Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sean Penn: “I’m frustrated with the world”

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As his latest film Flag Day explores the connection between a con artist and his daughter, the actor explains masculinity, gossip journalism and self-righteous tweeters

Today, with gender roles being questioned, he thinks “there has been a lack of masculine behavior.” When the 61-year-old explains what he means by that, it becomes clear that he sees men and women as different beings.

Sean Penn has been thinking a lot about masculinity lately.

“I’m in the club that believes men have been heavily feminized in American culture. I don’t think being a brute or being insensitive or disrespectful to women has or ever had anything to do with masculinity. But I do not believe that [in order] To be fair to women, we should become them.”

The exploration of masculinity has been a theme throughout Penn’s career. One of his first roles was in the 1983 prison drama Bad Boys, where all that mattered was being the top dog – whether by cunning or by force. In his recent cameo in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Liquorice Pizza, he played a film director who uses his elevated position of offering acting credits to attract young women.

In between, he has explored gender roles in relationships in the underrated romantic drama She is so lovely; won his first Oscar for mystical flow as a former criminal trying to come to terms with the death of his daughter; and his second for portraying San Francisco’s first openly gay mayor in milk.

He returns to these thoughts in his sixth film as a director, flag day, adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir about her on-off relationship with her father, a bank robber and con artist. She discovers writing as a way to break free from the alcoholism she inherited from him, and in the process begins to realize how destructive her romanticized view of her father was. She wonders if she can forgive him as she realizes he will never change.

It was British actor Mark Rylance who gave Penn the script and told him about it Jerusalem Director Jez Butterworth wanted Penn to star or direct. “It was a beautifully written screenplay. It immediately provoked images in my head,” says Penn.

We chat at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film had its surprise premiere. Most thought Penn would never return to La Croisette after critics slammed his 2016 film The Last Face. Penn felt so down that he didn’t want to walk the red carpet that night. Organizers have since banned the press from reviewing films at the festival before their world premiere.

At first, Penn just wanted to act flag day. He asked Birdmans Alejandro González Iñârritu will direct. But when the project seemed to falter, Penn decided to take over.

Penn cast his 30-year-old daughter Dylan to play Jennifer. “Very early on, it was her face that I was attached to [the role]’ he explains, saying that’s how Dylan listened to people talk and knew if they were in pain or if they were talking nonsense.

Working with her wasn’t always easy, mind you. A scene in which she fights with her on-screen mother, played by Katheryn Winnick, got heated. “At one point I almost felt like I should go to child protection myself because I’ve been through it emotionally.”

Penn’s son Hopper also shows up. Both children are from his second marriage to actress Robin Wright. Casting her was a help given the film’s small budget, but it was also a risk: remember how critics blasted Francis Ford Coppola for casting his daughter Sofia godfather 3 to remember how things can go wrong.

But Penn’s own experience is proof that it can work. Born into a family of filmmakers in 1960, he made his debut as a young teenager with a brief appearance in Little house on the prairie 1974 directed by his father Leo. His mother is actress Eileen Ryan, who played the grandmother to her sons Sean and Chris’ characters in the 1986 neo-noir crime drama At close range.

When that movie came out, Penn made headlines as one half of the world’s most famous couple. In early 1985 he met Madonna. Six months later they were married. Everywhere they went, paparazzi followed them. A frustrated Penn attacked an extra who was photographing him on set Colours, in which he played a violent and racist police officer. He served 30 days in prison. It wouldn’t be the last time Penn would make headlines for clashes with paparazzi.

Interesting, flag day is in many ways a celebration of the media: Jennifer’s work as an investigative journalist becomes her fulfillment. Penn argues that there are two schools of journalism – one he reveres; he despises the other. “I still don’t like journalism that focuses on what toilet paper celebrities are using.” He’s much more into truths: “Without journalism, we won’t learn anything from the translators we left behind when we pulled out of Afghanistan .”

A journalist himself, he expressed strong political views and was always ready to challenge the status quo. He has used his fame to conduct interviews with political leaders – divisive figures such as the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, Cuban leader Raúl Castro and Joaquín Guzmán Loera, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, better known by his nickname. El Chapo. The running thread? An attempt to support what he perceives as the common man.

Sometimes reporting gets mixed up with his political activism. He once took a small boat and a photographer to New Orleans to try to rescue children after Hurricane Katrina. The boat began to leak, forcing Penn to call off his rescue attempts almost before they could begin. Many of the things Penn is doing in this area can be viewed as either substantial activism or a grand act of folly.

Today, social media and the tribalism it promotes is the chip on his shoulder. He believes people say things they don’t mean just to be part of groupthink or to hear platitudes. “We care too much about what we get accused of by people who want to be self-righteous because they can get a quick reward. And they’re hypocritically self-righteous — they damn it, but don’t worry about why kids in Yemen are being bombed because it doesn’t get them into a club right away.”

As we talk, it becomes clear that Penn sees himself as a man from another generation, one he feels left behind. “I’m a little frustrated with the world,” he says. “I’m glad I’m old and don’t have to worry about where this stuff goes.”

flag day will be released in cinemas and on digital platforms on January 28th

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