Bear Grylls Plays Dirty
How does a guy go from hardcore adventurer to (mega-famous) television hero without losing his head? By playing himself.
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“Where are you? The dogs are here.” It’s the Discovery Channel PR handler, calling from the set in downtown Los Angeles.
Bear GryllsGrylls says, “I feel like I need nine lifetimes to even begin to scratch the surface of the things I want to do”
Bear GryllsGrylls in Los Angeles, December 2009. Yes, the scorpion is alive
Bear GryllsIn a zebra-skin canoe, Zambia
Bear GryllsEating a bullfrog
Bear GryllsEating a bullfrog
“Stuck in traffic,” I say. “These storms got everything backed up.”
I’ve got to hurry—the dogs are about to attack!
It’s a dreary day in early February, and I’m just barely crawling along the freeway, creeping past one ugly accident after another. The latest in a series of El Niño storms is turning the L.A. foothills to mud, and now whole neighborhoods are sliding into oblivion. Miles ahead, somewhere in downtown L.A., Bear Grylls, the 36-year-old former UK Special Forces paratrooper who for the past four years has braved the world’s harshest environments as the star of the Discovery Channel’s runaway hit Man vs. Wild, is about to be mauled by wild dogs as part of his latest foray into reality television—a new series, making its debut this spring, called Worst Case Scenario.
A half-hour later, I turn into a rain-soaked studio parking lot in an industrial warehouse district near the Los Angeles River and find Grylls’s trailer, inhabited by a lonely line editor. “Wait here,” she tells me. Listening to the drone of the generators, I spy his clothes, his flip-flops, a package of nuts: Bear tracks, but no Bear. Soon a black Yukon pulls up and transports me over to the set, which has been rigged up beneath the classic art deco 4th Street bridge. Tucked back from the spitting rain, the crew is filming an episode of Grylls’s new show in an urban jungle of concrete pylons streaked with pigeon guano. The Discovery Channel, which ordinarily guards access to Grylls, has promised me an exclusive sneak peek on the set.
“There you are,” the PR handler whispers, emerging from the bridge’s gloom. “It’s OK. The dogs are still here.”
A crewman with a spray can is tagging the concrete walls with graffiti, while a gaffer works on a fizzly neon sign that reads PIZZA. I can’t see Grylls—he’s hidden behind a confusion of cameras, boom microphones, and lighting screens—but I can see the dogs now: a pair of menacing-looking German shepherds with long, wolfish snouts. Despite appearances, they’re not wild at all. They’re highly skilled Hollywood actors—”the best in the business,” their trainer boasts. Even so, a phalanx of professionals is on hand to ensure that no humans or canines are harmed in the making of this film. Off to one side, a team of Humane Society representatives, clipboards in hand, dourly observe the festivities. An EMT stands at the ready, as well as a “risk-management consultant” hired by the Discovery Channel.
Bear’s pretty blond wife, Shara, 36, is here, too, lingering just out of camera range with their three adorable blond boys, Jesse, 6, Marmaduke, 3, and Huckleberry, 1. Though they live in London, in a houseboat docked on the Thames, the whole Grylls clan has flown out to stay for the week in a rented beachhouse in Malibu and watch him film the first few episodes of his new show. All told, there are 30 people standing around now, and everyone’s making far too much noise for the director’s liking. Quiet on the set!
The trainers give their animals the signal, and then, over a great snarling and gnashing of teeth, Grylls emerges from the nest of cameras, wearing a hoodie and brown Chuck Taylors. His hair is clipped military short, as always, and his face is wide-eyed with feigned alarm. I hear the familiar voice, the burst of boyish exuberance, the posh Etonian patter. “This is nought a place you want to be,” he says. “This is nought ideal. These two beasts are really quite nahhhhsty.”
It’s been another action-packed week in the swashbuckling life of Bear Grylls. For him, fending off a couple of vicious curs is all in a day’s work.
“Make a wrong move and you’re going to get a propah mauuoooling,” he says to the cameras. “But I reckon we’re just going to have to show a bit of brains over brawn.”
ACCOMPANIED by a small retinue of Discovery handlers, as well as his personal assistant and a production-crew driver, Grylls heads back to his now-bustling trailer, where he quickly strips out of his wet clothes and changes. (On camera and off, he seems blithely indifferent to his own nudity.) He grabs the bag of nuts and one of his boys’ apple juice boxes and heads out the door, sucking toddler nectar through a little straw. “Gotta refuel!” he says. I find it hard to keep up with him; he’s walking at breakneck speed, just like on his show, splashing through rain puddles in his flip-flops, glancing impatiently at his special-forces diving watch. “Gotta keep moving. Let’s go!”
At the Urth Caffé, a groovy Internet spot around the corner on South Hewitt Street, Grylls orders up a high-test coffee drink, only to be accosted by an awkwardly smiling LAPD officer. “Aren’t you…that guy?” the cop says, and then he immediately summons a downloaded Man vs. Wild episode on his iPhone. “Yeah, that’s me,” Grylls says, glancing down at his own image on the tiny screen. “Cheeahs.”
Once properly refueled, Grylls kicks into higher gear. He discusses his hopes for his new show, tells a few war stories, and signs autographs for my three teenage boys. “Go for it, buddy!” he writes, and then, in hopelessly illegible scrawl, “Brrrrrrrrrr.”
Full disclosure: In my household, Grylls is a veritable superhero. Bear’s stock phrases—Time to get the lie of the land! It’s going to be a bit slippy! She’s coming in too hot!—have become part of our regular dinnertime repartee. Like so many of the show’s tens of millions of viewers around the world, my boys are endlessly fascinated by his outrageous stunts, his stiff-upper-lip humor, and his willingness to put exceedingly grotesque things in his mouth: live scorpions, yak eyeballs, goat testicles, rhino beetle larvae, even the sloshy juices from a dead camel’s rumen. “It’s horrible,” Grylls typically says. “But it’s life-giving…and it’s got loads of vit-ah-mins.”
With an infectiously affable persona that’s part Tarzan, part MacGyver, and part Austin Powers, Grylls parachutes into remote locations and attempts to claw his way back to civilization. While many of his survival tips seem of dubious practical value—when lost in the Serengeti, is it really a good idea to hand-squeeze your drinking water from a fresh elephant turd?—his antics are addictively watchable. Among other adventures, Grylls has pounced on a wild boar in Alabama, drunk his own urine from the skin of a snake he killed in the Sahara, broken a shoulder kite-skiing across the frozen wastes of Antarctica, and given himself an enema of rancid canteen water while stranded on a crude “rahhhft” in the South Pacific. (Dropping trou and indelicately inserting the tube, Grylls mugs for the camera: “I guess all you do is lie back…and think of England.”)
The hard labor Grylls has logged for the 50-odd episodes of his show would be, for most of us, the very definition of misery, but Grylls insists he’s in paradise. “I’ve got a dream job,” he says. “I take a lot of physical risks, and the reality is that I’m cold, wet, and scared a lot of the time. But I feel really privileged. I’m completely unemployable in anything else. The truth is, I feel like I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. If someone had told me then, when I was climbing trees and caked in mud, that one day I’ll have a job doing the exact same thing, I would have thought it was heaven.”
Simon Reay, the main cameraman and director of photography for Man vs. Wild, calls Grylls “almost childish.” All along, Reay says, this sense of juvenile spontaneity has been the real secret of the show. “I’ve done a good bit of children’s television, and the thing about filming kids is that you have to get it on the first take or their interest flags. You can’t make them go back and do it over and over again. Bear’s the same way. A hundred percent of what you see him do on the show is the first take.”
Grylls doesn’t deny his immaturity; he practically wallows in it: “I have aspired to many things,” he says. “Growing up is not one of them.” As is true of most kids, the shaping impulse of his life appears to be boredom avoidance. “I’ve never liked monotony,” he admits. “I’ve always been impatient. It’s like asking a tennis player just to hit some balls—it’s fine, but it’s quite boooooring. It’s much more fun when you can do some diving volleys!”
THE SON of a conservative member of Parliament and former Royal Marine, the late Sir Michael Grylls, and Lady Sally Grylls, Edward Michael Grylls was born in 1974. His sister Lara, who is eight years older, called him “Teddy,” which she then altered to Bear. It was a nickname that neatly reflected the way Lara treated her baby brother. “I was a bossy big sister, and he was my toy,” she recalls. “I was always getting him to do things. When he was seven years old, I bribed him to eat an entire package of bacon, raw!” Always eager to please, Grylls did it—”I was such a sucker,” he chuckles—and thus was born a habit of regarding questionable gastronomy as a rewarding form of shock entertainment.
His indifference to horrible food was further cemented by their mother, who was, laments Lara, “a rubbish cook.” According to Grylls, one time their mom “pulled pork chops out of the dustbin that were three weeks old and covered in silvery green mold. She said, ‘Who threw these out? They’re perfectly good!’ ” Consequently, Grylls grew up with a stout constitution and a high bacteria threshold that would come in handy when, say, kneeling over a lion-killed zebra carcass in Africa and feeding off the leftover neck meat.
Grylls was sent off to Eton when he was 13, but he spent his summers learning to climb with his father on the sea cliffs near their home on the Isle of Wight. Climbing became a way of connecting with his intensely competent but often zany politician father, whom Grylls describes as “a real joker, always messing around and pulling silly faces.” While attending college at the University of London—he eventually majored in Spanish—Grylls went into the United Kingdom Special Forces Reserve, serving as a trooper, survival instructor, and medic. In 1996, he nearly died when his parachute developed a catastrophic tear on a jump over southern Africa. Plummeting to the ground, he broke three vertebrae, and his doctors doubted whether he’d ever walk again.
Taking a “just a scratch” approach, Grylls spent his days in traction vowing to live the life of an adventurer—and he made climbing the initial impetus behind his rehabilitation. In 1998, at the age of 23, he became the youngest Briton to summit Mount Everest at the time, and over the years he has racked up an impressive if somewhat recondite list of world records: first to circumnavigate the UK on a jet ski; first to cross the North Atlantic unassisted in an open rigid inflatable boat; first to para-motor over Everest. In 2005, he led a team that set the world record for the highest open-air formal dinner party ever held—at 25,000 feet, in the basket of a hot-air balloon, with the diners wearing gas masks and formal military attire. In 2008, Grylls and a colleague set the then Guinness record for “the world’s longest indoor free-fall”—staying suspended in a vertical wind tunnel for one hour and 37 minutes.
It’s hard to say what all these world records and madcap adventures add up to, but there’s no doubting the man’s jones for the strenuous spectacle. Certainly there is a part of him that falls squarely within the time-honored British tradition of eccentric gentleman explorers, men who’re just not themselves unless they’re dreaming up weird stuff for the record books. Says Grylls, “I feel like I need nine lifetimes to even begin to scratch the surface of the things I want to do.”
On top of all this, Grylls has published adventure narratives, children’s books, and survival manuals—while earning a king’s ransom as a motivational speaker. He’s even unveiled an outdoor clothing line, Bear Grylls by Craghoppers. And in England, he recently established himself as the patron saint of all child adventurers: In July of last year, at age 35, Grylls was named the Chief Scout of Great Britain’s Scout Association, the youngest man to hold this honorific in the organization’s hundred-year history.
GRYLLS GOT HIS improbable start in television doing a Sure deodorant advertisement on British TV upon his return from summiting Everest. A few years later, producers at the Discovery Channel, impressed with a British documentary he’d done about the French Foreign Legion, approached him with the idea of a series in which he would drop into various wilderness situations. First airing in 2006, Man vs. Wild proved an almost instant hit. Now in its fourth season, the hour-long show has more than a million viewers in the United States alone, and his ratings show no sign of sagging. The series has given Grylls an international fame that, paradoxically, he’s never been entirely comfortable with. Although he’s a natural before the camera, Grylls is actually quite shy and likes nothing more than to withdraw with his family to his island house in Wales—a blessed windswept retreat without electricity or telephones or computers—and simply unplug from the world. “I never wanted to be all smart and slick and smiley,” Grylls says. “Doing television was the furthest thing on my mind.”
Despite his shyness—and perhaps because of it—the most remarkable thing about the show’s sustained success is that, episode after episode, season after season, Grylls has been the only person on the screen. Man vs. Wild may be the only hit series in the history of television that features exactly…one person. There is no dialogue on his show—only soliloquies. For a whole hour, he gamely treks across the deserts or jungles or steppes or savannas of our perilous world, gleefully ad-libbing, flexing his survival skills—the life of his own marooned party. (A notable exception to this lone-bushman theme came in early 2009, when Grylls invited his friend, actor and comedian Will Ferrell, to join him on a short, grueling jaunt across the Arctic tundra in Sweden’s far north country—a frozen ordeal that Ferrell found extremely trying. “I hate that man,” a spent and irritable Ferrell says at one point. “His breath smells like animal poop.”)
Even with rock-solid ratings, Man vs. Wild has not been without controversy. In July 2007, Grylls’s public image took a modest beating when a former survival consultant for the show came forward in the London newspapers to claim what some critics had already suspected: that Grylls doesn’t always bivouac in the wilderness, that his routes are usually scouted in advance, that his staff has a habit of removing “wild” animals from cages and ever so conveniently placing them right in Grylls’s path. Man vs. Wild, in other words, was a TV show, not a documentary.
It was alleged, for example, that a deserted atoll where Grylls seemed to be struggling for his life was actually a small island off the coast of Hawaii, a short boat ride from the nice hotel in which he and his crew were comfortably lodged. A herd of wild mustangs that Grylls pretended to sneak up on in a picaresque attempt to ride his way out of California’s Sierra Nevada was reportedly a herd of tame pack animals hired from a local outfitter. And a grizzly purportedly attacking his shelter in one episode was said to be just a guy in a bear suit.
The Discovery Channel didn’t deny specific accusations, but it did shake up the production team and craft new episodes to be more transparent. It also added a disclaimer that now flashes onscreen at the top of the hour: “Bear Grylls and the crew receive support when they are in potentially threatening situations…On some occasions, situations are presented to Bear so he can demonstrate survival techniques.”
For his part, Grylls responded to the fracas with a game face and large doses of Bob’s-your-uncle optimism, pointing out that he does in fact do all his own stunts. The climbs, the parachute jumps, the extreme eating—it’s all him. “Nobody likes personal criticism, especially when your job basically involves risking your life every day,” he says. “But it goes with the territory. When you have a number-one cable show, you’re going to get the odd Exocet missile sent your way.”
Now Grylls is the happy host of not one but two Discovery shows—yet with the new series, the sticky situations in which he finds himself are much more transparently contrived. Worst Case Scenario represents a new turn for Grylls, an experiment with a more choreographed form of “reality television” that requires a production enterprise easily three times the size of his typical Man vs. Wild skeleton crew.
“For the first time, I feel like I’m really doing television,” he says. “When they first came to me with the idea, I had my doubts. But they said, ‘We want it raw, we want it with heart.’ As with Man vs. Wild, we’re still shooting off the hoof, we’re still making it up as we go along. And I’m having a blahhhst. I hope I’m doing this stuff long after the cameras have stopped rolling.”
BACK ON SET, Grylls is scurrying toward a parked car when one of the German shepherds sets upon him, clamping down on his forearm. For a few long moments, the attack dog is chewing and tugging and growling and not letting go, and Grylls appears to be struggling. “This is nought good!” he says to the camera. Then with a bit of sleight of hand best left for the episode’s airing, he wrestles himself free.
Grylls hops in the car and mugs for the camera—”I think I’m just about done with dogs”—only to hear a godawful yipping and snarling. He turns around to behold the gag that ends the sequence: a ferocious Chihuahua, perched on the backseat.
Emerging from the car, Grylls has a huge grin on his soot-grimed face. The killer shepherd starts licking him. Grylls removes a long tube of special protective sheathing from beneath his sleeve, then gathers up his son Jesse in his arms—a kid kidding around with his kid.
As he surveys the set, his fleshy, hooded eyes constantly adjust, pupils dilating, eyebrows arching reflexively, as though he can’t quite take in all the contours of his astonishingly charmed life.
“So that’s a take, is it?” Grylls says. “Brilliant!”