Oscar winner Sean Penn could be living comfortably in California, but for half his time he trades comfort for a tiny plywood cubicle, not wider than a prison cell, in a group home for aid workers in Haiti, where he's committed to helping victims of a 2010 earthquake.
On CBS News' "Person to Person," airing Friday, Nov. 23, at 10/9c, Penn tells co-host Charlie Rose how he was moved to help Haiti after seeing a January 2010 news report on the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated the country.
At the time he had just gone through a divorce from Robin Wright Penn and was uncertain what he would do next. He was horrified by the Civil War-like medical techniques being used on victims. "Here's an aspirin and now I'm gonna cut your arm off with a hardware store hacksaw," he recalls. "That was happening."
Previously, his son had suffered a traumatic brain injury and Penn remembered how morphine helped alleviate the pain. He couldn't imagine the suffering of those in Haiti without it. "And something just clicked," Penn tells Rose. "Haiti earthquake, amputations on children and others with no IV medications. And the joke I've always made is that an actor in Hollywood knows where to find narcotics, but not bulk narcotics."
Penn called well-connected friends for what he thought would be a short mission to Haiti to deliver medicine and medical personnel. What resulted would be a life-changing effort to help others in ways he never could have imagined.
"When you look down a city block of devastation and you see the pain and the death, you feel like, I can fix this," he says of his first impressions. He realized it was bigger than that after taking a helicopter tour. "It wasn't about fixing it anymore, it was about helping as much as you could."
In the first year he rarely left Haiti. Penn created the Haitian Relief Organization he's named J/P HRO, which now provides free medical services to about 8,000 patients a month. He's also launching schools, a community center and hiring Haitians to build homes to replace their damaged ones.
He lives with upward of 20 people in the same house. In the kitchen hangs a sign that reads, "Please don't take seconds until everybody has eaten. Thank you." A lone white suit hangs in his room, a necessity for his role as an Ambassador-at-Large of Haiti.
Working in Haiti has given Penn a chance to work muscles he knew he had, but hadn't had a chance to exercise in a long time.
"It's all lessons of surfing, I think," Penn tells Rose. "I know when I'm in the right position to catch a wave and I know when I'm not. And I knew I was in a place where I can do something."
Penn has spent millions of his own money on his work in Haiti. "Money's not even the answer how to fix this place," Penn tells Rose. "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."
Rose's visit with Penn will be presented alongside interviews with Grammy winner Alicia Keys, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany, and Olympic Gold medalist Gabby Douglas on "Person to Person," airing Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, at 10/9c. Rose and Lara Logan are the co-hosts.