Occupy Wall Street Protests Pose Unique Risk for Stars Who Get Involved

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

As more Hollywood notables such as Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon lend their voices to the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread from Lower Manhattan to Los Angeles, publicist Howard Bragman is warning his clients to proceed with caution. "There's a lot of empathy in the entertainment industry for the poor and middle class," he says. "But with the message constantly changing among the protesters, no one knows where this is all going to end up. And celebrities are wealthy people, they have to be careful not to seem disingenuous."

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That advice came too late for Kanye West, who showed up Oct. 10 at the New York protest. The reaction on the Occupy Wall Street Tumblr page was swift -- and negative. "A capitalist symbol of excess and fetishism, attempting to get some  attention at a popular movement," wrote one Tumblr user. Chimed in another, "Didn't Kanye just release an album bragging about being in the [wealthy] 1 percent?"

Stars who wear their politics on their sleeves run further risks.  A recent THR poll found that significant percentages of Americans, particularly conservatives, are inclined to avoid films featuring actors with whose political positions they disagree.

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Still, Bonnie Abaunza, who worked for years for Amnesty International's celebrity outreach program, Artists for Amnesty, and now advises Hans Zimmer's foundation, believes that stars shouldn't be afraid to get involved. "If given the opportunity to support a good cause and movement, they should take it," she says. "The Wall Street protests are a very important response to the widespread anger and frustration at financial institutions and corporate greed."

Human rights activist John Prendergast, who traveled last year with George Clooney on a peace mission to Sudan, also believes Hollywood should join in worthy causes. "In this day and age when numbers matter, it's hard to get people's attention," he says. "A star's involvement just magnifies it."

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Speaking with THR, Ruffalo, a frequent visitor to the Wall Street encampment, compares the burgeoning protests to the "Arab spring," noting that both are essentially leaderless, organized via the Internet and social media. "What I'm seeing emerging here is a direct form of democracy … meant to address economic inequality," he says. "I come from a working-class family. The working class is the heart and soul of this country. And you can't have a just society of any kind without economic equality."

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Other famous names who have joined in the protests, which started Sept. 17 in New York, include Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Russell Simmons and Roseanne Barr. On Oct. 8, Danny Glover addressed demonstrators in L.A. The WGA on both coasts and the American Federation of Musicians have joined other unions, including the powerful Service Employees International Union, in endorsing the protests. Celebrity tweeters including Alec Baldwin and Yoko Ono have cheered from the sidelines.

Even so, Ruffalo suspects a large number of celebrities who privately support the Occupy Wall Street critique are wary of publicly expressing that sentiment. They are "afraid for their job, afraid to speak out, afraid they're going to lose work." Plus, he adds, "Who needs the headache of being attacked by Fox News or Rush Limbaugh?"

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