It is not subtle: In his forthcoming movie, “This Must Be the Place,” Sean Penn resembles Robert Smith, the goth frontman of the Cure. The resemblance was intentional; the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, known for the political biopic “Il Divo,” idolized the Cure growing up and decided to make his English-language debut about a rich, depressed ’80s rocker married to a no-nonsense woman (Frances McDormand) who’s a firefighter.
“He’s a child, and she’s the man of the family,” Sorrentino explained, adding that the story was based on his own relationship and also that of Smith, who has been married to the same woman since he was 16. Iggy Pop was another source of rock inspiration, and David Byrne supplies music and makes a cameo.
The actor and director met at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, when Penn was president of the jury that awarded “Il Divo” a prize. Penn whispered to Sorrentino that he would like to work with him, and Sorrentino wrote “This Must Be the Place” with him in mind; Penn accepted the part a day after reading the script. “He’s very brave and crazy to accept this role,” Sorrentino said. “It’s a characteristic of the great actors.”
The film had its premiere in May at Cannes, where it was bought for US distribution by the Weinstein Co., which plans to release it this spring. After another edit, it screened at the Sundance Film Festival here, to a mixed reception; some audience members gave Penn a standing ovation at the premiere, but others said they found his performance mannered and the story bizarre.
It certainly takes an unexpected turn when, with the help of an expert played by Judd Hirsch, Penn’s aging rocker, Cheyenne, becomes a Nazi hunter on a quest to avenge his father. A journey across the American West and self-discovery follows. Sorrentino thinks of it as a comedy, Penn less so.
Recently named an ambassador-at-large by Haiti, where he does relief work through his nonprofit organization, the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, Penn now spends much of his time shuttling between acting and his work there. He spoke about the film, his family and his work in Haiti.
This movie goes to so many unpredictable places; were you surprised by the way it turned out?
I think of it as a slice of Paolo’s imagination. He’s an extraordinary writer. And so each step of the way — from what I thought I was going to read to what I thought I was going to work on to what I thought I was going to see — was very surprising in all cases. In a way I wanted to be surprised by the overall look of the movie. In most cases I’ll go and I’ll watch most of the rushes. In this case there were things that I would look at when I was concerned I maybe needed to adjust something, but in general I wanted to just see how it all came together at the end.
How do you think audiences will respond to your look in the movie?
I’m quite convinced that there will be plenty of audience reaction that is — I’m going to use the word “challenged.” But there was a choice to make, I made it, and I trust the director on it as well. I was constantly looking to him because it was certainly going to be one of those fall-on-your-face or don’t choices.
You mean you think you might fall on your face?
I have no clue, but I’ll go with either. I’m dazzled by this director. It was a great experience working with him, and it was a very strange one because I had book-ended it. The film is book-ended by so much time spent out of the country in a very different world. I was kind of flying from Haiti in the beginning of this movie and then immediately flying back.
Can you talk about what led you to delve so deeply into your work there?
I had been single-parenting after a divorce for about eight months, and in that time my son had a traumatic head injury. And after getting through the life threat or the brain-damage threat, still there was the pain, and then he was given morphine for the pain, and I guess somewhere I locked away — I really found affection for what those pain medications could do to people. I had just seen his relief, and so then it was four days before the earthquake that both he and his mother had found they were ready to spend time together, so he left, which was initially kind of a 24/7 burden of eight months that I needed to break through.
And then by about Day 4 after that, I was just sitting around missing him, and the earthquake happened. I was hearing about the amputations and so on without any IV pain medications, so I put a little group together, but the intention initially was just to go down and distribute those medications to the hospitals and clinics that were doing surgeries. And then we had a pretty good group of people, and there were gaps to be filled. There was a brand-new education about what NGO’s do and what they don’t do.
An education for you?
Yeah. I found myself philosophically mostly feeling that they were destructive — with exceptions of course. And so we kind of committed ourselves beyond that, and one commitment built into another one, and that’s how that whole thing happened. I describe it the same way as what happens when you’re going to direct a movie, when you kind of get on the railroad track and you’re walking into a tunnel and then you look behind you and the train is coming and there’s no room to go right or left, and you just got to keep running. So we’re still running.
Are these experiences going to affect the kind of roles that you take from now on?
I guess the natural answer to that is that they will, but I don’t know necessarily how and I don’t know that I’ll pause to think about it. You take a lot of stuff in, no matter what circumstance you’re in, and it all tends to kind of squeeze out of the sponge.
The New York Times