Rosanna Arquette has never — and will never — play a white supremacist.
The “After Hours,” “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Pulp Fiction” star has been pitched those kinds of parts, but she refuses to embody that toxic mindset.
“I have no desire to put myself in the skin of dark human beings,” says Arquette, 61. “The older I get, I realize it’s a responsibility to do the right thing. The world needs healing and I want to be a part of that healing.”
That doesn’t mean the New York-born and Los Angeles-based actress doesn’t enjoy playing against type.
For Michael Maxxis’s “Puppy Love” (which is in the all-virtual 23rd SF Independent Film Festival starting Thursday), she was excited to portray a gambling-addicted, narcissistic mother who uses her innocent son, Morgan (Hopper Penn) — who also falls victim to the wiles of a substance-abusing prostitute (Paz de la Huerta) — for the money to feed her habit.
The opportunity to work with Sean Penn and Robin Wright’s 27-year-old son also drew her to the project.
Arquette’s relationship with the Penn family dates back to the late 1970s, when Hopper’s grandfather Leo Penn directed her in one of her earliest roles in the TV mini-series “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home.” She later became friends with his uncle Chris Penn; attended his father’s 1985 wedding to Madonna; and interviewed his mother for the 2002 documentary “Searching for Debra Winger.”
“I love Hopper’s mother and dad, and here is this opportunity to work with their kid,” she says. “I really enjoyed connecting with him as an actor. He’s real and comes from this very pure place, which is just being himself.”
For his part, the young Penn, a longtime fan of Arquette’s, was both thrilled and intimidated to work with her.
“As a young kid, I had a big crush on her too, so that was exciting for me,” says Penn.
The two finally met on the “Puppy Love” set in Edmonton, Alberta, the night before shooting their first scene. Finding Penn already in character, Arquette greeted him warmly with, “Hi, my Morgan, my little Morgan,” which immediately set him at ease and emboldened him to ask her for acting tips.
For years Penn was adamant about not becoming an actor because he didn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. But in 2016 he was lured into the trade with the promise of getting paid to fly a helicopter in the Sean Penn-directed movie “The Last Face.”
It was important to Penn to blaze his own path in the industry. While he doesn’t want to mimic his parents’ acting style or career trajectory, he admits to taking inspiration from their ability to “become their characters.”
“I think that’s really hard to do, to really be in the story and believe this is your story and who you are,” he says.
He’s off to a good start with his credible portrayal in “Puppy Love.” Though on the surface, the character (based on Maxxis’s real-life cousin) is very different from Penn, he was able to connect with him through their shared shyness and insecurity. For Penn, the uneasiness stems from being new to the industry.
Career and personal growth are equally important to Penn, who spent much of his childhood in Ross in Marin County.
Following his parents’ separation in 2009, he moved with his family to Los Angeles, was seriously injured in a skateboarding accident, and turned to drugs including methamphetamines as an escape. After an arrest for drug possession in 2018 and two stints in rehab, he changed course.
“I went down a bad path and got out of it,” says Penn. “For me, one of the reasons was that nobody, including yourself, likes the person you are when you’re doing that stuff. But I think I’m pretty levelheaded and on the right path again.”
These days Penn gets his thrills from acting.
Appearing again with Arquette in his next film “Aramingo Avenue,” due out in summer, he has two more movies in the hopper.
Meanwhile, Arquette has five films in the works, including one she’s directing. She’s also returning to Showtime’s “The L Word” series.
But for as many parts as she’s won, Arquette also lost opportunities since publicly accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct in 2017. Her “Puppy Love” costar Paz de la Huerta has also alleged the notorious movie executive abused her.
“There’s a price to be paid for speaking out, but you have no choice but to speak out if you want to be a decent human being,” says Arquette. “We have to break the silence and stop the violence.”
Years after coming forward, Arquette is beginning to see her efforts rewarded. For example, she says the final cut of “Puppy Love” is far less exploitative of women than previous versions, and it offers a window into the prostitute’s backstory of trauma and abuse.
Arquette could have similarly become a victim while hitchhiking with friends from Chicago to Marin, at age 15, to escape the dysfunction in her own home. After being picked up by a truck driver with a foot fetish, the future actress had to be quick on her feet to get out of a potentially perilous situation.
“‘Puppy Love’ connects to this darkness in the world in a spiderwebby way,” she says. “But we’re going to bring back the light, so it’s going to be OK.”
IF YOU WATCH
Starring: Hopper Penn, Paz de la Huerta, Donald Cerrone, Mickey Avalon, Wayne Newton, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Madsen
Written and directed by: Michael Maxxis
Not yet rated
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Note: Tickets to SF IndieFest online screenings from Feb. 4-21 are $10. Visit https://watch.eventive.org/sfindiefest2021.