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Sean Penn


If you ask Sean Penn, acting is just his day job. It's helping people in need, particularly those suffering in Haiti, that's his real calling.

The 52-year-old actor and activist opened up to CBS News' Person to Person about the double life he's been leading: one part movie star, other part Good Samaritan who's doing everything within his means to help rebuild lives in Haiti following the January 2010 7.0 earthquake that devastated what is already one of the Caribbean's poorest countries.

According to Penn, the tragedy in Haiti and the horrors he had heard about—such as the lack of medicine and Civil War-era medical techniques like amputations being applied to victims—gave him purpose at a time when his life was in disarray with the dissolution of his marriage to Robin Wright Penn.

Recalling how morphine helped his own son, who had suffered some years ago from a traumatic brain injury, the 21 Grams star decided to pool his admittedly high-powered connections to deliver much-needed medicine and medical personnel to Haitian victims.

"Something just clicked," Penn told cohost Charlie Rose. "Haiti earthquake, amputations on children and others with no IV medications. And the joke I've always made is that an actor in Hollywood knows where to find narcotics, but not bulk narcotics."

So off he went, and what he found when he got to the island nation changed his life.

 "When you look down a city block of devastation and you see the pain and the death, you feel like, 'I can fix this,'" Penn recalled of his arrival.

The thesp then recognized the scope of the disaster and the massive undertaking that would be needed to rebuild Haitian society.

"It wasn't about fixing it anymore, it was about helping as much as you could," he said.

That meant moving down to Haiti and toiling there round the clock for months at a time, sleeping in a plywood shack like every other relief worker—20 people crammed into a house. The on-the-ground experience has been a far cry from the Hollywood lifestyle Penn enjoys in the States, but the dividends have meant so much more as the Haitian Relief Organization he founded, J/P HRO, has done an inordinate amount of good.

The group has not only helped get medicine to Haitians in need, but has also launched schools, founded a community center and hired earthquake victims to build homes to replace those they lost in the catastrophe.

As an ambassador-at-large for Haiti, Penn likened how he came to play this latest role to his favorite pastime.

"It's all lessons of surging, I think," the erstwhile Jeff Spicoli noted. "I know when I'm in the right position to catch a wave and I know when I'm not. And I knew I was in a place where I can do something."

Person to Person's full interview with Penn airs on Friday, Nov. 23, at 10 p.m.