Hollywood stars draw spotlight, and criticism, with Ukraine visits
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has relied on a steady stream of visiting Hollywood stars to keep the world’s focus on his country’s war with Russia, now nearly six months in. But some critics are questioning whether celebrities should have a starring role in a deadly conflict.
Jessica Chastain became the latest entertainment industry figure to aim the spotlight on Ukraine. In photos posted last week on Zelensky’s official Telegram account, Chastain is seen sitting at a table in a meeting with Ukraine’s president, and giving a slight grin as she stands arm-in-arm with him for a snapshot.
“American actress Jessica Chastain is in Ukraine today,” Zelensky’s account said in a post accompanying the photos.
“For us, such visits of famous people are extremely valuable,” it added. “Thanks to this, the world will hear, know and understand the truth about what is happening in our country even more.”
Ben Stiller, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and Liev Schreiber have all made trips to the war-torn country following Russia’s unprovoked offensive.
Penn made the biggest headlines in Ukraine when he was on the ground filming a documentary in February as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces moved in. The “Milk” star met with Zelensky on the eve of Russia’s invasion.
“Meeting with President Zelensky the day before the invasion, and then meeting with him again on the day of the invasion, I don’t know if he knew that he was born for this,” Penn said in a March interview on CNN.
“I do know that we have to invest everything that we have to support the Ukrainian people and to support President Zelensky, or I do not think we will have a legitimate memory of what America hopes to be,” Penn, a co-founder of CORE Response, told Anderson Cooper.
But the visits to a war zone from rich and famous celebrities don’t come without criticism.
“I think it’s highly problematic, what they’re doing,” Ilan Kapoor, the author of “Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity,” told ITK of Hollywood photo-ops in Ukraine.
“Who do [Hollywood stars] represent? If you think about it, they only represent themselves, and this is because they need and crave a public recognition to build up their brand,” added Kapoor, a professor of critical development studies at York University in Canada.
“It’s all about branding.”
Kapoor said he doesn’t fault Zelensky — himself a TV actor and famous face in Ukraine before he entered politics — for the star-studded meet-and-greets.
“He’s a clever and media-savvy leader, so he knows Ukraine is much weaker than the giant that is [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia. And also he knows that the only way small and relatively weaker parts of Ukraine can resist the Russian invasion is by keeping up the pressure on the West to continue its support,” said Kapoor.
For Zelensky, utilizing social media, the press, and the “whole Western celebrity machine,” is an “effective way” to continue to apply that pressure amid potentially waning public interest, according to Kapoor.
Stiller, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has opened up about his reasons for touching down in Ukraine in June. The “Severance” director and “Meet the Fockers” star called Zelensky his “hero” when he met with him on World Refugee Day.
In a statement following his one-on-one with the Ukrainian president, Stiller said the purpose of his trip was to “stand in solidarity with people forced to flee in Ukraine and worldwide” and to “bring more attention to the humanitarian situation.”
Reflecting on the trip in an interview with Deadline last week, the 56-year-old entertainer said being on the ground there gave him a perspective he wouldn’t otherwise have because it “makes you think what you’d do in that situation.”
Darrell West, a vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says Zelensky’s high-profile get-togethers are a “great way to drive media coverage because reporters love celebrities, and so it’s a wonderful photo-op for Zelensky to be with a leading celebrity.”
But West, who penned the book “Celebrity Politics,” says that doesn’t mean these encounters necessarily move the needle.
“People understand celebrities are not substantive experts, so they don’t take their public comments that seriously on specialized topics such as foreign policy,” he said.
“But celebrities raise money, and they can drive media coverage, so they can help leaders set the agenda on the things they care about.”
Not everybody who’s somebody in Hollywood is ready to jet off to Ukraine to appear by Zelensky’s side. Pink Floyd star Roger Waters made headlines last week when he called President Biden a “war criminal” after the commander in chief authorized more than $8 billion in security assistance for Ukraine over the course of 17 packages.
Also last week, “Under Siege” actor Steven Seagal appeared in a video that aired on a Russian state-owned TV network in which he repeated the Kremlin’s claims that Kyiv was responsible for a deadly strike at an eastern Ukrainian prison.
But with recent polls showing the majority of Americans support the U.S. government response to Russia’s invasion — with 63 percent of those surveyed in an Economist-YouGov poll last month saying it’s been “about right or “should be tougher” — celebrities are likely to find a “safe issue” in backing Ukraine and Zelensky.
“As you edge into more divisive topics, celebrities often choose to stay away from them because they don’t want to suffer a backlash from taking a public stance on a contentious issue,” said West.
Yet as the war drags on and the focus of Americans and the media may drift elsewhere, Kapoor said Zelensky could very well play host to countless more Hollywood visitors.
“It’s such a desperate situation, [Zelensky] needs to do whatever he needs to do. But celebrities are not desperate.”
Kapoor suggested Hollywood players can better serve causes they care about by “taking a background role,” or donating anonymously to reputable organizations.
“These are highly privileged people who need to know their place and don’t,” said Kapoor, “and the system only encourages them to continue to, I think in the end, do much more harm than they do good.”
But Zelensky and his government have indicated that there’s a real benefit to highlighting visits from well-known names and keeping Ukraine in the limelight.
A June tweet from Ukraine’s department of defense thanked Hollywood stars such as Penn, Schreiber, Jolie and Stiller, who “despite the danger, have visited us.”
“You are more than just an inspiration to all of us,” the message said. “Millions around the world have heard the truth from you about the struggle of the [Ukrainian] people.”
—Updated at 1 p.m.