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Months ago, The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway came to me expressing an interest in a topic I found surprising for him: Haiti. As many longtime readers of The Hollywood Reporter are aware, Stephen is well-known for overseeing and producing content related to the glossier side of this industry. From his organization of the Women in Entertainment event to his role as an awards-season columnist, jointly penning The Race for the magazine, Stephen always has been an expert about the people and power brokers that make Hollywood run. Nonetheless, he brought an interesting idea clearly out of his wheelhouse. Pegged to the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, Stephen wanted to assign a reporter to tell the story of, as he phrased it, “how Hollywood failed Haiti.”
“A few months ago, it struck me that I hadn’t heard anything lately about Hollywood and Haiti,” he recalls. “Sure, I knew that Sean Penn was out there running some kind of camp, but that was about it. I couldn’t help thinking, after all the hoopla surrounding the George Clooney telethon: Hollywood has failed Haiti. That’s the story I set out to put together.”
But after a few phone calls to key people, Stephen found his premise to be faulty. “I was stunned, looking into it, to find that the exact opposite was true,” he says. “It wasn’t just that two or three people were active — there was a whole community that was working together, either creating their own passion projects or giving really huge sums of money, and often totally under the radar, like Mel Gibson, who lent his private plane to fly out supplies, or Russell Crowe, who funded a new school.”
Several weeks later, Stephen asked whether he could be the one to go to Haiti, to do the reporting himself. Honestly, I was having a hard time imagining Stephen, in his natty sweaters and Prada jackets, actually on the ground there. I admit, I might have even laughed a bit when he asked me. Repeatedly, I posed questions to him: “You know it won’t be easy, right?” and “Are you comfortable with the danger?” He was steadfast in his insistence and was truly excited when, one day in November, he came into my office to tell me he had coordinated his travels with those of Penn, whom he would be following as part of his assignment. As it turned out, Penn actually was living much of the year in Haiti, where he was devoted to running his J/P Haitian Relief Organization.
But now came the hard part — actually getting there. The trip originally was scheduled for mid-December, but riots shut down travel following the much-criticized political elections.
Then he decided to go just before Christmas, only again it seemed there would be other riots.
“Sean Penn was leaving the same day as I was and told me if I could find my way to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he’d get us into Haiti on a military plane,” Stephen said. “He has contacts throughout the world, at levels most of us can’t even imagine. But in the end, we didn’t need them.” (Stephen ended up being able to fly through New York to Port-au-Prince.)
Once there, Stephen found himself having a hard time finding Penn, the primary subject of his story, in the midst of all the chaos on the ground. “When I did reach him, he couldn’t have been more open,” Stephen recalls. “I was astonished by how forthcoming he was — about the challenges there, about his personal life. I spent two full days with him, and when I left, as I move away from him, the more I admire him and the more I like him — and the more baffled I am by the complex psyche that’s pushed him to give up his life for a country he never visited before the earthquake.”
In fact, the Oscar-winning Penn spent his Christmas not at his house in Malibu but living out of the dingy room he calls home in Haiti, where he spends countless days finding solutions in a bottomless well of problems.
“After almost a week there, I was glad to come home and more worried about the blizzard cutting off airplanes than any danger in Haiti itself,” Stephen admits. “Whether I could stay there like Penn — day in, day out, just struggling to make life manageable for people he doesn’t even know — is a whole other matter.”
Stephen’s story indeed paints an extraordinary picture of what Penn and other Hollywood natives are doing on the ground in a dangerous country whose despair is so deep that the natural impulse among most of us is to look away. Luckily, despite Stephen’s initial premise, many extraordinary people have not.
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