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A-listers-turned-activists: How the stars are acting up

As she takes a year off to 'fix democracy', Jennifer Lawrence joins an increasing band of politically engaged young actors. Susannah Butter turns the spotlight on these leading A-listers-turned-activists


Demanding change: Jennifer Lawrence is one of a number of stars who are turning to activism

Demanding change: Jennifer Lawrence is one of a number of stars who are turning to activism

Emma Watson

Emma Watson

Rose Magowan

Rose Magowan

Amal and George Clooney

Amal and George Clooney

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey



Demanding change: Jennifer Lawrence is one of a number of stars who are turning to activism

First she stuck it to a totalitarian government as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Now Jennifer Lawrence wants to "fix democracy".

This week, Lawrence declared that she is taking next year off to get young people engaged politically. She's certainly more of an exciting political prospect than some other US politicians. Once she's finished promoting her film Red Sparrow, she will be working with a non-partisan organisation called Represent.Us.

She joins a growing band of actors and actresses turned activists. Also this week, George Clooney and his lawyer wife Amal said they are donating $500,000 (£357,000) to support students who will march to demand political action on gun control. They will be on the march next month. Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg matched their donations.

Emma Watson, who like Lawrence is 27, has donated £1m to help sexual harassment victims. Then there is Rose McGowan, the founder of #RoseArmy who called out Harvey Weinstein and whose memoir/manifesto, Brave, came out last month.

Awards season has shown us that there are varying degrees of activism. If you are a multi-millionaire actor or actress, you can signal your solidarity with a cause by wearing black.

Or, better still, you can turn up at an awards ceremony with an activist as your plus one - activists are the most eligible dates at the moment, they've never been so busy.

You can also simply be judged by your actions, without towing the dress code line like Three Billboards star Frances McDormand, the only actress not to wear black. Standing out in her red patterned dress, she explained herself by saying she has "a little trouble with compliance issues" and she has spoken eloquently about the "tectonic shift" in her industry's power structure.

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The Evening Standard's film critic Charlotte O'Sullivan is impressed by Lawrence et al. "It's always brave for female stars in their twenties and thirties - when they're at their most 'hot' - to get involved with activism and risk being labelled po-faced or bolshie," she says. "Lots of studio bosses are conservative and risk-averse. I think the public are also ambivalent about cute actors who act up.

"Even people who are sympathetic to progressive views can be critical and accuse actors of jumping on a bandwagon. Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson are pretty but not vacant. Long may it continue." She sees them in context: "Following in the footsteps of stars like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando."

It takes more than a film to make an actress. So as Lawrence prepares for her year in the political field, here is what makes an actress/activist.

The messages

Lawrence started working with Represent.Us last year, auctioning off the chance to drink wine with her to raise money for the organisation.

It was founded in 2012 to stamp out corruption in American politics by overhauling lobbying, transparency and campaign finance laws.

The aim is to stop political bribery and give every voter a voice. In 2016 it supported 13 successful state and local anti-corruption acts.

Represent.Us's members are high-profile. The chairs are Kulpreet Rana, previously head of intellectual property at Google, and Todd Dipaola, CEO and co-founder of InMarket, an app developer. Board members include David O Russell, the director who worked with Lawrence on Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, Jack Black, Sia, JJ Abrams and Richard Painter, the former ethics adviser to George W Bush (it's a cross-party organisation).

Lawrence brings wit to the table. In her fundraising video last year she set out her pitch, goblet of red wine in hand: "You want to help stop political corruption and drink a ton of wine? We can talk politics, drink wine, call your ex, call my ex …" then she read out some reviews to guess whether they were discussing alcohol or films: "Full-bodied, strongly grounded - I hope that's about a cabernet and not my breasts."

Watson, meanwhile, mainly works with projects to support women. Her £1m donation went to the Justice and Equality Fund, a new UK-based organisation founded by people in the arts which aims to provide support and advocacy projects for victims of sexual harassment. It was founded in response to Time's Up, recognising that the movement was started by women with privilege but that the film industry's role goes beyond that of promoting an equal society.

Watson has acknowledged how activism has changed her. She wrote this year: "When I gave my UN speech in 2015, so much of what I said was about the idea that 'being a feminist is simple!' Easy! I have since learned that being a feminist is more than a single choice or decision. It's an interrogation of self… I met a woman named Happy who works for an organisation called Mama Cash and she told me this about her history working in the women's sector: 'Call me out. But if you're going to call me out, walk alongside me as I work'."

McGowan's mission is all-encompassing. She runs #RoseArmy, a movement to support victims of sexism. The hashtag is Be a Thorn. There's a newsletter and she has a clothing line, with all proceeds going to the East LA Women's Shelter, helping those impacted by sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, homelessness and HIV. In her book she encourages readers to "email, tweet, demand different from those who are pushing a damaging narrative".

The day job

Being an activist doesn't mean giving up acting forever. Lawrence has a number of films on the way including the fourth X-Men, Dark Phoenix, which is due out in November. She's also working on a screenplay with Amy Schumer - this is a point where activism and acting intersect as it will have a strong feminist message. She's in Steven Spielberg's new film about photojournalist Lynsey Addario and is producing an adaptation of the novel Burial Rites, about the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland.

Watson, meanwhile, runs an online feminist book club called Our Shared Shelf. They are currently reading Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. She says it was one of the most important books of 2017 and inspired her to ask, "How do my race, class and gender affect my perspective?"

It intersects with her work as a UN ambassador. There she focuses on the He For She campaign, which appeals to men to support women's rights. She's spreading the word in the March edition of Vogue Australia, where she talks about sustainability and how to design the future.

McGowan is busy too.

Her documentary about her role in the #MeToo movement, Citizen Rose, came out last month. She is working on an album called Planet 9, about freedom of thought and a skincare line called The Only Skincare with her aunt Rory.

The impact

These are incipient movements but the women backing them are high achievers. Lawrence has form. When she was growing up in Kentucky her mother Karen, a summer camp manager, didn't allow her to play with other girls because she was too rough with them. She was brought up to be as tough as her brothers. Her fighting spirit came through when she wrote an article for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter, which galvanised discussion about the gender pay gap. Represent.Us better get ready for that spirit.

Lawrence isn't on Twitter but that's unusual for an activist. The other two are prolific there.

Watson has 26 million followers on Twitter seeing her feminist message. Her book club has almost 213,000 members.

McGowan sees Twitter as an indispensable part of her arsenal. She has 917,000 followers on Twitter and #Brave and #BeAThorn are trending. It was Ashton Kutcher who got her on to Twitter, saying in an interview that it is "the only voice an actor can have".

When a tweet goes viral, she says it makes her phone feel like a live wire. She can also do long form - her book, Brave, is already a New York Times Bestseller. Not bad, for an actress.

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