He had two options: take the risk or miss the opportunity. He’d been following the story for over a year. The capture. The prison break. The mile long tunnel and motorcycle. This man was not to be taken lightly. He was something like a legend, the world’s most wanted man. There was no doubt about it; it was a once in a lifetime chance. So he boarded the plane to a small city in the middle of Mexico. After another two hour flight and a hike through a lush jungle, a seven hour ride passing through random bits of farmland surrounded by more forest, a military checkpoint and more forest, he reached the designated location. There he is, “the world’s most famous fugitive.” Dressed in a silky shirt and pressed pants, he reaches out his hand. While the entire scenario feels like something straight out of a Hollywood thriller, it’s not. But it is about a movie, a movie Joaquin Gomez, also known as “El Chapo,” wanted to make about his life. Interestingly enough, it’s actor, filmmaker and political activist Sean Penn meeting with Mexico’s infamous drug lord.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Penn, whether acting or not, has always been all about the action. From his film debut in Taps to his Academy Award winning role in Mystic River, Penn has always had a knack for playing complex characters not afraid to cross the line. In All the King’s Men, Penn portrays a politician straddling the line between power and corruption. In Milk, for which he won another Academy Award, Penn plays the role of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected into office in California. But he’s just as controversial off screen as he is in front of the camera. When he isn’t acting, he’s working as a political and social activist. More than willing to question those in position of power, Penn’s activism includes foreign policy, privacy issues, the role of media and the War in Iraq. “…One of the big things where we have to recognize we are complicit,” he told Al Jazeera while criticizing what we calls the American culture of complaint, “is that we have been far too comfort-addicted, which has led us to be reluctant to boycott corporate interests which are lobbying these policies in government.” Penn’s overwhelming philanthropy and charity work match his strong words. Besides actually touring Iraq to observe the war, the award winning actor joined rescue workers going door to door searching for Hurricane Katrina survivors. His nonprofit organization in Haiti demonstrates the actor’s passion for helping others.
Founded in 2010, J/P Haitian Relief Organization was created in response to the earthquake that nearly destroyed Haiti. Penn’s son Hopper was recovering from a skateboarding accident when he became aware of what he called the “Civil War” medicine style administered throughout the nation. What was supposed to be a two week trip relief effort ended up being a nonprofit organization that focuses on four key areas: medical camps, relocation management, community development and engineering and construction. “When you look down a city block of devastation and you see the pain and the death, you feel like, I can fix this,” he told CBS. He later realized that “it wasn’t about fixing [Haiti] anymore, it was about helping as much as you could.” Even after spending millions of dollars of his own money and living in a house with 20 volunteers, Penn’s just as determined to help empower the people of Haiti.
It takes a certain kind of person to navigate the worlds of acting, philanthropy and activism. It requires passion and diligence, risk taking and patience. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those afraid of backlash. It is most certainly not for those afraid to sit down and talk with people, even if they are the most wanted fugitive in the world.
As “El Chapo” stretched out his hand toward the actor-turned GI-Joe-turned journalistic investigator, Penn returns the favor and the two shake hands, “El Chapo” eventually embracing Penn with a “commadre hug.” They share tacos and tequila and even take a picture together. “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” “El Chapo” admits boldly and unapologetically as Penn, and “El Chapo’s,” friends and family sit at the dinner table. It’s odd. Unexpected and slightly unnerving. The drug lord agrees to let Penn interview him. But plans fall through, the military gets involved and suspicions arise. Instead of a face to face sit down, the interview will have to take place over the phone. And it does. But as the world watches “El Chapo” speak about his life on a video recorded on a Blackberry phone in an undisclosed location, so do the authorities that have been searching for him for months. Very much like an unexpected plot twist, the drug lord is captured and arrested. Penn, far away, but very much involved, publishes his article in Rolling Stone. Though praised by some and condemned by others, the actor has once again managed to create an action filled drama that has everyone wondering what’s next.