Up Close and Personal with Actor, Activist Sean Penn at RSAC 2016

Posted on by David Needle

The RSA Conference wrapped up Friday with an onstage keynote interview with two-time Academy Award winning actor and activist Sean Penn.

During an on stage conversation with RSA Program Director Hugh Thompson, Penn shared some insights into his acting career, what drives his activism, and his relationship with technology.

On that last point, Penn jokingly suggested during the interview that Thompson check the cell phone in his pocket. “It might not work now because every time I get near one of the damn things they don’t work. I have an absolute allergy to (technology),” he said.

That said, he sees the value of technology and security tech in particular.

“I was thinking recently that I’ve never been entrepreneurial, but maybe I should have. We are going to be at war in many places for a long time. Investing in weapons is a good bet, but I wouldn’t feel good about that,” he said. “But I’ve started thinking about cybersecurity and realized that more of our basic life support is cyber-related than it is for any other country,” he said.

“And then you have the huge amounts of disinformation and misinformation. Putting aside privacy, which I have strong feelings about, your business (computer security) is a business I would invest in—or accept free shares.”

The State of Journalism

Penn had some strong things to say about the media and journalism. “I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” he said.

As an off-shoot of his humanitarian and activism, Penn has reported on various high profile events for years including Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, the war in Iraq and earlier this year his controversial interview with (at the time) escaped drug kingpin El Chapo.

Penn recalled his experience reporting from Baghdad back in 2003.

“I would say my first potent experience of this was in Baghdad in 2003. I didn’t have a deadline, but I saw a lot of journalists and what they were writing. There were some very good ones, but their articles came out the next day. The 24-hour news cycle is slaughtering us. There is no journalism. You can say what happened, but you can’t say how it happened,” he said.

“The other thing is that there is too much information. The blogosphere is a great thing, it’s a great tool, but there is too much un-vetted content and no oversight. It’s like military contracting without oversight.” Still, he admitted, “I don’t know how you turn the clock back on that.”

 At the Movies

Asked what his favorite movie role was Penn demurred, comparing it to what he said is the first rule of Italian driving: “What’s behind you doesn’t matter.”

He did go on to say that what’s most important to him is that the film “works” and that he gets along with the people he works with and that the location has great restaurants. He said all of that was in play for the movie Milk, in which he played San Francisco Supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk who was gunned down along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White.

Looking back on the film and the impact Harvey Milk might have had, Penn recalled the killing was just at the start of the AIDs and HIV epidemic. Penn said he believes Milk would have helped save hundreds of thousands of lives with his activism had he not been killed.

As for his own legacy, Penn quipped “I’m the one person that will never look me up on Wikipedia.”

But in terms of his two kids, he said what’s important to realize is how much they’ve taught him as reflections of his own youth and the mistakes he made.

“I don’t know about lessons I’ve taught them, but if I would want them to model anything in their own way, it’s to feel love—and I love them dearly—and also that they feel authenticity. Authenticity is the greatest gift you can give a child.” 




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