How serious is Hollywood about stopping presidential candidate Donald Trump? The Avengers have been summoned, a beloved sitcom cast reunited and calls have been sent out across space and time to both the women of Shondaland and the entire “Star Trek” universe.
While it’s nothing new, especially in this traditionally left-leaning industry, for well-known names to lend theirs to the typical flurry of fundraisers and fetes that inevitably mark the political season, what is surprising is the way in which so many celebrities have been pulling out all the stops, or in the case of “Will & Grace” creator Max Mutchnick, the old set out of storage.
Other efforts, including a super PAC launched by writer-director Joss Whedon (“The Avengers,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and an open letter from the extended “Star Trek” family — seem more elaborate than usual.
“I think it’s gotten even bigger when people feel that their freedoms are being threatened, or they’re concerned about where things are going,” said Shonda Rhimes, powerhouse writer-producer of ABC prime-time stalwarts “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” who was called upon by the Hillary Clinton campaign to direct the candidate’s introductory video at the Democratic National Convention in July.
“I think for a lot of people it feels personal.”
In addition to the usual celebrity draw toward campaign appearances, this year has seen an increasing interest in capturing viral online success outside of the campaign apparatus.
In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign benefited from a star-studded video produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am called “Yes, We Can,” a short that was then considered unconventional for its online launch but earned more than 25 million views on YouTube.
One of the more surprising recent efforts included the brief return of “Will & Grace,” a sitcom that last aired on NBC in 2006 and starred Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes. The project was the result of timing, luck and a dedicated sense of secrecy.
After the series ended, creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan arranged for the set to be stored behind glass at their alma mater, Emerson College in Boston. When construction at the university forced its move back to Los Angeles, however, Mutchnick was inspired to write and produce a short that included the show’s cast as well as its regular location, costume designer and director. Furthering its time capsule-like look, a studio audience of friends and family was also on hand.
“It was fun because it was secret ... my agents didn’t even know what I was doing,” said Messing, speaking by phone from her home in New York while on a break from recent appearances for the Clinton campaign in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Ohio.
Targeting voter participation with the hashtag #VoteHoney (while making no secret of its disdain for Trump), the episode debuted shortly before the first presidential debates and has since earned more than 5 million views.
“We just felt like, OK, there has never been a more important election in our lifetime— and I can’t imagine ever again because of how insane this election is,” Messing said. “So to be able to do just something to try and energize people to have their voice heard, to participate, to register to vote — it made that feeling of general impotence sort of lessen at least for a minute.”
Attempts to reach the campaign for comment about the video were unsuccessful, but Messing described its initial reaction as “shocked” by the surprise release but ultimately “thrilled with it.”
Save the Day, a super PAC started by Joss Whedon last month, also aims to increase voter registration. Whedon announced Save the Day with a video that featured “lots and lots of famous people,” such as Neil Patrick Harris, James Franco and Julianne Moore, along with actors from the “Avengers” films he has directed, including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle and — in a playful pledge to appear in a nude scene if their efforts are successful — Mark Ruffalo.
The irreverent clip has earned close to 7 million views since Sept. 21. A statement on the Save the Day site clarifies that its efforts are paid for by the PAC and are “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” Whedon did not respond to a request for further comment, but in an interview with Buzzfeed, he said he had heard from the Clinton campaign.
They have a specific thing that they have to do to stay on message. We can go anywhere, we can be a little more anarchic, have a little more fun with it.
“They have a specific thing that they have to do to stay on message,” Whedon said. “We can go kind of anywhere, we can be a little more anarchic, have a little more fun with it.”
Clinton addressed the video in an interview with People magazine. “For the record, I was planning to vote anyway,” she said. “That said, Mark’s a true patriot, I’m sure he won’t let America down.”
Whedon and Save the Day are said to be planning more videos, with seven filmed and five more in the works. Last week a second, more straight-faced clip, “You Say Vote,” debuted led by “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jessie Williams. It has thus far earned just over 57,000 views.
On a similar but more low-fi scale, “Trek Against Trump” debuted last week with a Facebook page and statement signed by cast and crew from various generations of “Star Trek” from both the film and TV universes, including reboots director J.J. Abrams, original Sulu George Takei, new Spock Zachary Quinto and “The Next Generation” favorite LeVar Burton.
Written by science consultant for the recent TV series Andre Bormanis and Armin Shimerman (Quark of “Deep Space Nine”), among others, the language of the statement carries a familiar ring to fans of the famously humanistic franchise.
“Don’t remain aloof — vote! We have heard people say they will vote Green or Libertarian or not at all because the two major candidates are equally flawed,” the statement reads. “That is both illogical and inaccurate.”
“What basically happened was I watched the polls narrow and I feared for our country,” said Shimerman, who also appeared as Principal Snyder on Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series. “And as I went to conventions and talked to my colleagues at ‘Star Trek’ I heard the same fear. And we heard Hillary say you couldn’t sit back in this election. …. I didn’t think I could do much, and I couldn’t do anything alone, that was for sure.”
The statement and its signatures came together in just over a week. “We moved at warp speed,” Shimerman said.
Rhimes believes some of these efforts could be the result of a hope to stand out amid the 24-hour cycle of election chatter on social media, which has been a stronger presence than ever in 2016 with candidates trading barbs on Twitter.
“This is not necessarily a campaign where it’s a battle of ideas, unfortunately,” said Rhimes, who considers herself a Clinton campaign volunteer and plans to go door-to-door to help register voters with her 14-year old-daughter.
“You have ideas battling a lot of noise and so there is a sense that more work has to be done to sort of say ‘Hey, look over here’ to make sure people are paying attention to the right things,” she said.
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