Milk cast and crew: Interview

Was there ever a hesitation of taking this role because you were playing gay?

Sean Penn: I think this is just Josh, again… (laughs)

Josh Brolin: Having sex with Harvey was one of the most incredible experiences… Go ahead, gay man (to James).

James Franco: No, I had no hesitation. I think initially I heard about it, and I wrote you an e-mail, Gus, and said I would do anything to be a part of the movie. So there was no question for me.

Sean Penn: I always work on the 'It only hurts the first time' philosophy, so…

Josh Brolin: Breathe… breathe… (audience laughs) Come on, man, let's make this more interesting. (laughs)

For Gus, it was my understanding that at one point, Dianne Feinstein's part was going to be more fully realized in the film. Is that correct? And what happened?

Gus Van Sant: No… she never had a larger…

Dustin Lance Black: What's in there is pretty much what was always in there.

For Sean and James, the intimacy that you guys achieved in your relationship was really poignant and really beautiful, and I kind of just wanted to know how you guys worked on that in your rehearsal process. And also how that has the ability to evoke something stronger about the gay rights movement through learning about people who truly love each other, and I think it was really evident in your relationship how strong that love was, especially the scene when you're outside of the camera store and you're kneeling in front of him and kissing. That was incredibly beautiful.

James Franco: I can say one thing, maybe, that's good. Obviously, this movie has a lot to do with gay rights and the political realm, but one of the things I liked, when I watched the movie, is the way the relationship between Scott and Harvey is presented.. there's no drama about 'Oh, we're two men. How can we be together?' It's just presented like any heterosexual relationship would be presented in a mainstream movie. That that's not the issue, and it's unusual… I think one of the reasons it stands out for me is you don't see a ton of movies where a gay relationship is just presented like that. I'm sure a lot of actresses are sick of being offered the supportive housewife role, but it's the first one I've ever been offered, and it was great to play. (laughs)

Sean Penn: And then there were the Stanislavskian breath mints that helped. (laughs) I think there's a kind of affection actors have for each other, and then the world of bad actors for whom we have no affection, but when you work with actors like this, I think we've run across each other before, many of us, and I think you're kind of just… whatever the story is is just giving you a structure for predisposed closeness that you feel with your colleagues who you respect and like. A lot of it just forms itself through whatever the script is.

For Dustin and Gus, I know you filmed the White Night Riots, and I was just curious as to why that was left out…

Dustin Lance Black: We did not film the White Night Riots.

Gus Van Sant: We filmed one raid on Toad Hall… we were thinking of using it with Lance's script as the tail crawl, the documentary footage.

Dustin Lance Black: Yeah, that was there for a second. It was sort of like, it's such a personal story of Harvey Milk, like when he's gone, it's over. Because that was another year, and it just felt like the film was over.

For Josh, I'm curious because you did "W." You did this, Dan White. And even in "No Country for Old Men," you sort of play the anti-hero, in a way. So, will you ever play a good guy?

Josh Brolin: Yeah, I'm the asshole for hire. So, when am I going to do the romantic comedy? It will be the sequel from this… I appreciate it. I don't think there's a question there. If you want to come up and sit on my lap, I'm fine with it. Yeah, it is kind of strange… I like these characters, though, because they're mixed. They're complicated. They seem simple. That's what I like about them, they seem simplistic but they're not. Between W. and Dan White, they're sad characters, they're complex characters, and I carry around a memo pad and I just ask myself a lot of questions, 90 percent of which are meaningless, but 10 percent of which are very interesting to me. Just behaviorally, it's interesting to me to get into why somebody resorted to the extremes that they resorted to. So, thanks for the compliment, honestly.

What impact do you think this film will make from a media standpoint, considering people are paying more attention to homosexuals taking stronger roles in movies and television. And also, from a political standpoint, considering that by the time most people see this film, they will have already voted on Proposition 8?

Sean Penn: There's something in the movie where Harvey Milk is emphasizing what an impact it makes if people know that they know just one of us. And I think there's a version of that that comes from the experience of watching this film. You're watching a lot of very good-hearted human beings and how they decide to fuck is irrelevant. I think that alone could be strong, to get in there and feel more familiar and less confused by it. And less afraid of it. The night before last, I was involved in a thing down at Symphony Hall and, still today, there were protestors there with 'Matthew Shepard Burn In Hell' posters. So, the more the pure heart of people is in the face of that, the less breathing room there is for that kind of thinking.

For Dustin, I saw the film as poetic and more beautiful than any real life is, and I was wondering what you thought the pros and cons were of portraying a life like that?

Dustin Lance Black: Well, thank you, first of all. I love that you see it as poetic. And even that you see it as personal. It was really important, because there was so much political dialogue in the film that I, and I know Gus also, was worried that it would be too political and too talky. Honestly, I think that's more a testament to these guys and what they did in the film and how they personalized these characters and how Gus, always in his films, seems to go so deep. You feel these people and you feel the moments. You're not just learning in the moments or listening, you're really feeling them.

I noticed the wardrobe and the makeup lended greatly to the depiction of the time, especially the curly hair. I was wondering if any of you would plan on getting a perm? Did you enjoy it? (Emile and Allison lock hands and raise them in solidarity at being the two characters in the movie with tight perms.)

Emile Hirsch: It was the great joy of our lives.

Allison Pill: I loved getting into hair, perm rods, every day…

Emile Hirsch: We did it together, every day.

Allison Pill: Every day. It was beautiful. I'd sit under a hairdryer for hours.

Emile Hirsch: And we'd chitchat.

Allison Pill: I just blocked everything out. I just went to my happy place for the perm rod situation. And whenever I went to rehearsal, a lot of perm rods were still in. We'd both look like little alien children.

Emile Hirsch: It was so good, though. I felt so there.

Allison Pill: I love my hair, though. Everybody thinks it's a wig. It's not a wig.

Emile Hirsch: Yeah, it's not a wig.

Sitting in this film was like a big history lesson, and when I looked at the notes, I noticed that Harvey Milk and Dr. Martin Luther King were very close in age. It was interesting that they're both on the planet, leading two separate movements that have a lot in common. Since some of you are so young, did it feel like a history lesson to you?

Emile Hirsch: I definitely feel that way and the way I feel about Barack Obama his message of hope and change. I think a lot of what he's saying, Harvey Milk was saying. Just these really inspirational figures, they're valuable to young people. It's not all about the Xbox 360, you know? (laughs)

Allison Pill: I was talking to Anne (Kronenberg). We did some interviews together on Monday, and we were just talking about the generational differences. Growing up when I did, I'm lucky enough to not have to think about a lot of these issues, because they don't factor into my equation at all, so it is an amazing history lesson and an important one to me and my friends just realizing what all of this means, how historical this really is, and it's something that can't be forgotten. So, I was very glad to have learned about this chapter in San Francisco history and gay rights history, because I've been a member of the Human Rights Campaign, but I've never just had to deal with any of the real prejudices that are still so prevalent, which I'm grateful for, but I also recognize through this film that it is still very much a fight.

*The only part of the movie where I really got pulled out of that time and into our own was the scene where Harvey if being presented with the flyer they want to send and it doesn't say the word gay, and he makes a really good case how this isn't the way we should be winning this battle. And, obviously, the No on 8 ads also never mention the word gay. So, I was wondering from Lance if that was an actual historical thing, or part of the invention of the narrative?

Dustin Lance Black: Oh, no. When I wrote those lines, Prop 8 wasn't in existence yet, but I see what you're saying. I shot two commercials last week that do have gay people in them. I do think it's important to have self-representation and I hope we have more of that. That's why I think this film is important, because we are sort of repeating that history of Prop 6 in so many ways, so to get this out there, to get this documented as a piece of history, so we don't keep repeating these mistakes I think is very very important.

Sean Penn: But it wasn't invented. That was missing then, on 6, as well.

For Emile, Cleve said he thinks it would have made a different if Harvey was here during the AIDS epidemic, and he himself went on to be a leader in that fight. I was wondering, when you were developing his role as such a strong activist, a street activist, in the days before ACT-UP, before the much-stronger street activism that's common today, I was wondering how you approached that. You were just such a little pushy, in your face kind-of character, as Cleve was. As you talked to him, the background, how much research you did in that, I'd be interested in hearing that.

Emile Hirsch: I was pretty spoiled on this film, because Cleve was on set every single day. So I was able to have a lot of conversations with him and really able to get in his head a little bit. We drove around, I remember, for a couple days, just around San Francisco and he was showing me different spots. You know, Haight-Ashbury, Castro… all these different places. And I remember him telling certain stories just about the riots and some of the marches and he's so passionate, his blood starts boiling and he has this kind of fervor to him. I thought that was really important. And it's been really hard for him to come back to San Francisco, particularly right when we started the film, because once the epidemic hit, most of the people he knew died. He said it was like the neighborhood almost went through a Holocaust or something. I mean, he literally said he'd walk down the block and everyone that had lived there were all dead. We said 'we were around there when the epidemic was at its height, and it was just the most devastating, sad neighborhood. People were just dropping like flies.' I think that side of him, starting the Project NAMES Quilt. I think that that heightened my respect for Cleve and me wanting to do justice to the role, and my love for the film. Someone that I grew up with, and was very close with, an older gay man who was one of my mother's good friends, he passed away from HIV when I was 15. He was a guy I had lived with for a period, when I was a kid. What Milk says early in the film, 'people vote 2 to 1 for us when they know they know one of us.' That's true. I'm proof of that.

I'm wondering how important it was for you to shoot entirely on location in San Francisco, and if it help you guys as actors portraying your characters knowing you were in the camera shop, you're in his apartment…

Gus Van Sant: For me, it's always great to go to the real place. I always think that you can see, visually at least, whether or not if something is shot in Toronto instead of San Francisco. The film picks up the atmosphere of the place. But, the actual execution, we were actually on Castro Street, and even though we do get to see the actual place… for me as the director, I get into this mode of whether you're on a set or a real street, you have to remind yourself 'Oh yeah, this was the real place.' So, it's important, but you lose it at some point for me.

Sean Penn: A friend of mine wrote the biography of Rosa Parks. I think there were about 35 people on that bus and he interviewed 275 people who were on that bus by their own claim. And a lot of times when you shoot in a real place, around a lot of people that were close to it, or have since convinced themselves they were close to it, you'll have too many experts around. For some reason, that wasn't the case in the Castro. I think it might have been the respect people had for what Harvey brought. Most people's stories ended up being the case, and we didn't get hecklers on set, the things you normally get. It was a really good vibe.

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Go see Milk! And, if you have a choice, don't see it in a Century or Cinemark theater, as their CEO donated $10K to help Proposition 8 pass.