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I was totally submerged in the character. You have to believe you are the person, or the thing, or whatever the hell you’re playing, and put the emotions and the feelings, or the lack of, into it… When I act, I don’t even know there’s a camera there, don’t care. e to believe you are the person, or the thing, or whatever the hell you’re playing, and put the emotions and the feelings, or the lack of, into it… When I act, I don’t even know there’s a camera there, don’t care.
—Chris Penn, “An Interview in the Back of a Truck with Chris Penn”, Reservoir Dogs: Special Edition
Reservoir Dogs is all about Chris Penn. Sure, Michael Madsen’s dancing torture scene and Tim Roth’s pool of blood are cool, but for me, Nice Guy Eddie brings everything together. Near the end of the movie, angry at Mr. Blonde’s betrayal, Nice Guy Eddie explodes: “He’s just gonna decide out of the fuckin’ blue to rip us off?” And now we know that the heist and the planning have all gone to shit. And Penn says it all, in a single question.
Penn, who died on 24 January, had that gift. In At Close Range (1986), he played Tommy Whitewood, who undergoes as much emotional battery as his brother, Brad Jr. (Sean Penn), with a third of the screen time. Tommy’s the puppy-dog sibling, Chester to Brad’s Spike. But as the film takes its tragic final turn, Chris Penn’s role becomes something else. As in Dogs, the key moment occurs with Penn center stage: Tommy’s carefree childishness gives way to confusion and bitterness, a devastating shift delivered in subtle strokes: Tommy barely utters a word.
And yet, as brilliant as these moments are, Penn’s most memorable characters have a real hard time shutting up. He became known for playing manic types: watch him closely in just about any of his 50-odd films, and you’ll notice just how much he moves. Head, feet, eyebrows, lips, tongue: all in motion. In Footloose (1984), when non-dancing bumpkin Willard is in the bar watching another man shake it with his girlfriend, Penn doesn’t just appear annoyed. He runs a multitude of looks in this moment, conveying interest and disinterest, anger, annoyance, and embarrassment, all in about 15 seconds.
On the recent Collector’s Edition DVD, casting director Marci Liroff said she didn’t even need to see Penn act to know he was exactly what the movie needed. Even though he was nothing like Willard as written, she convinced director Herbert Ross to hire Penn, then convinced writer Dean Pitchford to rewrite the character entirely to suit the young actor. Pretty impressive for an 18-year-old newcomer who didn’t even bother to look at his script until rehearsal day.
It’s easy to see what Liroff saw when revisiting Penn’s early performances. Willard and Tommy Whitewood are likeable characters, but Penn also endears himself to his audience when lunkheads and losers, like Tom Drake in The Wild Life (1984). Sort of a jock-Spicoli, Drake is a stoner wrestling champ who gets the chicks, picks on the nerds, and ruins his best friend’s life without a second thought. And dammit if you don’t love him to bits every single time he dismisses his abuses with the phrase that defines him: “It’s casual”.
Great as he was here and elsewhere, Penn never became a movie star. He spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s as a supporting actor. Even in Dogs, his role is the film’s least flashy. But Penn consistently stood out. He was the reason to watch Best of the Best (1989) (and its sequel); hell, his double-crossing Reina was the reason to watch Mobsters (1991) with a cast that included Anthony Quinn, Michael Gambon, and F. Murray Abraham. When Penn was given another shot at a lead role, in 1997’s The Boys Club, he was superb as the mysterious and volatile Cooper. The performance did not go unnoticed. Penn was nominated for Canada’s Genie Award for the part. The year before, his co-starring role (again with Christopher Walken) in The Funeral won his the Venice Film’s Festival’s Volpi Cup Award for Best Supporting Actor. Even though he remained well under Hollywood’s big-star radar in small, independent films, he was impossible to ignore.
While Penn rarely stopped working, it’s a damn shame he wasn’t in the forefront more often. He deserved to be. Chris Penn was, like Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, a show-stealing character actor, bringing intensity, compassion, and conviction to every performance. Even motor-mouth Tarantino is forced to stop talking during his True Romance DVD commentary while Penn and Tom Sizemore do their thing. It’s another frenetic Penn performance. “I’m just going to watch for a minute,” Tarantino says. Well, you gotta.
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