BERLIN — Just hours before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, actor Sean Penn had his first on-camera meeting with the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“It was as if he was realizing himself, that he was born for this moment,” Penn recalled in an interview with The Associated Press at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival on Saturday, a day after the festival premiere of his documentary “Superpower.”
Penn and his co-director Aaron Kaufman were in Kyiv to film a profile of the comedic actor-turned-president when the war broke out. It would be the image of the president walking into the room for that first interview that would have the biggest impact on Penn.
“It’s hard to explain, but there was a resolve in reaction to something that no one has ever faced before,” Penn said.
At a press conference also Saturday, Penn said they returned to the hotel after the interview and the shelling started that very night. When they first met Zelenskyy, he had “a proper suit and a proper office.”
“The next time we saw him, he was in camos and his country was at war,” Penn said.
The outbreak of war sent the documentary on an unexpected track. The film contains further interviews with the president conducted over the past year.
After completing the project, the pair have continued to speak off camera. Zelenskyy presented the Hollywood star — who has been involved in numerous international humanitarian and anti-war efforts over the years — with the Ukrainian Order of Merit last year. Penn was also given a plaque on a Kyiv walkway honoring world leaders who have shown solidarity with Ukraine.
Penn told the AP that people would be most surprised by Zelenskyy’s “command of the mechanisms of government.”
“Not only his, but all of those upon whom he is reliant, his sense of mapping the diplomatic territory,” he said. “He’s on fire. He has that extreme gift for politics.”
Penn recalled the “civility” he saw when leaving Ukraine via the Polish border a few days after the invasion began.
“No one was honking. No one was trying to drive around the other and take and there was a kind of quiet acceptance,” Penn said during the interview. “You know, and these were families being torn apart. Some, most remain torn apart.”
During a later visit to Ukraine, Penn loaned one of his two Oscars to Zelenskyy, telling him: “When you win, bring it back to Malibu.”
“The Oscar is there in his office and it’s ready to be melted anytime he wants to melt it,” Penn clarified in the press conference after threatening to smelt his awards in public if Zelenskyy was not on the program for last year’s Oscar telecast.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not include a video address from the president, opting instead for a moment of silence in support of the people of Ukraine. Zelenskyy did address the opening of the Berlinale on Thursday, exhorting artists and filmmakers to express support for Ukraine.
Penn said at the press conference that the gift of the Oscar was inspired by his “continuing shame towards the leadership of the Academy, the motion picture academy, in choosing to present Will Smith smacking Chris Rock rather than the greatest symbol of cinema and humanity living today on their broadcast.”
Penn’s two Oscars both were for best actor, in 2003 for “Mystic River” and in 2008 for “Milk.” His previous directing credits include “Flag Day,” “Into the Wild” and “The Pledge.”
While it is not unusual for entertainment personalities to get behind a cause, “Superpower” sees Penn travel all the way to the front line of the war to talk to soldiers in the trenches. When it comes to his drive and determination, the star couldn’t tell you where that comes from.
“I could make up a number of answers” he joked to the AP. “It’s something I just don’t really ultimately think about, though I’ve been asked many times. … I don’t have the words for it.”