Hopper Penn on acting opposite mom Robin Wright in 'Devil's Peak' and why he rejects the 'nepo baby' label: 'I don't give a s***, because I'm not one'
The drama features Penn as a young man torn between working for his meth-dealing father (Billy Bob Thornton) and caring for his meth-addicted mother (Wright).
Watching The Princess Bride has been a rite of passage for most children since the movie's release in 1987. But there's one kid who grew up without seeing Rob Reiner's beloved fantasy romance — and he happens to be the son of the princess bride herself. "I've actually never seen The Princess Bride," Hopper Penn confesses to Yahoo Entertainment in a joint interview with his mother, Robin Wright. "He wasn't interested," the actress says of how that frankly inconceivable fact came to pass. "He and his sister [Dylan Penn] were like, 'We want to watch Friends!'" (Wright shares Hopper and Dylan with her ex-husband, Sean Penn.)
Funnily enough, Hopper Penn is a big fan of the movies made by one of Wright's Princess Bride co-stars. The actor calls Best in Show — the 2000 mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest, aka the six-fingered man Count Tyrone Rugen — one of his favorite comedies, along with the work of Wes Anderson as well as the 2009 Paul Rudd picture I Love You, Man. And he has comedy aspirations himself, although he doesn't think his particular comic stylings would lend themselves to broad or whimsical humor. "The humor I would want to do — or think I would be able to do — is more dry and dark," the 29-year-old notes.
Devil's Peak is most definitely not a comedy, but it is very dark. Adapted from David Joy's 2015 novel, Where All the Light Tends to Go, the timely drama takes place in rural Appalachia and features Penn as Jacob McNeely — a young man torn between working for his meth-dealing father, Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton), and caring for his meth-addicted mother, Virgie (Wright). Penn came onboard the project after reading Robert Knott's script and meeting with Australian director, Ben Young, and then recruited his real-life mother to play his onscreen mom.
Watch a clip from Devil's Peak below:
"I immediately knew she'd be the perfect person for the role," he says about his first experience acting alongside Wright onscreen. (Penn previously starred opposite his sister in 2021's Flag Day, which was directed by their father.) "I'm just really happy that she was able to do it, because there were maybe going to be some issues with schedules and stuff, but we made it work."
"I was shooting Season 5 of House of Cards in Baltimore, and Hopper called me," Wright remembers of how her son approached her with the offer. "He said: 'Mom, would you wanna play my meth-head mother in this film?' And I was like, 'Of course!'" Wright — who is also a producer on the film — proved instrumental in enlisting Thornton to round out their onscreen family unit. "I reached out to Billy Bob, because I've known him for years. He read the script in 24 hours and called me back to say: 'This is one of the greatest scripts I've ever read in my career.' So he signed on and off we went."
Although Devil's Peak takes place in a meth-ravaged North Carolina town, the movie was actually filmed in Georgia. But Penn says he logged plenty of hours researching the Appalachian region from afar. "I watched a bunch of documentaries, and when I got to set, it was very easy to put myself in that place," he says. "They did an amazing job scouting locations: It was really peaceful and nice to come into that world."
While Jacob isn't a drug addict in the film, Penn has his own well-documented history with meth addiction that he drew on for his scenes with Wright. "Hopper gave me some incredible notes about how to play the scenes when she's high, and how disengaged she needs to be from her son who she loves so much," the actress says. "It was hell because that's so not the dynamic between Hopper and I! I didn't feel like I was being 'Mom,' so I couldn't wait for the scene to end. It was very incongruent with my heart."
For his part, Penn gives his mother sterling reviews on capturing the harrowing aspects of addiction. "She portrayed it perfectly. I was really scared to do a crying scene with her, because I don't know how to do that. It's so awkward to be crying in front of 40 people when they're dead silent. And when we did that scene, I started crying so fast! I think we couldn't even use the first two takes, because I wasn't supposed to cry that fast.
"Knowing people who are meth heads and having my own history with addiction, there's this sense of people wanting to help, but you can't help somebody unless they help themselves first," Hopper continues. "What's beautiful about that scene is that Virgie knows that she's not going to stop [using meth], but there's still love for her son and she wants him to get out of that town and not be with his terrible father."
Thornton certainly leans into his character's awfulness in the film. Penn recalls one scene in particular where things got extra intense with his co-star, who lost a substantial amount of weight to portray the meth kingpin. "Billy came up to me and said, 'Hey, bud, I'm gonna throw something in there that you're not expecting if that's all right with you,'" he says, laughing. "And then he slapped me like 25 times back and forth! That didn't feel too good, but I'm proud of myself because I stayed in it and it made it look like it didn't hurt that bad." Penn returned the favor in another scene where Jacob holds a gun against his dad's head. "I pushed that fake gun into Bill's head pretty hard! He had a circle there the next day."
While Penn and Wright were thrilled they were able to collaborate on Devil's Peak, both are also aware that the movie is getting released at a time when the career ambitions of so-called "nepo babies" — the offspring of famous parents — are very much in the public spotlight. "I don't give a s*** about that, because I'm not one," Penn says when asked whether he's concerned about being tagged with the "nepo baby" label.
The actor remembers confronting that issue on the set of the 2022 short film Let Me Go the Right Way, directed by Destry Allyn Spielberg, daughter of Steven Spielberg, and written by Owen King, son of Stephen King. "It came up when we were shooting," Penn remembers. "Destry had shown me an article calling it a 'nepotism film' and I just laughed about it. I was like, 'They're just pissed that they're not in the movie!' And then Ben Stiller backed us up, and he also comes from an actor family. So I really don't care — I'm never going to see those people."
With both of her kids committed to their acting careers, Wright admits that she and her ex-husband were concerned about how they would be perceived by the public. "When I was pregnant with each of them, I told Sean, 'This is going to be really tough for them, because they're always going to be under that label of being compared to us.' We agreed that we just had to nurture in both of them that they are their own beings. You're going to have our genetic pool, but you're always going to be your own thing and you have to run with it. They both are and they both will continue to do that."
Devil's Peak is playing in limited theatrical release now and premieres on VOD Friday, Feb. 24.