Sean Penn's Most Demanding Role

In this photo provided by Joe Shalmoni, US actor Sean Penn, right, shakes hands with an earthquake survivor as members of the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps look on, during his visit to their field hospital set up after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Jan. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Joe Shalmoni) NO SALES, MANDATORY CREDIT
AP Photo/Joe Shalmoni

Sean Penn has won two Oscars for Best Actor for performances in "Mystic River" and "Milk." This year Penn has been performing a very different role . . . a long way from Hollywood. That story is reported now by Lara Logan of "60 Minutes":

When we sat down with Sean Penn after he'd spent close to a month in earthquake-torn Haiti, his mind was still very much on the people there who remain in desperate need . . .

"Of the 70,000 people that you're working with in the camp, how many of them have adequate shelter?" asked Logan.

"None," Penn said. "No, this is a camp that the U.N. has designated as the most dangerous camp in terms of weather in the country. Because it's on a huge, sloped hill that used to be a golf course. And there's no proper drainage."

"There's a potential disaster for disease?"

"Yeah," he said.

It was just hours before Penn was due to head back to Haiti, this time with two new passengers: his 16-year-old son, Hopper Jack, and 18-year-old daughter, Dylan.

"Are they going to help? They're not on a sightseeing tour," said Logan.

"No, they're not on the sightseeing tour. Oh, they're gonna help. They're gonna be my slaves while we're there," Penn laughed. "You bet they're gonna help."

"Why are you taking your children there?"

"I think that they've had the experience, as I have, that the first person served by service is the server" Penn said. "You know, there's nobody in the world that isn't looking for a kind of purpose in life, and tangible purpose is the most immediately recognizable.

"You know, there's no time that you're over there, there's not something to do to lend a hand."

Haiti Earthquake - Latest Coverage
Haiti Relief: How You Can Help

Lending a hand is exactly what Penn has been trying to do since he first heard about the earthquake. Ignoring the skeptics, he brought in dozens of doctors, nurses and emergency personnel who have treated some 50 000 people so far. He also flew in urgently-needed equipment, from X-ray and ultrasound machines to $20 water filters that have brought clean drinking water to some 4000 families.

How did he pay for it? A little luck, and an old friend: businesswoman Diana Jenkins.

"I just ran into her at a cocktail party, and said what I was intending to do. And so she decided to support it."

"She said, 'Here's a million bucks'?" asked Logan.

"Yeah. So we were able to just say 'Yes, yes, yes' on things, and we were able to get X-ray machines, and ventilators, and do all kinds of things. . . . I was just able to make decisions and bring things in."

"How did you take the money in? Suitcases of cash?"

"We took a lot of cash in, yeah, into the country," Penn said.

"Literally, what did you put it in? Carry it in backpacks?"


"That's amazing," said Logan. "So there you are wandering the earthquake zone in Haiti with backpacks of cash?"
"We don't do that anymore. We now have a bank account, so no one comes up for cash on the ground in Haiti!" Penn laughed.

Since then, it's Penn himself who has supplied the funding, although he shies away from numbers.

"How much of it has been your money?" Logan asked.

"Enough that I'd better get a job soon!" he laughed.

His reticence is not surprising. There IS no shortage of detractors, and while Penn recognizes the need to use his profile to raise money, he's more comfortable off-loading supplies in Haiti than talking about his efforts.

"So, you're not in it for the credit, or the recognition?"

"Yeah, here's what I can promise you: if you've been around as long as I have, whether it's participating in activism or movies, you know that at some point, particularly the things that you do that are really meant with your heart, they'll be punished," Penn laughed. "In other words, there'll be an inevitable reversal of anything positive that's considered of me for my involvement here.

"You can't win seeking credit in these games, but you can win by being involved in them. And you win every day."

"Because of what you're doing?"

"Because you see people's lives saved," Penn said. "So, you know, the credit turns to criticism, and if you value one, you've got to value the other - so we ignore both."

When we spent time with him in Haiti, he was focused very much on the task at hand. On this day, he joined U.S. Special Operations forces on a ride north, across the remote green hills that stretch beyond the capital, Port-au-Prince. They were bringing in supplies to hundreds of earthquake victims that had fled to their distant rural homes in a kind of reverse-migration.

And in another sign of the unusually close relationship he quickly established with the U.S. military, Penn's teams of medical personnel in Port-au-Prince joined forces with paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and other aid organizations. Their mission: bring much-needed medical care to those who still could not reach a doctor or a hospital.

With the paratroopers providing security, the medical teams trawl the camps to find those most in need - they called it "medical tailgating."

"We try to do outreach within communities where people are still hovelling [sic] in neighborhoods, because you can go through an alleyway and it opens up to 120 people who have not gotten the medical attention, or food distribution. They're just sort of scrounging on the streets," Penn said.

"So, you're going to reach those people?"

"So, we do that with some of our doctors."

American Raul Ruiz is one of those doctors. He treated a 79-year-old woman who is too old to walk. She can't leave her tent, even to go to the bathroom, so Dr. Ruiz has brought her a portable toilet.

Raul says, "Tell her everything is ok, that I'm leaving but other people like me will come check on her. Tell her in my culture, when we say goodbye we give a kiss on the cheek. Can I give her a kiss?"

The help does not end there. Penn's teams are also setting up follow-on care.

"We have relationships with many hospitals, so we know where we can bring patients when we find them from within the city," he said. "But all on a consistent basis, 7:30, 8:00 in the morning, every morning, our doctors go out to the front gate of the military base, and take one or two of our trucks. They'll ride in that, following a military convoy of one or two Humvees and a fire team. And they'll go to whatever camp had been selected the night before. And they'll stay for eight hours, and administer health care."

It's a relationship that many find unlikely, but Penn insists the public stance he took against the war in Iraq was misunderstood as anti-military, and he's very much in favor of what the army is doing in Haiti.

"It's not just the security that they bring, but the philosophy with which the soldiers on the ground are approaching this particular mission is a truly noble thing," Penn said. "And something that can only do the United States service in continuing.

"I've seen with my eyes day by day the most skilled and disciplined force that we have to offer in the name of humanitarian aid. Respectful of the Haitian people, understanding that because they're down doesn't mean they're weak. They've just been pushed down by the hand of God in a way that's beyond precedent."

No one is more painfully aware than Penn, that as much as the Haitians and international relief efforts have accomplished, it's simply not enough to meet the urgent need.

With the rainy season upon them and hurricane season next, shelter remains one of Haiti's most pressing concerns. Penn is appealing for some 200,000 tents.

"The city's gone," he said. "Many of the cities are gone. And that's kind of an apocalyptic vision of something. There's no infrastructure. There weren't enough doctors or medicine or medical supplies there in the first place, or properly-supported hospitals. So while, yes, you look for the places where people are ready to get on their feet, the expectation that they'll be on their feet tomorrow is an inhumane one."

"How are you feeling right now? Do you think that you've done something good?" Logan asked.

"Yeah. I mean, I feel more like it's about time I did something good!" he laughed. "You know, it doesn't feel in any way extraordinary. It feels like a job you want to do better every day. And I think that I speak for everybody involved with us."

"Does it make you angry when people talk about, you know, 'Sean Penn, the Hollywood star, the movie star, coming in and trying to do something,' and they're kind of cynical about it?"

"No," he replied.

"Do you hate that question?" she asked.

"No. I guess I've been so away from it all, at our tent camp in Haiti, that I haven't had an awful lot of time to pay attention to them. You know, do I hope that those people die screaming of rectal cancer? Yeah, you know? But I'm not going to spend a lot of energy on it."

"But you're folding your arms," Logan said.

"Yeah. Yeah. Bill O'Reilly can get his body language expert on this one, and figure out what's wrong with me," Penn laughed.

"Well, I can give it a shot," Logan said.

"You go ahead!"

"You hate it; it makes you defensive; you don't even like talking about it."

"Look, here's the thing: You see people dying. There's a level of the irrelevant nature of the criticism of what you're doing. But you're really clear. I'm defensive about investing in it, because I have been prone to do that. So, I think that's why my arms are crossed. It's like, I just don't have time for it."