Before the tumultuous distractions of Sean Penn, Robin Wright seemed to have an indisputable future on Hollywood’s A-list. That was soon after her Emmy-nominated gig on the soap Santa Barbara, and her breakout role in 1987’s The Princess Bride. But aside from the fluke phenomenon that was Forrest Gump, it never quite happened. Once the Penns had children (Dylan in 1991; Hopper in 1993), she reprioritized. “I turned down so many films because I wanted to be a mom that I think they said, ‘Okay, fuck her,’ and stopped offering,” she says with a laugh. “Which explains a large part of my career—small, nonpaying films.”
But it’s more than that: Penn, despite her physical attributes, is a character actress. Like Gena Rowlands before her, she excels at playing complicated, earthy, occasionally unhinged women who just happen to be beautiful. Perhaps that’s why Rowlands’s son, Nick Cassavetes, cast her in his 1997 film She’s So Lovely, based on the last script by his late father, director John Cassavetes. “What Robin did in that film—it’s one of my favorite performances ever,” says Rebecca Miller, director of Penn’s latest film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
Penn plays Pippa, a woman who is not so much crazy as emotionally dormant—the gracious, dutiful wife of a much older, charismatic book publisher (Alan Arkin). When they move to a retirement community in Connecticut, her seemingly perfect marriage begins to crack. As the older Pippa (Blake Lively plays her as a young adult), Penn elucidates a largely internal awakening that feels entirely organic. “Rebecca and I talked at length about the emotional calluses of age. She said, ‘It’s the onion—let’s just peel it very slowly,’ ” says Penn, who developed the part with Miller over the course of a year. “There are so many layers to Pippa. It was the chance to portray the unveiling of an identity, but without rushing to answer every question.”
Penn anchors a film of eccentric and unlikely supporting players (including Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, and a surprisingly sexy Keanu Reeves) with a bemused quiescence; “Robin’s an amazing combination of being very visceral and quite methodical,” says Miller. “She’s making choices, but the final leap is intuitive. Before every take, Robin would close her eyes and breathe deeply. When she’d open them, Pippa would appear. It’s almost like she inhales her characters.” And then, says Miller, she is able to quickly discard them: Penn is not one of those actors who live their characters. And yet, “the way Pippa moves, speaks, uses her face—there’s no Robin there. She changed her basic rhythms as a person, which is very unusual.”
Penn has another film this fall, New York, I Love You (Oct. 16), which bodes well for more of her on the big screen. “My eldest is about to go to college, and I pulled over to the side of the road the other day and sobbed—she’s leaving the nest!” says Penn with a mock wail. “But, really, my kids have been asking me for a while to please go back to work.”
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Directed by Rebecca Miller.
Screen Media Films. Nov. 27.