Sean Penn
Photo by Ian White

Sean Penn: “I wouldn’t trade it for anything”

Short Profile

Name: Sean Justin Penn
DOB: 17 August 1960
Place of birth: Santa Monica, California, United States
Occupation: Actor, film director

Sean Penn directs and stars in Flag Day, in theaters now.

Mr. Penn, what do you enjoy more: acting, or directing?

Directing! That’s the only sane answer. I have always had — I don’t want to say creative impulse, but a cinematic impulse… Recently I tried my hand at acting in a film I directed, and while I am driven as a multi-tasker in a lot of things in my life, I never enjoy multi-tasking because it’s always super stressful! I want to get too many things right, all those problems. Other people are wired differently; they thrive on that kind of multi-tasking, it gives them some kind of Zen. Not me! It was hard, it was something I never want to do again. (Laughs) You get to tell stories as an actor, but you really get to tell stories as a director. And I like storytelling.

So did your father, who was also a legendary actor and television director, but was blacklisted in the film industry for his support of the Hollywood 10.

We both like to tell stories. He had grace, as far as I know, always. And I admired and aspired to that… I think I’m getting closer to that, but for most of my life, I haven’t reached it. I cannot put myself in a position of having flown 37 missions in a war zone and being shot down twice, then coming back to the country you risked your life for and being told you can’t work here anymore. I would not have tolerated that. I would have probably looked to start a revolution. But he saw it as a growing pain in the country.

“Most actors that I know love acting because of every emotion they get to express. I really dread going into tough places.”

How is it for you to work with family? Recently you made a film with your kids. Did it impact the way you direct?

There were moments on the set of Flag Day where, had it been another actor or actress than my son or daughter, I would have maybe pushed them to emotions or pain in the scene, or I would have encouraged them to go there. It doesn’t always feel that way with your own kids! I admit that. But my own kids are adults who have their own creative impulse. For me, I realized I can project something on my kids that might not be the case with them…

What do you mean?

Well, for me as an actor, I do not enjoy being upset as a character! Most actors that I know do. They love acting because of every emotion they get to express. I really dread going into tough places. I am not afraid of it — I dread it. I’ll do it but there has to be a compelling reason, and I try not to think about it. I think of every other aspect of what is going to happen in the making of a character in a movie until the day that that has to happen… And then I do it and then get that over with.

Just because that’s how you feel, it doesn’t necessarily mean they experience it in that way.

With my kids, to protect them would actually be to respect them and say: they are just another actor in that area. I don’t successfully feel that way all the time, but overall I try to feel that way. And the opportunity we were giving each other to create something together. It’s just an incredible thing. I underestimated it, because I didn’t want to play the lead role in the first place. It took somebody else saying: Do you understand the opportunity you have? And I finally said I’d do it.

And are you happy with the results?

I wouldn’t trade it for anything and it was because of who I was doing it with! I have a real impenetrable affection for this film because of who made it and what we feel about it. There is, at the center of it, my firstborn child, which is magic. I think I am much more comfortable as my daughter Dylan’s plus one than as whatever else. All the pressure of all that stuff is off me, in a way. Being with Dylan on the red carpet to promote this film, it was one of the greatest dates of my life. I am so proud of her and so excited for her. She deserves the appreciation she is getting. She is a strong woman, and I think she is strong enough to accept a lot of things that she deserves and tolerate the things that I might think is bullshit. Of course, you have natural worries around a film’s release; is everybody going to love the film? But in the end, I am happy — and I feel so lucky that this film is having an exclusive theatrical release before it streams.

“I was determined — but determination alone might not be enough in today’s world.”

Is that becoming more of a rarity these days?

Well, that wouldn’t have been the case if we hadn’t had a distributor that was willing to do it! I was determined — but determination alone might not be enough in today’s world. At some point we asked for financing at Warner Brothers, and if we had done that, we would have been day and date because that’s what all WB movies are doing. The train is out of the station! It’s such a shame. I don’t know where things are going to go.

Do you have a hope for where they’ll go?

I mean, I am totally heartbroken by the move to streaming platforms. And there are optimists in that respect… For movies with thoughts in them in theaters to some degree, but after Covid, the economics for the theatrical thing… We really don’t know where it’s going to go. I have no interest in directing exclusively for the small screen. I won’t ever do that.

You’re not a fan?

I can be a big fan of things on the small screen as an audience member, there is dazzling writing, directing and acting, it’s amazing the quality of things that are good on television… But as a director, you can’t finance a movie just to send it to a streaming platform. It’s just not what I fell in love with as a storyteller.