Actor Sean Penn will speak at UAlbany’s Writers Institute Friday amid national backlash over comments he made about the MeToo movement.
Sean Penn is a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner, first for "Mystic River" and the second for his portrayal of UAlbany alum Harvey Milk in "Milk." Penn will be onstage Friday night at Page Hall on UAlbany's downtown campus to talk about his debut novel, "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff," described as the tale of an “odd job man” who kills off the weak and the sick as part of a secret contract with the government.
Paul Grondahl, director of the New York State Writers Institute, says the 58-year old actor's portrayal of Milk, an early gay rights activist in San Francisco, was one component that led to extending Penn an invitation. "Harvey Milk is an iconic figure in the gay rights movement. We're very proud that he's a University at Albany alumnus, and we have showed screenings of ‘Milk’ on campus for students, and we did one public screening down at Page Hall, so that's clearly one of the reasons why we invited him, but also because he's written a really interesting and challenging novel, and he's one of the great actors of his generation or any generation, and now that he's chosen to move into the literary arts kind of interests us."
Penn has appeared in more than 50 films and is also a director and humanitarian. But he has reportedly had darker days, too. The tabloids portrayed him as violent, especially toward his ex-wife Madonna during their marriage in the 1980s.
In 2006, Penn received the Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award from the Creative Coalition for his commitment to free speech. Penn recently exercised that right on national television, telling an interviewer he feels much of the spirit of the #MeToo movement is to "divide men and women."
He's since been ardently criticized on social media. UAlbany freshman Liv Vecchio called Penn (and UAlbany) out on Twitter. "I feel like bringing these ideas and a culture of domestic violence and silencing victims as Sean Penn is trying to do, I feel like that's not a good thing for our school community, especially when so many sexual assaults happen on campus, and they go either unreported because the victims are scared or they are completely unnoticed because the school does nothing about it. I feel like it's just ridiculous."
Grondahl acknowledges grumbling from some students but feels that in the interest of free speech there is value to hearing out a controversial figure like Penn. "I won't defend Sean Penn on anything he's done, whether it's with dictators or what he said most recently about the #MeToo movement. He doesn't need me to defend him. He's a fiercely independnet iconoclastic figure in his own right and he can stand on his own. As for the students, we are a university. The whole point we're here is to display a wide and diverse range of opinions and experiences. Our student population is the most diverse it's ever been in almost the 175-year history of this university. We relish the opportunity to share in a civil, sometimes contentious dialog, but also to give everyone a chance to speak."
There's been some talk among students about boycotting Penn's appearance. Again, Vecchio: "I know that he's coming to promote his book but I feel like the comments that he made will come into play especially because they were made so recently. But I feel like if Albany wants to shut down the culture of sexual assault in college they wouldn't allow him to come and speak."
Grondahl says Penn is just one of many speakers who will bring diversity, variety and energy to the Writers Institute fall schedule. The Friday 7:30 p.m. event is free and open to the public.