The Daybreakers star claimed that celebrities are subject to "horrifying" abuse for the sake of a picture and added that Penn, who was jailed for a month in 1987 for assaulting a photographer, is often goaded.
He told Parade: "I have lots of friends in the business who've been practically assaulted by the paparazzi. It's amazing how common that is. I grew up reading things about what a jerk Sean Penn must have been for punching out a photographer.
"Then, you're out at a premiere with a date and you hear the things they say to provoke you. I mean, it's awful. You realise, 'Oh, that's why Sean did that. He wasn't being a maniac'."
However, Hawke admitted that being pictured was a thrill during the early days of his career. He said: "I remember, after I did Dead Poets Society, I went to the Cannes Film Festival. I had my stars in my eyes. I loved getting my picture taken. That's the funny thing - it's a push and pull."