Berlin — Just an hour before Russia began invading Ukraine almost a year ago, actor Sean Penn had his first on-camera meeting with the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“It was like he realized 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 co-director Aaron Kaufman were in Kiev to film a profile of the comedian-turned-President when the war broke out. It is the image of the president walking into the room for that first interview that would have the greatest impact on Penn.
“It’s hard to explain, but there was a solution in response to something that no one was facing,” Penn said.
Also at a press conference on Saturday, Penn said they returned to the hotel after the interview and the shelling began that 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 put the documentary on an unexpected track. The film contains additional interviews with the President conducted over the past year.
After completing the project, the two continued to speak off camera. The Hollywood star — who has been involved in many humanitarian and anti-war efforts over the years — was awarded the Order of Merit of Ukraine by Zelenskyy last year. Penn was also presented with a plaque at a walk in Kyiv to honor world leaders who have shown solidarity with Ukraine.
Penn told the AP that people would be most surprised by Zelenskyy’s “ordering of the mechanisms of government.”
“Not just his own, but all those he relies on, his sense of mapping the diplomatic territory,” he said. “It’s on fire. He has that great gift for politics.”
Penn recalled the “civilization” he saw as he left Ukraine through the Polish border a few days after the invasion began.
“Nobody was kidding. No one wanted to drive around the other person and accept and there was a kind of silent acceptance,” Penn said during the interview. “You know, and the families that were being torn apart. Some, most are still torn.”
During a later visit to Ukraine, Penn lent 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 melt any time he wants to melt it,” Penn clarified in the press conference after threatening to publicly smell his awards if Zelenskyy was not on the program for a telecast Last year’s Oscar.
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 addressed the opening of the Berlinale on Thursday, encouraging artists and filmmakers to show support for Ukraine.
Penn said at the press conference that his “continuing shame towards the leadership of the Academy, the academy of motion pictures, prompted the gift of the Oscar, when he chose to present Will Smith smacking Chris Rock instead of the greatest symbol of the world of cinema and of humanity. today on their broadcast.”
Penn has won two Oscars 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’s not unusual for entertainment personalities to get behind a cause, “Superpower” sees Penn travel all the way to the front lines 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 came from.
“I could make some answers,” he told the AP. “It’s something I don’t really think about, although I’ve been asked many times. … I don’t have the words for it.”