How Sean Penn’s Catalonia comments got twisted on Twitter

Actor's casual joke in EL PAÍS interview causes internet uproar after being misinterpreted

Sean Penn made the comments during an interview for new Barcelona-shot movie ‘The Gunman.’
Sean Penn made the comments during an interview for new Barcelona-shot movie ‘The Gunman.’Getty

Actor Sean Penn has found himself vilified on social networks after a joke he made about Catalonia during an interview got twisted out of its original meaning.

“Sean Penn gets into trouble over his Catalonia joke,” and “Sean Penn screws up in an interview with a Mexican journalist” were just two of the headlines that came out on Tuesday.

But the interviewer was not Mexican, and Penn did not quite say what a lot of people think he did.

The following is a step-by-step account of how things came to this juncture, and how it could all have been avoided if people had actually read the original news story.

Sean Penn became a trending topic in Spain, with over 3,000 messages published containing his name

1. On May 3, El Pais Semanal, the Sunday supplement of EL PAÍS, published an interview with Penn, who discussed his new movie, The Gunman. Written by staff reporter Rocío Ayuso, the story was headlined: “I do not wish to become an action hero.” The article ran on the website the following day with the same headline (which has since been changed).

2. At one point during the interview, the reporter asked Penn about his experience shooting some of the scenes in Barcelona. “Penn enjoyed himself while filming in Spain. Or in Catalonia, as he right away slyly corrected himself, anxious to participate in the controversy,” wrote Ayuso. This was Penn’s reply:

–You just asked me what it was like to work in Spain when there’s plenty of people that would say I didn't work in Spain, I worked in Catalonia [laughs]. What I would say is this. I also spent a lot of great time in Madrid. We didn't shoot in Madrid but I love that city. And equally I love Barcelona. It's a great place to work and make a movie. As an American to go to that city I can easily say if I got offered a movie tomorrow that's where I want to go. I love shooting there, I love eating there, I love walking down to the beach, I love eating late at night, I love go to the Barrio Gotico. I loved it there.

3. Nobody seemed offended by the statement, as there were no mentions of it on Twitter in the days following its publication. Neither did the comments under the story make any reference to it.

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4. On May 10, Mexican daily El Mañana, which is published in the state of Tamaulipas and also gets distributed in Texas, reproduced the entire interview in its Sunday supplement using the same headline, byline and photograph as El País Semanal.

5. This time, the mention of Catalonia caught the eye of a few news outlets, which went on to publish stories asserting that Penn said he did not film in Spain, but in Catalonia. They credited the Mexican daily as their source. The inaccurate story also ran in Catalan-language media. The actor’s distorted words made many people angry and others proud. Sean Penn became a trending topic in Spain, with more than 3,000 messages containing his name published here.

6. The original story made a comeback on elpais.com nine days after its publication, and became one of the top stories on Tuesday afternoon. Nearly all the readers got there through social networking sites.

7. There are people out there who haven’t bothered to read the interview and still believe the actor’s alleged statement. Some did read it, and published a denial. Others gave up on changing people’s views, and adopted a common attitude on Twitter: they treated the whole thing as a joke.

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