Becoming Xtraordinary, a biographical docuseries showcasing inspirational life stories and insights into success, which is produced by BecomingX, a company founded by Bear Grylls that encourages personal development, studio Chrome Productions and family edutainment brand Da Vinci, is launching this Sunday, May 28.
The first 10-episode season, for which a recently launched trailer provides a taste, debuts on Da Vinci in the 8 p.m. ET time slot, with two more seasons already announced. The series will feature such Hollywood stars as Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum and Courteney Cox, along with sporting legends, such as tennis star Roger Federer, Nobel laureates and famous figures from other fields, as well as lesser-known people with inspiring stories. The show is presented by Grylls and guided by in-studio hosts Mwaksy Mudenda, a host of British entertainment series Blue Peter, and YouTube star Evan Edinger.
Da Vinci says it has more than 550 distribution partners for its SVOD and free advertising-supported streaming TV (FAST) channels, kids mobile apps and other services in more than 100 countries. It has U.S. deals with the likes of Comcast Xfinity, Cox, Sling TV, TCL and Allen Media Group’s digital streaming platform Local Now.
Ahead of the series launch, Luca Fiore, content director at Da Vinci, Grylls and BecomingX CEO and fellow founder Paul Gurney talked to The Hollywood Reporter about why the show is needed now more than ever amid social media and other negativity, how it fills a gap and provides life skills ignored by traditional education institutions, as well as getting famous people involved to make a difference.
There has been much talk about how challenging and dark the world and the news cycle often seem these days, especially to young people. How key is a show like Becoming Xtraordinary in this environment?
Grylls: It’s never been a tougher time for young people than right now. There’s more anxiety, more pressure, more uncertainty than ever before. The world is ever faster, ever more competitive. And I think so much school education ill equips students and young people for the real battles of life, the sort of skills that really matter in life rooted in attitudes, relationships, and skills and knowledge. So much of what we’ve tried to do, and the success we’re seeing with BecomingX, is because young people are thirsty for this when it comes in a format that is relevant to them and isn’t dry and just PowerPoint. So much of education, even life skills education, is often so boring. When they see this, they get it, and our goal has been to demystify success, give them real-life tools and skills, through inspirational films and real-life stories that actually equip and empower them for their life.
I’ve been so lucky in my job to have incredible access to brilliant people, and brilliant people have often had battles and battles and battles behind them. I’ve never met a strong person who’s had an easy past. It’s often that through hundreds of failures, we get our successes, and BecomingX wanted to demystify that to actually sit down with some of these superstars, whether it’s Roger Federer or Julia Roberts, or the veterans or Nobel Prize winners or presidents and actually give them time. It’s not just a three-minute chat show answer, but you get under the skin of what was it like. What were the hard times and struggles? And what helped you get ahead at crunch moments? The partnership for this TV series is brilliant and a chance to reach millions of young people with something that’s designed purely to empower and equip them with something that school isn’t providing and that they desperately need if they’re going to get an edge in life.
Fiore: We saw Becoming Xtraordinary as another way of adding to one of the main things we want to do, which is to open up interesting topics and conversations for families. We see TV programming, and especially Becoming Xtraordinary, as a great way to do that. You provide a program that says, “look at these amazing people.” But it’s not just about a great story, but how does this actually apply to your life and how do you take learnings out of this, have a bit of a toolkit. How do you bring up a new way of stimulating this conversation that’s going to really help (young people and families) to reflect and think critically about what they want to achieve in life, but also how they do that. It’s not as simple as just having a goal. We’re not saying everybody is going to be an astronaut, and everybody’s going to be a famous tennis star. But the qualities that allowed people to achieve what they want to achieve are reflected in those stories.
Because it is a tough time in the world, families are uncertain. There are a lot of things that they are scared about. But for talking about how you overcome those moments in life that give you uncertainty, that make you scared, the family plays a big part.
Gurney: Something we talk about a lot is what are the influences that young people have today. I’m not going to name any names of people, but there are undoubtedly so many negative impacts and influences on kids. People they believe are role models in the world are inherently unhealthy for them – everything from misogyny to racism. What we want to do is fundamentally turn that on their heads, give parents and kids genuine, real role models that we’ve confidence in, that they can look up to and say, “These people are not flawless, they’re people, but they’re doing their best.” You can pick any number of negative events in the world right now. Whether it be wars, whether it be social media, the world is rife with negativity, and we just want to give some positivity.
Listening to you, I have picked up on some criticism of traditional educational institutions. Where are they falling short?
Grylls: It is about family, like Luca said. We’re trying to start to learn together and providing tools. The schools that do do this, do it terribly. Through BecomingX, we see thousands of schools, and it’s not their fault. They’re busy, they’re underpaid, understaffed and run off their feet. It’s not their fault. It’s other people’s job to create cutting-edge content with brilliant people that are going to speak a language young people understand.
Fiore: I have to be careful with what I say, because I actually used to be a teacher and worked in schools for many years. We all have lots of love for the education system, and all the amazing teachers who have impacted and influenced our lives. But as Bear is saying, they can’t do it all. And I think one of the challenges these days is that schools and especially educators are expected to provide almost everything for children, whether in the classroom or outside, and that’s almost impossible. So we need to have other resources out there, mission-driven initiatives that really care about how we help young people form and develop to become part of society. BecomingX is doing that.
Grylls: That’s what Becoming Xtraordinary is all about, just beautiful, honest, inspiring stories of real lives, real battles, real struggles, many failures, and great triumphs at the end.
Fiore: And it’s so authentic every time. I’ve now watched the episodes a million times, but each time I get goosebumps from the different stories. Some in particular just really resonated with me as an adult. So, I can only imagine what would it mean for families as they hear these.
You seem to define success not just in quantitative, but also in more qualitative terms. And the show features a mix of people – from Hollywood, to sports and science, politics and people in other fields…
Grylls: We’ve tried to go as broad and diverse as possible. There are obviously a few signature people in there, such as the big movie stars. But actually, the stories that relate most to people are often from the people you might not recognize by name, but after watching them, you really relate to their stories.
If you are Mark Ormrod, a veteran, for example, and you get blown up and lose three limbs and still say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened in your life and see it as an opportunity. When you and I are going through regular struggles and battles, or you are a kid is struggling at school, trying to find our purpose, it makes us realize we can do it. If that guy can do it, we can all do it. Or Sabrina, who’s now the most senior firefighting officer in the U.K. She was homeless as a teenager, she’s broken every convention, every barrier, every glass ceiling put in front of her. It gives us confidence, it gives young people a chance to go “wow, they could do it, I could do it and I can do even more.” It is about trying to tell stories that are relevant, inspiring and real and told in a vulnerable, honest way that give real results to people.
Fiore: Even someone as famous as Wladimir Klitschko, this world-famous athlete and boxer, when he boils it down at the end of his interview about what success is to him and what he sees as one of his greatest accomplishments, he (says) being a father. So success sometimes isn’t necessarily that you got the gold medal or all these huge, world-renowned things you have done, but it can also be as simple as being a good person to your family.
Grylls: You never hear that taught in schools. We’re really trying to do something to counter so much negative stuff for young people on social media to have examples of what it means to be a good human being, how to treat people and the values you grew up with. School doesn’t have time in the curriculum, sadly, tragically, to teach some of this stuff.
Becoming Xtraordinary will also feature some Hollywood stars in Julia Roberts, Courtney Cox and Channing Tatum…
Grylls: All success is always rooted in friendships and relationships. We would not be here with BecomingX and Becoming Xtraordinary, if it wasn’t for the kind, generous hearts and willingness of some of those names you’ve spoken about, who through Running Wild have become friends of mine, to give their time and share their story. And they did it all for free. They want to support this mission of reaching young kids all over the world and asking nothing in return, and trying to inspire them with real-life stuff. I always feel so grateful, so beyond grateful. It’s been so humbling.
How did you approach balancing being educational and entertaining or did you focus on other key things in working on the series?
Fiore: For us, it was about creating something unique. It’s not like we have this perfect formula where we sort of put things into an algorithm and it’s going to spit out this amazing show, which is probably happening in the future, and it already is starting to happen. But for us, it was about wanting a unique project and seeing the amazing work that Paul and Bear have been doing with BecomingX and saying this is something that we can collaborate on and broaden its reach. It’s not about the AI and the algorithm for us. We want unique projects. If we tried to do this on our own, it would be a lot harder to achieve something great like this. It’s nice to work with people who already have a really strong mission and are like-minded. So it was a no-brainer.
Gurney: The purpose of this is really trying to change the way people think about their lives. And there are very few shows that have that as a founding purpose. Yes, this is entertaining. It’s educational. But we want people to watch this and just think, “wow, what can I do in life?”
But we try to acknowledge the realities of the world. We don’t shy away from some of these difficult topics, even for younger kids. We treat them sensitively and with respect, but we make it real for them. People are homeless, they have had terrible experiences, let’s talk about that. You’ve got to give kids the visibility of what the world’s really like, but show they can have an impact, they can change their destiny.
Given that we have talked about a broader definition of “success,” how will you gauge the success of Becoming Xtraordinary? Is it fair to say it will not be purely about viewership?
Fiore: For me, a lot of that will be the response from our community, from all the people who engage with Da Vinci. So the hope is that feedback will be overwhelming and that they love it, and that we can continue for more seasons. That’s what we are hoping for beyond, obviously, the numbers and all the figures that we’ll get from viewership. Even if we can spark one thought off of watching Becoming Xtraordinary and for a young person or even for a parent to have a level of critical thinking or reflection, it’s mission accomplished.
Gurney: We want to redefine what success is in the minds of particularly young people. Success is not about how much money you make, or the job title you’ve got, how many likes you have on Instagram. It’s about living a fulfilling life, waking up in the morning, feeling happy about what you do, having purpose, feeling like you are doing something that matters – that to us, is what success is about.
I want young people to just feel that whatever they are passionate about and doing and enjoying, that is success. So the first part is we want to change that view and give kids confidence. There’s a lot of pressure on kids to think about what success is in (certain) ways: you got to be a lawyer or a doctor, or you got to be earning 50,000 bucks in your first few years in the job market. No, you’ve got to wake up feeling happy and enjoying yourself. So that’s the first part.
The second part in terms of how we measure our own success: we want to be changing kids’ lives, actually it’s not just children, we actually know adults watch this sort of stuff as well. And we want them to watch and think, “I could do something like that, too. I’ve seen someone who was homeless, and now they’re at the top of their profession, or they were in prison, and they’ve gone on to do something amazing.” It is about the stories that we hear back. “I saw that and I loved it when we saw one of your films, and it’s changed my life.”
Is there anything else you would like to highlight?
Gurney: It is very different what you hear from most people associated with this program: “I’m proud to be associated with it and proud to be involved.” It’s not just, here’s another TV show. It is being a part of something bigger and trying to change the world.
Fiore: From our side, this partnership reflects the point of supporting our mission, which we say is to bring about a smarter, kinder world. And we need partnerships like this in order to do that. We can’t do it on our own as Da Vinci. We need to partner with like-minded, mission-driven initiatives like Becoming X.
Grylls: The partnership here is a really smart one. Da Vinci is 100 percent focused on empowering young people and bringing families together, so it’s a really logical partnership. I see it as 1 plus 1 equals 7. I’ll be the only math teacher that gives you that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.