During the middle of an interview to promote his new film Milk, actor Josh Brolin leans into the microphone and playfully whispers “I hate Sean Penn.” His energetic and comical vibe is equally matched by Penn moments later when he is asked if he had any hesitations portraying slain gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk because of his sexual orientation. Penn’s response, “No. I think it’s just Josh.”
It’s obvious that the two actors are good friends and that they enjoyed working together depicting real life political adversaries Harvey Milk and Dan White. Most of the principal cast recently traveled to San Francisco to promote Milk which makes perfect sense since the story is set in the gay friendly city. Among the participating talent doing interviews was James Franco, an actor who made his mark working on the Spider-Man films but grew up in the Bay Area (Palo Alto to be exact). One of his biggest regrets was living close to San Francisco and not learning much about Harvey and the gay rights movement in school.
“I was born in 1978 in the Bay Area, the year Harvey Milk was killed. You’d think I’d know more about him but they don’t teach that in school and I hope that’s one of the things the movie does, raise awareness of who he was and what he did,” said Franco.
Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna help round out the ensemble cast and for Hirsch it seemed very disorienting working with Sean Penn on the other side of the camera. Especially since Penn had just directed the young actor in Into the Wild the previous year.
“I was a little nervous at first because my relationship with Sean had been used to him being the director and I was the actor. It’s like being asked to play a basketball game with your coach, or in my case a ping pong game. I think since we got along great on
Into the Wild
it helped make the transition here. And I also tried to learn as much from Sean as possible,” said Hirsch.
For Luna, returning to San Francisco to promote the movie brought back memories of his first trip to the Castro District when he was a teenager. While enjoying success in Mexico he would come to the city and visit friends, not fully understanding the gay rights movement at first but eventually becoming fully immersed in it.
“I heard about it when I first came to Castro Street and at first didn’t fully understand it. I felt guilty and started to do research. I was walking with a friend of mine on Castro and he was telling me who Harvey was, the change and what it all meant. In a naïve way I thought it was normal. I didn’t know until I grew up that this was so special and something we should all do in our cities and communities,” said Luna.
The admiration these actors have for the source material is evident in their performances. Penn in particular has been gaining strong Oscar buzz and believes that Harvey Milk was a born political figure no matter what. His life experiences and struggles made a life helping others a no-brainer.
“Whether he had been in politics or not Harvey Milk would’ve been a political figure simply because he had been one of the people who had come up against obstacles in life and greeted it with courage and warmth. He was politically kind, he was a kind spirit and that was going to be strong no matter what he did," said Penn.
Brolin extends the same accolades to his friend but also is quick to point out the inconsistencies of Dan White, the real-life character he plays who was convicted of killing Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone in cold blood.
“Harvey came up against a lot of obstacles which I think is still the case for any gay man now. The irony of what Prop 8 is now and what Prop 6 was then. When you resort to the violence that Dan White resorted to then it’s something else. It was a very sad moment and I see him as a very frustrated guy. People have asked me if Dan White was a latent homosexual, who knows? He was not a ready-made politician, he was a guy who was in way over his head and had pressures that were beyond his control,” said Brolin.
Not being left behind, Brolin has also been talked about for a supporting actor nomination, continuing his career hot streak that started with Grindhouse and American Gangster, eventually reaching a new level with No Country for Old Men and W. “It was a weird year. Last year was the mustache year, this year it’s the political year," said Brolin.
In the end, Penn considers Milk to be a depiction of “warm-hearted human beings” who deserve a voice in our society. According to him, things are slowly changing and that gives him a great deal of satisfaction.
“We didn’t get hecklers on set like you might expect, it was a really good vibe. Watching this film you are watching warm-hearted human beings and how they decide to f--- is irrelevant."
Milk is now playing in select theatres nationwide.