IIt’s just before 10:00 and Sean Penn doesn’t want to be here. He admits he made the mistake of sleeping with the curtains drawn last night. He slips into actor mode and gives a funny impression of a groggy man being woken up. Now they long for daylight.
So we leave Off the Record, the basement bar in Washington’s venerable Hay-Adams Hotel, and head for a room on the third floor. Penn’s publicist hastily shoves breakfast in the room out of the way and apologizes for the unmade bed. The 63-year-old actor settles into a chair by an open window as sunlight explores light and shadow on his chiseled features. He drinks a bottle of Sprite and says smugly, “Whenever you need,” words guaranteed to unnerve his planners.
Penn is in the nation’s capital to promote Superpower, a documentary he co-directed about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the resilience of the Ukrainian people after the Russian invasion. After the film was shown, Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, gave him a long hug, telling him, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
Not everyone is so kind to Hollywood actors dabbling in geopolitical matters. Celebrity status opens doors and closes the mind. Anyone who was around in the ’80s might remember Penn as the guy who played stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, spent 33 days in jail for assaulting an extra, and married and divorced Madonna.
Four decades later, his hair is white, but he is still a famous actor with Oscars for Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008). Profile in Variety magazine they felt that “there’s a little too much Sean Penn doing in a war zone” in Superpower. Penn anticipates such things in the film when he parodies an imaginary critic by asking, “Who do you think you are—Walter Cronkite? Do you have a savior complex?” His answer: “I’m curious…and sometimes I feel like I can be useful.”
He has the receipts to prove it. Frustrated with the search and rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Penn bought a boat, got to the survivors, gave them money, and took some of them to the hospital. In 2010, after an earthquake left thousands homeless in Haiti, he set up a camp, started a charity and lived in the country for months.
Today, wearing a dark jacket, blue shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers and located just a three-minute walk from the White House, Penn addresses skepticism about his humanitarian work by reaching for the aphorism: “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without their motives being questioned.”
He elaborates: “People are willing to admire actors to a certain extent. But then it will become a cliché: everyone is rich. Celebrity versus actor or artist or whatever. I don’t have time to fight it anymore.
“I have been to many interesting places and the access has allowed me to experience them in a unique way. And also because—even though I specifically do what would fall under journalism—I feel no obligation to a style of journalism that demands more than my talent allows. My talent is that I care.
“As much as I’ve acquired, I’ve barely archived any of it visually. Because I know that when the camera is with me, that’s what I’m doing, right? That’s the assumption: ‘Oh, he’s trying to take a picture of himself’.”
Penn originally had no intention of being in front of the camera in Superpower, but then hit a wall trying to get the film financed. So viewers see him conversing with Zelensky, walking through the deserted streets of Kyiv on the night of the invasion, and relieving his security detail (“Can I be very blunt? You’re Sean Penn, no one will be responsible for your dying on the front lines”) by leaving them behind himself as he follows Ukrainian soldiers into trenches reminiscent of the Somme.
Penn, who has made seven trips to Ukraine, points out: “The documents are quite hard to get money for so far. (It would be hard to finance) if I wasn’t in front of the camera. So you know what? This time I’ll let anyone who wants to jump into my backpack and see what I see.”
The twist in the story of the actor-activist is that the actor-politician is the main subject of his film. Superpower neatly curates archival footage from Zelensky’s past as a penis-playing piano-playing comedy star who played a fictional Ukrainian president in the series Servant of the People. With echoes of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, he demonstrated the power of on-screen charisma as he ran for office against the political status quo.
It was this aspect that first caught Penn’s attention after planned film projects about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi failed to get off the ground. “On the surface, perhaps the world was moving into a great new phase of populism,” he says of Zelensky. “But I haven’t encountered that with him.
“Something interactive happened in that country since 2014where Ukraine, as one would perceive it from the outside, was rediscovered by young people and their young president.”
Was Zelenskyi’s talent as an artist important to strengthening Western opinion and winning the communications war with the Kremlin? “I would say the artist was helped by a generous heart that wanted to share – which led him to become an artist. Acting stuff is easy. They did it with Reagan.”
Penn lowers his voice and does a good impression of film director John Huston: “It’s one thing to have an actor in the White House. Quite another and not good actor.”
He continues in his own voice: “Ukrainians have a really good actor in their palace, and before he was a good actor, he was a good communicator. And he was a good communicator because he saw what really existed and mattered in people and saw it through the lens of humor and courage as a man. He met this challenge just like the Ukrainians, in a way that is inspiring to the world. We shouldn’t let it go. It’s important medicine for all of us right now.”
Due to delays caused by the pandemic, Penn did not meet Zelensky personally until February 23 of last year. Filming on Superpowers began the following day – the same day Russia launched its invasion. Some Ukrainians Penn spoke to doubted that Zelensky had the steel to stand up to Vladimir Putin.
But when Penn met Zelensky in the presidential palace bunker, he found Prince Hal transformed into Henry V. “It’s like he was born for this moment. It was very touching. There are certainly great, brave leaders on every continent today—but not with a nuclear-armed enemy next door. This is a new paradigm.”
Penn’s admiration for Zelensky—whom he gave one of his Oscars to keep for the duration of the war—is matched only by his disdain for Putin. “I wouldn’t react naturally to Putin’s death any differently than I would, say, if he was stripped naked and burned bit by bit with cigarettes and people would defecate him until he had nothing else to eat. It would be the same. I don’t count him among us.”
The West was concerned about provoking Putin into a conflict that could escalate into World War III, and the initial response was gradual. But slowly it turned up. By July of this year, the US had given more than $75 billion in humanitarian, financial and military aid to Ukraine and indicated that it would allow European allies to provide American-made F-16 fighter jets. Penn, who lobbied for the jets, believes more decisive and comprehensive action is needed.
“I use the word cowardice because I know of no other word that describes what happens when we argue prudence as restraint. Restraint looks like John F. Kennedy holding back military action during the Cuban Missile Crisis—that’s a powerful piece of leadership. Caution looks like, ‘I’m afraid the bad guys will do something to you if I do what’s right, so let’s not do anything. Or let’s just do enough so I don’t freak myself out even more.”
He adds: “The good news is that Ukrainians, both in leadership and on the ground, have not completely lost faith in us. And while one might get lost in the fact that there have been so many unnecessary deaths – and I believe this war would have ended if decisive action had been taken – I don’t think it is too late to take decisive action. I’m talking about doing whatever it takes to arm them with everything they need to show Russia they can play hard.”
Trump — the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination — and prominent factions of his party are increasingly questioning support for Ukraine, making it just another contentious battleground in polarized American politics. What the great power, meanwhile, throws into sharp relief is the sense of unity and national identity that Ukrainians have forged under the threat of an external enemy.
It made Penn see his own country again. “It was like breathing a different air. I knew we had problems and divisions and that America’s fragile aspiration was in great danger. BB king he said he had to play a chord once for half an hour before he heard it. That was the first time I realized how much we need that unity, that feeling.”
He laments: “We don’t love each other in this country. We don’t like each other in this country. We hate each other. We fear each other and exchange courage for cowardice, not realizing that in doing so we are also exchanging something we all need, namely that we are social animals and want community.
“Data is all over the world: where there is longevity, there is community. We experience it ourselves. We know that the moments in our lives when we are happy are because, whether micro or macro, there is a moment of community.
“There was something cool about all the horror of 9/11, right?” Because we didn’t ask each other. We knew what we had in common and that connected us.
Penn hangs a large American flag and a large Ukrainian flag at his home in Malibu, California. “I’m a big fan of the idea that we’ll start flying flags again, even if we’re on the left, and not worry about our neighbors thinking we’ve suddenly become a Mago hawk—which some of my friends accuse me of.”
Ukrainian flags are less visible around the US these days. Attention span is short and polls show declining support for the war effort. Zelensky heads to Washington this week to test his star power against the fragility of the moment. Before Thursday’s screening, Penn admitted to the audience: “As a filmmaker, I would say that you’re always afraid that the projector is going to break somehow. I hope it will not happen.”