During a press conference for his Cannes Competition film Flag Day, actor-director Sean Penn took aim at former president Donald Trump after being questioned about own humanitarian efforts during the ongoing pandemic — on his own dime, and under the banner of his Core (Community Organized Relief Effort) project, Penn has been responsible for bringing much-needed testing and vaccinations to deprived areas in major U.S. cities.
“I don’t think that I can illuminate anything that shouldn’t be plain to the eye,” Penn said calmly. “We were — not only as a country, but as a world — let down and ultimately neglected, misinformed, had truth and reason assaulted under what was, in all terms, an obscene administration, humanly and politically. When my team and I would come home from test and vaccination sites at night, particularly during the testing period during the Trump administration… it really felt like there was someone with a machine gun gunning down communities that were the most vulnerable from a turret at the White House.”
He reserved praise for Trump’s successor Joe Biden and the task force he assembled shortly after taking over in January this year. “It was like a sun was rising,” he remarked. “But there was no effort of integrity coming from the federal government until after the Trump administration was dismissed.”
The comments proved to be a rare detour into a politics; the rest of the press conference was spent discussing Penn’s film, an adaption of the memoir by Jennifer Vogel, in which Penn plays the author’s real-life conman father John Vogel and Penn’s daughter Dylan plays Jennifer herself.
Although the role seems a natural fit for Penn, he claimed that he had originally only intended to direct. “It was not on the cards initially,” he said, “in part, because I had adopted a sort of religion of clarity that I never wanted to do a second job when I had a first job of directing — to act and direct was not appealing to me. In this case, over time, with a lot of nudging from producers, there came a point of necessity to make a decision about who was going to play this part. And I remember that the last effort I made to not play it was when I sent the script, about a month-and-a-half before shooting started, to Matt Damon, who was generous enough to give it a very quick read and call me — not to say that he could do it, not to say that he couldn’t do it, but to say that I was a stupid schmuck not to take this opportunity to act with my daughter. So that was kind of the last straw.”
Penn also talked about Alejandro González Iñárritu having been briefly considered to direct prior to his own involvement. “I think of Alejandro as [being] as good a filmmaker as we have in the world today,” Penn said. And so of course the answer is, if I want to work with anybody, [I’d] put him on top of that list. But it wasn’t even certain, by that time if I was going to do it, as I remember. It was just to see if he wanted to look at directing it. And he did spend some time with [screenwriter] Jez Butterworth, but I don’t actually know the resolution of how that [went]. He got it invested, I think, in Birdman… and so it just drifted.”
For her part, Dylan Penn said that she had also had second thoughts about taking the role. “At first I was very apprehensive,” she said. “I think I said no probably 10 times before I said yes. I’d read the book when I was 15, and then coming back to it at almost 30 was almost like reading my own diary. I felt like I had a lot of parallels to the story, and I felt like I could reference my own experiences and bring something to this character, especially after meeting Jennifer. I think the most amazing thing that Jennifer gave me was that she told me that she didn’t want anyone to mimic her. She didn’t need me to copy her, she just wanted the story to be told. And I think the script did that in a beautiful way.”
For Deadline’s closer look at Flag Day and deep dive with Penn, click here.