Beverly Hills Ð Some 15 years ago, Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) had the opportunity to make a docudrama about the life of activist Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected politician, who helped transform San Francisco's Castro District into a gay-friendly neighborhood. Oliver Stone was originally going to make the movie, but when he dropped out, Van Sant came on board and spent several years revising the script. When he had a script he liked, he offered Sean Penn the role of Milk and tried to team him up with Tom Cruise, whom he wanted to play Milk's homophobic political rival and killer Dan White.
"I figured the two hot young actors could give it a spin," explains the soft-spoken Van Sant during a roundtable interview at the Beverly Wilshire. But for a variety of reasons, the film got put on the backburner until last year, when young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black came to him with a new script. Van Sant went back to Penn and again asked him to play Milk, almost forgetting that he had been down that road once before.
"It dawned on me that I had already offered him the role ten years ago," says Van Sant. "He's the most macho guy in Hollywood, but that surprise and challenge makes it exciting for him too. It makes it so that it's not the obvious choice. You hope that Sean does the job he actually did. [He] fuses himself into Harvey, which is completely incredible."
The filmmakers took painstaking efforts to recreate the era, hiring Milk's friend Cleve Jones to be onset at all times to help them stay true to Milk's story. The movie begins with a short segment on Milk's move from New York to San Francisco with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco). The two open a photo store in the Castro District, which at the time was mostly populated by working-class immigrants. Penn shows Milk's rocky transformation from street merchant to activist, hinting that Milk was conflicted over his obsession with changing the Castro, since it alienated some of his close friends.
As much as the film's about the charismatic Milk, who started each speech by saying "My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you," the fine supporting actors make it more than just a vehicle for Penn. Franco is terrific as Smith, whom Milk dated for four years.
"This movie is called Milk; it's not called Smith," says Franco, who kisses Penn on more than one occasion in the film. "One of the big things about Scott Smith is that he was that supportive person for Milk. Harvey is breaking new ground, and he's a dreamer and sometimes has crazy ideas, so it was important to play the person who provided that grounding. I needed to play that supportive character as well as I could. It would show a loving relationship in contrast to all the political stuff in the movie. It brings the movie down to a personal level."
And Josh Brolin, coming off his stellar performance as George W. Bush in the flawed W., shows his range by playing the repressed Dan White. "I think it's important for any character to come across as human unless you're doing a caricature," says Brolin. "It's important to know what a person is going through, and the more important question is why, instead of, Oh, look at that. I could have played Dan White at the moment he decided to kill those people. That would be very one-dimensional. I wanted to get into his frustrations and the amount of pressure he had from the fire and police department to bring San Francisco back [that] made him a big fish in a small pond. That makes him interesting to me."
In addition, Emile Hirsch brings an unhinged energy to the role of Milk's progeny Cleve Jones, Diego Luna is appropriately sullen and moody as Jack Lira (Milk's lover, who had little interest in politics), and Alison Pill is perfect as the spunky Anne Kronenberg, the lesbian Milk hires to be his campaign organizer. They're all fine actors who, even if they're not gay, are right for their roles.
Released in the context of recently passed anti-gay legislation, the film takes on even more meaning, since Milk dedicated his life to fighting aggressively against similar legislation. Ultimately, the movie is more about politics than homosexuality, something Van Sant reiterates when asked what he hopes people will get out of his film.
"To me, the film's about grassroots, political organizing and making it work," he says. "It shows you can do it."
Milk, Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee