Olivia Pope and Selina Meyer are used to finding themselves on the political stage. Gaby Solis and Rainbow Johnson not so much. Yet this week, all four — or at least, the actresses who have played them — presided over the Democratic Party’s biggest political event of the year.
Celebrities have long been a fixture of politics, but never quite like this. During the Democratic National Convention, four women weren’t quite the leads, but perhaps the best supporting actresses.
The women — Eva Longoria, Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — are all known for their activism, emerging as some of the most famous figures in the #Resistance movement to the Trump administration. They’re also familiar American faces, having all starred in long-running television shows.
Each night, the four celebrities guided the television audience through the program, introducing taped segments, montages and speakers from a soundstage in Los Angeles. After moving videos of victims of gun violence or the coronavirus, it was the women who helped television viewers process what they had seen.
On Thursday evening, Ms. Dreyfus opened her evening with an extended comedy riff — taking aim at Mr. Trump for mispronouncing Senator Kamala Harris’s name and questioning the president’s literacy. She even tossed off one of Mr. Biden’s favorite verbal tics — “God love ’em” — in expressing her support.
“I am no policy expert and I certainly don’t pretend to be one, but I have a gut feeling about fairness and what’s right, and that is why I am so excited that in just in a little while we’ll hear from Joe Biden about his plans for America,” she said. “Plans for an economy that helps small businesses and people and plans to help the grocery workers and people getting us through this crisis — God love ’em.”
Howard Bragman, a Hollywood publicist and self-described spin doctor, likened selecting the four women — who both have broad appeal and represent a spectrum of the party’s diversity — to “casting.”
“They’re looking to sway the middle here, so they’re using popular faces and people that are going to appeal to suburban women who went to Trump last time,” he said.
The Democrats handsomely rewarded the actresses’ participation with screen time: During a convention where nearly every speaker has been allotted only a brief time slot — with most receiving under five minutes — the actresses had more airtime than almost anyone else on each of the first three nights.
On the first night, Ms. Longoria spoke for 12.5 minutes, longer than everyone except Michelle Obama and about four minutes longer than Senator Bernie Sanders. On Tuesday, Ms. Ross spoke for more than six minutes, longer than everyone except Jill Biden. On Wednesday night, Ms. Washington spoke for over nine minutes, longer than everyone except former President Barack Obama and Ms. Harris, the vice-presidential nominee. Ms. Louis-Dreyfus hosted on Thursday night.
In contrast, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a rising star in the party and one of the most vocal progressive politicians, was given a 60-second slot to speak (she ended up speaking for just over a minute and a half).
None of the actresses were particularly eager to talk about their convention-night roles: Representatives for all four said the women were unavailable for interviews.
High-wattage celebrities are a mainstay of political conventions for both sides. At times their performances have been flops. In 2012, for instance, Republicans featured the actor and director Clint Eastwood, who then memorably had a rambling conversation with an empty chair.
Four years later, Sarah Silverman, standing alongside Al Franken, a senator at the time, chided supporters of Mr. Sanders for refusing to back Hillary Clinton. “To the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people, you’re being ridiculous,” she told the raucous crowd.
Traditionally, the schedule of speeches starts in the early evening and continues late into the night, eliminating the need for a formal M.C.
This year’s convention, which was held virtually, essentially took place in the ether of the internet. With no geographic heart, and lacking the emotional grounding that comes from a live audience, the actresses served as the week’s anchor.
Democrats began considering whether to have a celebrity host in April as it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would force changes to their convention plans, according to a person involved with the planning. Originally, they wanted to have the hosts travel to Milwaukee, but eventually settled on a soundstage in Los Angeles to minimize travel. They also wanted women to host, as a tribute to the female voters who have emerged as the backbone of the party during the Trump era.
All four women were involved in crafting their own remarks, working closely with the convention committee to draft a script that expressed their views along with those of the party, the person said.
Having actresses host the convention, of course, risks playing into a common Republican stereotype: that the Democratic Party is a party of Hollywood elites. After the first night, the Trump campaign blasted the event as a “Hollywood-produced infomercial.”
“Personally, for me, being an actual real housewife from the middle of the country watching Hollywood housewives play real housewives, like Tracee Ross and Eva Longoria — it’s just too much Hollywood for me,” said Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. “I’m so tired of hearing Hollywood lecture me about how to live my life.”
Unlike Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who had large and devoted followings of celebrity endorsers, Joseph R. Biden Jr. isn’t known for spending quite as much time schmoozing with the stars.
Of the four actresses, he has the closest relationship with Ms. Louis-Dreyfus. The two filmed a spoof video for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2014. When Ms. Louis-Dreyfus disclosed that she had breast cancer, in 2017, Mr. Biden tweeted his support. “We Veeps stick together. Jill and I, and all of the Bidens, are with you, Julia,” he wrote, referring to her starring role on HBO’s “Veep.”
Hollywood is known for being liberal, and actresses and actors who choose to be involved in politics are likely to face very little risk to their reputations. When Democratic politicians need to refill their campaign coffers, they often head west to splashy fund-raisers at mansions in Brentwood and Beverly Hills.
“It’s a one-politic town, and I think as long as you’re on the correct side, you’re probably OK,” Mr. Bragman said. And he said acting as an M.C. for the convention was less fraught for one’s reputation than, say, hosting an awards event, which has backfired for some hosts in the past.
“This isn’t like hosting the Oscars or the Emmys,” Mr. Bragman said. “I think this is a totally different beast, frankly, because I think these women are doing this because they want to get out there and change the country.”
That sentiment is not new. Ms. Longoria served as a co-chair of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, speaking at the Democratic convention that year and campaigning for him in Florida. She is a co-founder of the Latino Victory Project, an organization working to expand Latino political power.
And when Hillary Clinton announced her second presidential bid, in 2015, Ms. Washington immediately offered her support. “I’m very thrilled. I’m excited for her, and I’m sure I’ll be hitting the stump trail,” she said at the time. (She and other celebrities, including the television producer Shonda Rhimes, later appeared in an ad for Mrs. Clinton.)
Still, political activism comes more easily to some than others. In 2016, Ms. Ross — who has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and gender equality — wrote an op-ed article in Cosmopolitan in which she expressed her reluctance to engage in politics. “I have had my own trepidation about speaking up and sharing my opinion over fear of alienating others,” she wrote. “But in facing my fears, I have decided to use my voice to remind people about the importance of voting and share why I have decided to support Hillary Clinton.”
Ms. Washington has interacted with Mr. Biden before — at least his fictionalized version. She starred in an HBO film about Anita Hill, whose 1991 testimony in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas was overseen by Mr. Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was widely blamed for her treatment during the hearing, in which she accused Mr. Thomas of sexual harassment.
Speaking at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2017, Ms. Washington suggested the roles of actor and activist were linked.
“A lot of people are saying right now that actors shouldn’t express their opinions when it comes to politics,” she said. “But the truth is, actors are activists no matter what, because we embody the worth and humanity of all people.”