The FP Memo
Using Your Star Power
The movie industry's brightest stars should pick their foreign-policy roles carefully, stay far away from Davos, and avoid mixing their activism with celebrity gossip.
TO: Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt
FROM: Rob Long
RE: Planet Hollywood
Welcome to the fascinating world of foreign policy! It’s wonderful that Hollywood has taken such an interest in world affairs — the hotel lobbies and corridors of Davos have never been so glittering, and hotspots in Africa and the Middle East are sprinkled with stardust. Boffo kudos, as we say in the business.
The world, though, is a complicated and treacherous place. It’s impossible, really, to convey the pitfalls and booby traps waiting out there as you venture far outside the 310 area code. Playing to the lefty Academy Awards crowd is fine, but that instinct may get you into trouble in, say, Caracas or Pyongyang. If you say something that delights a Fidel Castro or a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, chances are it’s going to go over badly back home — and for good reason.
Still, your success in navigating the ferociously competitive world of Hollywood is the ideal training for global activism. Think about it: The entertainment industry is characterized almost entirely by shrieking egomaniacs, psychotic dictators, money-losing operations, clueless bureaucrats, corrosive nepotism, enormous travel allowances, and fraudulent accounting practices — not unlike most large nongovernmental organizations, the World Economic Forum, and the continent of Africa. You are well prepared to succeed on the world stage. Just remember these five key points:
Try a Modified, Limited Bono: To be an effective advocate of anything — immunizations, Middle East peace, women’s rights, whatever — you must first decide what you’re not going to advocate. By entering the global fray, you’re effectively trading on your name and your image, in other words, your brand. Think of yourself as an international brand and focus tightly on one, and only one, key issue.
As always, let Bono be your lodestar. In the 1980s, Bono represented a constellation of international causes — opposition to apartheid, AIDS, the environment, world poverty — and was an effective spokesman, frankly, for none of them. As the 1990s progressed, though, he began to focus more closely on a single issue, Third World debt relief, and he found that the more finely honed approach improved his effectiveness. By the early part of this decade, the rock-and-roll icon had managed to corral such unlikely allies to his cause as former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill. Bono’s African road trip with O’Neill was a media sensation, and the image of the somewhat baffled O’Neill and the cool-cat singer in pink wraparound shades indelibly etched the idea of Third World debt forgiveness onto the global agenda. One idea, one brand, tight focus, tight leather pants. You really can’t do better than Bono.
Notice, too, that his choice of issue has a clear-cut definition of success. Third World debt either is forgiven or it is not. Poor countries struggling under enormous debt burdens either will or will not find relief. Contrast that with, say, global warming, another one of Hollywood’s pet issues. Whatever one thinks about climate change, it’s almost certainly going to involve muddling through, demanding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a few places and allowing it to go unchecked in others, for decades to come. A celebrity who chooses such an amorphous, open-ended issue will quickly become tangled up in messy domestic politics and hobbled by the indifference that inevitably accompanies such a long-term challenge. It’s as silly as choosing "world peace" as your cause. As much as we admired your plucky initiative, Sean, your prewar tour of Iraq quickly became an international joke because of your credulous, childish appearances with members of the peace-loving Baath Party. Face it, world peace ain’t gonna happen. Debt relief, clean water in the sub- Sahara, and micro-loans for Bangladeshi women just might.
Don’t Forget Your Training: Remember that sitting still, listening with an intent expression, and responding with pleasant but noncommittal murmurs are the hallmarks of a seasoned world leader. They are also what you as a movie star do best. Don’t forgo the skills that got you where you are. As anyone who has ever seen Henry Kissinger make his way through the Four Seasons restaurant at lunchtime will tell you, the line between foreign policy and show business is thin.
Negotiating the international scene with purpose is hard enough. It gets even worse when people with different agendas distract you. When your convoy of Range Rovers blows into some dusty village, the new gray-water treatment plant you’ve come to see will have to wait until after the village children do a traditional dance, you’ve visited the clinic, officiated a soccer match, and greeted the local despot. Maintain a cheerful indifference to all of it: Remember, you’re all about water (or whatever). You’ve sat through a lot worse, especially the time when you didn’t win the Oscar and had to pretend, with a camera lens inches from your face, that you were truly happy for the winner.
As important as remembering your training is recalling your lack of training. Meryl Streep is a well-known fanatic about getting foreign accents just right. Philip Seymour Hoffman reportedly refused to come out of character when off set, so intent was he on becoming Truman Capote. But we all know how tiresome that kind of work can be, particularly when you’re not getting paid for it. Brad, we’ve noticed you hanging around think tanks such as the Center for American Progress. Be forewarned that the time will come when you’re too busy, too tired or, frankly, too bored to bond with a lot of star-struck geeks, at which point you’ll be criticized and mocked for being an unserious dilettante. Who needs that?
Pick Your Co-stars Carefully: We return to the sterling example of Bono. He could have romped through poor African nations with Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Congressional Black Caucus, or just about any left-leaning political figure. Instead, he went with O’Neill, in an act of inspired casting. You know that everyone loves a buddy picture. But you also know that only one name fits above the movie’s title — yours. The challenge, then, is to choose a costar who makes you look good, and that is most effective when that costar is someone distinctly unglamorous. Send the message that you’re serious about your issue; that party affiliation, bad tailoring, and physical unattractiveness are irrelevant to your passionate commitment to replacing large-scale International Monetary Fund-style macro-loans with small-bore, targeted micro-loans (to take one possible issue you might adopt).
Costars aren’t always people. Sometimes they’re locations. To put it another way: Every movie has a poster, an image, that crystallizes the thrust of the picture for the moviegoer. This is called the "one-sheet" of the movie and, as you know, no studio executive worth his $6,000 Kiton suit would greenlight a project without knowing, in advance, what the one-sheet is going to look like. Ask yourself the same question: what’s the one-sheet for your trip to sub-Saharan Africa? Is it you, sleeves rolled up, staring meaningfully at a reverse-osmosis water-treatment facility, or you, semi-nude, lounging at the nearest Amanresort with your girlfriend? Keep the one-sheet clear and simple, and keep your activism and vacations separate. That means two trips. Don’t piggyback — "Well, since we’re already here and we’ve seen the AIDS clinic, how about a quick trip to the Seychelles?" — or you’ll discover that the world press has printed up a one-sheet of its own. You won’t like it.
Which brings up the whole question of Davos. Honestly, Davos is a no-win situation for you. You won’t be the most famous person there; that honor will inevitably go to Bill Clinton. You won’t be the richest; that honor will go to Bill Gates. You won’t really get the respect or the attention that you deserve. It’s sort of like going to the Oscars when you’re not nominated. No matter how famous you are, people will wonder what, exactly, you’re doing there. You’ll be photographed in a swank hotel lobby with a lot of short men in dark suits. Someone will try to hire you to appear in a commercial in Bahrain. The scientists and techies will ignore you. The Economist will print something snarky about you. Davos is a terrible costar.
Get in Front of the Plot Twist: Every successful movie has a twist somewhere deep in the second act, usually around page 70 or 80 of the script. The bad guy is suddenly good, or the good guy is suddenly bad, or the bomb doesn’t go off, or it does, or something. This happens in world affairs quite often, which is why it’s crucial to avoid becoming an advocate of a person and instead promote a specific goal. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is a person; stable government for Haiti is a goal. Get the difference? (This is just an example. You can adopt a Haitian child, but please don’t adopt stable Haitian governance as your issue. As outlined above, you need to pick something that might conceivably happen in your lifetime.)
Hollywood is a relationship business, of course. The web of friendships and shared histories that knit the town together keeps business humming. But we’ve all experienced the rush of panic upon hearing that the management team at a certain studio is out, and that the projects we had there are in "turnaround," or worse. The world is very much like a poorly run studio. The trick here is to be friends with everyone without being dependent on any one political figure. As hard as it’s going to be for you, Sean — especially in the coming months, as relations between the West and Iran sour and you get those itchy, gotta-get-to-Tehran feet — try to avoid being photographed with anyone who might later need to appear as a defendant in a war-crimes trial.
Do the Audrey Hepburn: When the offers started coming more slowly, and then only for older character roles, Audrey Hepburn packed up and moved out of town, out of one kind of show business — movies — and into another kind of show business — worldwide advocacy for children. It was a smooth, sophisticated transition, and she slid into her new role with grace.
We all get old, and at a certain point there’s only so much that can be done with jowls that droop, a neck that ripples, and eyes that are wrinkled into a permanent squint. The great thing about your new interest in world affairs is that when that time comes, when you’ve pulled your final modified, limited Bono, it’s time to do the Audrey Hepburn and glide effortlessly into a life of world service. Before you know it, people will stop thinking of you as an actor or a movie star. You’ll be a real diplomat. And those roles don’t come around often.