Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith

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Pop & Politics contributor Judy Kurtz is the "In the Know" columnist for The Hill

Forget the latest diets, fashion fads and Snapchat—the big trend in Hollywood appears to be flirting with a political run, with major stars such as Will Smith, Kanye West and Angelina Jolie having expressed an interest in swapping making movies or music for the campaign trail.

And then there's George Clooney, who thanks to his philanthropic work has fielded numerous questions over the years about the likelihood of him running for office. (Spoiler alert: Not likely.)

But Smith, who in Concussion played the doctor who connected repeated head trauma to CTE among NFL players, recently said that it might not be long before he decides to take action in real life.

"As I look at the political landscape, I think that there might be a future out there for me," he told The Hollywood Reporter in November. "They might need me out there."

A month later, as the landscape got rockier, Smith said on CBS This Morning, "If people keep saying all the crazy kind of stuff they've been saying on the news lately about walls and Muslims...They're going to force me into the political arena." Asked which office in particular, the jovial actor replied, "I gotta be the president. C'mon, really?...What else would I run for?"

Will Smith

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USC history professor Steve Ross, an expert on politics' intersection with pop culture, says entertainers can have a distinct advantage if they decide to make a political bid, as a certain actor named Ronald Reagan once did: "Movie stars have that longtime experience with knowing how to reach an audience. There's not a whole lot of difference between the box office and the ballot box."

Smith, of course, isn't the only star suggesting he might trade movie scripts for stump speeches.

At last year's MTV Video Music Awards, West famously dropped a political bombshell before dropping the mic. "I don't know what I'm fittin' to lose after this," the Yeezus rapper told the audience at the end of his acceptance speech for the Video Vanguard Award.

"It don't matter though, cuz it ain't about me. It's about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth. And yes, as you probably could have guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president."


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Ross, author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, says that, generally, celebrities feel it's a "civic obligation" to get involved with politics. "It's usually once they've made their money, and they believe that they want to do something good in return. They are citizens—we forget that," says Ross.

Patricia Phalen, assistant director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, agrees that a simple sense of civic duty is a main motivating factor for many celebs. "I think it stems from political interest throughout their career and the realization that they can use their celebrity to advance political causes," she says.

"I think anybody who runs for office runs for office because they think they can make a difference," Phalen adds.

Although many celebrities have flirted with the idea of a switch to politics— and received plenty of publicity for even mentioning the possibility—it's too early to know whether anyone plans on making good on their political designs.

Dwayne Johnson

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Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson said in 2012, "Right now the best way that I can impact the world is through entertainment. One day, and that day will come, I can impact the world through politics." 

Similarly, during a promotional tour for her 2014 movie Unbroken, Angelina Jolie told ITV News she was open to leaving showbiz behind for politics "if I felt I could really make a difference." But, she added, "I honestly don't know in what role I would be more useful. I am conscious of what I do for a living, and that could make [politics] less possible."

Phalen says she doubts the hints at a future in politics are self-serving publicity ploys: "I think that the downside of that outweighs the positive side. Someone like Kanye West doesn't need that to be more popular or more well-known." 

Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood

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While a slew of stars through the years, such as Reagan, Sonny Bono, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and, in a way, Donald Trump, have exchanged showbiz for politics; or, like former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and onetime mayor of Carmel, Calif., Clint Eastwood, governed and then picked up where they left off—the move from performer to politician isn't without its risks and potential pitfalls.

"I think there are more cons than there are pros," says Phalen. "The cons are people might not take them seriously, at least at first. And anything they do wrong will immediately become, 'Oh, they were just a celebrity who decided to do this on a whim.' So it always gets back to, basically, they don't know what they're doing."

Ross says the concerns date back to the days of theater magnate Sid Grauman, who used to advise movie stars in the early 20th century to "keep their mouths shut because the moment you open your mouth, you're going to alienate half your audience."

"Assuming half our audience are Democrats and half are Republican," says Ross, "people don't necessarily want to see the myth and the image they've created in their mind about their movie stars suddenly be punctured by a movie star articulating a particular point of view that's very different than the viewer's point of view."

If stars do have an eye on making the leap into politics, Ross adds, they're likely to be particularly cautious when it comes to picking their next project.

"If you are a celebrity, and you actually think you want to run for office one day, then you need to choose your roles very carefully," Ross says. "Ronald Reagan, with the exception of one movie, was always a good guy. Your cinematic image can translate into your political image."

Donald Trump, GOP Debate


But with the likes of Franken, who went from Saturday Night Live fame to the halls of Congress, to former Celebrity Apprentice host Trump's unpredicted rise to the top of the GOP presidential field, could more stars be inspired to start shaking hands and kissing babies on the campaign trail?

Not so fast, Ross advises.

Celebs might want to think twice about what they're getting themselves into because, he says, "running for office, people see it as an ego trip. But you don't see the other side, which is you'll be attacked every single day."

Speaking of the confidence needed to run for office, Donald Trump—real estate tycoon turned reality TV star turned second-place finisher in the GOP Iowa caucus—credited himself at the time for inspiring Kanye West's political ambitions.

"I was actually watching, I saw him [on the VMAs], and I said, 'That's very interesting. I wonder who gave him that idea?'" the presidential hopeful told Rolling Stone last fall.

"He's actually a different kind of person than people think. He's a nice guy. I hope to run against him someday."

In political circles, they call that an endorsement.

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