J.J. Abrams and Michelle Obama urge Hollywood to support Military families

After a busy entertainment weekend, Hollywood took some time Monday morning to host the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, at a panel supporting Joining Forces, an initiative to provide support to the nation’s military families.  Sponsored by all the major industry guilds, AFTRA, DGA, WGA, SAG and the PGA, the event was hosted by Bruce Cohen (Oscar winning producer of “American Beauty”), “Army Wives” creator Katherine Fugate and Dameon Lindelof(“Lost”), and also featured active military families and their spouses. Also in attendance were numerous familiar faces including Blair Underwood, Lily Tomlin, Janelle Monae, Adam Scott, Chaz Bono and Michael Chiklis.

Before the panel began, however, Fugate delivered the big announcement of the day which was that three of Hollywood’s legendary talents are donating their time to create public service announcements for the cause.  Tom Hanks (who couldn’t attend because he was shooting his exactly at that time), Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey are all either starring in or directing a PSA.  Diane Warren has also written an original song for the spots titled “Compass” that will be performed by Rascal Flatts. The goal of the organizations is to have them in circulation sometime next month.

Fresh off the opening of “Super 8” and normally accustomed to being asked questions, J.J. Abrams acted as moderator as he sat down to speak to Mrs. Obama who received an expectedly warm ovation when she came into the room.  Abrams began by asking the First Lady how this subject became such a passion project.

Obama says that when she first hit the campaign trail one of her priorities was to meet with working women and highlight their issues.  And the more talks she had the more she heard voices she hadn’t heard before, those of military spouses.

“Many of them women, many of them men, and if you imagined talking to women about the day to day struggles we are facing, trying to manage a career, trying to keep it all together raise our kids, stay fit, manage in a tough economic situation. All of that and then you multiply that with several deployments,” Obama says. “The average military kid has deployed six times in their lives.   You think about what it takes for a family to reengage with each other after a deployment.  And then you turn around and have to be re-deployed again?  These stories took my breath way because they were so unfamiliar to me.  And I thought, ‘I don’t know and I’m educated and I consider myself aware, then where are we in this country? Why don’t we know about these families?  Why don’t we know their struggles? Why aren’t we talking about them every day?’  And I vowed then and there that if my husband got elected I would use my platform to be their voice, because truly these families are amazing.”

She adds, however, that you often don’t think of the families being in need because, for the most part, “That’s not what you do in the military.  You don’t complain. So, they count on each other and they don’t ask for help.  Well, they shouldn’t have to ask for help and as the First Lady and along with my wonderful partner Jill Biden, we’re gonna make sure we keep shining a light on these families so America understand that when our families go to the war we have families serving along right with them.”

And as she tells Abrams, there is a goal to engaging Hollywood’s creative community on this issue.

“When I think about where I hope we are in a year I want the conversation to be different,” Obama says. “I want the military families to feel the support on the ground. This isn’t empty words or deeds. This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about blue or red or anything. This is about making sure that these families in the end feel like everyone in this country understands their sacrifice and appreciates it.  And we’re all doing our part to step up. One of the things we can’t forget is that 1% of our population is protecting the rights and the freedom of the rest of us.  So, if we want a strong defense.  If we want to feel safe in this land we have to support our military, but they are only as strong and solid as their families are.  My husband says that every time he goes to Afghanistan or visits troops, they aren’t asking him for better equipment or armor.  They aren’t talking about their own deployment or their safety, the one thing they need to know while they are serving is that their families are good.  Now, you imagine you are stationed half way around the world and you hear that your kid can’t get the special education assistance they need because you moved again or your wife is struggling because the heater blew out and she doesn’t have any help getting that done.  We need to make sure that by the end of this year every American knows these people’s stories and that we are all figuring out ways large and small to find these families in our community so they feel like they are not alone. And that’s really the goal of this campaign.”

“The storytelling piece is so important,” Mrs. Obama continues.  “And I want to say thank you, because you have all stepped up by telling good stories. You all know how to seep into our conscious.  I talk to my kids about any movie or show they have seen and they can rattle off the details of, god, (Laughs.) I figure if we can do that with our kids on a certain set of subject we can do that with this one.  So, I want to thank all of you who have already stepped up. The key is that there is more we can do. The work isn’t that hard. The stories are pretty compelling. The individuals are pretty powerful. They do a good job of telling their own stories.”

“Some of them don’t need any help, but some of them need help babysitting.  Women, we know.  Sometimes it’s just good now and then to have someone take your kid so you can breathe for an hour. (Laughs.) You laugh, but Amen.  And Dads too.”

“It can be telling a story on the big screen or the small screen, it can be helping a neighbor mow their law or making sure teachers understand what military children are going through.  If they want a parent. If they have a parent who is severely wounded. And this won’t stop when the wars are ended and the wars are coming to a close. The real work happens when these men and women come home and they are dealing with the ramifications of war and they are dealing with the wounded and reintegrating into society.  We have to make sure we understand this is a forever battle. This is not about wartime or non-wartime.  We have men and women serving our country every day and then we have the consequences of that dedicated service for the rest of their lives. We ahve to be there for them and their children.”

After a pause, Abrams responds, “Good answer.”

The room erupts into laughter and the First Lady smiles.

Abrams then tries to segue to a pre-selected topic, “There never [sic] in the history of time been a crazier turn than this question, but apparently there is some connection between you and the Screen Actors Guild.  Mrs. Obama, what’s happening on the set of ‘iCarly’ today?”

“Well, let’s say I’m the coolest mom on the face of the planet,” Obama says. “Can you believe we have friends of my children who don’t believe I’m going to be on ‘iCarly’?  I was like, ‘Look, I stayed in Buckhingham Palace.  Why is that such a huge leap?’  (Laughs.) But yes, I’m going to be on ‘iCarly.’  This is an example of a way we can integrate these storylines in shows so that they can hear themselves in shows that they love.  I’m gonna put on my acting cape.  I’m terrified!  I can give a speech, I can talk to you all, but I am shaking.”

Abrams asks, “How many scenes are you doing?”

“I think it’s two?  I think? But the story line is very sweet,” Obama says. “Carly is having a webcast and Carly is a military kid and that’s always been a part of their situation. She has a father who has been deployed and it’s a way for us to recognize her challenges and her friends who are stepping up for her. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Obama than jokes with Abrams, “That wasn’t that big a left turn.  Well done.”

Abrams then asks the First Lady if there is anything she’d like add about the importance about telling their stories and the First Lady makes an on the nose point about the power that comes with her title.

“Joining Forces is really an initiative to shed a light on the work so many people are doing.  It recognizes that as First Lady and the Second Lady — Jill Biden, she doesn’t like being called the Second Lady, she’s right up there with me, the first and the first.  What we know is that there is a power in this platform and when we walk around people look at our shoes, but as they look at our shoes we can actually turn their attention to something important like these families and that’s true for all of you.  You all have the vehicle to tell stories that just pull people in,” Obama says. “And if we think about this year long goal, that in the end this isn’t just about the story, it’s really about having the men and women feel the gratitude every day from a grateful nation. If we can say we’ve done that and we can set that foundation not just for today, forever regardless of who the president is in office, that this is a part of who we are as Americans lifting these families up, if we are all part of that and I know this group is more than capable of doing that, then we’ve been successful.  So, I would just urge you to do what you do best. Be creative, be funny, be powerful.  Move us.”

And in case anyone creative in Hollywood is stumped for ideas, Obama added, “I’m shameless.  If it’s gonna help, I’ll do it. You want me to dance? I’ll do it.”

The “Star Trek” director then introduces three new members of the panel: Kelly Smith, one of three active Air Force pilots (all sisters) in her family; Bobby Jarman, a 22-year vet who is raising four daughters while his wife is still deployed; and Arnita Moore, a wife whose husband and now 19-year-old daughter are both in the Armed Forces.

Abrams asks the panelists what Hollywood could do to help the families. Jarman suggests visible support when troops coming home was the most important thing to him.  Smith answers “you can make really cool movies about us, that would be awesome,” but she also suggested that random care boxes mean more to a soldier overseas than you could ever believe no matter who it was from or what was in it. “To know that anyone was thinking about you.  It doesn’t have to special,” she says. “You could send me a box of pretzels. The fact you thought about me and wanted to acknoweldge the fact I was serving.  Any soldier, no matter how embarrassed they look, really appreciates any sort of acknowledgement for their service.”

As the hour begins to close, Abrams asks the panelists if the industry was missing anything in how it’s covered military families recently.

“Get more research,” was the big suggestion from Smith, but she also threw in, “One of my favorite portrayals was Will Smith in ‘Independence Day.’  He was awesome! He kicked butt. I want to see more movies like that!”

With perfect comic timing, Moore adds, “I want to see more moves like that too and could you put Blair Underwood in it?”  

That gets a big roar from the crowd as Underwood is sitting close to the stage.

Mrs. Obama then subtly suggests a story idea tied to the hours she’s spent meeting combat recovery victims at Walter Reed Medical Hospital.  A group of people she finds uplifting and inspiring.

She notes, “There is something in the water that you all drink.  No, I say that in all seriousness. If we could just sprinkle that on a lot of other young people. It’s the ability to keep moving ahead in the face of real change and difficulty.  These young men and women don’t want you to feel sorry for them.  Their brains are moving on to the next thing.”

“We are all in this together,” Obama adds.  “It sounds corny, but it’s true.  We are not fighting each other and the world is getting so small that we are not even fighting the rest of the world.  We’ve got to do this together. And the military members and their family understand this in a way that they don’t sweat the small stuff.  And I think each of us experiencing that and sharing that with others and encouraging others to as well and I think that’s what changes mindsets.  And I challenge everyone in this room and in this industry to devoting more time on the ground in places like that.”

With classy names like Spielberg, Hanks, Winfrey, Cohen and Abrams behind the efforts so far, it’s clear Hollywood is taking the First Lady’s request seriously.  The question is whether they can make a real impact over the impressive one year goal Mrs. Obama has.  It won’t be easy on the movie side, but with scripts for the new fall season now in the works, there could be a noticeable impact on television.  But judging from the First Lady’s passion on the issue, this won’t be the only call Hollywood gets on tackling the issue.

For more on the Joining Forces program, click here.

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