We’re in a car, heading to a fund-raiser for a group called the EcoMom Alliance, and if Robin Wright Penn were a typical environmentally conscious star, the car would be a Prius and she’d be extolling the virtues of composting. Instead, we are barreling through the streets of San Francisco in an old black Land Rover that looks as though it might get 14 miles per gallon, tops. “It’s a piece of shit,” she says. “I’m waiting for it to die.” An American Spirit cigarette dangling from her lips, she’s the first to acknowledge her carbon-based crimes. “It’s blasphemy,” she says, laughing, and cringes in mock shame. “Can you believe I’m going to EcoMoms like this?”
It’s not that Wright Penn doesn’t support the group’s goals of sustainable living and women’s empowerment—she is, after all, a spokesperson, and yes, she does compost. It’s enviro-dogmatism she can’t stand. “I do believe in it,” she says of the green lifestyle. “But it doesn’t mean it’s my only religion. You take pieces of various religions; you reject what doesn’t work for you.”
That could well be Robin Wright Penn’s life motto. After achieving fame early as Buttercup in the 1987 hit The Princess Bride and later as the ill-fated Jenny in the 1994 phenomenon Forrest Gump, Wright Penn zeroed in on the bits and pieces of the celebrity’s existence that worked for her, rejecting the rest. She rebuffed studio offers for Born on the Fourth of July, Jurassic Park, The Firm and Batman Forever, opting instead for powerful performances in little-seen dramas such as The Playboys, Loved, She’s So Lovely and White Oleander. She married Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn, then decamped with him to a town in northern California, where she cast herself as a full-time mother and played peek-a-boo with a curious public and with producers and directors eager to harness her talent.
But now, at 43—her teenagers looking ahead to college, her career clock ticking—she appears poised to break out of her cocoon of self-doubt. “The alarm went off,” she says. “There’s no limbo anymore. There’s no time. I’m too old for this shit.”
As if to prove her point, Wright Penn has had an unusually busy year onscreen. In April, she played a congressman’s wife in the journalism thriller State of Play, opposite Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, and she has a diverse group of movies slated for release this fall. She joins a cavalcade of stars in the ensemble film New York, I Love You, and she’ll be featured alongside Jim Carrey in an animated version of A Christmas Carol, which reteamed her with Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis. She also stars in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, as the seemingly docile wife of a much older man (Alan Arkin) who sees her life unravel when she moves with him to a retirement community.
By being in such demand, Wright Penn is clearly defying the usual Hollywood trajectory for over-40 women. When I ask if this is accidental or by design, her answer is laced with the self-criticism that she admits has sometimes crippled her in the past. “I think I’m a late bloomer,” she says. “It took me this long not to be afraid. I think I’ve been a flaky procrastinator; I couldn’t turn motivation into active drive.” At this point Wright Penn is sitting in a San Francisco café, enjoying pre-fund-raiser panini and a glass of Champagne. Her face is bare of makeup, which somehow only highlights her astonishing good looks, and she seems radiant and relaxed in her tight faded jeans and Blauer black leather uniform jacket. The starspangled chevron on her sleeve reads “Uncompromising Performance.”