When Mia Farrow ended her 12-day hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan, Virgin music and airline entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson agreed to step in and continue the fast for three days.
On the first day of his endeavor, Branson spoke with EW exclusively about the value of peaceful protest and his strategies for surviving on an empty stomach.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to make such a personal commitment to this cause?
RICHARD BRANSON: I've been to Darfur and spent a lot of time with Darfurians and I know first hand what they've been through and what they're going through. So I think that anything that can be done should be done. If you look at the history of conflict resolutions around the world, the best ones are peaceful ways of resolving conflicts. So every method should be tried. Mia Farrow's been unbelievably brave. And when she asked me to step into her shoes for three days, I must admit I thought I got off lightly. Although this is the first evening and I certainly could do with a decent meal already. I just had a couple games of chess with somebody who doesn't normally beat me, and he beat me both times.
EW: When did you make the decision to do this?
BRANSON: Mia contacted me through a mutual friend about a week ago, and I said the moment she needs help I'd be happy to step into her shoes.
EW: Why you? Had you already put it out there that you were willing to participate?
BRANSON: No, no. It was just a call out of the blue. But it was a call from someone who is one of the supporters of The Elders, a group of 12 international leaders I've set up with Peter Gabriel, headed up by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu. They go into conflict regions and try to resolve conflict. They've done some magnificent work. Sometimes that kind of intervention can work. Sometimes the United Nations can work. On other occasions other forms of peaceful protest, like this one, can and may work. It's by no means guaranteed. So, based on my involvement with that, she knew it was likely that I'd say yes.
EW: I'm sure you've contributed money to charities throughout your career. But is this the most personal thing you've done to create political change?
BRANSON: This is the first time I've deprived my stomach to get political change. I'm a great believer in doing everything once in life. So it'll be interesting to see how one can cope. She said that if they haven't found anybody else to take over after three days they might extend it, so I'm hoping they get somebody else.
EW: Do you know if anyone else has raised their hand to do it next?
BRANSON: I know Peter Gabriel said he's willing to put his hand up as well. But I think you'll find that there are a lot of people around the world willing.
EW: Do you think this fast will keep being handed off from person to person until you see the change you're seeking?
BRANSON: I'm sure it will. And in fact, just yesterday, there was a bit of a breakthrough: The Darfurian government said that they're now willing to let some aid agencies into the country. They won't let the ones they kicked out back in, but they've indicated they might let some other organizations in. It may well have been due to the publicity around Mia's hunger strike to date. So I think they'll keep it up until they're absolutely sure that's going to happen and it's not just a public relations move on the Darfur government's side.
EW: So the main goal with the fast is to pressure the Darfur government to allow international aid groups back into the refugee camps?
BRANSON: Exactly. And it's going to be up to a group like The Elders to work out a long-term peace agreement to insure fair elections and a long term resolution of the Darfurian issue. But the immediate thing is to make sure people don't die unnecessarily.
EW: Did Mia give you any tips on surviving a hunger strike?
IBRANSON: haven't spoken to her directly. I've been walking around and expending lots of energy -– all the things I shouldn't be doing. I'm trying not to be grumpy with friends. That's the key thing. And remembering what we're doing it for: There are people starving as a result of the government's decision to expel the aid agencies. And in four-day's time, I'll have a big meal whereas people in Darfur won't.