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Angel on the Bus 

Drew Barrymore on popping her political cherry

Thursday, Sep 23 2004
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Photo by John Clifford

Hollywood is so self-obsessed that it tends to associate words like voting and ballot with Emmy and Oscar, not presidential elections. Only no one ever admits that. Except for Drew Barrymore. Bizarrely, the actress who’s made a career as the boob-baring, so-crazy-God-knows-what-she’ll-do-next ditsy blond is brutally honest about her past years of political ignorance.

Her naiveté changed after she joined Declare Yourself, a voter-registration campaign, spearheaded by entertainment activist Norman Lear, aimed at the 18-to-30 demographic that usually sits out Election Day. At a Washington, D.C., rally, Barrymore was asked to make a speech. But she had no clue what to say and felt like a phony. Thus began her journey of self-education and, since this is Hollywood, where any such superstar odyssey is accompanied by cameras, so started her documentary, The Best Place To Start. The hourlong special will be shown on MTV September 21 through 28, October 1, and other times right up until the election.

So why am I writing about this? Well, Drew's people wouldn't take no for an answer ( I told them "I don't do celebs" over and over...). And they emphasized that she wanted to be in LA Weekly and not the Los Angeles Times . But, most of all, what makes Barrymore’s small film less than nauseating, and even revealing, is that she doesn’t make herself the center of attention, but rather uses her political awakening to drive a larger narrative about voting in America. It’s also aided by a distinctly nonpartisan message. But, best of all, it’s not often that an actress wants to go on the record describing what a dumb-ass she was.

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NIKKI FINKE: So how stupid were you about politics?

DREW BARRYMORE: I didn’t have a family that spoke to me about it, and I didn’t go to school. I was interested in literature and films and traveling, and, weirdly, politics or voting was never in the repertoire of things I wanted to study. Being 27, 28 years old and not knowing what a primary or the Electoral College is — I was that person. So I got invited to this rally to encourage young people to vote. And I don’t know what it was in my instinct that made me go do it, because I don’t normally do things like that, because I’m so anti–celebrity on a soapbox. I just don’t think it works for me. And I walked away from this rally saying, I know voting is supposed to be important, but why? I felt like I had cheated myself by going out there and trying to talk about something I didn’t know whether I understood it or not, or whether I even cared about it or not. Certainly, I wasn’t able to articulate it, because I wasn’t educated. I wasn’t informed.

 

And a writer for the Washington Post slammed you as a celebrity who can’t even put a sentence together on a subject as facile as voting.

Well, you know, she wasn’t wrong.

 

So, suddenly, you want to make a documentary about it?

I had always wanted to direct a film and just direct anything, whatever. It’s all I’ve wanted to do in my life. It’s all I’ve tried to work towards in acting and producing. This one big goal lay ahead of me. And something inside of me, out of total instinct, picked up the camera and started filming myself. And I started studying at night about our politics, our government, our voting, and the more I grew interested in the subject and tried to understand it, the more I was having fun and enjoying the process of filmmaking. And I started out with this little baby camera in my hand by myself, and eventually I had like a three-person crew, and eventually I had a five-person crew with a professional camera. And there we were, traveling throughout the United States and kind of trying to figure this out for what ended up taking 10 months.

 

So how did you educate yourself?

The first book I read was on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I started there. It was a tough read, and I got through it. Then I asked some of the people I work with to start pulling some statistics. I was finding out all these angering facts along the way, and coming across one in particular. Forty-some-odd million voted for American Idol. No, they can’t bracket the ages specifically. But when you compare that to the 36 percent of voters 18 to 24 who voted in the last election, you think, whoa. That just baffled me. You’re capable of doing this. Why only in this category of the fun stuff are you applying yourself? And then I found that a lot of the stuff I was reading was liberal. So I wanted to go over to the conservative side and see what they were saying. Then I wanted to get away from the opinions of the parties and get down to the brass tacks of what our history was. A few weeks into my research, I was coming across personal stories about a young white man, Andrew Goodman, who went to crusade for civil rights and was killed in the process.

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