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Joss Whedon usually leaves the heroics for characters in his movies, but the Avengers director’s next project is battling what he believes could be a big threat in the real world.
Whedon has founded the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Save the Day and donated $1 million toward helping her beat Donald Trump in the presidential election. Instead of going on the defensive, Whedon is focusing on encouraging people to vote through a series of star-studded online videos. He’s hoping that these videos will resonate with several groups of people that are likely to vote for Clinton, including rural college-educated white women and groups that often have low voter turnout such as black men and millennials.
“It’s not about attacking because Donny’s real good at attacking himself,” says Whedon. “It’s about getting people to vote, because it’s frightening the apathy that people are treating the most crucial election of their lifetimes with.”
Whedon has never been shy about his political leanings. During the 2012 election, he made a tongue-in-cheek video in which he proclaimed that Mitt Romney had “the vision and determination” to take the country on a path toward a zombie apocalypse. Last year, he signed a petition encouraging Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president. But he’s been a loyal Clinton supporter since she entered the race, even when she was fighting for the Democratic nomination against Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I really loved a lot of the things that Bernie had to say,” he acknowledges, but adds that ultimately believes “Hillary will be better at this job.”
Before the Democratic National Convention, he began to convene small get-togethers of other Hollywood writers to discuss what could be done to lend Clinton their support. “I wasn’t going to do anything until she got the nomination,” he says. “And then it was the first night of the Democratic Convention — before Michelle Obama spoke — when the Democrats were so fractious that I just went into the sweats and was like, ‘I’ve misinterpreted what needs to be done.’”
Whedon had the time to commit to the effort. His last film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was released in 2015, and he stopped writing his next script to work full time on Save the Day, building up a small but experienced team that includes executive director Ben Sheehan, who hails from Funny or Die, and head of media partnerships Carri Twigg, who previously worked in the office of public engagement for Vice President Joe Biden.
The team is currently at work on more than 10 videos and plans to make between 15 and 25 before the election. It launches today with a spoof of a traditional campaign ad, called “Important,” that is jam-packed with A-listers, including Neil Patrick Harris and Avengers stars Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo. Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams, Keegan-Michael Key and Stanley Tucci have also shot videos, which range from comedic to earnest, for Whedon. Says Sheehan: “They’re passionate about the cause, but they also love Joss and the things he wrote.”
Hollywood has a long history of supporting Democratic candidates, and Whedon is among several entertainment industry notables who have given to Clinton during the 2016 race. Media mogul Haim Saban, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg all donated $1 million each to pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA in 2015. Even as far back as 1980, Norman Lear founded progressive nonprofit People for the American Way.
But while other super PACs are much larger, Whedon says he didn’t fundraise beyond his initial donation. “It would be great to get more funds, but we’re also a pretty lean production,” he adds, joking, “and there’s not a ton of explosions and helicopter shots in what we’re making. It saddens me, but we’ll live with it.”
Encouraging people to vote won’t be an easy task for Save the Day. Voter turnout during the 2012 election dropped to 57.5 percent, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, lower than any presidential election since 2000 despite an increase in eligible voters, and observers worry about apathy among voters given this year’s candidates. “Big names get attention, but it is not clear that they have much impact on turnout rates,” says John Pitney Jr., professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Clever writing and eye-catching graphics do not get people to the polls. What really matters is whether people believe that they have a stake in the outcome.”
Save the Day is taking a measured approach, first encouraging voter registration, then voter turnout and finally voting down the ticket on all races, both national and local. The team is doing outreach to ensure the videos are seen by the right people and, if lucky, go viral. Whedon acknowledges that “no one really cares what an actor’s opinion is,” but he says that’s not the strategy. “Seeing somebody famous makes people stop. Seeing something funny makes people stop. Seeing something with emotion makes people stop,” he adds. “Those are the ways you can get to people.”
Save the Day is unlikely to continue past the election. “I’ll hopefully rest and then I’ll go back to finishing the screenplay that I would have finished a month ago,” Whedon says as he imagines life after a Clinton win. But if Trump prevails? “I’ll tell you what you don’t do,” Whedon says. “You don’t move to Canada or any of that bullshit. You don’t give up on the world.”
Watch the “Important” spot, complete with cameos from Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle and Martin Sheen, above.
Watch the behind-the-scenes video from the making of the video, provided exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter, here:
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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