CANNES, France (AP) — Sean Penn has been to the Cannes Film Festival about a dozen times — from hanging out with Robert De Niro in 1984 to preside over the jury.
But his last visit was rocky. Penn’s 2016 film, ‘The Last Face’, flopped with critics in a way that would embarrass some filmmakers to return.
Penn didn’t hesitate, though. On Saturday evening, he premiered his latest film, ‘Flag Day’, in Cannes, in which he also starred.
A few hours before walking the red carpet, Penn was sitting comfortably in a hotel bar, excited to be back. The festival is the largest in the world, he said. “Everyone knows this is the big game.”
And it’s a game that Penn welcomes. Cannes is worth it, even if it packs a few lumps.
“The bad stuff, these days, I’ve been so extreme with that. It’s like, whatever,” Penn says. “The point is, I’m convinced I know just as much – more – about acting than almost any of these critics. And I’m very confident in the performance that I’m most concerned about.”
With that, Penn raises his hand and points to where his daughter, Dylan Penn, is sitting. Dylan, 30, is the star of ‘Flag Day’. She’s dabbled in acting before, but it’s easily her biggest role to date. In the film, an adaptation of Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, she plays Jennifer Vogel, the journalist daughter of a con artist and counterfeiter (played by Penn).
Her father’s confidence is not misplaced. Dylan is natural, balanced and engaging. She already looks like a veteran, which is to be expected of Penn and Robin Wright’s child. And those critics? Variety said the film “reveals that Dylan Penn is an important actor”.
But for a long time, Dylan never wanted to be in the spotlight.
“Growing up, being surrounded by actors and being on set, it really didn’t interest me at all,” Dylan says. “I’ve always thought, and still think, that my passion is working behind the camera. But as soon as I announced that I wanted to do something like that, both my parents said separately: you don’t become a good director if you don’t know what it’s like to be in the actor’s shoes.”
Dylan appears in movies as her father retires. Penn, 60, is shooting Sam Esmail’s Watergate series for Starz, with Julia Roberts. But he has moved further away from Hollywood recently. Penn is devoting more time to Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), the nonprofit he started after the 2010 earthquake to help Haitians. Haiti has entered another crisis this week following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, a situation Penn calls heartbreaking.
“These people have worked so hard to educate their country and this kind of horrific violence, cynicism – whatever my suspicions were, was the motivation,” he says. “I’m glad our teams are safe for now, but it’s terrible.”
During the pandemic, CORE built testing and vaccination sites, including one at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and delivered millions of shots. In movies, Penn still has a few upcoming roles that he promised to do years before. But further?
‘Then I just don’t know. I would be very surprised. I don’t think I would start a movie without knowing if it was going to be a movie. And I don’t think I would direct anything that wasn’t a movie unless it was on the Broadway stage,” he says, then smiles. “There’s an easier way to say that: I’m not interested in directing for the small screen.”
Penn is increasingly at odds with Hollywood’s dominant priorities. He has never made a franchise movie. He laments Marvel movies and “how much it has taken up space and taken up so much time in the careers of so many talented people.” He misses cinema that isn’t “just dazzling, Cirque de Soleil movies.”
The so-called ‘cancel culture’, which he also has problems with. Arguing that he shouldn’t be playing gay icon Harvey Milk (2018’s “Milk”) today, Penn recently said that soon only Danish princes will be playing Hamlet.
But his biggest complaint may be the onset of direct-to-streaming movie releases. “As I’ve always said, it’s not the girl I fell in love with,” Penn says.
MGM will release “Flag Day” theatrically on August 13; Penn considers himself “happy with a movie that’s going to be a movie.” But it took years to get to this stage. Dylan first read the book when her father chose it when she was 15. Many possible reruns followed — Penn initially had no intention of directing — but the prospect of making the film with Dylan was appealing.
“I always thought if she wanted to do it, I would encourage it,” Penn says.
For Dylan, the father-daughter relationship of “Flag Day”—Jennifer tries to help and stabilize her cheating father, but also inherits some of his more destructive, scammer habits—is half a reflection of their own bond together.
“She’s always strived to have this really honest, transparent relationship with her father, which she never got back,” says Dylan Penn. “I tried to have that with my dad and got it back.”
“It made us a lot closer than we’ve ever been,” she adds. “Sure, there were times when I spoke back or had an attitude, but it was like, you can’t. This is your boss. This is work. This is not your father now.”
Dylan admits that the experience was so satisfying that she would like to continue acting. Her father, she feels, may be “passing the torch a bit,” she says. Hopper Jack Penn, her younger brother, also stars in the film. The rest of the cast is more experienced, including Josh Brolin and Regina King. Original songs by Cat Power, Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard add to the score.
But the most vivid parts of “Flag Day” are the scenes between Dylan and her father.
“Dylan is — and I can say this in equal parts because of how I feel about her as a person and as an actress — as ill-conceived as can be,” says Penn. “That’s a great quality to play on.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP