Helping Hollywood get serious about Africa

Times Staff Writer

In the buttoned-down culture of Capitol Hill, Africa expert and former Clinton administration advisor John Prendergast appears more like a rock star than a political wonk. He has collar-length curly hair and infallible charm -- President George W. Bush once mistook him for Bono. Some gossipy Washington wags wondered if he had become a love interest of Angelina Jolie after they met at a forum here three years ago. (He says no.)

There's no doubt, however, that his star quality and solid policy background have placed him in an enviable position: dancing between two worlds -- celebrity and politics -- and keenly understanding the power of both. After years of working in locales such as Somalia and Ethiopia, Prendergast, 43, has become one of Hollywood's most trusted counselors on the troubled continent.

He was, to use an industry word, discovered.

"I don't chase them," he said of his celebrity associations over lunch on a drizzly day recently at McCormick & Schmick's, a few miles from the White House. "If they track me down, it's usually because they're serious."

He took Jolie on her first trip to the eastern Congo in 2003. (They filed an online journal about the experience for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.) He helped ease the way for George Clooney's September appearance at the United Nations to seek intervention in Darfur, a Sudanese region where more than 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million others have been displaced during the three-year conflict.

He's finishing up a book on Darfur with actor Don Cheadle, and he'll appear alongside Mia Farrow this month at several Sundance Film Festival forums, where they'll be discussing the Darfur documentary "The Devil Came on Horseback."

Plus, Prendergast has a day job: He's the D.C.-based senior advisor to the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts around the world. Prendergast has become so well known in international press circles that he's become a frequently quoted expert. (On Wednesday, he gave 22 interviews on the U.S. airstrikes in Somalia.) On Thursday, he was cramming to finish an article on the intersection of counter-terrorism and peacemaking in Africa, where he has lived off and on since 1985.

Despite his credentials, he finds that some of his colleagues in Washington readily dismiss him once they find out about his Hollywood ties.

"It does take a toll in the snobbish Washington circles," said Prendergast. "Some people think you're not serious because you hang out with celebrities. They resent it.

"They don't understand that the only way you can make a difference is by reaching as many people as possible," he said. "People like Angelina and George Clooney are catalysts. Every time they spend an hour on a cause, it could inspire 1000 new activists. They bring fresh and intelligent discourse to the debate."

And then there's the power of filmmaking, he said. Although he spent years traveling between the U.S. and Africa, his mother said she didn't fully comprehend why he had been working so fervently until she saw the 2004 Cheadle movie "Hotel Rwanda."

"There's something about seeing it on that large screen that helps people understand what's happening," Prendergast said.

Prendergast became involved in Africa in the early 1980s after hearing reports about the famine in Ethiopia.

"The country starved," he said. "I was stunned; I had to go and find out what was going on."

In 1996, Clinton hired him as a National Security Council advisor. He was later promoted to the State Department under Secretary Madeleine Albright.

Amnesty International activist Bonnie Abaunza, the organization's liaison to the entertainment industry, attended several panel discussions with Prendergast recently at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

"He is relentless in his determination to mobilize the international community to care and react about the atrocities being committed in Africa," Abaunza said. "He is a maverick."

He and actor Ryan Gosling -- a possible Oscar contender for his role in "Half Nelson" -- are working on a script about child soldiers in Uganda and are planning a trip there in the coming weeks. Prendergast said he also hopes to have a website (called Enough!.com) online in February about the challenges facing the world in regards to Africa.

"We're looking for ways we can support the peace process," he said.

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