Any working actor will tell you that the job begins in the audition. It's true. Enter the room like you have the job, and you're much more likely to nail it. And so it was for the job of challenging the latest deceptive ad campaign from Big Oil.
Like most auditions, it began with a call. The woman on the line from the casting agency explained that the client was looking for "real environmental bloggers" for a national commercial. A role that calls for an environmental blogger?
"Sure, there aren't that many of us, sounds good!" I replied.
"It's for a Chevron commercial, which probably sounds pretty scary to an environmentalist," said the woman on the phone.
She continued, "The whole BP spill put all the oil companies in a terrible light, and Chevron wants to explain that they're more environmentally conscious than people realize, and not the bad guys people view them as." It sounded like more disingenuous greenwash from Chevron, and I told her that I was uncomfortable with the concept. In the end, I told her that I would have to think about it.
Now, some people might not see the moral dilemma. Certainly, being in a national commercial is often a great opportunity for a working actress. But for an environmentalist like me — writing and consulting on environmental issues — appearing in a Chevron ad could end my career. I've dedicated a significant portion of my academic career studying the impacts of Chevron's operations on the Amazon rainforest, and I quickly realized that maintaining credibility as an environmentalist while helping Chevron polish its green image was like trying to mix oil and water.
Chevron (then Texaco) drilled for oil in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest for three decades — and in the process, the company created problems, political conflict and injustices for the Ecuadorian people. Since its operations in the 1960s began, the amount of oil Chevron discharged in Ecuador is far greater in quantity than the amount spilled in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Could you imagine the BP spill continuing unabated for 30 more years and then trying to deny that it affected people living in the Gulf? In 2040?
According to Amazon Watch, an organization that supports communities in the Amazon fighting for environmental justice and human rights, "The Ecuadorian Amazon is suffering a public health crisis of immense proportions. The root cause of this crisis is soil and water contamination from nearly three decades of oil operations... The contamination of water essential for the daily activities of thousands of people has resulted in an epidemic of cancer, miscarriages, birth defects, and other ailments for the indigenous and farmer communities in the area."
During its time in Ecuador's rainforest region, Chevron's predecessor company Texaco dumped over 18 billion gallons of "produced water" - toxin-laced wastewater that comes up with oil and natural gas during pumping - into rainforest streams and rivers. Nearly a thousand pits were crudely gouged out of the forest floor, filled with toxic waste and sludge and then abandoned to leach into the environment for decades.
But that's not all. Ecuadorians have sued Chevron to demand a clean-up of the company's mess, and compensation for the terrible violations of their rights and devastation of their rainforest environment. But, as Amazon Watch explains, "Chevron has used legal maneuvers and smear tactics to delay and disrupt the Ecuadorian trial, drain the resources of the plaintiffs, and deny justice to thousands of people in the Amazon region of Ecuador who continue to suffer from the oil giant's toxic legacy."
So, there I was, with an opportunity to audition for a commercial that, if hired, would pay handsome residuals and offer a union contract on one side... and on the other side, my ethics and conscience, and most of all, my experience witnessing and working with the people in Ecuador who still suffer to this day as a result of Chevron's actions.
As I saw it, I had a few options. I could audition, knock it out of the park, ride the wave of residual checks, and enjoy a major boost to my acting career (but sell out the people in Ecuador, not to mention my credibility as an environmental activist). I could do the gig, and then donate every dollar earned to a nonprofit working in Ecuador (better for the conscience, and brownie points for the day job). I could land the job, and then organize a Greenpeace-style protest at the shoot. Or, I could ignore the call and try to forget all about it.
Considering the implications of each choice, I decided I had to dig deeper into this whole Chevron campaign. What was Chevron thinking? Why were they wanting to cast environmental bloggers? What were they trying to say? Why would Chevron want me of all people? Trying to better understand their motivations, I called Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network, two organizations that I knew were highly respected and active in the ongoing situation in Ecuador. In the end, I decided to go to the audition.
After a brief conversation with the casting agency, I was booked for an audition for the Chevron commercial. Wednesday, 11:00am.
That morning I arrived in the large casting hall. Beautiful people sat all around me preparing to audition for some of the world's biggest companies. I looked at the chalkboard: Loréal, Target, AT&T, and, aha, Chevron. I wrote my name on a sign-in sheet, and waited patiently.
This time, I went in not to get the job, but to act and to learn. And before long, I was called in to the audition. With cameras rolling, I was asked to talk about my writing, my thoughts on the environment, and what is important to me. The final question was, "If you could ask Chevron one question, what would it be?" To which I responded, "Why are you trying to hide the responsibility you have in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest?"
After the audition, I asked the friendly casting agent, "Do you know about Chevron's environmental history?" I handed her a packet of information about Chevron in Ecuador. I gave her my 2-minute speech about Chevron's toxic legacy in the Amazon, the company's recent attempt to pay an American journalist to spy on the plaintiffs in Ecuador, and how Chevron is working to actively cover up evidence that shows the company is guilty of massive contamination that is hurting people every day.
I didn't get a call back, of course, but in retrospect, the real question I want to ask Chevron is, why aren't the indigenous peoples of Ecuador being called to audition? Why aren't they being asked about their views on the environment? What about the mothers of teenagers with leukemia? Wives of men who have died after years of exposure to Chevron's pollution?
Of course, I wouldn't want to see Chevron including them in its new deceptive ads where the company says "We Agree" to vague do-gooder statements, like "Oil companies need to get real." But a brilliant fake ad campaign by corporate crime-fighting media tricksters The Yes Men, along with Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network, mocked up the very ads that might have resulted if Chevron were to have interviewed the Ecuadorians for the same "We Agree" ad campaign for which I was apparently auditioning. And they managed to get those out in front of Chevron's ad launch date.
The fake ads made by these groups — who are now inviting everyone to get in on the act at their new website, www.ChevronThinksWereStupid.org — highlight the important truths that Chevron's PR campaign seems designed to conceal. And it seems to be going viral.
Just like acting, the job begins in the audition. And congratulations, we got the job! It's time to start acting. We have a big job ahead of us; the job of seeking truth, and justice, and integrity. It doesn't pay residuals, but it's an open call, and a steady gig. And no matter what you've played before or what you're auditioning for, this one really is the role of a lifetime.