Friday, June 13, 2014

Should Actors Be Openly Political?

In a recent interview with Playboy, actor/director Ben Affleck discussed his political support for Democrats such as Al Gore, Elizabeth Warren, and Barack Obama. “People now know me as a Democrat, and that will always be the case to some extent.” For an actor, that’s courting a problem.

The interviewer pursued that point by asking Affleck if he thinks that audience awareness of his politics “polarizes” viewers. “It does,” replied Affleck,

and you can bifurcate your audience. When I watch a guy [onscreen] I know is a big Republican, part of me thinks, I probably wouldn’t like this person if I met him, or we would have different opinions. That shit fogs the mind when you should be paying attention and be swept into the illusion.

Exactly right. Actors on either side of the political fence who overly politicize themselves risk alienating at least half their audience. This is America, so actors, like other citizens, certainly have the right to their political opinions and the right to express them publicly. But unlike “ordinary” people, and unlike even other artists such as musicians or writers, an actor’s job is to lose himself or herself in a role sufficiently to enable the audience to suspend its disbelief.

In the movie theater, one part of our mind is aware, of course, that we are watching movie star Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, but to lose ourselves in the movie magic we need to be able to shut down that part of our mind and believe that Matt Damon is Jason Bourne. Actors like Damon who develop a very public, polarizing, political persona risk overshadowing the characters they are paid to bring to life onscreen; once that happens, it takes audiences out of the story or even prevents them from watching in the first place. Once Damon’s or, say, George Clooney’s politics get in the way, the illusion is broken. Such actors do a disservice to their art, to their audiences, and to the movie projects they are involved in.

When I raised this point in private conversation with a conservative actor friend, he asked if I were suggesting that actors – particularly conservatives, a distinct minority in Hollywood who often face serious repercussions for being politically outspoken (see Dash, Stacey) – should keep their heads down politically. But that isn’t my argument. I don’t encourage any actor to suppress his or her political beliefs, especially not for fear of discrimination. Actors lend their celebrity power to causes and politicians all the time and should feel free to do so. I’m merely pointing out that there is an artistic cost to becoming more activist than actor.

Damon and Sean Penn, for example, are so outspoken politically that I believe their careers are suffering as a result. Damon hasn’t had a hit since The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007, Penn not since Mystic River in 2003. That hasn’t stopped either of them from continuing to get work or garnering award nominations, but outside of the echo chamber of Hollywood where their views are largely celebrated, their political aggressiveness has driven many theatergoers to say, for example, “I’m never going to see another Sean Penn movie.” That’s the disservice I mentioned above.

Again, I am not advocating for or against actors putting politics ahead of art. That’s their choice, and I’m sure actors like Penn and Damon consider their activism more important and thus they’re willing to take the hit. Nevertheless, that choice has adverse consequences for their work and legacy as artists.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/10/14)