Fantastic Beasts star Alison Sudol talks conservation and inspiration

Alison Sudol played a popular character in the recent Harry Potter film “Fantastic Beasts,” but in real life cares deeply about all of the Earth’s non-fantastical creatures.

Article by Erik Hoffner.

Musician and actress Alison Sudol has been connected to nature since she was a very young child growing up in Seattle. Playing under the name A Fine Frenzy in recent years, her songs have featured both subtle and overt environmental themes, so it was entirely natural that she became a Goodwill Ambassador for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011.

Ms. Sudol attended the IUCN’s most recent World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in September 2016. One afternoon when not busy interviewing conservation luminaries for the IUCN’s official Youtube channel, she played a concert in one of the convention center halls for a huge crowd.

Alison Sudol at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress, September 2016. Photo courtesy International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The breakout star of the most recent Harry Potter film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” in the role of Queenie Goldstein, she is now at work on a new film, “The Last Full Measure,” alongside Hollywood icons Samuel Jackson and Christopher Plummer. Despite her hectic filming schedule, she recently took time out to share what motivates her passionate activism for the planet.


Erik Hoffner for Mongabay: Do you find the arts and activism to be good partners?

Alison Sudol: Art has a profound ability to connect people to their own hearts, and to each other. A large challenge in activism, one that I’ve personally struggled with, is how to open my heart enough to care what happens to nature, and how to maintain that openness despite the pain that it inevitably brings. The terrible things happening to the natural world on a daily, even hourly, basis can be devastating to the human being that lets themself feel it. It is also difficult to maintain a positive outlook, when the vastness of the destruction is considered. Honestly, it can get pretty depressing! However, I think it is deeply important to feel the connection to nature, to what we are fighting to protect, to the beauty and wonderment, the magic and the fragility, in order to pick ourselves up when we get discouraged. Art is a way of lending a human voice to nature, it can remind us of the great beauty within ourselves that connects all living things.

Coquerel's sifaka in Madagascar. According to the IUCN Red List, about 90 percent of lemurs are threatened with extinction. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: What inspired you to get involved in conservation?

Alison Sudol: I’ve always been drawn to nature. When I was a little girl in Seattle, my Swedish nanny would take me on daily nature walks into the woods, rain or shine. She taught me to notice the magic of the natural world. When my family moved to LA when I was five, I found myself in a much more urban environment, and the loss of that connection to nature was subtly devastating. When I was older, I found myself incorporating nature into my writing, and began to connect with it again as I traveled the world as a musician. Suddenly, I found myself able to explore rich, velvety forests in Germany, breathtakingly clear lakes in Canada, heart-shaking thunderstorms in New Mexico. It did something to my soul, something I hadn’t realized I needed until I found myself seeking a natural space every time the bus arrived in a new city. Once I realized how much nature meant to me, and also realized how little success in my career fulfilled me, compared to that feeling, I knew I had to do something to help protect the natural world. It lent a deeper motivation to my work, and made me feel like a more complete human being when I found the IUCN and began delving into the world of conservation.

Mongabay: What environmental issue is most important to you right now?

Alison Sudol: Oceans (pollution, overfishing, deep sea mining and trawling, acidification and coral loss), species extinction, deforestation and most recently, the impacts of our current Administration here in the U.S. on American wildlife and climate change.

Mongabay: I hear you’re making a new record, will any of the songs on it speak to those passions?

Alison Sudol, Salt Lake City, UT, April 2, 2008. Photo by Brian Tibbets via Wikimedia Commons.

Alison Sudol: My last record (“Pines”) was much more about the natural world than my upcoming release, which delves more into personal, emotional territory. However, as ever, there is a fair amount of environmental imagery in the writing, as there will be in the videos and other art surrounding the release.

Mongabay: Our series Almost Famous Animals profiles wonderful but little known creatures which are endangered, from bearcats to bumblebee bats, and which deserve much more attention: the features read like a real life “‪Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” If you could magically save from extinction say three of Earth’s fantastic beasts, which ones would you choose?

Alison Sudol: Almost Famous Animals is wonderful! I love that!

To choose three animals to help feels absolutely impossible, as without biodiversity, the entire structure of the natural world is weakened. It doesn’t feel right to pick favorites! Although I truly admire the scientists who dedicate their lives to single species, as without them, so much valuable research and protection would be lost. I have a great respect for all creatures big and small, and believe that they each have intrinsic value, whether we humans consider them cute or cuddly, or even interesting. Nature is not all about us, it’s a vast and complex infrastructure, advanced far beyond our understanding, and the fact that so much remains a mystery to us is tremendously inspiring to me. There is so much potential to learn from the world around us, if we don’t destroy it first.

Knobbed hornbill from Sulawesi. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: Who was the most inspiring person or persons you encountered at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii? Mine was definitely Mongabay advisor Jane Goodall.

Alison Sudol: I had the honor of meeting Jane as well! I could hardly speak when I was interviewing her! She has such an exquisite presence – so centered, calm and wise. I was in complete awe in her presence. I also had the great honor of meeting Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson – they each have done such great things for the planet, and are such passionate advocates for the sea and biodiversity, respectively. Speaking to these three pioneers of conservation was deeply moving for me.

Mongabay: What makes you optimistic about the future of the planet?

Talking to kids these days makes me feel like maybe we have a shot at changing the way we do things in the future. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting quite a few kids, including at the IUCN Congress on Youth Day, and honestly, I was blown away by their intelligence, eloquence, awareness and activism. I think the more kids understand just how vital they are to the future of the planet, the better chance we have of changing the way humanity operates in the future.

Mongabay: If you could go out in the field and study any kind of animal alongside researchers, where would you go, what would you do?

Alison Sudol: I would love to study whales and other marine mammals, either in the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington and British Columbia, or frankly anywhere, jellyfish off the coast of Japan, or the wildlife of African savannahs.

Mongabay: Do you have any favorite advice or words of wisdom to share?

Alison Sudol: Find something in nature you love, and see if there’s something you can do to help. Even the smallest actions can make an impact. Maybe take a moment to think about where this meat is coming from, your vegetables. Could you substitute a vegetarian meal at least once a day? Buy local when you can. Bring your own water bottle instead of buying plastic ones. Notice the amount of plastic you consume, and how you could reduce it. Question whether you really need that thing that you’re about to buy – was it made in a sweatshop, could there be chemicals in the fabric? And if so, do you really want that on your skin, do you really need it?

Also, take the time to cultivate your connection with nature. We get so busy with our lives that it’s hard to unwind, to remember how healing it can feel to stand beneath a tree, seeing the sun through its leaves, and just be still for a moment. That always helps me, anyhow. A little walk in nature goes a long way.

Humpback whale breaching in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Photo by Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay.

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