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Lights, camera, political action: Midterms bring out the Hollywood heavyweights

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Lights, camera, political action: Midterms bring out the Hollywood heavyweights

Nazanin Boniadi
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Richard Shotwell Invision/AP file
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Politicians have always come to Hollywood to raise cash, but since Donald Trump became president, celebrities are revising that script — using their star power to to effect political change, instead of just raising funds.

It's more than mere celebrity activism. With the 2018 midterms around the corner, Hollywood stars are pushing hard for action on issues ranging from human rights, to gun control, to the threat of nuclear war. And their talent agencies — whose main function is typically to get movie stars the best jobs — are playing a starring role.

The groundswell for political engagement has become so overwhelming since Trump's election that ICM Partners, a talent agency that previously helped stars such as Shonda Rhimes and Bradley Whitford with "civic engagement," set up a brand new division last year led by political strategist Hannah Linkenhoker.

"The world is really spinning right now — everybody's looking for ways to make a difference and to be engaged,"ICM managing partner Chris Silbermann told Variety. "We want to take our engagement to another level."

One example: Last month, Linkenhoker and ICM organized a get-together in Washington, D.C., for "Homeland" actress Nazanin Boniadi, who moderated a bipartisan public event that aimed to put the status of Iranian women and women's rights at the center of discussions about the White House's Iran nuclear deal. The event was attended by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

The actress also met Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "The message was, 'You're a leader on human rights in America, you should know about women in Iran,'" said Linkenhoker.

“A lot of people think [the upcoming midterm elections] are the most consequential elections of our lifetime,” said one in-house political strategist for a major talent agency.

"A lot of people think this is the most consequential election of our lifetime," said Linkenhoker of the midterms, noting that it's the first opportunity since Trump became president that voters can express themselves.

William Morris Endeavor, run by Ari Emanuel — the brother of Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Mayor and former chief of staff for President Obama — launched its own in-house political branch just 20 days after Trump was elected.

"No matter what side of the aisle you sit on or where you live in the world, the call for meaningful and sustained civic engagement is louder than ever," read a company memo at the launch, urging staff to get involved.

Amos Buhai, vice president of government relations at parent company Endeavor, said the PAC was not just for staff but for clients. "A lot of clients were trying to figure out what just happened and wanted to create a vehicle to support candidates who shared their values of inclusivity, entrepreneurialism, and voter participation."

Since then, the company has partnered with a host of organizations from UNICEF to Everytown for Gun Safety to match entertainment clients with causes. That is not a practice without some risk, since celebrities airing their political views can sometimes alienate a portion of their audience.

From Taylor Swift to the Dixie Chicks, speaking out can help or hurt celebrities in a big way. Swift recently endorsed two Democratic candidates in Tennessee, where she moved as a teenager. In a Sunday post on Instagram, Swift said she supports LGBTQ rights and is against systemic racism and other forms of discrimination. Trump said Monday, "Let's say that I like Taylor's music about 25 percent less now."

Earlier this year, model Gigi Hadid saw first hand what can happen when professing an opinion. Hadid has been promoting the work of UNICEF, along with Tascha Rudder, executive director of the Endeavor Foundation, the philanthropy arm of WME's parent company. But when Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, spoke up on Twitter saying that Jews and Palestinians should try to co-exist peacefully, her comments received the inevitable Twitter takedown.

One of the worst examples of backlash after wading into political debate happened in 2003 when Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, criticized plans for the war in Iraq. After she told a concert crowd "We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas," fans burned the band's albums and radio stations blacklisted the group for years.

Not everyone thinks celebrities are the most effective agents of change. Brett Bruen, a former diplomat and director of global engagement at the White House under President Obama, said the women's march and gun violence have driven stars to speak up, but being an effective change agent is much harder.

From Taylor Swift to the Dixie Chicks, speaking out can help or hurt celebrities in a big way.

Bruen noted that simply drawing attention on social media to efforts to bring back the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 just isn't sufficient, unless it is coupled with action. Comedian Sarah Silverman's 2008 effort to have youngsters reach out to their grandparents in Florida and urge them to vote for Barack Obama, "was a good illustration of celebrity activism," Bruen told NBC News.

"When it came to campaigning in 2016, most of the celebrities lined up behind Hillary Clinton," he said, "but that didn't equate to mobilizing voters in key areas," such as rural farmers who may not like Trump's policies. "In general, there remains a large chasm between the world of Washington and Hollywood."

Endeavor's Buhai said the agency doesn't just want to help clients get their voices heard, but to get measurable results. "What we are seeing through social impact is concrete change, it's not just making noise or having a conference."

High-profile Hollywood figures have long been major donors to causes and advocated for political candidates — though not without plot twists of their own. Former head of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton, created a ruckus after famously snubbing her in favor of then-Senator Obama for the 2008 presidential nomination.

As yet, Hollywood has not coalesced around a single potential Democratic candidate for 2020, though billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and former vice president Joe Biden are in the ether, as is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Katzenberg hosted an event for Biden's PAC earlier this month, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has also been raising money in Los Angeles.

With less than a month to go before the midterms, the entertainment business will be busy helping to mobilize Hollywood's outsize marketing muscle and, of course, its money.

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