Less than a minute into Brett Kavanaugh’s first hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, there was a commotion in the gallery. One by one, a series of women rose from their chairs, yelling at the senators to reject Kavanaugh’s nomination. It was Sept. 4, 2018, two weeks before Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation became public. The demonstrators were objecting to Kavanaugh’s judicial record, and what he’d be empowered to do if he was elevated to the Supreme Court.
“This is a travesty of justice. We will not go back,” Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, shouted, as others beseeched the senators to protect reproductive rights. The protesters yelled over one another, making it hard to understand what they were saying, and Capitol Police removed them from the room almost as quickly as they got to their feet. One blond woman in a white T-shirt took a nervous breath as she stood up, then barely got a word out before a human chain of officers whisked her out the door.
That woman, a viral tweet and dozens of news reports revealed, was Piper Perabo.
As I watched clips of the hearing that day, trying to make sense of the demonstration, I was left with a few lingering questions: What was she doing at the Kavanaugh hearing? Why did she feel compelled to get herself arrested? And who is Piper Perabo, again?
Perabo established herself as something just short of a household name with her star turn in 2000’s Coyote Ugly, which she followed with major roles in a few smaller movies (Lost and Delirious, Perfect Opposites) and smaller roles in several bigger ones (The Prestige, Looper). Four years before her Kavanaugh arrest, she’d wrapped up a five-season run on the USA drama Covert Affairs, for which she’d earned a Golden Globe nomination. As of 2018, she wasn’t making headlines for the roles she was taking or the designers she was wearing. Then, suddenly, she was all over my social media feeds, mixed in with the rest of the Kavanaugh news.
Perabo is far from the only Hollywood type who’s found purchase in progressive politics in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Once I started noticing these resistance celebrities, I saw them everywhere. Fox News makes an entire news item of a Debra Messing tweet about Mitch McConnell. Alyssa Milano calls for a sex strike to protest rollbacks of abortion rights. Judd Apatow furnishes his 2.4 million Twitter followers with nothing but anti-GOP retweets. Eva Longoria “wears four stunning outfits as she talks about the tragic shooting in her home state of Texas.”
Some of these stars and demi-stars have been involved in activism for years and have ramped up their political profiles in the Trump era. But many, like Perabo, are brand-new to the scene, having been galvanized by the #MeToo movement, appalled by Trump’s rise, and horrorstruck by the administration’s daily violations of human rights and democratic norms. “I grew up thinking most people get arrested because they made a bad choice,” Perabo wrote in an essay about her arrest at the Kavanaugh hearing. “But these days everything feels upside down. … I got arrested for what I believe in: justice.”
Perabo’s wide-eyed naïveté is easy enough to mock, and I’ll admit that my interest in Trump-era celebrity activism was driven in part by a knee-jerk cynicism. Read the replies to Perabo’s tweets and you’ll see a bunch of people laughing at the nerve of a celebrity who believes her opinions matter. Conservatives, predictably, think she should leave this country if she hates it so much, and even some progressives have pooh-poohed her political awakening, wondering why anyone should care about a rich and famous white lady who’s just now figured out that her country is less than perfect.
Very little of this has anything to do with Perabo. Celebrity activists have long been written off as self-important dilettantes. It’s certainly true that plenty have taken a me-first approach to doing good works, launching eponymous organizations that compete with rather than complement existing advocacy infrastructure. And when a person’s name and face are her primary levers of power, any attempt to leverage those attributes winds up looking like self-promotion.
But now a self-promoter is the most powerful person in the country, and our old ideas about who does or doesn’t belong in politics don’t seem adequate to the moment. For the past few years, I’ve rolled my eyes at resistance celebrities, with their outraged tweets and … whatever else it is they do. But when I met Piper Perabo, I found someone who is doing quite a lot. Is she kidding herself about the value she brings to the causes she’s taken up? Or are the rest of us?
One hot evening this July, Perabo and I were slurping down cold drinks in the lobby bar of the W Hotel in D.C. when the general manager stopped by her banquette. He thanked her for choosing the W, recommended the rooftop bar—much plusher and more exclusive than the lobby!—and offered his services should she need anything, anything at all.
“Thank you so much!” Perabo exclaimed, grasping both shoulders of his plaid sport coat when he complimented the last movie of hers he’d seen. (Imagine Me & You, on a plane.) She told him she was in town for a few days to lobby for legislation supporting domestic workers. Then, she pivoted. “When I checked in—I didn’t know W was a part of Marriott,” Perabo said. She explained that Marriott had recently made a public statement forbidding ICE from detaining migrants at their properties. “Thank you for standing up to them,” she said. “I’m so glad I’m staying here.”
Three years ago, Perabo told me, she’d never been to a protest and couldn’t have named her representative in Congress. She dates her political awakening to Oct. 7, 2016. Perabo was folding laundry when she heard the Access Hollywood tape: the boasting, Billy Bush’s laughing, “grab ’em by the pussy.” When she left her house that day, she says, “I was just walking down the street thinking, Wait, do you all think that you’re allowed to grab us? And it’s funny? I really felt like, Am I so naïve that I don’t know the country I’m living in? And the answer was kind of—yes.”
Perabo’s cousin works for the International Rescue Committee, and the actor visited a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015 to lend her support to the organization’s efforts. It was easy, back then, for Perabo to believe that all the really bad stuff was happening outside U.S. borders, and that the inevitable arc of the moral universe would take care of the rest. Trump’s election upended her understanding of the world. It forced her, and millions more liberal white women, to confront the fact that their peers had helped place an avowed molester in the White House in spite of—or because of—his racist vision for America.
When Perabo decided to become more politically engaged, she followed advice that she heard filmmaker dream hampton give to John Legend on a podcast: “Listen for a year.” “That was such helpful permission,” Perabo told me. “Shut up and know that you don’t know.” She says she was a “fastidious note taker,” listening to Pod Save America and jotting down all the acronyms—DOJ, DHS—she didn’t know. At public events, she’d take note of the speakers’ word choices. “Then I’ll go and look up—‘Why did she say bodily autonomy? … Is that a word in the movement?’ ” she said. “And then I go home and do my reading.”
During our time together, Perabo was relentlessly self-deprecating, underplaying her own knowledge to give credit to those who’d taught her. But she’s developed an easy command of the policies and people she’s advocating for: Mention the minimum wage and she’ll hold forth on its history; get her going on this November’s elections in Mississippi and she’ll excitedly rattle off the CVs of progressive candidates. Perabo’s extensive preparation is motivated both by genuine interest and by fear that, despite her honors-college education, she’ll be labeled an intellectual lightweight. “Because I’m a woman and I’m blond and one of the earliest parts I played [in Coyote Ugly] was an ingénue who moves to New York and doesn’t know what’s going on—kind of like a Pollyanna character—I worried for years that people think I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she told me. That worry stuck in her brain when she first ventured into political activism. Would people take her seriously? More importantly, should they?
So Perabo started with marches and protests—actions that succeeded or failed based on the volume of bodies in attendance, and where a famous person wouldn’t get shooed off for having an insufficient history of commitment to the cause. Perabo says she went “to fucking everything.” Every activist meetup, every speech, every play that grappled with a social issue—if she heard someone was going, she’d ask if she could join.
Twitter served as the multipurpose tool of Perabo’s political work: her event calendar, her textbook, and her Rolodex. She started by following people who wrote about progressive politics, then followed the people they retweeted. That’s how she found out about #cut50, a prison reform organization that was tweeting about the shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth. “If you can teach me something that shocking that I don’t know about my own country, I know how much smarter you are than me. So now I’m gonna follow you,” she said.
In mid-2016, as she prepared for the premiere of her ABC drama Notorious, Perabo employed a social media manager to help with the extensive promotion a network premiere required. After the show got canceled the following year and she let the consultant go, she wondered why she’d outsourced an activity she enjoyed. As Perabo got deeper into political activism, she came to love having an excuse to message people like comedian Hari Kondabolu, whom she fondly describes as “one of the first political people who followed me back.” Perabo loved Politically Re-Active, the podcast Kondabolu hosted with W. Kamau Bell. In early 2017, she sent Kondabolu a DM to ask if they could meet for coffee. When they did, he had to cut their hangout short to go to a rally supporting Yemeni bodega owners who were striking in protest of Trump’s travel ban. Perabo knew nothing of the strike, but Kondabolu said she could tag along. So she did—standing outside, listening to the speakers, and learning about an issue and a community she’d known nothing about.
The way Perabo tells it, this is how she spent 2017. She didn’t intend to take a year off work, but she had the money and flexibility to take what essentially became an activism gap year. Every time an agent sent her an audition date, she found she had something else she’d rather do, like participate in a performance art piece about the DREAM Act or join a march against white supremacy from Charlottesville, Virginia, to D.C.
When Perabo learned about that August 2017 march, it was already underway. Soon, she was on a train from her home in New York to D.C.; a few of the march’s organizers picked her up in Virginia the next morning. “It was a revealing aspect of a person to come down on a whim and basically defer to these folks who she didn’t know, and roll with the punches, and be down for whatever it took,” said Kumar Rao, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Popular Democracy and one of the organizers who brought Perabo to the march that day. Rao can be wary of celebrity activists; he says the stereotype of a famous person who wants to walk at the front, give a speech, and appear in every photo has some basis in reality. At the march against white supremacy, that wasn’t an option. White people, including Perabo, were asked to walk toward the back, behind marchers of color. “Piper was very much respectful of that and understood intuitively why that made sense,” Rao said.
Perabo has thought a lot about the specific utility of her fame, and how she might bring it to bear on political organizing. After 53 percent of white female voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, there were calls for white women to “gather their people.” The people Perabo is gathering are famous people. In 2017, when she campaigned for Sen. Doug Jones in his Senate race against alleged child molester Roy Moore, she Googled “famous people Alabama” to see if she knew anyone (or knew anyone who knew anyone) who could help get out the vote. “It’s like I’m door-knocking, but I’m talking to actresses.”
Perabo says she talks to other activist celebrities every day. When she saw Don Cheadle wearing a “PROTECT TRANS KIDS” shirt on Saturday Night Live, she sent him a message to ask where she could get her own. Her interest in her fellow actors’ politics often eclipses her interest in their careers. “I don’t follow Mark Ruffalo [on Twitter] because he’s the Hulk,” Perabo said. “I mean, I know he’s the Hulk, but I don’t know much about that. I follow Mark Ruffalo because he knows a lot about the environmental movement, and especially water protection.”
When Perabo tries to recruit other celebrities to take political stands, she can point to herself as proof that activism doesn’t scare off casting directors. While it feels unsurprising, given Hollywood’s political bent, that she’s gotten no direct pushback from anyone in the industry, Perabo says she’s willing to risk her career. “If nobody hires me again after this, I’ll figure it out,” she said. “Because I don’t want to be an actress in a dictatorship. I’d rather be a waitress in a democracy.”
Perabo has now spent almost three years listening and learning. She still gets nervous before a big political action—she said she lost sleep before her D.C. lobbying day in July, wondering if she truly knew what she was doing—but she’s gained confidence regarding her place in the movement. “Sometimes, I like to step back and cede my time to an activist leader,” she told me. “But sometimes, I’m gonna talk too.”
When I first met Perabo last December, she was at the Four Seasons Hotel in D.C., speaking to a crowd of women dressed in business-casual at Politico’s Women Rule event. At a live podcast taping with Ana Marie Cox and Politico’s Anna Palmer that day, she talked about the threat that Trump-appointed judges pose to reproductive rights, and about attending a how-to-get-arrested training while preparing for a protest after Trump ended DACA.
Onstage, Perabo mostly tailored her tone and message to the summit’s bipartisan vibe. She was smiling and full of energy, with calls to action aplenty. She asked attendees to support two pieces of common-sense legislation: the Equal Rights Amendment and the now-expired Violence Against Women Act. “There are so many smart people in here,” she said, encouraging the women in the audience to write more op-eds for their local papers.
Offstage, she adopted a different tone. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then Trump’s press secretary, was up next, in conversation with a Politico reporter. When a few of Perabo’s acquaintances came over to commiserate after the Sanders interview, Perabo told them she could barely bring herself to watch. “This is a fucking softball interview. You’re asking about her kids?” she said in a furious whisper, trying not to attract attention. “I’m not here to listen to you answer questions about ‘You know how I get through it? With a lot of coffee and my husband’s real supportive of me!’ Don’t try to relate to me. You take away people’s press passes? You took away the freedom of the press? You’re trying to lie for him? Go fuck yourself. How are you gonna explain this to your daughters?”
For all the outrages of the Trump administration, Perabo still relishes her trips to D.C. “If you’re an actor, it’s not that exciting when you see another actor,” she tells me. “It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s Sandra Bullock, blah blah.’ I mean—she’s great, bad example. But Congress and legislators—I’m so interested in them and the stakes of the decisions that they’re making.” When she visited Doug Jones’ office to lobby for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, one of his interns told her that some congressional interns get quizzed on whether they can identify at least 75 percent of the members of Congress by sight. Perabo took that up as a new goal. (I didn’t have any flashcards on me to test her.)
When Perabo goes to D.C., her schedule is beyond packed. An hour into our conversation at the W Hotel in July, Rep. Andy Kim, the progressive congressman who represents the New Jersey district where Perabo grew up, and where her parents still live, stopped by for a drink. When we parted ways, she left to meet a trans veteran and activist on the National Mall, where a life-size image of a Saturn V rocket was being projected onto the Washington Monument. And when I arrived at the W, Perabo was debriefing with Mónica Ramírez, the gender justice campaigns director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Ramírez, who’d prepped Perabo to speak about the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, said she’d sent the actor some talking points the previous week, but Perabo had preferred to work off the full text of the lengthy bill. “She studied,” Ramírez said. If she was going to be talking to legislators, she wanted to be ready to answer questions and highlight some important but obscure provisions, such as the bill’s accommodations for those on Medicare.
In years past, Ramírez says, celebrity activists too often served as pretty faces for established groups, delivering prewritten lines for the cameras. Ramírez says this old model of flying in a spokesperson and handing them a script was “dehumanizing” to celebrities, who, like the rest of us, are drawn to political issues for deeply personal reasons. She’s bullish on a new mode of celebrity activism, one in which politically active famous people build real, collaborative relationships with organizers. That conviction was the basis of the letter that Ramírez, the co-founder of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance, wrote on behalf of 700,000 female farmworkers in November 2017, expressing their solidarity with those who’d been sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security,” the letter said. “Please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.”
When Ramírez and actor America Ferrera began talking about the letter and how their communities might support one another, neither knew what to expect of the other. “I represented 700,000 farmworker women who are among the most vulnerable women in our country, so I can’t be giving away trust easily,” Ramírez said. Over time, they built that trust, and their conversations shaped the founding of Time’s Up, a massive new gender-equity nonprofit that includes a mentorship program for women in the entertainment industry and a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment.
Ramírez and Perabo can’t agree on how they met—maybe it was through a mutual activist friend, or perhaps it was through Harness, Ferrera’s organization that connects activist leaders with cultural influencers. But Ramírez remembers a turning point in their relationship when they got to talking at a meeting for VoteRunLead, a group that trains women to run for office. (Perabo serves on its advisory board.) When Ramírez had to leave to give a sexual harassment training, Perabo offered to take her so they could continue their conversation in the car. Since then, they’ve worked together on a bunch of campaigns: opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination, advocating for equal pay, appearing in a Southern Poverty Law Center video on “Ten Ways to Fight Hate.” When the NDWA began putting together a delegation to go to D.C. for the launch of the domestic worker bill, she immediately thought of Perabo. “I feel like she’s someone who just shows up,” Ramírez said. “When I call, I know if she can make it, she’ll be there. And if she can’t, she’ll find another way to support.”
Perabo and Ramírez call this “being in relationship.” It’s the basis of their vision for a more effective and ethical celebrity activism. Organizers are connecting one another to celebrities who they know have a genuine commitment to the work. Celebrities are introducing their famous friends to movement leaders they’ve protested alongside, smart people who won’t steer a would-be activist wrong. “We’re figuring out how we lend each other our power, and when—and in some ways we have to dance a little bit to figure out what feels right,” Ramírez said. “It’s a new thing. I’ve been an organizer since I was a young kid, and I don’t ever remember it looking like this.”
When Perabo first got into activism, her father tried to temper her expectations, lest she be disappointed when some of her favorite candidates lost their long-shot races in the midterms. But Perabo is taking the long view. I followed up with her a month after her lobbying trip, and she seemed enthusiastic about Kim’s recent decision to co-sponsor the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, even though it stands little chance of making it to the Senate this term. “I don’t think anyone is under the impression that Mitch McConnell is suddenly going to start greasing the wheels of democracy,” she said. Still, it gave her hope to see domestic workers walking the halls of congressional office buildings, advocating for a first-of-its-kind bill that was introduced by two prominent Democrats, including presidential candidate Kamala Harris. It might not matter to McConnell. But it matters.
Nonactivists sometimes tell Perabo it’d be sensible to narrow her focus—to devote her time to one or two issues so she can make the biggest possible impact. “And I’m like—how could I choose?” she said. “I’m gonna choose, like, kids on the border over the environment? Or incarcerated women over CHIP?” Perabo told me she wants to do more, not less. Since getting rid of her social media manager, she’s considered hiring someone in a narrower role, to help her learn about international politics. She remembers reading that former Sen. Al Franken had had an aide put together a three-ring binder for him to take home every evening, full of briefings to prepare him for the next day. Perabo loves three-ring binders; in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, she made her own, divided by state, to help her keep track of candidates and ballot initiatives. A binder with information on the crisis in Yemen, the latest on the demonstrations in Hong Kong, updates on Brexit, perspectives from journalists in Saudi Arabia—that’s her dream.
Perabo has also been applying her political convictions to a personal campaign: She’s a candidate for a seat on the national board of her union, SAG-AFTRA. If elected, she hopes to use the union’s size and cultural influence to apply political pressure outside the industry. One of the two main issues she’s raised in her campaign is the union’s failure to get its members to pledge to boycott Georgia, a filming hotspot, if the state doesn’t repeal its six-week abortion ban.
Perabo’s experiences in political organizing are shaping her on-screen choices, too. She’s excited about a forthcoming Showtime series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, in which she plays the wife of the head of the pro-Nazi German American Bund. Perabo appreciates that, while the show is set in the 1930s rather than the 2010s, it’s “another story that’s the same story”—a way to get into people’s brains through a side door.
Not long ago, one of Perabo’s agents sent her a script that featured a predictable bout of violence against a female character. “I was like, ‘Don’t fucking send me that shit anymore. Because I’m not going to tell that story again,’ ” Perabo said. She’s been exasperated by these kinds of stories for a long time, but hasn’t always felt bold enough to speak forcefully about it. “The movement has given me courage and models [for] how to speak out and stand up and say enough,” she said.
I told Perabo I thought it was great that she’d decided to use her power that way. “I’m in my 40s, and somebody told me the cool thing about getting into your 40s is you have less fucks left to give,” she told me. “Thirty is good, because you start to know who you are. And when you’re 40—now you start to tell everybody else.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus