Sean Penn and Dylan Penn
Father and Daughter Explore a Toxic Relationship In Flag Day
by Brad Balfour
Actor/director/producer/progressive activist Sean Penn has always been a mixed bag to the public, critics and the film industry. Ever since he made his early appearances in such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bad Boys, he’s often played characters with serious inner conflicts. His ability to encompass both the good and bad of his characters has led him to win various accolades such as 74 award wins and 108 nominations, which includes two Oscars.
Born in Los Angeles, Sean Justin Penn is the second son of actress Eileen Ryan (née Annucci) and director, actor, and writer Leo Penn. His brothers are musician Michael and the late actor Chris. His father is of Lithuanian Jewish/Russian heritage, and his mother is half Italian and half Irish.
The 60-something has taken strong political stands and voiced his opinions in ways that have abraded some. But he’s also put his views into action such as forming an organization to help survivors of the devastating earthquake in Haiti a few years back.
Besides acting, he has turned to directing including the awards-nominated film Into The Wild. Now, he’s turned to not only directing but acting in Flag Day, his latest cinematic effort. Besides that difficult task, he’s added another challenge in making the film, by casting his 30-year-old daughter Dylan to play his character John Vogel’s daughter Jennifer.
Based on the book Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life by author Jennifer Vogel, this movie describes, from the daughter’s viewpoint, what it’s like to grow up with a father who can’t cope with conventional life – either as a husband or father. Though he tries to stay on the straight-and-narrow, he instead turns to crime while trying to prove to himself and family he’s capable of surviving and thriving.
Given Penn’s passion for this film, he conducted multiple Q&As at various screenings – including this one – to promote it.
You gave Dylan the book when she was 15. Did you have an idea at that moment that you would want her to play Jennifer? Was that in your mind or was it like, this is a great book, I want her to read it?
Sean Penn: I was first presented with the screenplay before I read Jennifer Vogel’s beautiful memoir. I should say it was Jez Butterworth’s adaptation of the book. I was probably no further in than page 30 [when] Dylan’s face was imprinted on it to me – imprinted in a way that there was no going back. It was either I would make it with her, or I wouldn’t make it. This was long before I considered acting and directing in it.
You thought you would just direct? What made you decide that you would also act? It’s your first movie to do both things at the same time, right?
Sean Penn: This movie had its own journey, and there were times where I would just direct it, and then there were times where we would just act in it together. But the “we” always had to be “her” and the “she” was not initially enthusiastic at the idea of doing this movie.
Dylan, Initially you weren’t sure that it was something that you wanted to take on. What was your journey?
Dylan Penn: I loved the story. I read the book when I was 15 and the first time [dad] came to me he said it was basically a “fuck-down.” I always wanted to be in film, but I wanted to be behind the camera. I expressed that I wanted to direct and write. I was like 18 when both my parents — on separate occasions — told me that I shouldn’t set foot on a set as a director unless I knew what it’s like to act. So that initially got me into auditioning. I did little bit parts here and there, and then it came back around. It felt like [it was] too good of a world to only have half of it. I also had more like 15 years of life experience, almost, to refer to color Jennifer’s territory.
You could not have played that part at 15.
Dylan Penn: No.
What was the first instance when you felt that your daughter is really good and can do this?
Sean Penn: It was around the center block in the kitchen in the house where she and her brother grew up. She would come back from school and tell stories to her mother and I about her day and embody the characters of those stories. It was never mimicry. It was [like] you met the people. You knew who they were. Later when we met one, we knew exactly who that was.
I always knew it. To take that to somebody coming to work with written lines, hitting marks and all that, I put off that thought altogether. I was convinced that she would be great. It wasn’t until she was great, which was the first day of shooting, when one of my crew members looked up after they saw what she did with the first take, and he just said “What the…”
We all knew we were on to something exciting because it’s Jennifer’s story and to have [Dylan] play it is electric. So what happened at that point when I saw that I was right [I said to myself], “I was?” In other words, as exciting and thrilling as it is, the biggest part of it was relief. It was, “Thank God I didn’t set my daughter up for failure.” I hadn’t thought about that. One of the things she sometimes leaves out of the story is when she’s talking about being reluctant. She was definitely one of these young people who came from the school of thought that it’s actually a ludicrous notion to be an adult playing dress-up as a job. While she came to have her own respect for it – which she can talk about – a formidable respect for what it can be, I think it also is that part of that initial thinking of it as ridiculous that has that quality that is so totally without contrivance. She doesn’t come to wink at the audience or to curry favor. She thinks the thoughts and lets you watch her face think them. It’s what every actor strives to do, and I think she does it beautifully.
How did you go from a “No” to “Sure, Dad, I’d love to carry your movie”?
Dylan Penn: It was a big step. I mean, he’s right. I should have said earlier that once I did these parts here and there and started auditioning and getting rejected, my respect for actors just went through the roof. I realized, “Wow, this is not as ridiculous as I thought it was.” After auditioning for so many bad roles, reading this script again felt like a dream for any actor. So who am I to pass this up? Although it was pleasant to work with him, for most children who work professionally with their parents, it could be great or be a disaster. Fortunately, it was great with Dad.
About that first day on the set, when did you have the revelation that this is going to work? What was the first scene you did? What was it like for you to step into that role and have your dad behind the camera, but also be in front of the camera playing your dad?
Dylan Penn: The first scene we did together was in the Chinese restaurant, and I was really nervous that day. It’s an emotional scene, and I knew it was going to be really intense – and it was. But as soon as I sat down in our booth and they called, “Action,” I felt so at ease and also felt something that I did not expect. I felt like it was so playful. Obviously, as an actor [my dad] gives so much to play with, so much to react to, and I often say that he allows for that chemistry to play as well. I just had so much fun with him, so as an actor it was the greatest thing you could ask for.
When you’re sitting at that table and looking at your dad at that moment, is there a separation there?
Dylan Penn: Rarely. It’s always going to be “my dad” at the end of the day. But it’s specifically when I saw the scene where I see him kill himself. I hadn’t seen that footage until the day of, so that’s actually my real reaction. If you can imagine seeing your father look up at the camera and shoot himself in the head, it’s a lot. Also, it’s her thing because this is Jennifer’s story, it’s not mine. But yes, I can see my dad through John.
Sean, you were watching her watch that. What was it like for you?
Sean Penn: Watching her watch that scene? There were several instances where I felt that in asking her to go into those emotional places, I should call Child Protective Services on myself. It took me a little while to get comfortable with the fact that she wanted to explore those things as much as any actor is driven to do. There was a key moment when she came away from her first meeting with Jennifer Vogel. While we approached this with Jennifer’s encouragement and her acceptance of a lot of poetic licenses, I think the book, which everyone should read, is a standalone. This [film] is the kind of an expression from aspects of that. But I think that it was very strengthening for Dylan to spend time with Jennifer. Among the many ways in which you have a lot of partners as a director to establish the comfort or the confidence of your actors, she was an essential partner in that.
Did you two ever butt heads?
Sean Penn: I’m going to say yes, because I know if I don’t, she will – this is one time I’m going to get ahead of her on the truth. [laughter]
Dylan Penn: Honestly, it wasn’t a lot, but we did have a two-hour standoff about whether I would or wouldn’t wear mascara for a certain scene. Sounds about right. He won.
Sean Penn: I won “no mascara” for the scene.
To try and be truth-telling about someone who was such a liar – how do you respect the truth of the story and how much poetic license do you take?
Sean Penn: The funny thing is that whether it’s reading the book or Jez’s screenplay, as a filmmaker, you’re struck with an impression that becomes your interpretation. Now, there are certain processes and movies where you might approach it, for ethical reasons as much as anything else, in really trying to get the facts straight in a very literal way. This had gone from a faith that Jennifer had in Jez to a faith that Jez and [producer William] Horberg initially had in me. Then it became a family of those supporting the impression that I had. That’s the direction we went with, rather than just try to get everything [on screen] as some kind of factual history.
Then there’s the music. How did you come to work with such people as Glen Hansard, Eddie Vetter – his daughter sang the “Father’s Daughter” song which is super cool – and Cat Power? When did you bring them on board?
Sean Penn: I had a great experience working with Eddie Vedder [Pearl Jam’s lead singer] on Into the Wild. We had become extremely close friends. Anything I picked up to be considered by me for directing from that time on, he would be one the first [people to] call and say, “Read this, see if you get a musical impression out of it.” In this case, he was the closest American voice I knew as a songwriter who could reflect this story. He was also a man, and Into the Wild is a reflected subconscious of the male character. This is a female-generated story – it has a little yin-yang with the father/daughter so this would not be just one voice, but it should be dominated by a female voice. So Ed did a workshop with Glen Hansard; the two of them songwriting together came up with the beginnings of some of the songs that are here. The idea was that, for no other reason than that he had been my dependable collaborator, I hadn’t thought to get any other singer-songwriter.
I was just thinking about a female vocalist. I listened to all the best, many of whom do write, many of whom don’t. I listened to people I’ve heard of and people that other people [told me about]. I couldn’t find a voice that felt the way that she as Jennifer, I felt, would move me. So we did this novel thing: I asked [Jennifer]. She suggested the first one up, Cat Power. I listened to Cat Power who I never heard before. I said this would be great. I called Ed. He had worked with her, known her and called her; he curated the whole thing. Then he brought in his 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, to sing the end-tail song. But Cat ended up writing quite a lot of stuff for the film as well as singing it.
What did you two learn about each other? Did you learn anything that you can say in polite company?
Sean Penn: I think Dylan and I have a lot in common in a lot of ways. We both have a force of will. Most of the experience on this was like you dreamt that you could walk out on the edge of a cliff together and survive, and you wake up and you’re on that cliff. So it just affirmed the dream creatively in so many ways. As a human being, I don’t know if I know her better, or less than I will tomorrow versus the day before yesterday, She’s a moving target. I just know I fell in love a long, long time ago, 30 years ago, and it’s a continuum.
Dylan Penn: I can’t even follow [that]. But he’s right, it just solidified the bond that I already knew we have. This is a really inappropriate parallel, but I don’t know what other words to use. It feels like doing a movie with somebody is like going into battle. So I do feel that we survived it together.
Will you do it again?
Dylan Penn: I want to reverse the roles [and direct].
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 27, 2021.
Photos #1-3 © 2021 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
Photos #4-6 © 2021. Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. All rights reserved.