Hugh Grant dancing through 10 Downing Street. John Hannah reciting W. H. Auden’s "Funeral Blues." Julia Roberts, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.
All these moments — cultural canon, now — were born in the brain of one Richard Curtis.
The writer, director, and anti-poverty activist rewrote the rules of the modern romantic comedy. His writing credits include Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Bridget Jones' Diary, directing classics like Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked, and About Time. But his artistic imprint extends beyond his movies.
Inspired by 1985’s Live Aid, Curtis co-founded Comic Relief later that year alongside comedian Lenny Henry. It has since raised over £1.5 billion for development projects across Africa and the UK through annual fundraising telethons like Red Nose Day, co-produced by Curtis since the beginning.
The filmmaker was a founding member of Make Poverty History, currently heads up Project Everyone to get the word out about the UN’s Global Goals, and won the inaugural Global Citizen of the Year Award at London’s Global Citizen Prize ceremony in December 2019.
So yeah, Curtis keeps himself occupied. In many ways, he’s a case study in how activism can live through art. Sometimes you are what you make — and Curtis is someone who has stuck to his strengths, building a legacy of change often with little more than a pen in his hand.
Ahead of Global Citizen Live — a 24-hour broadcast event featuring the world’s biggest artists performing across seven continents to drive action to defend the planet and defeat poverty — Curtis spoke to Global Citizen about his films, his family, and the advocacy that runs through them both. Here’s what he had to say.
What was your journey into advocacy?
I had done nothing for anybody until I saw Live Aid in 1985. It was a huge global concert raising money for and awareness of the terrible famines in Ethiopia and Sudan. Ever since then I’ve given half my life to the brilliant job of trying to change the world, a bit.
Your daughter, Scarlett Curtis, has been a very vocal opponent of period poverty and FGM in recent years. How far does activism and advocacy run in your family?
The interesting thing about Scarlett is that she does represent a generational shift.
Her campaigning has been more direct, online, more political than mine. And it’s been inspired not really by me, but by her active feminism and the passion of her and her friends for equality and justice.
Many of your protagonists are defined by their sense of humanity or moral purpose. Do you find you ever express your own advocacy or worldview through your characters?
I’m not sure my romantic movies have much moral purpose apart from their fundamental optimism.
But I have written two “advocacy” films — one about G7 politics and one about malaria. What I tried to do in both of them was not lose touch with the other things I always write about: one is about romance and the other about family.
But would you say there’s any one character you've created that you've secretly imbued with your own sense of social justice? I'm thinking about the crew of Radio Rock on The Boat That Rocked...
Going back to my last answer — if anyone has a couple of hours free, I was proud of The Girl in the Café, which did win a few Emmys. Bill Nighy and Kelly McDonald represent two sides of how I think about justice and the world.
Why do you feel advocacy is so important in shaping a world free from poverty and inequality, and why do you join with Global Citizen in our advocacy efforts?
My experience in advocacy and fundraising is one of continual shock and surprise and delight that if you just open a door a little — making it a bit easier for people to get involved in issues of poverty and inequality — a huge number of people are waiting for the opportunity to do something.
Global Citizen is a perfect example of doing something popular and fun and modern — and then applying it to social change.
After co-founding Comic Relief, you've raised over £1.5 billion for charity. What does that organisation, and everything it's achieved, mean to you today?
Honestly, Comic Relief is like my fifth child — I’ll never leave it and never not love it.
The thing I love most about it is that I know the cash we’ve raised really has helped change the lives of lots of specific people around the world, who matter as much as, well, my own children.
But also there is a knock-on effect — and things like Comic Relief and Global Citizen help to always keep these issues in the public eye and help shape people’s priorities through their lives.
Can you name your favourite all-time Red Nose Day moment? One Red Nose Day and a Wedding must surely be up there.
It's hard to choose.
But there was a very funny sketch done by George Michael and James Corden, which was the first ever “Carpool Karaoke” — with some impressive guest stars, including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of the Beatles, my ultimate heroes.
What advice would you have for young people who want to become advocates for the issues they care about but don't know where to start?
Big question, with lots of different answers!
A. Try to make it fun — pick some actions that you actually enjoy, be it fundraising, or making little films, or writing letters to people you think have a bit of power.
B. Try to pick some specific subject you’re passionate about — it could be climate, it could be homelessness, it could be mental health — something that your heart is really in, and then go for it.
C. Don’t worry about not being clever, or not knowing everything — I’ve never been able to remember facts and figures — but there are basic human feelings that are always true, that women and girls should be equal, that no one should be hungry in a world of plenty, that sort of thing. First be sure your heart is engaged, and then knowledge can follow in good time.
D. And then just do something: to make things happen, you have to make things — and you never know where the journey will take you, but it will definitely be one hell of a satisfying ride.
Project Everyone, founded by Curtis, launched a new campaign on Monday called "The World’s To Do List", to raise awareness of the UN’s Global Goals. Companies taking part in the campaign are sharing the actions they're taking to contribute to the mission of the Global Goals, as well as what's on their "To-Do List" for the near future. You can find out more about the campaign by watching this short film.
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.