Celebs rediscover Cuba -- From Alanis Morissette to Naomi Campbell to Oliver Stone, Hollywood heads to Havana

By Jessica Shaw
Updated April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Who knew Pope John Paul II could be such a Hollywood trendsetter? He takes one groundbreaking trip to Cuba, and the next thing you know, Castro country becomes a celebrity stomping ground. And this invasion is no Bay of Pigs.

Despite the ethical issues of sunning one’s self in a dictatorship, in late February, Alanis Morissette, Katie Ford, and Leonardo DiCaprio toured the country at the invitation of Cuba’s minister of culture. Cigar aficionado Matt Dillon has been spotted smoking stogies in Old Havana. Good Will Hunting producer Lawrence Bender is a sometime attendee of the Havana film festival, along with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Dennis Hopper. Underwear manufacturer Joe Boxer is hatching plans to airlift fashionistas to Havana during an outing next fall. And models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell not only took in the sights for a May Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot, they also hit the jackpot: an audience with Cuban president Fidel Castro.

”Cuba is a fascinating place because it’s like being transported back in time,” says director Elizabeth Schub, whose coming-of-age short, Cuba 15, won prizes at the Berlin and Hamptons film festivals. ”It’s dazzling to be transported to someplace where TGIF doesn’t exist.”

And where stalkerazzi don’t graze. ”[Leo] was able to just be a tourist,” says DiCaprio’s spokeswoman Cindy Guagenti. ”Not many people recognized him.” Cuban-American producer Hugo Cancio, whose indie film about a Cuban quartet, Zafiros, locura azul, which premiered in Miami April 16, had an impromptu breakfast with the teen heartthrob at a Havana hotel. ”He had been out dancing salsa all night, and he loved the island, and he was crazy about the people,” Cancio says. ”Titanic has not been seen in Cuba yet so he was very unnoticeable there.” Ditto for Campbell and Moss: ”Cuba is much more low-key than any other [Caribbean] island,” says Paul Rowland, the models’ agent. ”Wherever these two girls go there are always photographers, but they did find time away to just travel around and shop.”

With such glowing reviews — and speculation that once Castro goes the way of Communism, Cuba will become South Beach south — how long can it be before Hollywood tries to set up shop? Bender confirms Hollywood colleagues have been scouting the 42,804 square-mile country for film locations but are at an impasse because the current embargo does not permit Americans to do business with Fidel. (The U.S. economic embargo requires that citizens traveling there obtain a license from the Treasury Department.) Nor is the country really ready for StarTACs and Starbucks. ”The Cuban infrastructure is also not conducive to [film production],” says Bender, who’s producing a script for Miramax about a girl coming of age during the Cuban Revolution in 1959. ”The roads haven’t been repaved lately, the phone system is not great, the buildings are falling down.”

Of course not everyone’s happy that Hollywood’s head-ing to Havana. ”We don’t think it’s chic to go and meet with someone who imprisons his own people, denies them the right to pursue the basic freedoms that entertainment figures have come to expect,” says U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin. Even within the industry, some are less than thrilled about the celebrity interest. ”We have to be responsible,” argues Cristina Saralegui, the Cuban-born talk-show host who is often called the Latino Oprah. ”I get infuriated when people like Naomi or Kate allow themselves to be used for photo opportunities by Fidel. They all go on the record against the use of furs. It’s like, poor little animals? Poor little Cubans!”