ON PRESIDENT ZELENSKY
Penn can’t hide his admiration for the man who won the popular vote on an anti-corruption platform in 2019, praising his ‘passion and courage’. I suggested we hadn’t seen such powerful leadership in decades. He agreed, but also explained he thought it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
SP: I originally met him on Zoom, before the threat of more than the border war became real. This was early on in the pandemic in the US. We first started discussing a potential documentary about his country that wasn’t focused particularly on the war. And since then there’s been a lot of exchanges between us. Then I went and met him face to face the day before the invasion. And I was with him during the invasion, on day one.
I think back to the guy that I met before the Russians came. He was very charming, and very bright and very charismatic, and I immediately liked him a lot. But I don’t know if it served anybody’s reality to be convinced war was going to happen at that point. And it wasn’t as though it was going to make any sense if it did. So, you would reserve some part of you to hope that reason prevails. I’m speculating, of course. And if you are convinced that war couldn’t or wouldn’t happen, you are not fully challenged with the incredible burden and the incredible demand of courage, otherworldly courage, that it would take to be the president of that country in those circumstances. So, seeing Zelensky the day before invasion, I would say, it serves to reason that he would not have felt fully tested. And then seeing him the next day, it struck me that I was now looking at a guy who knew that he had to rise to the ultimate level of human courage and leadership. I think he found out that he was born to do that.
You must remember, Zelensky wasn’t always universally popular before this war. There was that guy who was going to run against Zelensky in the next presidential election and who was polling pretty damn well and had a real chance. One of the Klitschko brothers [Vitali], who had been world heavyweight boxing champion and was mayor of Kyiv. I spoke to him in November for the documentary I’m doing. This was long before the invasion, but we know that the war has been going on for years at the border, since the annexation of Crimea and so on. And there was a lot of criticism of President Zelensky in there. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, it’s just politics. Well, what’s the mayor doing now? He signed up to serve under his commander-in-chief, President Zelensky. That’s how unified that country is now. That’s Zelensky’s legacy.
ON THE UKRANIAN RESISTANCE
Penn refers here to a compelling 2015 documentary called Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Netflix). It is about the peaceful protests in 2013/14 that turned into an uprising, where the Ukrainian riot police (Berkut) beat protestors mercilessly and eventually fired on them, deploying snipers as the people tried to tend to the wounded. The resilience shown in the film helps put today’s Ukrainian resistance in context.
SP: When we’re talking about the biggest picture of all, the biggest, most important [group of people] in our lifetime as an aspiration is the Ukrainian people. The Russian intelligence agencies must have looked at their stubbornness and resistance and said: ‘But it can’t sustain.’ Well, in the short term, the next few weeks or months, that’s a no-brainer. Yeah, it’s going to sustain. Go back to 2014, because they showed the world who they are back then. And so when you watch Winter on Fire, it’s a very easy transposition into today.
I’ve been to Ukraine twice. I’ve been in Mariupol. I was at the frontlines in Mariupol in November , since when it’s been incredibly assaulted by the Russians. I’ve spent time in Kyiv, in Lviv, everywhere in between. But you don’t even need a passport to appreciate what’s important for us to understand – just watch Winter on Fire. It might be about the people in 2014 but they’ve been the same people every single day and never more so than now. They are together like never before and, as I said, that’s the historical legacy of Zelensky, because he’s the man who did it. They’ll never be able to take it away from him that he unified the Ukrainians to fight for their country.
ON HIS FATHER
Sean idolised his father Leo Penn, who died in 1998. He has credited Leo with instilling in him ‘pride of service’ and the desire to give something back to society. Leo served in WWII, then became an actor, appearing in several movies before being blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies and refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Penn senior subsequently became a director, working on classic TV series such as Columbo, Star Trek, Magnum PI and Little House on the Prairie. Sean got his first exposure to the acting life on the sets of such shows. Given the situation in Ukraine, and that the morality of armed conflict was very much on Penn’s mind, I asked him about his father’s war service.
SP: He wanted to be a pilot. But at that time in World War II they were training pilots who had never flown aircraft before in just eight weeks. This was to fly the Liberators [the Consolidated B-24 Liberator was a four-engined heavy bomber, nicknamed the Flying Coffin because it only had one exit for the crew of 10]. And, in the final stages of your training, you would have to pass a soloing test and he crashed the plane. Obviously, he survived it. But, once you fail that test, you’re not going to get another shot.
So, he became a tail gunner and a bombardier in a B-24 with a crew in the 775th Squadron [of the 458th Bombardment Group of the USAAF’s Eighth Airforce] called McNamara’s Band, named after the pilot [also after a popular song – there was a B-29 of the same name serving in the Pacific]. Myron McNamara became a top tennis coach, scout and pro player after the war, touring with the likes of Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad [he was also one of the first to spot Jimmy Connors’ potential]. My father’s group were flying low-altitude missions over Germany at night. They were stationed in London. They could be called out of a pub to go on a last-minute sortie at one in the morning. So, they’d get on the plane and hit the oxygen masks and clear their heads of the booze and go to bomb Germany.
And it was a seven-mission life expectancy. The first seven missions were not voluntary. You had to do it. After seven missions it was voluntary, because the life expectancy was so short. They broke the record, in terms of the volunteer flights. They flew 37 missions in all. Incredible.
They were shot down twice. And, in both cases, they were able to get the crippled aircraft, the Liberator, over allied lines before bailing. So, the second time it was winter and the fuselage had been blown out and my dad’s hands were frozen to the tail gun. And, like out of a movie, McNamara stayed on board until the last of the crew, other than my dad, was out. Then he went back and pulled my dad off the tail gun, virtually tearing the skin off his hands. And then they jumped. And they survived. So, obviously, in our household Myron McNamara and my dad were heroes, with the medals to prove it.
And then I started playing competitive tennis when I was a teenager. I was pretty good, ranked 300 in the juniors in Southern California, which was the epicentre of the sport at the time. Whenever the best college teams were playing, you’d go. So, UC Irvine was playing Pepperdine and, in the programme, I saw that the coach of UC was this guy called Myron McNamara.
I went up to him at the break and said, ‘Excuse me, coach, do you know Leo Penn?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you Leo Penn’s son? You get that motherfucker on the phone right now’. And I called my dad on a payphone and Myron said, ‘Get down here’. My dad came along and they stayed close friends till they died. Myron passed first and then my dad a couple years later, aged 77.
I wanted to get away from wars, both old and new, for a few minutes. So, I asked Penn about the process he uses to cope with wearing so many hats and the different tools he needs to fulfil his many pursuits, from being a Hollywood movie star to managing refugee crises.
SP: I’m not overlapping different projects like I once did, which took away from me, my work, my beliefs, people I care about in a lot of different ways that I wasn’t even aware of.
But all the things I’ve got to be a part of – from movies to travelling to Ukraine – all seem like part of the same structure to me. It’s like you are building a house. I know how to bang a nail through wood, I know how to measure the wood and cut it. I know how to build basic things till somebody who knows better gets there to. In the same way, I know how to lay a foundation as an actor, as a disaster relief worker, as a founder of an organisation or whatever. As a director, as a writer in film, they’re all the same thing.
You’re making a movie, it’s exactly like making disaster relief, although the stakes are higher in disaster relief. Same toolkit, basically the same job, just that you get presented with different architecture by the different architects that you work for as a builder.