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Why You Don't See Sean Penn Acting That Much Anymore

As far as any debate over which thespians might be worthy of the title "greatest living actor" is concerned, the list of legitimate contenders is a short one. However, Sean Penn has definitely earned a spot in that discussion. From his incredible dramatic efforts in films like "Milk," "Dead Man Walking," "Carlito's Way" and "Mystic River" to unexpected appearances in the animated "The Angry Birds Movie," to say nothing of his work in the offbeat rom-com "Hugo Pool," Penn has shown incredible range and an innate ability to connect with audiences over the years. It should come as no surprise that he is a two-time Academy Award winner, and a Golden Globe winner, with a myriad of other award wins (and countless nominations) under his belt (via IMDb).

Unfortunately, moviegoers have had precious little opportunity to see the master at work on the big screen recently. Over the last five years, in fact, his only acting credits have come via the just-released "Flag Day" and 2019's "The Professor and the Madman." 

So why have Penn's acting projects suddenly become so few and far between in recent times? There's no one specific reason to point to, here, but there are some possible contributing factors.

Sean Penn broke from his acting career to pen an infamous novel

One of the things that may have kept Sean Penn from pursuing more film and TV work in the past few years is likely the time and effort he put into writing and promoting his novel, "Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff." Published by Simon & Schuster's Atria Books in 2018, "Bob Honey" tells the story of a supposed international assassin with a penchant for pummeling his elderly targets with a mallet. The story is told from the point of view of Pappy Pariah, a character who Penn initially claimed to be the true author of the book, as relayed by The Washington Post.

The following year, Penn put out a sequel — "Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn."

During his promotion of the first book, Penn had indicated that he could give up acting to become a full-time novelist. "I have a much better time writing books," he told Vogue at the time. "That'll probably dominate my creative energies for the foreseeable future." 

Whether or not that's a journey that readers will be willing to join him on remains to be seen, however. His debut novel was widely panned by critics, with Mark Hill of Cracked calling it "the worst novel in human history," as well as "the literary equivalent of renal failure." Ouch.

Sean Penn devotes a lot of time and energy to humanitarian efforts

Long before he penned his debut novel, Penn was incredibly involved in his work outside of acting. For decades, he has maintained an active role in a number of humanitarian efforts and social justice projects. Penn was notably involved in aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was likewise on the scene in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake that rocked the island nation in 2010 (via World Bank). These are but a few of the initiatives he has spearheaded or been involved with over the years.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the non-profit he co-founded in the wake of the Haiti disaster — CORE — has been working diligently to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus there as well as in the U.S. The group's efforts have included providing free tests and working with local governments on getting more people vaccinated. CORE had been coordinating with the Haitian government on a massive vaccination program before the murder of President Jovenel Moïse in July.

"An initial 1.5 million vaccines was committed. We were getting ready to rock and roll, and then that horrible assassination happened," Penn told Washington Post Live.  Penn's CORE partner, Ann Lee, added that the group nonetheless has 25 vaccination locations in operation as of this writing with plans to expand in the future. The group is also assisting in the recovery from the latest earthquake.

Sean Penn is taking COVID-19 very seriously

When it comes to questions of "Where has [insert name] been?" in the era of COVID-19, well, there's usually one big reason involved. And speaking of the pandemic, Penn has been outspoken on the importance of doing all we can to prevent the spread of the disease — for his own health, that of his Hollywood peers and also for the good of humankind. The issue is so important to him, in fact, that he has sacrificed acting work and ongoing projects in response to the crisis.

As reported by Deadline earlier this summer, Penn has refused to continue his work on "Gaslit" until every member of the show's cast and crew has been vaccinated. In an effort to make that happen, Penn has reportedly offered to facilitate the vaccination effort, free of charge, through CORE.

"I think it should be as mandatory as turning on your headlights on a car at night," Penn told USA Today, via Yahoo!, recently. "I will go back to work on 'Gaslit' when it has been confirmed to me that the entire crew, top to bottom, will be vaccinated." He further admonished moviegoers to get vaccinated before heading to theaters to check out "Flag Day."

Sean Penn has lost some love for the craft

Although Penn is being pulled in a number of different directions and also has clear concerns about COVID-19, a major factor in his decision to take on fewer acting roles may be that he just doesn't have the love for the discipline that he once did. He famously alluded to this during a 2018 interview with Tracy Smith for "CBS Sunday Morning."

"It can be great when you're working with good actors or good directors or good writing as an exercise," Penn said of acting. "But, do I have a belief that it has a lasting value? Maybe, I could make the argument intellectually. But I don't have a visceral ... I'm not in love with that anymore."

While promoting his novel to Vogue in 2018, he echoed these thoughts. "I have nothing in the works with acting involved. There's a movie that's floating around that I may want to direct at some point, but it's very particular unto itself. But I don't have, in my view, a generic interest in making films."

Despite having made these proclamations, Penn has obviously continued to act ... albeit, not often, as the frequency with which he has shown up in new projects has slowed considerably since his heyday.

Sean Penn is no spring chicken

Penn has thrilled audiences in a veritable bonanza of roles over his decades on the big screen, but his most iconic performance may still be his 1982 turn as Jeff Spicoli in Amy Heckerling's coming-of-age classic, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." In the film, Penn established the gold standard of high school stoner characters — his battle of wits with a cantankerous, old history teacher called Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) may just be up there with Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, or Indiana Jones versus the Nazis, as one of cinema's best ever feuds.

While Spicoli may be frozen in time and in the minds of movie fans around the world, though, Penn himself is a high schooler no longer. In 2021, the man behind the myth is now in his 60s. For frame of reference, Walston was also a sexagenarian when he filmed "Fast Times."

Given his advancing age — as well as the reality that he is technically in his fifth decade in Hollywood — Penn may just have done and accomplished everything he wanted to as an actor.