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.”
“I’d been stagnant,” she says, gazing out the window. Then, spotting a couple making out on the sidewalk, she emits a sound like a low growl. “Oh yeah, get it!” she whoops at them, then nods her approval as they move on, snogging their way up the street. “Isn’t that great?” she grins, then returns to the question at hand. “I think I fucked myself by not being strong enough. It’s almost like waffling—you know, ‘Can I do this? Could I do it completely, with conviction, and be successful?’ I think that’s being young and finding out who you are, and all of a sudden, post-40, you just go, ‘I do know.’ I have the answer; there’s not as much questioning of my abilities.”
Her newfound confidence coincides with big family changes. Unlike many actresses her age who’ve recently had IVF twins, Wright Penn is contemplating an empty nest. Daughter Dylan Frances, 18, is off to college in the fall, and her 16-year-old son, Hopper Jack (named for family friends Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson), isn’t far behind. “At least twice a week, I pull over and sob,” says the actress, her eyes welling. “My baby is leaving. It’s an emotionally full time, but it’s not sad. I can’t wait for Dylan to go [out and] live. That’s what makes me cry.” With the duties of motherhood lightening, she says, “I feel younger than I ever have.”
And less private. After years of protecting herself and her family from the spotlight, Wright Penn is now signaling that she’s ready for her close-up. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, for example, she was an arresting presence, strolling the red carpet as a member of the jury. “There’s clarity of life now,” she says. “I think I’ve always been a follow-the- leader with my career, or maybe waiting for things to happen. Now I’m like, ‘I’m OK—I know the direction, whoever’s on board can go with me.’ ”
Unspoken but clear is that Sean Penn may not be on that train. Even before their marriage in 1996, the couple rollercoastered through years of ups and downs. They split after each of their children was born (in 1991 and 1993). In December 2007, each filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences, then withdrew their petitions four months later. Wright Penn was prominently by her husband’s side at this year’s Academy Awards, where Sean won best actor for Milk. But two months later, he filed for a legal separation. Then, while Wright Penn was in Cannes, he withdrew his filing, calling it an “arrogant mistake,” and later dropped out of two films to reportedly focus on his family. At press time, despite media speculation to the contrary, the couple was separated and Wright Penn had no plans to reconcile.
Even friends of the couple are at a loss to describe what one calls their “peculiar chemistry.” There are signs that Sean’s greater celebrity was hard for Robin to deal with. “She always referred to herself in the fame area as ‘Sean Penn’s wife,’ ” says another friend. “She said, ‘People never look at me and say, “There’s Robin Wright Penn.” They’re just looking at me because I’m Sean Penn’s wife.’ ” Asked about her marriage, Wright Penn tosses her hair and looks out the window before saying that she’s ready to move on. “I hit that crossroad a while ago— for Robin [ jabbing her hand at herself], the ‘I know what I don’t want’ was flashing neon lights,” she says. “I have no regrets. I, we, have two amazing children we raised together.”
The mysteries of marriage figure prominently in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, in which the title character defies expectations by taking up with a younger man (played by Keanu Reeves), while undergoing a darkly comic nervous breakdown. “It’s an extreme example of what women go through at certain times in their lives,” Wright Penn says. The film, written and directed by Rebecca Miller (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) and due out October 23, required Wright Penn to play a woman older than she is. “We started out using prosthetics around the eyes, but it looked weird,” says Miller, who first considered casting a fiftyish actress. “So we ended up deepening lines that she has. Because she has that bone structure, she has the kind of face that’s not going to go anywhere for a while.” It’s a gamble that would be “poison” for most actresses, Miller adds, but not Wright Penn. “She wears her beauty when it’s appropriate to do so, and tries her best to erode it when it’s not. Her attitude is that of the character actor.”
Wright Penn, who donned a pair of crooked teeth for her part in The Pledge, says she’s drawn to character roles because they allow her to disappear into them. Despite having chosen the most public of professions, she is terrified of public speaking, and her friends know not to introduce her to casual acquaintances on the street. Asked why she’s uncomfortable in those situations, Wright Penn replies, “There’s not the protection of playing somebody. But put me in front of a camera and I could masturbate if that was what was required of my character.”
That’s not a typical actress quote—but even as a teenager, Wright Penn was far from typical. Her divorced mother was a Mary Kay cosmetics sales executive who took Robin and her older brother, Richard, an accomplished ballet dancer in his youth, out of school periodically to accompany her on sales trips. She pushed her kids to excel, and Robin was career-oriented from a young age. By high school—the family moved to La Jolla, California, two years before she graduated—Wright Penn had developed her own strong sense of style. “She didn’t look like anybody else,” says her longtime friend Diana Stobo. “La Jolla was big hair and lots of jewels, and she had that thrift store, rocker look and a rebellious way about her.” Wright Penn was nonetheless elected homecoming queen, but even at that age she couldn’t bask in an audience’s approval. “I thought it was going to be like Carrie and they would pour pig’s blood all over me,” she says with a laugh.
On weekends, she would drive to L.A. for modeling gigs. One summer she went to Japan, where her brother was living, to model. She returned with $50,000, but she was not happy with her early career: “It was degrading,” she now says. At five foot six, she was too short for runway work, but she still did other modeling stints in Paris and Milan before turning to acting.
By 19, Robin Wright was appearing regularly on the soap opera Santa Barbara, and she was briefly married to her costar Dane Witherspoon. Her breakthrough came in 1987, when Rob Reiner chose her as the virginal Buttercup in The Princess Bride; her English accent was so convincing that casting agents then had to be persuaded she was American. The film was the hit of the summer, but experiencing fame “made me not want it,” she says. “It wasn’t fear of success; I wasn’t interested in being a celebrity. I’m still not.” She chafed against being cast again for her blonde beauty; once, after a botched hair-coloring job, she grabbed the clippers and shaved her head. “I looked like G.I. Jane. I found the experience incredibly liberating.”
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.