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Ice Crusade
Hollywood Celebrities Warm to Inuit Climate-Change Worries

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

IQALUIT, Nunavut

Here at the Frobisher Inn's Baffin Room, all eyes were on the woman with the dark hair, her black beret askew as she swayed before the crowd of Inuit dignitaries, pounding on a traditional drum that looks like an enormous Ping-Pong paddle.

At this point you might be asking yourself: What is Salma Hayek, the Hollywood star whose name is usually found next to words like "hot" and "sizzling" rather than "frozen" and "tundra," well, doing?

For that matter what was Jake Gyllenhaal (you know, actress Maggie's brother and the star of "Donnie Darko") doing? Minutes before, the actor performed the Inuit traditional feat of abdominal strength called "the airplane," as three locals lifted the actor, spread-eagled and facing down, into the air by his arms and legs.

And what was the Hollywood A-list duo (note: duo, not couple) doing here, spending a weekend watching a sealskin fashion show and a throat-singing performance on the edge of the Arctic Circle, far away from Fred Segal boutiques and Us Weekly photographers?

Hayek and Gyllenhaal had trekked thousands of miles with a couple of California politicians in tow to visit a community where rising temperatures threaten to destroy an ancient northern culture.

For weeks, rumors had swept through this town of 6,800 in Canada's only Inuit-controlled territory. Some said megastar Will Smith was paying a visit; others were convinced Oscar winner Adrien Brody would come (and, rumor had it, bring his mom -- how sweet). Nearly everyone believed Brad Pitt, the no-longer-with-Jen single Brad, would arrive.

So when the yellow all-terrain vehicle carrying Hollywood celebrities lumbered down the snowy hill onto Frobisher Bay's sea ice (you can't really do a red carpet here) Friday, the crowd of several hundred well-bundled Inuit were eager to see who was inside. "Is Brad Pitt there?" one shouted.

But Hayek and Gyllenhaal (say: JILL-in-hall) emerged from the truck to riotous applause, apparently ready to brave sub-zero temperatures to make an artistic statement about how global warming is harming a traditional hunting and fishing culture that has thrived here for centuries.

The 38-year-old Hayek is neither a scientist nor a global warming expert, she's the first to admit. She's a native of Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, where "a lot of Santa Clauses would pass out in their suits," the star of "Frida" told Iqaluit residents. "I came here to learn from the ice and the Inuit people, more than to come to preach."

Well, maybe a little preaching.

At a news conference before heading for the ice, the Oscar nominee delivered a scathing critique of how the Western world's addiction to burning fossil fuels -- which release heat-trapping greenhouse gases linked to climate change -- endangers human survival. A recent four-year study by an international coalition encompassing the United States as well as Russia, Iceland and several other countries concluded the Arctic is heating up two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, a harbinger of things to come farther south.

"We are committing, in our civilization, suicide," Hayek announced. "All we have to do is listen to the land, which is sending us messages on how to survive and how to self-destruct. . . . We are going to have to deal with the consequences of our lifestyle. Go talk to the ice, go talk to the wind, go talk to the ocean. There's no negotiation here."

Of course, the Inuit are not the only people who could suffer if climate change continues to accelerate. Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns could cause the sea level to rise, swamping coastal communities in Florida and Louisiana and nations like Bangladesh and Tuvalu, while changing migration and blooming patterns could disrupt ecosystems across the globe. (Or, if you believe the writers of Gyllenhaal's 2004 film, "The Day After Tomorrow," there will be a new ice age but your dad, Dennis Quaid, will fight his way through the snow to save you.)

Using celebrities as spokesmen is a tricky business. You have to make sure they're not, well, hypocrites: One of the stars who toyed with coming here is said to drive a gas-guzzling Hummer, though activists declined to identify the luminary in question. The rich and famous folks are not always reliable (see Brody, who bailed a week before). Still others are tightly booked (Bono intended to make it but couldn't reschedule a concert in Denver, according to one of the event's organizers, and Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't extricate himself from a film shoot). The celebrities need to know something about the issue they're embracing (and, ideally, they're nice people too).

"The question is, in an age and culture that's celebrity-obsessed, how do you in a smart and savvy way use the celebrity to shine the light on the science, on the facts and on the solution?" asked Matt Peterson, head of environmental advocacy group Global Green, as he tried to clean up some of the California coffee grounds his dysfunctional machine had spewed all over his hotel room. "They're concerned citizens who are able to draw attention to issues they care about. . . . Sometimes you have to go to where people are listening."

Peterson, along with his colleague Sebastian Copeland, enticed Hayek and Gyllenhaal into coming to the Great White North to celebrate Earth Day and participating in a massive aerial art protest that spelled out "Arctic Warning," and the Inuit word for "Listen." Global Green is the same group that gets celebrities to drive to the Academy Awards in hybrid cars.

Peterson's task was complicated by the fact that most celebrities, including his two recent Arctic guests, feel somewhat ambivalent about using their fame to focus attention to one of the globe's most pressing environmental challenges.

"The idea that I'm savior of the planet because I'm a celebrity, I have a problem with that proposition," Hayek said later in an interview. "There's something wrong with the idea that celebrities have to get involved for people to be interested."

But Global Green and its co-sponsor, the Natural Resources Defense Council, each of which put up at least $10,000 for the project, still face the challenge of getting reporters and the U.S. public to care about a stretch of frigid tundra that has supported polar bears, seals and a small indigenous population for centuries but is now under duress. Many Americans have never even heard of Nunavut, a 742,000 square-mile, partly autonomous territory Canada created in 1999.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier -- who represents 155,000 Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia as chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference -- has received wide recognition for demanding developed countries address how their pollution is affecting the health and well-being of her people. But Watt-Cloutier, who said she identified with Hayek after reading an interview with her in Oprah's Winfrey's O magazine, still finds herself at a disadvantage during international negotiations aimed at curbing climate change and the spread of persistent organic pollutants.

"We are looking for the allies in the world," she said. "We are not looking for saviors."

That's where Hayek and Gyllenhaal, who pass all the litmus tests, come in. Hayek gave up her car for a year and a half in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then bought a Ford hybrid sport utility vehicle. Gyllenhaal, 24, starred in the environmental-apocalyptic "Day After Tomorrow." While they dressed down for the occasion -- Hayek sported a long underwear-like slate-colored hoodie and gray wide-legged pants, and Gyllenhaal weathered the cold in jeans and a blue button-down shirt -- they radiated a serious level of glamour compared with the earnest environmentalists surrounding them. Sans posse, the two stars exuded a sense of playfulness throughout the weekend, breaking into song at points (Inuit throat-singing and Spanish-language Christmas carols). The Frobisher Inn's suites were booked, so each star stayed in a modest single room. And at one point, when it looked like the event's organizers couldn't secure a private jet, Hayek offered to fly coach and stay overnight in Ottawa in order to make it. (Her handler also told organizers that schlepping to the Arctic meant Hayek turned down a chance to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, a post that apparently includes a $100,000 gift bag as compensation.)

The environmentalists found another plane provider -- the stars arrived on a Millionaire Airlines Learjet -- and Hayek and Gyllenhaal did a full tour of Inuit country. The actress, who shares a manager with Gyllenhaal, called to invite him a day before the plane took off: At first, he recalled, "I was like, what?" but he quickly concluded, "You don't pass that up."

"This is, unfortunately, an opportunity for the world to see the face of global warming," Gyllenhaal said during an interview over dinner after an afternoon dogsledding on the sea ice. "In helping these people, we help the world."

The region's Inuit, who used to be known as Eskimos, were enthusiastic about enlisting Hollywood stars to make their case. "What we like to do is engage in the politics of influence rather than the politics of protest," Watt-Cloutier said.

In this particular case, the politics of influence meant carrying out what artist John Quigley -- a Bethesda native who now lives in California -- called "a crazy idea": Hayek and Gyllenhaal would join more than 500 Iqaluit residents, mostly children, to sit down in the frigid wind at Rotary Park on a vast expanse of snow-covered ice, sending a visual message about the impact of climate change on Inuit life and culture.

"I want people to look at it and say, 'Wow, I really didn't think about the people,' " explained Quigley, who attracted headlines a couple years ago for spending 71 days in a 400-year-old California tree to keep developers from felling it.

The two actors mingled with the crowd during the aerial shoot, snapping photos of children as well as posing and signing notebooks, backpacks and scraps of paper offered by local residents, some of whom don't speak English.

Elisapee Sheutiapik, the city's 39-year-old mayor, said there's been "a big hype" about the stars' visit, with local residents unearthing their ceremonial sealskin and caribou outfits. "Everyone's getting out their gear, dusting it off," she said.

At times the juxtaposition of two celebrities and a native people seemed incongruous: Hayek worked the sea ice with her Louis Vuitton purse in hand, while Gyllenhaal entertained questions ("Does it get this cold in L.A.?"). And while many residents knew about the celebrities, Gyllenhaal acknowledged some older Inuit weren't likely to have caught his films.

"It's a generational thing," he explained. "You're talking to an Inuit elder . . . " His voice trailed off.

Gyllenhaal said he welcomed a chance "to be inside the culture" of the Arctic, "which is full of darkness and full of perversity, too. . . . I'm interested in a people who have a lot of pain underneath but still offer hope."

And nearly every Iqaluit resident interviewed last week was pleased that two famous stars took the time to trek to their town.

"It shows they're taking an interest in the North," said Joe Hess, a local outfitter and soapstone miner who has lived in Iqaluit for the past 27 years.

Hayek and Gyllenhaal don't plan to barnstorm the United States on an anti-global-warming tour: She flew back Sunday to Jacksonville, Fla., to complete a film noir set in the 1940s with John Travolta and James Gandolfini, while Gyllenhaal's about to start filming "Zodiac," another murder-themed movie, with Robert Downey Jr. But both said they would continue to press for changes in American energy and environmental policy now that they have seen some of its human costs.

"I am very, very moved by the warmth of this icy place," Hayek told the project's organizers during the gala caribou dinner after the aerial event. "I will take that with me."

For Sheutiapik, the mayor, the stars had served their purpose: "They put us on the map."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company