody on the picture ever discussed politics,” says Eastwood), probably because of the intense way in which the 43-year-old Penn prepares for films. Part improviser, part old-school Method man, poring over his scripts for emotional and intellectual truths that resound with him, he rendered his Mystic and 21 Grams roles devastatingly convincing — and is now generating Oscar buzz for both. Penn’s fans say that although the enigmatic performer has been acting for 29 years, Hollywood is only beginning to get him: ”Sean has an enormous capacity to be sympathetic that not many movies of his have tapped into,” says Eastwood. ”Even though he ends up committing murder [in Mystic River], you still end up feeling sorry for him anyway.”

Though he’ll talk about acting for hours, Penn doesn’t like to say much about how he achieves his particular brand of on-screen magic. ”You know, David Blaine’s a friend of mine,” he says, ”and I think he’s a friend because I don’t ask him how he does his tricks.” Translation: Back off and let him do his thing.