For Sean Penn, the story behind his latest movie, and the character he plays, is much more than a fascinating piece of history--it’s a matter of life and death. The actor, never known for being shy with his opinions, spoke sharply even through a cold during a New York press conference last week, saying that Harvey Milk’s premature death likely caused the death of millions more.

“I think less people would have died of AIDS [if Harvey Milk had not been assassinated],” Penn said. “ I think Ronald Reagan would have been forced to address it. [Milk] was a leader, and he happened to be focused on the gay movement. He would have advanced that argument a lot sooner. I think people are dead because he died too soon.”

Penn also had some strong words for California voters who supported the recent Proposition 8. “If we could have no excuse for being ignorant in human history, then the punishment for support of Proposition 8 would be minimally manslaughter. There will be teenage boys who will hang themselves [because of this].”

Penn wasn’t the only Milk cast member with an opinion at the press conference, so check back later for more thoughts from Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Alison Pill, director Gus van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

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