The face behind celebrity activism -- How John Prendergast gets Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie involved

Ryan Gosling is trying to focus on the plights of Uganda and Darfur, but at the moment what he really needs is a cab. It’s a blustery afternoon in Manhattan. The actor’s due for a meeting with an official at the United Nations to help raise awareness of child soldiers and refugees. There are no taxis to be found, so he fishes a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet and offers it to a stranger in a Hummer in exchange for a ride. Gosling, who was an Oscar nominee for 2006’s Half Nelson, is new to this whole celebrity-do-gooder game, but he has the ideal adviser by his side: the globe-trotting human rights watchdog John Prendergast. When the pair finally reach the U.N., their meeting gets off to a rocky start. The bureaucrat clearly doesn’t know Ryan Gosling from Ryan Seacrest, and he lets out a wide yawn. Prendergast, relentlessly upbeat, is undeterred. ”I’m not as good a salesman as my father, who sold frozen corn dogs all across the Midwest,” he tells him, ”but we want to create the political will to change the situation over there.” The mood in the room starts to thaw. Before long, the official has promised to raise the issue at a high level. Afterward, amid the bustle of diplomats and tourists in the hallway, Gosling high-fives Prendergast and marvels at his world-class charm. ”That guy didn’t stand a chance,” he says.

For five years, Prendergast, a former director of African affairs in the Clinton administration’s National Security Council, has made Hollywood look good by doing good, schooling such actors as Angelina Jolie, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, and Javier Bardem in the intricacies of activism. When Jolie wanted to get a firsthand glimpse of the atrocities being committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a war-ravaged slice of sub-Saharan Africa considered too dangerous for your average celebrity humanitarian — she turned to Prendergast. When Cheadle needed a guide to take him through the massive refugee camps in the Darfur region of Sudan, he called the same number. Thanks in large part to this 45-year-old crusader’s efforts, the genocide in Darfur has become a cause célèbre, with Clooney, Cheadle, Mia Farrow, and Brad Pitt all agitating. ”Years ago, stars never got politically involved because it felt like too much of a risk to their image,” says New Jersey congressman Donald M. Payne, who has worked with Prendergast on foreign policy issues. ”Now they’re having an impact, and John has been instrumental in that shift.”

There will always be people who reflexively snicker at the idea of movie stars parachuting into the Third World, posing for photo ops with starving kids, and spouting pieties. Even Bardem’s BS detector goes off when an actor starts stumping for a cause without contributing anything of practical merit. ”You want to bring the right attention to a cause instead of just being a crusader,” says the No Country for Old Men star, who called upon Prendergast’s expertise for Invisibles, a documentary he’s produced about the world’s most blighted communities. ”You don’t want to talk just because you think people are going to hear you because of who you are. That’s ridiculous.” But Prendergast insists that without Hollywood’s attention, saving Darfur would not make anybody’s to-do list. ”Celebrities are the master recruiters,” he says. ”Now suddenly Africa is hip. That wouldn’t have happened unless people like Don and George had been talking about this crazy place halfway around the world.”

It’s easy to see why celebrities are drawn to Prendergast. With his shaggy hippie-chic haircut and rugged road map of a face, he’s exactly the sort of righteous, world-saving warrior that actors love playing on screen. Sure, he can seem too good to be true. He’s got a square jaw and an aw-shucks Dudley Do-Right manner. His favorite exclamation is ”doggone” and he can fire off sports and genocide statistics with equal facility. But Prendergast has earned his action-hero credentials. He’s survived land-mine explosions, attempted kidnappings, beat-downs, and mortar fire. When he talks about his adventures, he sounds macho — and presumably knows it — but not vain. ”I was imprisoned in Sudan once and I thought that was going to be it,” he says offhandedly, as he scrolls through his BlackBerry. ”They stuck me in a concrete [cell] in 120-degree heat for three days. [After I was released] the big rebel leader would always joke, ‘You keep mouthing off about us and I’ll send you back to that hole.”’ Prendergast could spend hours rattling off harrowing stories, but doesn’t. ”John has this Indiana Jones attitude where he wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks, How am I going to fix this situation in Africa?” says Jane Bussmann, a former celebrity journalist who saw a picture of Prendergast in Vanity Fair, tracked him down in Uganda, and wrote a hit play about her adventures, called Bussmann’s Holiday. ”He’s also great fun to hang out with. You meet him and you think: We’ll go end the war and then we’ll have some margaritas.”

That’s certainly how the movie version of Prendergast’s life would be scripted. In truth, he’s always been more Boy Scout than Bond, more likely to throw back shots of wheatgrass than tequila. Once upon a time, Prendergast was a comics-obsessed kid who dreamed of ridding the world of evil like a superhero. ”I was deeply attracted to these flawed people who had this magical power to do something great,” he says. He was raised by Catholic parents — his father was indeed a frozen-food salesman and his mother a social worker — who encouraged him to volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters. But his calling didn’t come calling until 1984 when, laid up with a basketball injury, he channel-surfed to one of those Sally Struthers infomercials about starving children in Ethiopia. Outraged, Prendergast blew what little money he had on a plane ticket to Africa and began to build the relationships that led to him working for UNICEF and many others. ”I liked going into places nobody else wanted to,” he says, adding, ”I saw firsthand how the U.S. was really screwing Africa and decided I’d come back and try to fix our policy.”

Easier said than done. After hammering out treaties between rival tribal factions in civil wars all over Africa and writing more than a dozen little-read policy tomes, Prendergast realized he’d never get political leaders to pay attention without big names to shed some starry light on the world’s trouble spots. His first aha moment came when he met Jolie in Washington at a 2003 World Refugee Day event. The two trekked through the Congo together and posted a photo journal of their travels on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, which was soon so inundated with traffic that the server shut down. ”Angelina wanted to figure out how to do something about the Congo,” Prendergast says. ”I said, ‘It’s good that you care and that people pay attention to your words, but you can take it to another level. You can actually start telling people what they can do.”’

To celebrities whose monthly Botox expenditures could clothe and feed an entire refugee camp, Prendergast’s commitment to his causes is a heady thing to be around — his idealism would give anybody a contact high. ”John is genuinely driven and not just paying lip service,” says Cheadle. ”The expanse of suffering [in Darfur] was unlike anything I’d seen. And for me, personally, it’s a lot of people who look like me, so you want to do something about it.” Last year, Cheadle and Prendergast coauthored a bestselling book on the genocide, Not on Our Watch. ”When John and I first started giving speeches, there would be 30 people there,” Cheadle says. ”Now there are thousands.” Not surprisingly, Prendergast doesn’t have an unkind syllable to say about celebrity activists, though he’s clearly been able to weed out the insincere ones over the years. ”I know the knock against celebrities is that they do this stuff to get good publicity,” he says. ”But 90 percent of what they do nobody ever hears about. I’d say every one of the people I’ve ever traveled with, from athletes to entertainers, has this moment where the weight of it smashes them down and they have a bit of a breakdown, like, ‘This is too much.”’

Has all this work led to meaningful relief for Darfur? Earlier this year, Clooney told TIME that the attention he’s brought to Darfur may have hurt more than it’s helped: ”You dig a well or build a health-care facility and they’re a target for somebody. A lot more people know about Darfur, but absolutely nothing is different.” Prendergast couldn’t disagree more, and points out that after Steven Spielberg withdrew his participation in the Beijing Olympics, China began supporting the notion of sending U.N. peacekeeping troops into Darfur. ”Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola…10 years ago, these places were on fire and now — in their different ways — they’re models of reconciliation or revitalization,” Prendergast says. ”Some of the policy wonks think I’m a sellout because I go do this [celebrity] stuff. But I don’t see how we’re really going to change things over time unless we see the value of all the pieces of the puzzle.”

For now, Gosling’s one of Prendergast’s most valuable new pieces. Last year, they traveled to Uganda to research child soldiers for a script Gosling is writing. Today, still riding high after their meeting at the U.N., the two have ducked into a local diner to refuel. ”I’ve been in a lot of situations with John and I’ve never seen him waver,” says Gosling, as Prendergast fires off e-mails. ”Look at him. This is our break and he’s working.” Gosling asks the activist what he’s doing later that night. Prendergast says he’s booked. Gosling throws up his hands in mock exasperation. ”John’s always got somewhere mysterious to go,” he says. ”Next thing I know, he’ll stop returning my texts because he’s off with some other actor.”