Why Planned Parenthood Matters, With ‘House of Cards’ Creator Beau Willimon
Beau Willimon, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, House of Cards showrunner, playwright and founder of the Action Group Network, was utterly dismayed by the presidential election results in November. “With House of Cards, I didn’t realize I was writing the script for a documentary at the time,” he jokes on stage at this year’s luncheon for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis region and Southwest Missouri. “The truth is that the artist is very selfish. After traversing a desert of self-loathing, you arrive at the truth. And the truth matters—especially these days.”
What began with dismay transformed into the Action Group Network, a circuit of grassroots organizations centered around creating a culture of action in the wake of Trump’s election victory. Action groups tackle a number of different initiatives, but one of Willimon’s favorites was an anti-Islamophobia group that sent notes of encouragement and support to mosques that had been receiving hate mail, bomb threats and death threats. “Their very simple and clear goal was to combat that with love,” he says. “There are much more overtly political things that some groups are doing, as well. For instance, there are people working on the Jon Ossoff campaign for Congress right now in Georgia—a red state—to ‘flip the sixth’ and turn that seat blue. The Action Group Network isn’t affiliated with a particular party. It’s just to give an example. And there are countless examples I could give you.”
At this year’s Planned Parenthood Luncheon, ALIVE’s own president, Elizabeth Tucker, interviewed Willimon on stage. And while the range of topics in any conversation with Willimon are rarely contained, today the resounding theme is action in the face of adversity. Tucker and Willimon assumed positions on two chairs facing each other in front of a tall gray curtain, a nearby podium beckoned, and 700 attendees sat in front of them.
“You matter when you’re working in a gathered, organized way,” he implores the audience to understand. “It’s a massive river, like the Mississippi, and we’re each a drop. That’s how I see myself as an artist and citizen. In St. Louis, there’s no shortage of river analogies,” he says, reflecting on his childhood in St. Louis and trips with his father along the river, when they’d stop at every lock and dam to watch the barges.
Willimon also speaks to the disastrous effects of defunding Planned Parenthood and offers a call to action, pointing to an audience member and joking, “This man isn’t wearing any socks, so I know he has a lot of money to give.”
I spoke with Willimon on the phone prior to the event, in which we discussed how the Action Group Network began, the importance of Planned Parenthood and creating a culture of action.
Tell us about the Action Network. What was the impetus for starting it, and how did you get it off the ground?
It really began out of my personal reaction to the election. I was deeply concerned about the future of our country, and there were millions of others just like me. We started talking about what we could do, which began with meeting and gathering. We asked, “What do we want? And what are concrete things we can do in order to achieve that?” We had a sense of shared responsibility and accountability.
I started encouraging people online to form action groups and also to arrive at concrete actions they could work on together. Thousands of people reached out saying they wanted to partake, and it quickly became too much for me to handle on my own. We put together an organization to help motivate and facilitate this sort of organizing. room by room, 20 to 40 people at a time, whether it be structured around a national issue or something local. We didn’t want to try and reinvent the wheel, but instead to ask, “What can we do? How can we help?”
That has meant a lot of organizing online and outreaching to existing organizations on a national and local level, like Planned Parenthood or Forward Through Ferguson. I’ve personally led over a dozen meetups. We had a great turnout in St. Louis, with about 150 people shortly after the election showing up who wanted to get active. Many were folks who were getting into political activism for the first time, and a number of action groups formed out of that one meeting. It’s really exciting to see all of this energy of people that has come out of the election, and people wanting to take their fate into their own hands.
What I’ve found is that we don’t need to create a political consciousness. People want to act, and we are there to help people who want to act. We’re hoping to educate people more deeply about certain issues if they want that, but oftentimes people know quite a bit about their concerns.
You have been a consistent, vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood. How did your support for this particular cause emerge?
We’re familiar with all of the criticisms that some people—typically on the right—have of Planned Parenthood. But the truth of the matter is that Planned Parenthood is in the business of saving lives. It’s a major healthcare provider for millions of women across the country. It’s preventative healthcare, checkups, pap smears, and the opportunity for women to meet with healthcare practitioners to protect their health. Abortion services are just one portion of what they do. And when you defund it, or villainize it, what you’re doing is cutting off health-care access for many women. Oftentimes, that’s their only viable healthcare option. You’re working against a healthy nation when you’re against Planned Parenthood. They’re on the front lines of keeping half of our population healthy.
Tell me about your experience as a male ally.
We all have mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, partners, friends and colleagues who are women. What affects them affects us, very intimately. Their happiness and health, their well-being, is important to all of us. I think anyone would want their loved one to have the best possible access to health care and guidance that they could possibly have. We all have skin in the game when it comes to that. And when it comes to abortion, people have strong feelings about it. There are many people, certainly in Missouri, who are adamantly anti-abortion. They have their reasons for that. It’s an important belief for them. I happen to disagree, and believe it’s a woman’s right to choose her approach to motherhood. But regardless of how you feel about that issue, Planned Parenthood provides resources to your community well beyond that issue, and it should not be punished because some of the services they provide don’t align with your beliefs.
Do you think empathy is required for progress with these kinds of issues?
I think empathy is required in all things. To be a healthy nation, we have to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Compromise is not a sexy word these days. But politics is the business of compromise. No one’s going to get 100 percent of what they want. But you’re usually able to have a middle ground that everyone agrees with. Planned Parenthood is a great example of that. Women having the best access to healthcare for checkups, treatments—how is that a bad thing? When that’s stunted because of politics, we all suffer.
You have had great success in the entertainment industry. Many people would be content with that. How has that success changed your world and directed your attentions to advocacy?
Success is a relative term. I believe success is measured in whether your actions reflect your principles. It doesn’t have anything to do with money, or TV and movie credits. It doesn’t have anything to do with how many Twitter followers you have. Nothing like that. It has to do with whether you’re leading a meaningful life. My brother is a middle-school teacher in North Carolina in a very poor school district. He has dedicated his life to teaching kids how to read, and how to live productive, meaningful lives. He cares about those kids, and what their futures will look like. And his vocation is one that backs up those principles. I try to emulate people like my brother. I’d like to think one of my strengths is that I craft narratives people find to be of interest. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But I feel that it’s my obligation to use that platform. That’s my way of making my actions reflect my principles.
If someone’s chief goal in life is to make sure their children have the best life possible, and are working hard towards that, and all of their focus is going into their children, and their family … that child may go into being the next president of the United States. You never know how the life you live can have an impact on the world. That parent could be incredibly impactful, because they’ve raised a good, decent human who can help others. That’s why I say it’s all relative.
I think the ways we measure success this day in age can be skewed, with quantifiable, empty, superficial things, like money or fame. That is not the way I think about success, and not the way I’d want to live my life. My hope would be regardless of the success I’ve had in Hollywood—for which I’m very grateful—that I’d still be fighting just as hard for what I believe in. That’s why it’s important, and why I’d like to raise money in St. Louis for Planned Parenthood. These people are involved in the front lines of making sure these organizations are able to do their work. For folks like me, it’s our duty to make sure they have the support they deserve. You can measure their support in lives saved, and in walking the walk. I’m just a foot soldier. They’re the generals.
All photography by Patti Gabriel Photography, except feature image.