Photo Courtesy of Fisher Stevens
Actor. Director. Producer. After four decades in Hollywood, Fisher Stevens has done it all. But his greatest moniker? Activist. Find out how this everyman uses the craft of film to foster his never-ending fight.
By Seth Plattner.
Fisher Stevens knows he may not be the most visible face of the environmentalist movement, in Hollywood or otherwise. If you do, by chance, recognize him, it may be from, say, his memorable guest-actor work in TV series like The Blacklist, The Good Fight, or HBO’s Vice Principals. Go a little further back, to CBS’s Early Edition, and perhaps you know Stevens as the foil to Kyle Chandler’s idealistic Gary, the guy who, miraculously, gets the Chicago-Sun Times a day in advance and thus uses his foresight to do a good deed or two. Go way, way back, and, like me, you’ll always have a soft spot for Stevens in the kooky ’80s cult flick Short Circuit, in which he played a scientist trying to keep tabs on a military robot that, after a lightning strike, suddenly gains sentience (and a wicked sense of humor).
“What is it going to take to get people to really wake up?”
But, even if Steven’s visage doesn’t quite ring that bell for you, chances are you’re undoubtedly already familiar with his career of behind-the-camera filmmaking that has made him a hero among Hollywood’s environmentally active subset. In 2010, the guy won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for the Louie Psihoyos–directed The Cove, which unearthed the tragic and brutal annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. Five years later, he again teamed with Psihoyos for Racing Extinction, a mind-blowing examination of the continual and alarmingly rapid mass die-off of our planet’s various species. And, of course, there was his little project coproduced with Martin Scorsese and starring none other than Leonardo DiCaprio, Before the Flood, the 2016 documentary for NatGeo, directed by Stevens, that traveled the globe to reveal just how direly climate change is negatively affecting our oceans.
Beyond streaming to more than 60 million people worldwide, the doc hit a record-setting one billion minutes viewed via digital, streaming, and social platforms. It became one of the most-watched documentaries ever and the most-watched film in NatGeo’s history.
“The life of an actor is wonderful, and I love doing it,” says Stevens, a Chicago native who, after moving to New York at 13 to pursue acting, made his acting debut as Tiny Tim’s brother Harry in the musical version of A Christmas Carol (in the basement of an off-off- Broadway theater, no less) when he was 14. He went on to perform in, direct, or produce more than 20 stage productions and countless TV shows and films throughout his career. “But I always had a deep love for documentary filmmaking” he continues, “and I realized I could marry my activism with that passion and constantly be surrounded by people in the environmental and political world who allow me to learn every day. My acting career—and bank account—may have suffered, but I still get to be extremely creative.”
Stevens’ dedication to fighting the injustices of the world, while instilled in him at a young age, weren’t always environmentally leaning, however. “My mother was very politically active,” he says. “She protested the Vietnam War and was an AIDS activist. She always taught me that if your voice is heard, you don’t need to roll over to people who are unjust. So I’ve always had a sense of justice in that way.” But it wasn’t until 2005, after taking three months away from Hollywood to campaign against George W. Bush’s second term—“I went to Ohio. I registered a ton of voters. I brought in a ton of celebrities to help. I found it extremely satisfying”—that Stevens found himself, literally, face to face with the destruction of our planet, and, from that point, knew he’d found a calling.
“I’m a big scuba diver,” Stevens says, “and I was with this guy, Jim Clark, who would take me around the world to dive in these amazing places. We were revisiting a place in Tahiti that Jim hadn’t been in 20 years, and I watched him go down then come right back up out of the water with this look of shock on his face. All the coral was dead. He was devastated. Then I spent 10 days with him on a boat, where he schooled me on everything about CO2 and climate change, and why coral reefs were dying all over the world because of it. He introduced me to Louie, who was making The Cove, and I knew I had to join the film. From there I just couldn’t stop making films about what we as people are doing to our planet.”
In the decade-plus since that fateful meeting, Stevens’ pursuit of truth in all aspects of, in his words, “the way my fellow Americans are responding to the way we treat not just the planet but each other” hasn’t waned. He continues to direct both TV—for instance, an episode of the Dirty Money Netflix series called “The Confidence Man,” which investigated Trump’s shady business dealings—and film, as he again teams with DiCaprio for Formula E, a “muscular” feature-length documentary about the all-electric Formula E race league. Stevens is also lending his production prowess to no less than three upcoming projects, first and foremost being Grant, the History Channel’s six-part docuseries based on Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography of the Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, found himself in the fervent fight for Reconstruction after the Civil War and, included in that, for rights for former slaves. That timeliness shouldn’t be lost on anyone with even a slight observation of the treatment of nonwhite people in our country. For the Discovery Channel, Stevens brings Taken by the Tiger, about the conservation efforts saving tigers in Russia and India.
“My mother was very politically active.”
Stevens also serves as cofounder and director of We Stand United, the organization he formed with a collective of activists, including Mark Ruffalo, that raises awareness on progressive issues ahead of the 2018 midterms. Beyond producing PSAs focusing on Scott Pruitt and his dismantling of the EPA and Obama-era environmental protections (https://nowthisnews.com/videos/politics/op-ed-why-epa-head-scott-pruitt-deserves-to-be-fired) and the ongoing Russia investigation, the initiative also sent a film crew to El Paso, Texas, to interview detainees caught up in the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their parents. Elsewhere, as Stevens strives to keep up the momentum of projects like Before the Flood, he and DiCaprio are readying an app called Carbotax to help people precisely calculate their carbon footprint and donate funds to offset those emissions by protecting critically threatened rain forests and marine habitats. It’s easy to call Stevens relentless, even though he admits “there are days in this world when I want to just move to a quiet island.” (Don’t we all?) The impatience, however, is only momentary, as Stevens remembers that his—and our—fight is only just beginning. “Leo has that line in Before the Flood about how hard it was to get people to even talk about climate change. You ask them, and they just roll their eyes. Which makes you ask yourself, ‘What is it going to take to get people to really wake up?’
“I think a big part of it starts with young people. You have to get them to believe in it, which is harder than it sounds. I live in Brooklyn, where a lot of the kids I talk to are conscious of the problem—they carry their own water bottles, they don’t use plastics—but that’s because they’re privileged. And with privilege comes the luxury of not having to worry about it. So in a sense, it comes down to economics. The education and the awareness have to be broadened. We have to get beyond that boundary. I just hope there’s time.”
Leonardo DiCaprio with President Obama. Photo ©2016 RatPacDocumentary Films,LLC, and Greenhour Corporation, Inc.