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The Activists

Hollywood is known for throwing big glitzy events and even bigger, glitzier checks at politicians on their California campaign stops. But a portion of Hollywood’s industry figures go above and beyond the call of duty to fight for their beliefs and causes, often leading the march to Washington D.C. to address the issues where they matter most. Profiled here are eight activists spanning the Hollywood industry, who have used their Hollywood connections to not only raise money, but to change bills and legislature in favor of their causes. Read about their impact, challenges and experiences as they took the long road to D.C. to fight on behalf of their causes.

The Grassroots Director

Name: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Age: 61
Current Role: Director
Affiliations: Directors Guild of America, Naomi Foner, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal

Name: Stephen Gyllenhaal

Age: 61

Current Role: Director

Affiliations: Directors Guild of America, Naomi Foner, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal

 

Stephen Gyllenhaal sits back in his chair deep in thought, while dozens of people enter the room and surround him. 

“The reason I’ve written blogs or poetry or made a movie is because I just kind of had to,” explains the director, amid the hubbub. “I just bubbled over with some feeling, and if I didn’t somehow express it, it would sit in me and go nowhere.”

The Emmy-nominated veteran director, a staple in Hollywood and the father of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is currently in postproduction on his new film, “Grassroots,” starring Jason Biggs and Cobie Smulders. 

“I was fascinated by the whole idea that anyone can run a campaign,” says Gyllenhaal of the film, which he has both co-written and directed. 

At 61, Gyllenhaal has become part of a strong Hollywood family. His now ex-wife Naomi Foner, to whom he was married for 32 years, is an Oscar-nominated leftist screenwriter, while his two children, Jake and Maggie, have established themselves as A-list actors. Gyllenhaal himself has directed and produced a number of films over the past three decades, including "Paris Trout," "Running on Empty" (a collaboration with Foner, who was nominated for an Oscar), "Waterland" and "Homegrown," which subtly explored marijuana laws with a comedic twist. 

Shunning the glitz, glitter and big payouts that Hollywood usually employs when supporting politics and issues, Gyllenhaal and his family have opted for a low-key approach. Both Foner and Gyllenhaal have their own Huffington Post blogs to voice their political and social opinions, while Maggie has been outspoken against the Iraq war. She and her brother Jake have both been involved with Rock the Vote and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gyllenhaal's new film is certainly connected to his belief in political action from the ground up.

“I can’t think of a better time for people other than the professionals to start running for office in this country. The professionals have certainly made a mess of it — why not let some people who aren’t so-called experts put forward some new ideas?”

The film is set in 2001, a pivotal year in American history, and tells the true story of a young man in Seattle who decides to run for city council. “He had absolutely no right to do it but he did it anyway, which is what democracy and grass-roots politics is really all about,” explains the director. “You don’t have to be qualified, you just have to have passion and be willing to work hard.” 

As he works on completing “Grassroots,” Gyllenhaal contemplates the changes society has seen in the 10 years between the film’s setting and present day.

“Who would have thought even a couple of years ago when I started conceiving this film that there would be such a push for democracy in places like the Middle East?” questions the director. “Sadly, it is so often run off the rails by vast amounts of money that it is no longer democracy, that’s why grass roots becomes so important.”

In his occasional blog posts on the Huffington Post, Gyllenhaal has explored issues surrounding health care, the Afghanistan war and Wall Street. In a blog from July 2010, the director stresses that “it was grass roots that got Obama elected. But it was also those very grass roots that Obama had to ignore to function with the royalty of Washington, New York and in the other world capitals.” Today, he is even more adamant that Obama is ignoring the very people who put him in office.

“He talked about Main Street but he supported Wall Street,” says Gyllenhaal of Obama’s presidency. “People should not put all their faith in just electing a president. I think we’ve seen that that’s not been as successful as we would have liked.”

Perhaps it is because Gyllenhaal himself has seen his two children, Jake and Maggie, grow up into successful adults, with careers built on their individual merits, that he sees such power in the youth.

“There are no jobs for the young,” says the director, reflecting on the challenges for America’s youth amid the current economic problems. “So why not run for office? Why not run for office and change things?”

Gyllenhaal is a staunch believer of democracy, using the word no less than 19 times in 20 minutes. 

“It gets played out in the heartland, it always has, and it’s going to be played out by individuals who really understand they do have the power,” muses Gyllenhall on the future of America’s democracy, which he admits is “messy” but in keeping with the nature of a true democracy. 

“Let’s get the young people out there,” says Gyllenhaal eagerly. “It’s going to be a mess, people are going to handle things badly, but they don’t handle things terribly well now.” 

The more Gyllenhaal backs the common man, the more his frustrations surface with what he calls the “rich, white males” who run the town, although he admits that he might fall into that category. 

“I believe in no hierarchy, that no one’s better than anyone else,” stresses the director, as he condemns the upper echelon who are currently running the country.

Gyllenhaal’s phone buzzes with a text received from Phil Campbell, the author of “Zioncheck for President,” the book from which “Grassroots” is derived. Campbell is currently in the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama, which was recently devastated by a tornado in April 2011, to show a rough-cut of the film to raise money for the town. 

“Another grass-roots aspect of this — everything around this movie is grass roots,” says Gyllenhaal.

The director defies his age and is a spitfire of energy while remaining composed. “He takes short naps, that’s his secret,” reveals Vanessa Ruane, the assistant editor on “Grassroots.” Coming out of Hollywood, Gyllenhaal, who emphazises “I know all about celebrity,” has observed the dance that takes place between Hollywood and Washington, D.C., when they meet in the same sphere.

“I don’t think it’s really evolved, it kind of goes round and round in a circle ... it’s like a waltz,” says Gyllenhaal. “The music has kind of remained the same, and it has, to some degree, gotten a little boring.”

“I don’t think the people in Hollywood have all that much power, frankly,” he adds. “I think they help get votes.”

And does he believe that young Hollywood can have more of an impact than their predecessors? 

“Probably not,” says Gyllenhaal. “Because I don’t think things have changed very much at this point.”

While he lacks faith in Hollywood’s individual members, Gyllenhaal sees power being held by a different entity. As a member of the Directors Guild of America, Gyllenhaal believes the industry guilds and unions in Hollywood are really the ones that can influence politics. 

“I think where the real power sits isn’t in the gloss and who’s in front of the camera. It’s the hardworking people who end up voting,” explains the director. “In Hollywood, it’s the workers, it’s the unions, it’s the guilds, fashioning positions that they can all get behind.”

Runaway production is at the heart of the industry’s concern, as Hollywood finds itself victim to competitive tax incentives from other states and countries. Gyllenhaal has only one issue to point the finger of blame — America’s ongoing wars.

“You may be pro-war or anti-war, you may love war and you may love to go war, but then forget about having the money for education, for mass transportation, for taking care of the roads, for paving the roads,” says the director. He admits he has taken advantage of Canadian tax credits for his next film, "The Exquisite Continent," saving him almost 50 percent in costs.

For Gyllenhaal, the biggest political issue being debated in Los Angeles is mass transportation, an issue that is at the crux of “Grassroots.”  

He talks of his own interns, who find it difficult to commute to work because they struggle with rising gas prices and the lack of an accessible public transportation network in Los Angeles. 

“Mass transportation means if you don’t have it, poor people can’t get to work, poor people can’t afford to go to work, and that’s already starting to happen,” stresses the director.

Gyllenhaal admits that although he used to be a supporter of Obama, he isn’t so much anymore. As Hollywood looks toward the next round of elections and campaigns, Gyllenhaal has one word of advice for the current president.

“Risk everything and become the president that we really need in a republic, in a democracy, both for the United States and the world,” says Gyllenhaal. 

The director puts on his headphones and goes back to audio postproduction on “Grassroots,” his own activist contribution hoping to inspire the nation’s youth into taking charge. 

“Don’t take Hollywood too seriously, don’t take Washington, D.C., too seriously,” he says adamantly. “Take yourself more seriously.”

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