PARK CITY, Utah — Sean Penn's new movie casts him as a former rock star who turns his back on stardom and goes into exile overseas.
Penn can relate. He said in an interview Sunday that he has thought often about ducking out of the limelight.
He stars in "This Must Be the Place," which had its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Penn first came to Utah about 27 years ago with "The Falcon and the Snowman."
The film, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, stars Penn as Cheyenne, a raven-maned, mascara-caked former pop icon whose look was inspired by Robert Smith of the Cure. The childlike Cheyenne has left behind the glamor of his old life and now lives quietly in Ireland with his firefighter wife, played by Frances McDormand.
After his father's death, lost soul Cheyenne embarks on a road trip across the United States to track down a former Nazi who brutalized his dad in a concentration camp.
Penn said he empathizes with Cheyenne's decision to get out of the spotlight.
"Turning one's back on stardom might be the highest form of common sense. One that I would aspire to be more complete with," Penn said.
"I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it's an obscene disease of celebrity that's taken over far too much of the life that we do live. I think it's a disease. I think that it's diminished the quality of life. Not particularly for the people who are the focus of it, though that is clearly something that I've been compromised by. But for the culture at large, there is this kind of herd commitment. ... I think it's just become cheap."
"This Must Be the Place" owes its start to the Cannes Film Festival, where Penn headed the jury that awarded prizes in 2008.
Penn's panel presented Sorrentino's political drama "Il Divo" with the festival's third-place jury prize. The actor and the director found themselves standing beside each other for a group photo at the Cannes closing ceremony.
As they chatted, Penn told Sorrentino he would like to work with him, and a year or so later, the filmmaker sent the script for "This Must Be the Place."
The film premiered at May's Cannes festival and opens in U.S. theaters in March.
Penn is preparing to direct his fifth film, "The Comedian" with Robert De Niro and Kristen Wiig. Just as he has thought about retreating from stardom, Penn said he would like to be able to give up acting and only direct films.
That's not in the cards given his financial needs, including his J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which raises money to help people displaced by the 2010 earthquake.
"Especially if you're involved with an organization like mine in Haiti, there is a thing called running out of funds and needing to work," Penn said. "I can make a better living as an actor than I can as a director. Though I certainly would prefer to be directing movies."