The fashion icon, award-winning actress and inspiration behind Emma Watson’s drastic haircut, Mia Farrow paid Yale a visit for a Morse College Master’s tea last Monday. Perhaps best known for her famous role in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Farrow has recently moved her focus from acting to humanitarian efforts. A Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, an outspoken advocate of aid to the victims in Darfur and a self-described “ruthless” crusader for awareness, she came to Yale to talk to students about her experiences in Darfur and what they can do to help. She sat down with WEEKEND to talk about everything from her hair to peacekeeping troops.
Q. What’s your opinion on Emma Watson’s haircut? Apparently she went into the salon with a picture of you and asked for the same style.
A. I wonder what was in her mind. I think she’s great, I think those “Harry Potter” movies are awesome. I don’t really have an opinion because I just haven’t thought about hair in a very long time. I didn’t ever go to the hairdresser to have it done; I just cut it myself when I was at home and put it in a plastic bag. I just did it because I didn’t want to think about it. And I had waist length hair at the time, and I thought maybe that could be good — having no hair. I just can’t believe we’re still talking about it years later. I guess it made hair history or something.
Q. What is your opinion on the role that celebrities should have in humanitarian work?
A. I don’t have an opinion on that, because for me [humanitarian work] is a really personal issue. I was deeply moved by my experience visiting Darfur, and I always wear this necklace to remind me. It was given to me by a woman who I met in Darfur. She had been wearing this when her village was attacked and she had tried to gather her children and run, and before she was gang raped they tore her baby out of her arms and battered him before her eyes. Three of her five children were killed that day, and her husband too — I just wear this because it reminds me … that no adequate protection has come to this day to the survivors in the Darfur region. And she told me that day, “Tell people what is happening here. Tell them that we need help, that we will all be slaughtered,” and I took that as a moral mandate. I always tell my children that with knowledge comes responsibility, and my responsibility is really as a human being but it is also as an actress.
Q. So you believe that awareness is the most important step right now?
A. Yes. If you were in my position and saw what I saw then you would feel that you would do anything, or whatever you have to do in order to raise awareness. And that’s what I did. I mean, I never knew I could write op-ed pieces, for example, and at first they were turned down, [but I was relentless]. You have to be relentless in order to get something done, and it may feel like head-banging, but that’s part of the process. My relentless focus on that region revealed certain players. I started wondering, “Who’s funding this, how does that work?” And then I saw China’s role, underwriting a genocide. Then came the Olympic Games, and China’s slogan — “One World, One Dream.” Would it were so. It was one nightmare that we couldn’t sweep under the rug. I helped set up the 1-800-GENOCIDE hotline that you can call at any time anywhere in the country and Canada too. They contact any politician toll free — you don’t have to be an expert to say that there’s genocide happening on my watch and you’re not doing enough about it. You have to be determined, have a little imagination and be totally relentless if you want to get anything done. I’ve traveled with women who won Nobel prizes, and let me tell you, you don’t get a Nobel Peace Prize sitting around wishing for things to get better.
Q. Awareness is definitely important, but what comes after that; especially for the younger generations, what can the young do?
A. I heard about one school in Massachusetts that gave up their prom and threw themselves a party, and they calculated how much money they would have spent on limos and dresses and tuxes and they gave it to Save The Children. You can support the humanitarians that are already there risking their lives, trying to sustain the 2.7 million people in Darfur (it’s actually around 4 million, but the 2.7 million in the camps and [there are] another quarter million refugees in Chad). There’s plenty you can do in terms of advocacy, but our government won’t do anything for altruistic reasons. We in a democracy are not powerless, our voices can be heard, so let’s hear them. I do think it goes beyond awareness at a certain point — you’ve got to scream and holler. You have to scream bloody murder and make people pay attention. After my first trip to Darfur, I would try to tell people about it and their reactions were “Dar-where?” and I tried to explain it, but it was more profound than my explanation. I mean, I don’t think the Rwandan genocide was a failure of US policy. It was US policy. I think it was that we had a policy not to get involved unless it was in our national interest and [that was] President Clinton’s stated observation at the time. What we’re seeing now [in Darfur] is Rwanda in slow motion, and we need to do something about it.
Q. How do people who don’t have access to resources like STAND (Students Taking Action Now Darfur) or other organizations get involved to make a difference?
A. Through the Internet everyone has access to each other, and there’s always that number that you can call. In communities across the nation, if there isn’t awareness, there’s something stirring. There are people in every community that are likeminded, and they have to come together. Our worst enemy is our own feelings of helplessness, and we need to overcome that in order to make a difference.
Q. In terms of acting, you’ve been known to play haunted, slightly demonic characters. Is this choice of character an indication of how you see the world?
A. I’m an actor for hire. In “Rosemary’s Baby,” I saw that Jane Fonda was initially being considered for the part, and actually, if you read the book, the Omaha farm girl that was described, she probably was a better choice. [For “The Omen”] I had at one point just been doing a play with Julia Stiles and then that Tuesday I was killing her in Prague for the film. In the play, I was playing her mother, and then all of the sudden I was killing her, but that’s the nature of acting. There may be some characters that I simply wouldn’t play — I turn down stuff if the character is just dreadfully boring, or if working with the director is going to be absolute hell, which dooms the experience.
Q. You did the narration for a documentary on Rwanda. Do you see yourself doing more documentary film in the future?
A. I just read the script and it really spoke to me because the Rwandan genocide is something I could talk about forever; I have very strong feelings about it. I was a Catholic until Rwanda — it’s a Catholic country. If the Pope had gone to Rwanda and commanded people to lay down their machetes and cease the killings at the risk of their souls, he could have ended the genocide, but he didn’t even try. It was a failure of my faith, my country, the international community, the media — it was just a colossal failure. And documentary film — I love documentaries, they’re all I watch on TV. I can see doing more documentary film in the future.
Q. How do you think students can get involved to raise awareness about genocide beyond joining STAND?
A. I think [they need to put pressure] on politicians and our leadership. If our leadership doesn’t feel any pressure from the people, then they won’t do anything. And it’s like the United States is engaged in a monopoly game with China with enormous stakes, a game in which the people of Darfur are simply expendable chips. And it’s up to us to push to make our voices heard and to hold our leaders accountable. We’re all in a position to do it. Be relentless. First there has to be awareness, and then there has to be organization. If one is not so inclined to join an organization, then there are ways to get involved and take initiative as an individual. Call the hotline. And for your generation, that is inheriting this genocide, you have to learn from it so when genocides happen in your time, which they will because of dwindling resources, you have to learn from this to stop it in the future. I’d like to see you all thinking about what you can do. Are you going to accept the pre-existing conditions and see how well you’re going to fit in, or are you going to change it?