In an unprepossessing Indian eatery close to the Ross, Calif., home he shares with wife Robin Wright Penn and his two children, Sean Penn points to a seat and says, ''That was where Clint sat when we looked at each other and agreed to do 'Mystic River.''' Now that he mentions it, the cushion does seem indented by what one imagines are the director's hard-boiled buttocks.
Later, Eastwood recalls the meeting. ''Yeah,'' he says. ''They had some good food there, and Sean and I made some good eye contact, you might say, about 'Mystic.'''
These days, Penn's focus -- seeing eye to eye with the right collaborators -- does seem exceptionally sharp. In addition to ''River,'' there's his latest, ''21 Grams,'' in which he gives a carefully modulated performance as an academic in need of a heart transplant who becomes involved with the donor's wife (Naomi Watts).
''21 Grams,'' directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (as in the Oscar-nominated ''Amores Perros''), was shot right after Penn finished ''Mystic'' and took a controversial three-day trip to Baghdad in December. Both Eastwood and Iñárritu knew of Penn's rep as an actor-director with strong opinions about things both within and outside of camera range. They liked his hard work and his hardheaded attitude. As Iñárritu puts it, with a booming laugh, ''If Sean were to play a dog, he would be the biggest dog -- he would bark the loudest!''