He's an actor's actor whose smoldering portrayals of complicated characters have earned him two Academy Awards. Off screen, he's opinionated, passionate, sometimes charming and sometimes not. But, Sean Penn always does it his way.
Penn invited "Person to Person" co-host Charlie Rose to his second home in the Caribbean, where he gets to play what may be his most fulfilling role yet.
CHARLIE ROSE: Let's see if I can find him. Is anybody at home?
SEAN PENN: Somebody's home.
CHARLIE ROSE: Hey friend
SEAN PENN: Hey Charlie
CHARLIE ROSE: Great to see you.
SEAN PENN: Good to see you.
CHARLIE ROSE: How often are you here?
SEAN PENN: I'm here about 50 percent of the time now.
CHARLIE ROSE: So this is your second home essentially?}
SEAN PENN: It is.
CHARLIE ROSE: All right. Show it to me.
SEAN PENN: All right. Yeah, I'll start... this is, uh, my room. The Palace.
CHARLIE ROSE: This is it!
SEAN PENN: This is it.
CHARLIE ROSE: I can literally ... put hand to hand.
The story of how one of the biggest movie stars in the world chose to live in a plywood cubicle in Haiti begins in January 2010. Penn was in California, newly divorced from the actress Robin Wright Penn and uncertain what he would do next.
SEAN PENN: It was an accident of timing in many ways ... I had turned on the news.
The Haitian government reported more than 300,000 people were dead after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Thousands more were injured and doctors were operating without pain medications.
SEAN PENN: And it was what we all referred to as Civil War medicine. ... Here's an aspirin and now I'm gonna cut your arm off with a hardware store hacksaw. That was happening.
Penn says he couldn't turn away. His own son, Hopper, had recently recovered from a life threatening skateboarding accident.
SEAN PENN: My son had had a traumatic brain injury... He's fine now... And to see the amount of pain that he was in... I remembered morphine going into his veins ... and giving him relief. And something just clicked. Haiti earthquake, amputations on children and others with no IV pain medications. ... And the joke I've always made is that an actor in Hollywood knows where to find narcotics but not bulk narcotics.
Just days later, with the help of well-connected friends, Penn was in Haiti with pharmaceuticals and medical personnel, creating the Haitian Relief Organization he calls J/P HRO.
CHARLIE ROSE: What was it about this place that you saw when you came here that made you know that you had to do more than fly in and fly out?
SEAN PENN: When you look down a city block of devastation and you see the pain ... and the death, you feel like I can fix this... But when I got up in a helicopter for the first time and I saw the size of it from the air ... that's where I got overwhelmed the first time just seeing how big it was. It wasn't about fixing it anymore it was about helping as much as you could.
CHARLIE ROSE: It was a full time investment for you.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, it became that.
Penn now has an official government title here. He was named Ambassador at Large for Haiti.
CHARLIE ROSE: What is that a suit there?
SEAN PENN: As an ambassador one must have a white suit for all official events, so this is my other job in Haiti, yeah.
CHARLIE ROSE: Show me the kitchen.
SEAN PENN: C'mon this way.
CHARLIE ROSE: Shows what I know.
SEAN PENN: Um, this is a bunkroom. This was all cubicle-ized with the plywood. This was just part of the foyer originally.
Penn shares the house with some of his relief organization staff.
CHARLIE ROSE: How many people are living here now?
SEAN PENN: Between 15 and 20 are living in the house right now, yeah.
This is the kitchen.
CHARLIE ROSE: There's a sign up here that says: "Please do not take seconds until everybody has eaten. Thank you."
SEAN PENN: Yeah, but that doesn't apply to the CEO
CHARLIE ROSE: (Laughs) He gets seconds.
And I heard a rooster a few minutes ago and you pointed to this. That is...
SEAN PENN: The roosters in Haiti don't wait for dawn. And so for me the two most popular things are earplugs and Ambien.
CHARLIE ROSE: Ambien gets you to sleep and earplugs keep the noise...
SEAN PENN: That's right.
CHARLIE ROSE: There is about you a sense of - of -- deep caring and at the same time ... your politics have allowed you, you know, to know a lot of people. Did that play a role here?
SEAN PENN: Yeah it did ... just like in the movie business as an actor early on, if a door's open for somebody, it's what you do with it. And in this case, it wasn't just what I did with it. It was that I had brought the right cast. I had people who did incredible things
CHARLIE ROSE: I'm looking at a group of them now. I think. Hi, I'm Charlie Rose. I just want to ask you guys what you think of your CEO -
SEAN PENN: I'll get the earplugs...
JILL: Some of us -- knew what Sean was doing here from working with another NGO -- fantastic opportunity to...work with him.
SEAN PENN: Come on upstairs... So again this...
CHARLIE ROSE: More bunks.
SEAN PENN: Yeah. This was just an open space of the house. And so we made more these cublicle-ized bunks.
CHARLIE ROSE: You have two in here.
SEAN PENN: Yup.
CHARLIE ROSE: Also the mosquito net, you sleep with a mosquito net?
SEAN PENN: I don't. There's a -- there's a thing I read about years ago it has to do with the adrenal gland and certain people don't -- I don't get bit. So...
CHARLIE ROSE: Mosquitoes don't like you?
SEAN PENN: They don't. I know. The group is growing.
CHARLIE ROSE: So what are we going to see out here?
SEAN PENN: Well you'll see a beautiful view. This view is what Haiti can be. I mean this is Port-Au-Prince. This is this beautiful sunset... This is part of why I think a lot people have so much hope in Haiti.
CHARLIE ROSE: But this also seems to me to give you some sense of being able to exercise some muscles you might have known you had but you hadn't had a chance to exercise?
SEAN PENN: It's all lessons of surfing I think. Because...
CHARLIE ROSE: Is it really? Lessons of surfing?
SEAN PENN: Yeah, in some way. ... I know when I'm in the right position to catch a wave and I know when I'm not. And, er, I knew that I was in a place where I could do something...
This whole property here within these walls that you see here was at one time the only golf course in all of Haiti.
After the earthquake, tents were set up as temporary housing, but now it's been almost three years.
CHARLIE ROSE: And what's your role here?
SEAN PENN: Well JP/HRO serves as camp management, which is to advocate on behalf of the camp population ... and when we had what was once 60,000 people here -- we're down now, we've relocated over 40,000...
CHARLIE ROSE: So there's 20,000 now?
SEAN PENN: We're down to about 14 and change.
You see now we have solar lights all over. ... the initial concern about lighting was rape, frankly.
CHARLIE ROSE: Rape?
SEAN PENN: Rape. We were having ... an awful lot of it was going on
CHARLIE ROSE: Let me talk, can I talk to you?
Neva was pulled from the rubble.
NEVA: I lost two of my children. A son and a daughter.
CHARLIE ROSE: Do you have enough food?
NEVA: No. ... I don't want to stay under this tent. I've had enough under the tent. ... There's too much insecurity here, especially with young men. We're up all night and we're not even in our beds, we're just keeping watch.
SEAN PENN: Whatever we can do, which is the most basic provisions. ... They're still stuck in this totally inhuman situation.
CHARLIE ROSE: Can we look inside a tent?
TRANSLATOR: You can go in.
CHARLIE ROSE: So here you are. ... Four people in this space ... a mud floor ... probably everything they own in their entire life is right here. ... But you get a sense of what it is to be here by seeing inside. What the life is and what the challenge is, too.
CHARLIE ROSE: When do you think you'll be out of here
NEVA: I don't know. When they tell us it's safe to go
CHARLIE ROSE: There have been magazine stories saying it's Haiti recovery is not working. There's still people who don't believe. What are they missing?
SEAN: It is too slow. There should be more. But the fact is that there's been so little reporting on the incredible work that's been done.... If those of us that are here can, you know, as they say in Creole, you know, to the critics "Posay, posay" you know just...
CHARLIE ROSE: Means...
SEAN PENN: Chill, chill. Er, just look for, you know, come a little closer. Look at what's really happening here.
SEAN PENN: This is one of our clinics.
CHARLIE ROSE: We may be called on to deliver a baby?
SEAN PENN: Anything is possible once we open that door.
CHARLIE ROSE: Someone's in the delivery room.
Every week, 10 to 15 babies are born here and more than 8,000 patients are treated a month. The services are all free, provided by J/P HRO.
Penn's team is also creating schools, they've launched a community center and have hired Haitians to build new homes.
SEAN PENN: This is our first model house ... this particular project's going to be 20 total units
And work has begun on Penn's most visible engineering task, clearing the rubble from Haiti's National Palace.
SEAN PENN: As an outsider, certainly it seemed to be a symbol not only of Haiti's past, but of the devastation... So it was time for Haiti to have a real, new start.
As big as these projects are, Penn says he could be doing even more if only there was more donor money.
CHARLIE ROSE: Do you get the criticism of where's your money and how much money are you giving and give us an accounting of where you've been?}
SEAN PENN: I can tell you it's millions of dollars of my own money. It's what I can do. ... Money's not even the answer to how to fix this place. Belief in it. ... Where is the courageous company with any kind of social responsibility that is going to serve both the United States interests and the Haitian human interest by bringing investment to this country with all its magic possibilities. ...Where are these companies? ...shame on those who aren't giving it a go.
So Penn continues working to change Haiti. And along the way, he says he's changed too.
CHARLIE ROSE: You said to me at one point in the last two days, "Haitians have given me more than I've given them." What have they given you?
SEAN PENN: ...in their own way, and I've said it before, they're giving me a real proximity to humility.
CHARLIE ROSE: Purpose beyond my own self.
SEAN PENN: Yeah. I know what I have to do when I wake up in the morning. And I'm never bored.