Don't bother renting a car if you go to Marin County to interview Sean Penn: He picks you up, driving a '65 El Camino (turquoise; no seat belts; possibly no muffler; ''My friend Woody Harrelson would not approve''). This vehicle seems nearly as big as your hotel's entire parking lot; throwing it into reverse and backing out threatens the destruction of a ground-floor corner room. After asking ''Indian food okay?'' and almost waiting for an answer, the 43-year-old Penn really floors it. You lurch, oh, at least one good block before he slams to a halt in front of the most unprepossessing eatery the neighboring Travelodge can call an attached restaurant. The three-time Oscar nominee rolls out of the big car looking as though a large mallet had slammed him down a few inches closer to the ground: Compact, hunched, moving with knees slightly bent, he's like Groucho Marx but with a shaken-out, gleaming black pompadour.
Once inside, Penn glances at a baby's high chair piled with dirty dishes positioned right in front of the cash register and smiles contentedly. The actor is apparently a regular here; he resides in nearby Ross, Calif., with his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, and his two children. He is shown quickly to a corner table, points to your 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, wiggle a bit and 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 Gonzalez Inarritu (whose first film, the dizzyingly exciting ''Amores Perros,'' won its director a best-foreign-film Oscar nomination and comparisons to Quentin Tarantino), was shot right after Penn finished ''Mystic'' and took a controversial three-day trip to Baghdad in December. Both Eastwood and Inarritu 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 Inarritu puts it, with a booming laugh, ''If Sean were to play a dog, he would be the biggest dog -- he would bark the loudest!''
You could say that the two movies and the Iraq visit have increased Penn's big-dog factor: He's being talked up as an Oscar nominee, put down as a traitor, and still has time to bark out rough judgments, including ones about his government -- ''It's no longer a matter of good intentions [in Iraq]; it's a matter of men of ill will'' -- and about President George W. Bush, who he thinks is being guided by ''systemic puppetry.'' And he's certainly no kinder to his own profession: ''A lot of actors lately have chosen to go into the modeling business: Every other page of a magazine, there's an actor in some designer clothes. When actors talk about the balance between art and commerce, they're usually on their way to hell.''