I had applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted during my senior year of college, but I was torn between spending the next two years of my life in Africa and finding the courage to honor my equally deep impulse to act. It was a difficult decision. When I was a child, my books were my best friends, and their characters peopled my interior world. Acting in my room or outdoors, where I spent hours and hours, gave me an essential, private and sanctioned outlet for expressing my feelings, many of which were not welcome in the family. Through acting, I could siphon off anger, soothe loneliness, cry out some of the pain and hide from the shame and confusion that so often dominated my home. Acting helped me survive, and it enriched my life. The summer after college, I decided I could postpone the life of service I hoped to lead. If I didn’t give acting a try at age 22, I suspected I never would, and I feared I would carry a regret the rest of my life.
Although I loved the creative process and those fleeting, magical moments of acting, the furious need for social justice I’d felt in college still percolated under the surface. But I didn’t seem to know how to reconnect with that abandoned part of myself.
Then, quite suddenly, I was shown the way.
One dawn, after a grueling night of shooting Twisted, instead of going straight to bed, I began sorting my mail. At the top of the pile was a letter from a woman named Kate Roberts, proposing that I become the YouthAIDS ambassador for PSI. I realized she was offering me a chance to save lives and raise awareness of the most devastating human crisis since the days of the bubonic plague. Could this be what I was looking for, my opportunity to reconnect with my latent passion? A chance to bring a voice to the voiceless, to address the injustices I had witnessed throughout my childhood?
I was well aware of the scourge of AIDS. The disease had already consumed the lives of many of my colleagues in the arts and was particularly cruel and out of control in the developing world. By the end of 2001, more than 40 million people were living with HIV and AIDS, and there were more than 13 million AIDS orphans, creating inevitable future social crises, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Three million people were dying each year. Clearly this was a global emergency. But my first reaction to Kate’s request for help was that I would need to investigate PSI to verify that it wasn’t a fly-by-night outfit or, worse, some sort of front for a group that would use my social capital for a hidden agenda. I didn’t want to accidentally do harm or, my ego said, be embarrassed.
Instead of trying to get that elusive daytime rest between scenes, I scoured the Internet for information. I learned that PSI was founded in 1970 as an international family-planning agency that made contraceptives accessible in hard-to-reach areas. Since then, it had grown into one of the most efficient and effective NGOs in the world, focusing on maternal and reproductive health, child survival, malaria prevention and treatment, and HIV/AIDS. It had an obsession for measuring its impact, something that made it popular with donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID. According to its website, PSI worked with local governments, businesses and citizens’ groups in more than 60 developing countries to deliver “life-saving messages, services and products to the world’s most at-risk populations.” For such a huge nonprofit, with an annual budget of $156 million, it has an extremely low overhead—less than 8 percent. But still I hesitated.
The very week I read Kate’s letter, I received a call from Bobby Shriver. He asked me—rather, told me—that I had to join him and Bono, the lead singer of U2 and passionate battler against poverty and AIDS in the Global South, on a 10-day “Heart of America” bus tour of Midwestern states to raise awareness of the African AIDS emergency. I thought the bus tour was a great idea, but I felt I had to decline. By now, Dario and I were married. We were set to leave for Scotland, and I know how homesick he gets. A few days later, the phone rang again, and it was Bono.