On Set With The Men Behind Milk
By Michael Joseph Gross
�So tell me, what�s your nigga?�� Cleve Jones, a veteran gay activist working as historical consultant on Milk, recalls Sean Penn asking as the actor prepped for his role as the late San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. A little horrified by Penn�s question, Jones answered, �What?�
Penn repeated the question: �What�s your nigga?�
�I said, �Sean I have no idea what you�re asking me.� �
�He said, �Come on, young black men on the street ask �Hey, nigga what�s going on?� What is the equivalent word in your community?� And I thought for just a moment and said, �Well, that would be girl.� In a bleating falsetto, Jones demonstrated: �GI-I-IRL!!!�
Often called the greatest actor of his generation, Penn may also be the butchest. No movie star since Marlon Brando (or, some would argue, Mel Gibson) has
possessed so pure a combination of the qualities -- rogue politics, wild personal life, brooding face, and meat-slab body -- that add up to the American ideal of masculinity: unaffected, principled, but impulsive strength.
He is not, in other words, the first actor you might cast as Milk, who fearlessly put the camp in campaign (�My fellow degenerates,� began a patriotic speech) and was one of the first openly gay men elected to public office in this country. But after Brokeback Mountain, after Capote, is it still significant when a top-tier straight male movie star decides to play gay? In Penn�s case, it is -- not only because of his personal symbolism, but also because the film�s premiere this month coincides with a presidential election that, in some ways, parallels Milk�s landmark race.