NBC's Curry Swoons Over Sean Penn: 'You Are One of the Greatest Actors of Our Time'

In an interview she conducted with left-wing actor Sean Penn at the Cannes Film Festival that aired on Tuesday, Today co-host Ann Curry behaved like an adoring fan rather than a journalist: "And through all of these years and all these characters....You have trained us to believe you, to believe your transformation, almost instantly.  Do you accept that you are one of the greatest actors of our time?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

While discussing Penn's charity work in Haiti, Curry sycophantically proclaimed: "The people who work for you in Haiti have – some of them have called you a demanding boss. You have gotten angry yelling, "That's not good enough!"....Have you always had this moral outrage?"

Penn responded: "I'm not going to accuse myself of being moral. I recognize a lot of the things that are less than good in me....I think I'm good at casting." Curry gushed: "Sounds like you're casting a lot from miracles, even though you're not a religious man." Penn remarked: "I prefer not to go to Hell. I'd like to think that Heaven's a little sexier than generally portrayed. But if it's just black and quiet, that's okay, too."

Speaking of "moral outrage," Curry never challenged Penn on his history of controversial and offensive statements, radical left-wing activism, or friendship with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez:

>Appearing on CBS's Sunday Morning in 2010, Penn said of his critics: "You know, do I hope that those people die screaming of rectal cancer? Yeah."

>On HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher in March of 2010, Penn ranted that journalists in Venezuela who criticized his buddy Hugo Chavez should be imprisoned.  

>On CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight in October of 2011, Penn slammed the Tea Party movement as the 'Get the N-word out of the White House party.'

>Most recently, Penn again appeared on Piers Morgan in April and condemned Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum as "anti-American."

On Tuesday, after asking if Penn would ever consider giving up acting and "becoming a full-time humanitarian," Curry gushed: "I think I have discovered in this interview that despite everyone's sort of sentiment about you being perhaps serious and deeply cynical, you actually are an idealist." Penn laughed and added: "Who hates cynics."

Following the softball chat, fellow co-host Matt Lauer remarked: "[Penn] has a reputation of being a difficult interview. It didn't seem so in that one. I think that was great." The real trick is to avoid asking any real questions.


Here is a full transcript of the interview that aired on May 22:

8:20AM ET

ANN CURRY: Back now at 8:20 with a rare and wide-ranging interview with Sean Penn. His first here on Today in ten years. We caught up with the two-time Oscar winner at the Cannes Film Festival and began by talking out the benefit he held there, which has raised more than $2 million for the people of Haiti. Two years after the earthquake there, many have moved on. Why haven't you?

SEAN PENN: Because the job isn't done. And they've had every exploitation happen to them. Every invasion happen to them. Every dictatorship happen to them. And now there's this new world where things can change. It's kind of a magic moment. It's an exciting time to be working in Haiti.

CURRY: I detect an emotional component in this for you.

PENN: It's emotional because you can see how it can work. And you say, 'Oh, God, let it work this time.'

CURRY: What does, in your view, victory look like in Haiti?

PENN: Victory looks like a brilliant young Haitian kid who had no better choice than to go to the United States and get an education, make a decision to go home. It looks like where people really have a chance and where kids get to say, "You know, I was born here. I can get the education here and I can do it." You know, just see this generation do what I know it's going to do. Which is going to win.

CURRY: For many people who go to these kinds of places, there is a person, an image, an experience, that doesn't leave you.

PENN: I could give you a story image that is a policeman who rationed his cigarettes because of the, you know, the expense. And so, one of his four cigarettes a day was after he would come home. He went home, where he would see his children, and his parents, and his wife downstairs. Give them a kiss, go upstairs, take off his policeman's uniform. Smile at his family. Walk outside to have that smoke. And then the earth shook and he turned around to the two-level home behind him with his whole family in it, and it was up to his knee. And he dove in to it after his family and he reached through the concrete to get them. And all he got was his uniform. And so with that, he put it on. And he became the one guiding the emergency traffic that saved about 500 lives in the first two days.

CURRY: The people who work for you in Haiti have – some of them have called you a demanding boss. You have gotten angry yelling, "That's not good enough!" You're smiling.

PENN: Most of the people I'm angry at are usually international volunteers who are coming over there to stamp themself with a do-gooder label. Many of you know better than I do what we're about to face, which is likely total chaos. I don't know. I don't control my temper well I guess.

CURRY: Have you always had this moral outrage?

PENN: I'm not going to accuse myself of being moral. I recognize a lot of the things that are less than good in me. And similarly, there's a very powerful thing that comes when something is good despite me. It's the one place I tend to be a follower of and kind of go with the flow. And it's mostly an instinct about other people, and their skills, and their good hearts. I think I'm good at casting.

CURRY: Sounds like you're casting a lot from miracles, even though you're not a religious man.

PENN: I prefer not to go to Hell. I'd like to think that Heaven's a little sexier than generally portrayed. But if it's just black and quiet, that's okay, too.

CURRY: Your first moment on screen was in Little House on the Prairie in 1974.

PENN: Yeah, that's true.

CURRY: And through all of these years and all these characters, as we think about them, Jimmy in "Mystic River," Sam in "I am Sam," Matthew in "Dead Man Walking." You have trained us to believe you, to believe your transformation, almost instantly. Do you accept that you are one of the greatest actors of our time?

PENN: I am constantly embarrassed by my own personality. And so maybe I've – maybe I have a strength in that as an actor, in that I'm – maybe it's because I'm willing to give it up. I have a very tough time with people. It's not that I'm totally anti-social, I just don't want to socialize with the people I've already known.

CURRY: Could you ever imagine yourself giving up acting and directing and becoming a full-time humanitarian?

PENN: I could imagine myself running out of time to do either, you know.

CURRY: I think I have discovered in this interview that despite everyone's sort of sentiment about you being perhaps serious and deeply cynical, you actually are an idealist.

PENN: Who hates cynics. How dare you be cynical and I don't get to be. You know, why are you so special? And they think they are. And they think that I think I am. And that's why we'll keep fighting.

CURRY: Penn's charity, the J.P. Haitian Relief Organization has a reputation for getting things done. More than 200,000 people have been treated in clinics by this organization, more than 10,000 given access to clean water and hundreds of kids have received a free education as a result.

MATT LAUER: He has a reputation of being a difficult interview. It didn't seem so in that one. I think that was great.

CURRY: No, very enjoyable.

LAUER: That was really, really interesting.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC