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.