The actor adds to the mystery of Pappy Pariah
Credit: Araya Diaz/WireImage

Who is Pappy Pariah?

That was the question on the mind of the hundreds of curious audience members at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Thursday evening. It’s not often — if ever — that a live reading of an unknown author’s debut novel would cause such curiosity and media attention, but the mysterious involvement of Sean Penn will do that.

Penn is a unique figure in an industry full of unique figures. Since winning an Oscar for his role in 2008’s Milk, the actor has focused more of his time on humanitarian efforts, still releasing occasional movies (a voice role in The Angry Birds Movie being his most high-profile gig) and making headlines for his strange and borderline illegal adventures with Mexican drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Even when he has films to promote, Penn rarely goes on late-night shows, which made his recent appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Real Time with Bill Maher, even more intriguing. The Mystic River star wasn’t there for a film, but rather an audiobook, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, to which he had lent his voice.

The tremendous support Penn was giving to this book from an author named Pappy Pariah befuddled Colbert especially, who suggested what everyone at home believed — Penn is Pappy Pariah. The actor contended this is a real person from his past, someone he met back in 1979 at a bar in Key West, Florida. While this strange encounter was nearly 40 years ago, Penn says Pariah recently sent a manuscript and instructions on how to distribute it to his mother’s home.

All of this mystery and inquisitiveness is what brought media members, friends of the actor, and generally curious people, to LACMA as Penn performed a live reading of the audiobook, which will be available for free through Audible beginning Oct. 18. As onlookers waited for Penn to come out to begin the reading, the first appearance was by a woman in a red wig (later identified as Leila George, Penn’s new girlfriend), who throughout the show would often serve as a Siri type figure. Then one of the initial voices heard was a familiar one — Penn’s This Must Be the Place costar Frances McDormand.

After a short prologue over the speakers from an absent McDormand and actor Ari Fliakos, Penn finally strutted out, looking as if he had just arrived from one of his humanitarian missions, sporting boots and khaki shorts. He jumps right into the reading, his gravelly, California-accented voice audiences have heard emanating from him for four decades filling the room. That changes, though, when it comes time for Penn to voice the title character. If you closed your eyes as Penn spoke as Bob Honey, it was hard not to think that Kermit the Frog was in fact performing the live reading.

It’s hard to describe Bob Honey Who Just Does Stuff and its titular character. Honey is a recluse, who definitely does stuff, which seems to include killing old people for the government. That might be a spoiler, but it might not be — it’s hard to tell, in all honesty. The ending of the novel turns out to be as strange and mysterious as the questions surrounding its author.

Lasting some three hours, with a short intermission to give Penn a much-deserved break — especially considering he rarely drank his water and only really messed up once (intimacies can be tough!) — the experience can be summed up as surreal; watching one of Hollywood’s most distinguished actors read a funny and at times graphic story, which includes discussion of sex toys and sexual dungeons, plus things not necessarily printable for EW, is a rare affair, after all.

Any audience member who believed Penn when he said he wasn’t Pariah was likely second-guessing that notion when, late in the reading, the fictional story shifted to a political landscape — the mentions all part of the zeitgeist. All of the sudden came references to shootings of police officers in Dallas, a candidate who had put in her time, and another who owned casinos and golf courses. The clear references to Donald Trump only grew as passages referred to a candidate as the “Mussolini of Mayberry” and his sons as the new Uday and Qusay Hussein.

After the trippy and slightly mind-blowing ending, Penn sat down for a short Q&A, where he discussed his involvement with the book. “I guess it was a connection to being 19 years old and wishing that I had stayed in touch with this guy, because I think I was intimidated by the way that he spoke and felt like a dummy for not understanding anything he was saying,” he shared. “And then as I met people over the years, I realized that they weren’t all as interesting as him.”

While Penn says he can’t speculate on Pariah’s mindset since he has only had two late-night calls with the author (or at least he presumes it was him), he does find it a little unnerving how connected he felt to the story. “The politics were immediate and there was so much that I was agreeing with,” he said. “And yet, how concerning you should be that you agree with a sociopath.”

Is Penn, in fact, Pappy Pariah? Is Pappy Pariah, Penn? Check out the free audiobook to decide for yourself.