Kyiv, Ukraine – Talk to two movie stars via video call from the bombed-out city of Kyiv.
His aides pressured the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to offer Oscar Lilly support. He re-launched his own TV show on Netflix in the middle of the war.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, the wartime actor-turned-leader of Ukraine, has devoted most of his public appearances to Western nations’ pleas for lethal weapons to fight the Russians: tanks, jets, and missiles.
But Mr. Zelensky, who before becoming president had starred in romantic comedies and performed stand-up shows, has also pressured celebrities and artists to speak out on his country’s behalf, in what aides say is a worthwhile effort to bolster Ukraine’s global soft power advantage over Russia.
“We live in the modern world, and we know that opinion makers and celebrities matter,” said Ekaterin Zguladze, a former deputy interior minister who is now involved in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to win the support of artists, musicians and celebrities. “It is not only politicians who shape the world.”
Ms. Zguladze added: “There is now real solidarity around the world for Ukraine. And this solidarity is not because of the heartbreaking images of destroyed cities and human tragedies, but because of the values we all share.”
But Ukraine’s allure for the Academy, the organization that awards the Academy Awards, has faced a drama of its own.
Before the show, organizers said the war would be noted and honored, but they did not commit to Mr. Zelensky’s video appearance, said Brian Keith Etheridge, a Los Angeles-based sitcom writer. He helped coordinate the Ukrainian government’s access to the academy, with the help of Mila Kunis, an actress of Ukrainian descent, and her husband, Ashton Kutcher.
“The concern we’ve been told is that they don’t want to over-politicize the show,” said Etheridge. “If Zelensky just said ‘thank you,’ it would remind people, and it could raise millions of dollars. It’s just a giant platform for his face to show.”
Sean Penn, who was shooting a documentary in Ukraine when the war broke out, called for a boycott of the Oscars if Mr. Zelensky was not allowed to appear on the video and vowed to show his awards if the Academy ignored the Ukrainian leader. The award statues are made of gold-plated bronze.
If the Oscar producers don’t allow the “leadership of Ukraine, who take bullets and bombs for us, to appear, along with the Ukrainian children who are trying to protect them, then I think every single one of these people, every part of that decision, would be the most horrible moment of all” Hollywood history,” Mr. Penn told CNN in an interview.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday, the producers said they intended to commemorate the casualties of the war but did not commit to Mr. Zelensky’s video appearance.
“We’re going to be very thoughtful about how we perceive our place in the world,” Oscars producer Will Packer said Thursday at a press conference.
About a possible appearance of Mr. Zelensky, he said: “The show is in progress, so it’s not something we can definitively say one way or the other at this point. As I mentioned before, we want to be fun and celebratory, but we’ll definitely do it in a respectful way.”
Comedian Wanda Sykes, one of the party’s co-hosts, pointed to Mr. Zelensky, “Isn’t he busy now?”
While Mr. Zelensky’s aides lobbied for support during the show in whatever form he took, looking for any way to win public support in the West, the value of celebrity support in the shooting war is not universally recognized in Ukraine.
“In the end, it is important what happens on the ground,” said Oleksandr Danilyuk, former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. “Everyone is doing what they can. I don’t know if Zelensky’s other speech will make a difference. But it’s good that those who started it want to do it. Everyone wants to help in any way they can.”
But Mr Danilyuk said that “in the end, you need results,” such as supplies of combat aircraft, tanks or missiles to the Ukrainian army.
Mr. Zelensky lobbied on all fronts to convey to a broad audience, particularly to arms-supplying countries, the moral duty to support Ukraine in the war.
“In general, Zelensky is already following the news from Hollywood and looking for opportunities to support,” Serhiy Leshchenko, adviser to the chief of staff of the president, said in an interview.
The push to support Ukraine began during the Oscars a week ago, after Mr Zelensky spoke on a video call from Kyiv with Mr. Kutcher and Ms. Kunis, to thank the couple for raising $35 million for Ukrainian refugees and humanitarian aid in a GoFundMe campaign, Mr. Leshchenko said.
Ms. Kunis recently starred in “Breaking News in Yuba County” and has a planned Netflix version of “Luckiest Girl Alive”.
“The proud and brave Ukrainians deserve our help in their time of need,” she wrote in the fundraising appeal. “This unjust attack on Ukraine and humanity in general is devastating and the Ukrainian people need our support.”
After the video call, Mr. Zelensky’s aides sought a last-minute spot at the Oscars.
Mr. Zelensky has always had a strong sense of image and storytelling in politics. Earlier this month, he said he was aware that his repeated televised calls for resistance, and his continued presence in the besieged capital, had turned him into a symbol of courage in many countries.
And the Academy Awards are a natural fit for his government’s appeal for humanitarian aid, as many of his top aides are also film industry veterans.
The head of the presidential administration, Andrei Yermak, was a media lawyer and film producer. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, Ivan Bakanov, was the director of the Kvartal 95 studio. The chief presidential adviser, Serhiy Scheffer, was a screenwriter and producer, among the most important works of which were a successful romantic comedy “Eight First Dates” and a TV series called “In-laws”.
Before becoming Ukraine’s president, Mr. Zelensky played a major role in his television series ‘Servant of the People’, which was re-run on Netflix this month. The character, a teacher, is pushed to the presidency after he goes on to deliver his anti-corruption sermon, which his students filmed in a viral video.
Maria Varnikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, and Matt Stevens from New York.