How Zelenskiy became Hollywood’s man of the hour

Online Desk

09 Jan 2023 12:24 PM

Sean Penn handed his Oscar to the president as a symbol of faith in Ukraine’s victory. The statue will remain in the country until the end of the war. Photograph: Presidential Press Service/EPA

When Ben Stiller walked into the office of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in June, he embraced the wartime leader telling him, “You’re my hero.”

Stiller is one in a line of stars from the entertainment world who made the long journey to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy – himself a former actor and comedian. A journey that involves an overnight train journey from Poland as commercial flights – let alone private jets – cannot fly in Ukraine’s airspace for safety reasons, reports The Guardian.

Before Stiller came the actor Sean Penn, who has visited three times since the invasion, and is making a documentary about the war, in which Zelenskiy will no doubt feature.

On his last visit, Penn gave Zelenskiy one of his Oscars to keep until after Ukraine’s victory. It was Penn’s way of demonstrating how much he believes the president and the country will survive this war.

“I feel terrible. This is for you. It’s just a symbolic silly thing, but if I know this is here with you then I’ll feel better and stronger for the fight,” Penn told Zelenskiy in November.

Other stars hosted by Zelenskiy include the British adventurist Bear Grylls, the Virgin founder, Richard Branson, the actor Jessica Chastain, U2’s Bono, the TV host David Letterman, the Spanish-American celebrity chef José Andrés and the historian Timothy Snyder.

Angelina Jolie and the 1980s action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who did shoots in Kyiv for a Netflix production two years ago, have also visited Ukraine to meet refugees and troops. Van Damme posed for videos with Ukrainian soldiers in December, giving the traditional Ukrainian war cry, “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes.”

And there are many more celebrities who have yet to make the visit to Ukraine but have been using their platforms to raise funds. The Ukrainian-born actor Mila Kunis and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, who were friends with the Zelenskiys before the war, raised more than $30m at the beginning of the war.

The Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, who volunteered to become one of the faces for the Zelenskiys’ fundraising platform, United24, has just become the English-language voice of the Ukraine-wide air raid alert system app.

According to those who have followed and been involved in Zelenskiy’s communications efforts, it was the president who kept Hollywood following events after the initial media spike subsided. “He’s a natural at orating because of his background,” said Nikki Fowler, the president of the Hollywood Critics Association, who is also half-Ukrainian. “I think that resonates with a lot of celebrities.”

Hollywood “respects” Zelenskiy because for them he’s a real-life hero, according to Fowler. “When you’re able to have access to a real-life hero, [the type] that you just don’t see in movies, who would not want to support that?”

Zelenskiy’s journey has been “life imitating art” and has intrigued not only Hollywood but the US in general, said Fowler. The Hollywood Reporter journalist Etan Vlessing said Zelenskiy’s ability to “command the 24-hour news cycle using social media and video addresses has generated major respect and props in Hollywood, rather than fleeting fame”.

This year, Zelenskiy’s address at Cannes received a standing ovation. Time magazine, Politico and the Financial Times made him their person of the year.

Outside Ukraine’s parliament, in perhaps a nod to his past as an actor, Zelenskiy created a Ukrainian Walk of Fame. Those deemed the biggest supporters of Ukraine have been honoured with a plaque. Penn, Andrés are among those featured alongside politicians such as the UK’s Boris Johnson, who became a celebrity in Ukraine during his tenure, as well as the leaders of Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the EU.

“As a former actor, Zelenskiy appreciates the power of actors, especially from Hollywood,” according to his previous press secretary Iuliia Mendel, the author of the book The Fight of Our Lives. “It made Ukraine more popular [worldwide].”

Mendel was among those who helped organise channels of communication with celebrities, including Elon Musk, who was at first an avid supporter of Ukraine, before adopting what some saw as a more pro-Russian line.

Speaking of how Zelenskiy has successfully communicated with the west, Zelenskiy has channelled his efforts into making people, including stars, not politicians understand what is happening in Ukraine, said Mendel.

“At the beginning, Zelenskiy was quite aggressive but he was expressing the collective thoughts and feelings of many Ukrainians,” said Mendel, pointing to the president’s address in March when he told Nato it was weak and it bore responsibility for every dead Ukrainian. “He was afraid the west will just use bureaucracy or domestic issues to move slowly.”

Since the recent successes of Ukraine’s army, with western help, Zelenskiy’s rhetoric has become milder. “He wants to show Ukraine as a partner,” said Mendel.

For the Cornell professor Grant Farred, the author of The Zelensky Method, the president’s appeal comes from pushing the west to follow through with its own values. “Europe begins in Crimea, and I think Zelenskiy understands that,” said Farred, referring to the principles of international law. Zelenskiy began a new European project that has now transcended him as an individual and become about Ukraine as a whole, said Farred.

“Zelenskiy is a kind of embodiment of a European leader, from a country which is not supposed to lead Europe,” said Farred.

But while Zelenskiy has shot to international stardom and attained almost legendary status in Hollywood, at home, Ukraine’s chief of staff, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, is deemed more popular – despite giving only a handful of interviews since the war began.

Ukrainians credit the military and therefore Zaluzhnyi with the wartime successes.

This summer, Zelenskiy’s domestic standing was dented when he said in an interview he decided not to convey a Russian invasion was imminent out of fear for the economy – something some Ukrainians have found difficult to forgive.

Zaluzhnyi’s popularity has “generated insecurity” among Zelenskiy’s team, according to a rare profile of Zaluzhnyi in the Economist. Zelenskiy’s regular visits to the frontlines are widely covered but, according to the magazine, the president’s team have prevented Zaluzhnyi from travelling there, while being quick to point out Zaluzhnyi has not done so to journalists.

Ukrainians continue to back Zelenskiy, whose popularity keeps attention on their cause and whose celebrity visits are, according to Mendel, a “big deal” for Ukrainians, too.

Samakal English

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