The El Chapo Interview That Troubled Sean Penn

Sean Penn is no stranger to trouble. The Hollywood actor has made a name for himself in the entertainment industry for his explosive temper. There was that time Penn would reportedly attack photographers, or an extra in one of his films, or a guy for only talking to his then-wife, Madonna. But it wasn’t Penn’s temper that nearly landed him in the toughest troubles of his career.

Instead, in 2015, Penn tried his hand at journalism, interviewing El Chapo while negotiating a film about his life. To the uninitiated, this was the same El Chapo who was a wanted fugitive and Mexican kingpin. In Chapo’s own words, he said of Rolling Stone, “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anyone else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.” According to the New York Post, El Chapo, known by his birth name Joaquín Guzmán, has killed several people in violent and brutal ways.

At the time, El Chapo was also the subject of a manhunt by both the Mexican and US governments, as Penn agreed to meet the drug lord in Mexico. But what Penn didn’t realize was that he was very close to death.

A storm helped save Sean Penn’s life

After escaping from prison, El Chapo got the idea to make a film about his life, according to the New York Post. Much like Pablo Escobar before him, his exploits were marred by both fact and fiction. The Kingpin approached Mexican actress Kate del Castillo about the film. Castillo was in touch with Sean Penn and helped set up a meeting between the three at Chapo’s secret Mexican hideout.

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According to Rolling Stone, Penn described his own paranoia about meeting the Kingpin. “My speculation will be audio. I hear chainsaws. I feel splashes. I’m Sean’s dubious paranoia,” he said. Chapo and his family welcomed Penn and even drank together after the actor traveled all day to meet him. Chapo also agreed to an interview with Penn, but wanted Penn to return for a full interview in eight days. Things got tense, however, when Chapo and his men donned battle fatigues for a reason unknown to Penn. The two ended their conversation and Penn went to bed.

What Penn didn’t know was that the US Marines were planning to raid the compound that weekend. The only thing that could stop her? An approaching storm that stalled the operation. Journalist Alan Feuer told the Post, “It eliminated the possibility of Sean Penn’s name being splattered all over front pages as a victim of a drug war capture operation.”

The interview with Sean Penn later caused controversy

After El Chapo’s arrest, the Mexican government thanked Sean Penn, via CNBC, for helping to catch the drug lord. But the actor denied playing a role in Chapo’s capture, who was captured by Mexican marines in 2016. Indeed, amid the controversy following its publication, Penn found the article terribly regrettable. A photo of the actor shaking El Chapo’s hand drew criticism.

“Let me get that straight. My article failed,” he told Charlie Rose on CNN’s 60 Minutes. “I regret it terribly,” Penn said to Rose. “I regret that the entire discussion of this article ignores its purpose, which was to contribute to this conversation about the war on drugs.” Likewise, Kate del Castillo believes Penn may have killed her for not mentioning it to her that he would ask El Chapo for an interview.

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On a 2020 episode of Red Table Talk, del Castillo criticized Penn for blinding her with his Rolling Stone interview request. Discussing that moment, she recalled, “I can’t make a face because [El Chapo] would notice that something is wrong and this guy [Penn] will be dead in the blink of an eye.” Despite the criticism, Penn has continued his journalistic endeavors and recently attempted to cover the situation in Ukraine. He told Fox News: “I just heard about it [Former National Security Adviser] Robert O’Brien and he said let’s get the shit out.”