The studio projects she turned down didn’t “touch my heart,” she says. “I never had an aversion to doing something commercial. The question for me always was, ‘Can I offer it anything?’ If I can’t, what’s the point?” She gravitated instead to independent film, and in 1990 she was cast opposite Sean Penn, then newly divorced from Madonna, in the gangland drama State of Grace. A month after their wedding in 1996, Wright Penn was carjacked outside the couple’s L.A. home with her son and daughter, then ages five and three, in the backseat. She calmly (and successfully) negotiated with the thieves to release the children before they took the car, but deeply traumatized by the incident, the family moved to Marin County, north of San Francisco.
For Wright Penn, the highest priority in those years was raising her children. She limited her roles to films that shot during the summer or didn’t require her to be away for more than 10 days during the school year. She says, convincingly, that she doesn’t wish she’d agreed to more films. “Everything I would have wanted to do had already been done by Meryl Streep,” she says. “Sophie’s Choice. Kramer vs. Kramer. Silkwood. Done.”
Now, after years of making choices based on what she didn’t want, Wright Penn is ready to be driven by what she does want: “Joy. Decisiveness. Travel.” Offscreen, she has become an advocate for The Greatest Silence, a documentary about violence against women in the Congo, and she’s working with the EcoMom Alliance to raise money to aid women and children in that country. Soon she plans to return to L.A., where her daughter will be attending film school and where her brother and other family members live. To bolster her confidence, she’s been working with the renowned stage director J Ranelli. Despite her talent, Wright Penn says she feels insecure because she never attended college or had formal training to be an actor. “I have no foundation other than instinct,” she says. “If I had to sail a boat, I would figure it out. That’s kind of what I’ve felt like as an actress.”
Wright Penn’s fans in the industry say she possesses qualities that can’t be taught: perfect mimicry and the ability to disappear into a role. “I have this whole theory on her,” says writer/director Erin Dignam, who has worked with the actress on a number of projects, including Loved. “She’s extremely intelligent, and she’s not intellectual: It’s a great combination for an actress who has to inhabit all these people who think in different ways. She really embraces the words in an egoless way.” Dignam also cites Sean Penn as an admirer of Robin’s work. “He told me early on that she was much more the natural actor than him,” she says.
After years of playing tormented women, Wright Penn is now shopping for a comedy that will display the funny side that her friends know well. She has a wicked, self-deprecating wit, they say, and a perfect sense of timing. “If she can get a comedy role, people are going to be shocked,” Dignam says. “She could just explode.” Wright Penn also hopes to direct and produce, and she is in discussions about a Broadway play. “If you don’t have passion for things, you don’t get up in the morning,” she says. Whatever direction she chooses, this much is clear: Robin Wright Penn will deliver an uncompromising performance.
Karen Breslau has profiled Jodie Foster and Maria Shriver for MORE.