Richard Janes: So for today's episode I sat down with filmmaker turned anti poacher Kerry David, now animals have always featured heavily in Kerry's life; from the English country farm she grew up on where she would count on the working animals as her friends, all the way through to her current work with the charity “Over and Above Africa”, A highly ambitious project connecting the global community through micro-financing to help prevent the extinction of Africa's endangered animals due to poaching and human-wildlife conflict.
And, here's the thing, the word “ambitious” seems to sum up Kerry's life story. She's certainly not held back. Now shortly after landing in America she joined a girl band and toured the US seeking fame and fortune. She then set her sights on Hollywood, and not just any job, she wanted to work directly for two of her idols Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. This resulted in a three-year gig as their personal assistant. And, as a Hollywood producer in her own right, her movies have gone on to gross over 100 million dollars worldwide and she became the darling of the indie film world having raised over five hundred thousand dollars through crowdfunding alone.
Today, if you look her up online, her purpose is pretty clear, to prevent Africa's most vulnerable animals from becoming extinct.
So I started off by asking her if she'd always been so ambitious and set her sights so high.
Kerry David: I would have to say yes I've always known what I wanted. At every age. And I've chased after it, I've just locked onto it and I've just walked in that direction for as long as I can remember.
I didn't feel like I had a great family unit growing up, like I felt like I was adopted, I wasn't at all, it just didn’t feel like I belonged. And bat heads with my dad a lot, and my mum was not well so she wasn't really there and I couldn't wait to leave. I mean that's why I think I left time so early. I just thought, there must be something more out there.
I had a fabulous uncle who said to me “You can do anything you put your mind to and I know that about you”. Now I don't know if he was meaning it or just like threw that out, but I took that as like “Oh well, if he says I can and I must and so I took that on thinking well I can do anything I set my mind to then. Despite what anyone else says.
Richard Janes Commentary: “Despite what anyone else says”. And herein lies one of the main reasons I invited to Kerry David to be on this podcast. You see for so many of us, we get an idea, we start to set our sights on something, and then we hear those dreaded phrases:
“You can’t do that”
“That’s impossible, nobodies done that before”
"Who do you think you are?”
Many, many, times these aren't even phrases that are spoken out loud, they simply play out in our inner thoughts making us question our ability to do what we would really really love to be doing all in fear of what people around us might say.
So just go with me for a moment and I want you to imagine an actor, perhaps a musician, a sportsman or sportswoman, who you think, or perhaps you thought when you were younger, were just the bees knees. Someone who was just amazing. You thought the world of. Who was that person to you? Perhaps you even had posters up on your wall or watched their movies over and over again, listen to their songs on constant repeat.
Who is that person?
Now what would have happened if you'd told everyone around you that you were going to be that person, that that celebrities, close friend, and you were going to be able to travel the world with them. And not only that, you were going to earn a great living doing so. What would your mum and dad have said to that? What would your teachers or co-workers have said? What would your friends have said? Well, Kerry David, she ended up doing just that. She put her mind to working for a particular celebrity and her feelings for that celebrity were... well I'll let her tell you.
Kerry David: I was obsessed with Tom Cruise, like Maverick actually as it turns out. Obsessed. Richard Janes: I think you weren't the only person. Kerry David: I was not the only person, but I believe I might have had the strongest desire for him. It's the feeling behind the wanting. I just wanted to be near him, I didn't want to do any damage. It was an innocent, but it was a powerful, desire to be near him.
Richard Janes: All encompassing.
Kerry David: It was all encompassing, and I believe that drive for him got me into work for him. Because I went to the work at Paramount Pictures, and I met a guy who said “Oh you should meet my friend Andrea. She runs Tom Cruise's company”.
Richard Janes: Hello!!
Kerry David: I'm like “hello hello”. I definitely should meet her. And he said she will love you you will love her. And long story short, he introduced us and she said “Oh come to my house this weekend in the Pacific Palisades and, you know, let’s just hang out”.
So I walk in, and it was back in the day of Polaroid's, right. So all in her kitchen is like Tom Cruise canoeing and kayaking on holiday. I'm just going “OK just dial it back. Keep it calm don't do anything you can regret later”. And she and I got like a house on fire and she said I want you to come work with us. And I had the best job at Paramount Pictures at the time. I was in business affairs in the Admin building which, if you work at Paramount, is like the coolest building. And I turned her down and I thought that's going to be my story. Like, I was asked to work for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and I turned it down.
I had a great job at Paramount and I had a great group of peers. We were all assistants and it was phenomenal. Again, coming from a small village in England, you know, you're on the StarTrek lot, seeing stars everyday, and I was paid well, it was a great job. And the job that they offered me was an entry level job to get into their company which I understood. So I thought you know what. No it's not for me.
And then she called me again and offered me another job, and I did really think about that second job because I thought I could do that but I think I'd be bored with that job, that job can't go anywhere. And I said “no” again and I think she was shocked. The third time she called me, they were on the set of “The Others” in Spain and she said “Okay, Kerry, Nic needs an Executive Assistant, it’s like her personal assistant and it doesn’t get any higher over here unless you want to be Nicole. Do you want to work with us or not? I said “Yes! I want that job”. And jumped in knew nothing about what that job would be like.
I literally learned on the fly and you have to hit the ground running because they have incredible people working for them and you just fly out of that door if you don't work. But, they raised the bar for me, like “this is what's acceptable” and everyday you'd raise the bar and then the next day that would be ground level because the next thing you'd have to raise it again. But it made me confident enough to become a producer because I thought “if I can produce them I can produce anything”.
Richard Janes: What was it about them that they continually demanded to raise the bar? Is that just people in that position or is that something about them as individuals. Kerry David: OK, so maybe Tom more than Nick. Nick was a little bit more laid back. Tom is super intense, because he delivers 110 percent. He just wants everyone around him to deliver 110 percent so that's what I mean like everyday. You can't come in like you’re going to give it 75 percent today. You'd be fired by the end of day. You have to keep up. Everybody is on their ‘A’ game.
At the time they were the biggest stars in the world. It's hard to imagine because they're not together anymore. So it was ‘96 to ‘99 Yeah. And then I quit right before the millennium.
Richard Janes: So it sounds like the whole environment was incredibly passionate.
Kerry David: Yes.
Richard Janes: Was there a unified purpose behind that as well that kept everyone reaching to match Tom's 110 percent?
Kerry David: To be the best of the best. If I may quote “Maverick”. To be the “Best of the Best” because they were. You want to over deliver, and you're working with incredible people that you are proud to work with, and you want to back them, you you want to have their back, you want them to have yours. It was a phenomenal working environment.
I have to say I just went for a week's vacation with four awesome girls all of whom we worked together at Tom and Nicole’s that’s how close we were. You get very close.
Richard Janes Commentary: Now this is something that continues to be a defining factor in the lives of successful people like Kerry, and what some might jealousy call “overachievers”. Surrounding yourself with incredible people, building a support team either on staff or otherwise, of strong people who are aligned on Mission Vision and Values. Each person in a position where they are able to support each other being “The Best of The Best”.
And herein lies the rub. You see many of us will stay in jobs or have found ourselves living lives, where we are so far removed from maximizing our true potential. Where we don't have people pushing us to be better and better at what we do, to really lean into that which we love, and without that, without that support, the road to a life full of passion and purpose is an extremely arduous one.
But the good news, the good news is that you have a choice. As difficult as it may be, you choose who you surround yourself by. And you choose how much you limit those lofty dreams of a truly fulfilled and happy life. Just as Kerry is, we are all in control of our lives. And to that point, I asked her what she would say to someone who feels lost and so far removed from passion and purpose.
Kerry David: If you don't know what you want to do with your life go and rent “My Date With Drew”.
Kerry David: It will make you feel good. It will make you think that however small your desire is, it is worthy of being pursued because it's your desire. Don’t judge it by someone else's standards. It's about a guy trying to get a date with Drew Barrymore.
And, I just told you about my Tom Cruise story and so that's why I locked in on this story like a torpedo with that and I said “That's a great movie. That's a movie we should make”. And we did, and we made it for eleven hundred dollars. We sold it for six hundred fifty thousand dollars. It got a worldwide theatrical distribution and it was a documentary. We won every film festival that we entered and we were winning against Supersize Me and Garden State, which was a feature, and we did it because that movie is about Passion. All of our passions to help Brian get what he needed which was a date with Drew Barrymore.
Richard Janes: I think this is a beautiful example of something that I see filmmakers falling into a trap so often here in Los Angeles, “I can't do this because I need more money”. “I can't do this because it's definitely a 10 million dollar movie”. This movie was made for peanuts. How on earth do you make a movie for that amount of money.
Kerry David: If you watch it we show you how we spend the money because obviously we knew that was going to come up. And also the fact that Bryan had won eleven hundred dollars on a game show where the answer was... Drew Barrymore which we also put in the movie. And that is a true story. And the fact that we couldn't afford a camera so we went to Circuit City which had a 30 day return policy and then we had a 30 day schedule because we had to get the camera back within 30 day so we didn't pay for that.
Richard Janes: Wow. And how did you find this?
Kerry David: So my business partner Jon Gunn, he got a phone call from Brian, and Brett who Brian knew, was down on his luck. He had like eleven hundred dollars in his pocket and thought “I could pay rent next month or I could make a movie”. So he was calling Jon and said I want to film me trying to get a date with Drew Barrymore because he had been obsessed with her since the age of six and it was well documented.
Richard Janes: Unlike your obsession
Kerry David: Mine was not documented fortunately or I wouldn't have got that job. But Brian's was and became part of the film. But Jon said to me “That's a stupid idea” and I said “It's a brilliant idea because everybody feels this way about somebody that is unattainable to them and that's what we're going to look into”. And we did. But it's such a feel good movie. At the end of the day, I won’t to tell you whether he does or doesn't get the date, you'd have to see the movie, but it became so much more about pursuing your passion regardless of what the outcome is, regardless of how ridiculous that you would ever meet Drew Barrymore because this was before social media, this is right when the internet started. In fact, part of the McGuffin was six degrees of separation. Who do we know? Who can we call? Because he couldn't just tweet somebody because it didn't exist yet and it was just the four of us coming together helping him do it. And we just got so passionate about it.
Richard Janes Commentary: Going from multimillion dollar movies with Tom Nicole all the way to ultra ultra ultra low budget movies with My Date With Drew. And it really is a great movie to get a chance to check it out on Amazon. Kerry is a great example of someone breaking that firmly held belief that you've got to have all your ducks in a row before jumping in. I can't tell you how many people come to my workshops stuck in that analysis paralysis where they won't risk a single step without having a clear road map in front of them so they've ended up for years in a job they hate, a relationship they can't stand, while living on cruise control punctuated by holidays where they can come alive for a fortnight. What most people don't realize is that no matter how well we plan and how certain we are that we’ve got all the bases covered, we simply can't predict the future and life is going to, it's bound to, throw you some curve balls. So if we agree that the future is very unlikely to match your exact vision why do we constantly put everything off until we have a clear roadmap.
Do you think Steve Jobs expected to be ousted from Apple in 1985?
Do you think Richard Branson thought to be running airlines and trains and gyms when he opened his first record store in 1971?
Of course not. And look, I'm not saying don't have a goal but the goal has to be less about a rigid result and more about living the type of life that you want to lead as you never know what unexpected opportunities might pop up and help you along your way. All you can do is take one step at a time, which is something that Kerry found out at a very early age when she left her small English town for the first time.
Kerry David: So a group of friends, I think at the beginning there was about 15 of us, said “Hey, let's go to France on a work exchange”: you know, during the summer holidays, and by the time it came down to going there was two of us. It was me and this girl from another village who the only thing we had in common was that we had kissed the same boy. And I'm not kidding. That's the only thing we knew about each other.
So she and I went to France. And, supposedly, there was a job when we got there and we got off the coach and there was no job. And so we actually had to walk around the French countryside looking for a job because our parents thought we were going to be gone for two weeks. And we finally found an amazing farm with his French family who didn't speak a word of English and we had our little French English phrasebook and we worked there for two weeks and we made bank. I mean the work was backbreaking it was you know picking grapes and you're just aching and stuff but you're just getting hammered at every meal with the French because they have wine with everything. And it was phenomenal. And we were really sad to leave and after two weeks we'd made so much money I said to Izzy “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we just keep going” and she's like “Well, where where would we go?” “Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Greece.” We can just do that with this money because we thought we're so rich at seventeen.
So, I call my dad from a payphone this was way before mobiles. And I said to him, “We’re just gonna go to Yougoslavia and we’ll then be back”. Then he said “You get back here right now.” And it's the first time in my life, and I was like, I just put the phone down and I didn't call him for six weeks.
Yeah I'm an asshole.
Richard Janes Commentary: While Kerry laughs and calls herself an “asshole” for doing this, it actually speaks to a broader problem we face within society and that’s of parents keeping their children too close, not allowing them to go off and find their own identity, discover that own passion and purpose without judgment from mum and dad. Now as a parent of two kids myself I want to keep them safe. I want them to listen to my wife and I's collective wisdom. But there comes a point where it's really important that the child forcibly breaks away from the parents to stand on their own and that's something that can be freely given away by the parents.
In the book Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind, another book is absolutely fantastic. You should try and read by Yuval Noah Harari, he talks about how an ancient tribes men would break into the tent of a mother and her young son, grab the boy, and pull him out of the mud hut. The mother would scream blue murder “Don't take my son, don't take my son”, trying to pull him back. But the men would win and the boy would be marched out into the bush and start a multi day initiation ceremony to become a man. Once the boy had been taken from the hut, all the other women of the village would come to the mothers tent. And she tell them what a great performance she’d put on, and they'd celebrate her job as a mother.
You see, in ancient tribal culture, they understood that the boy cannot become a man without severing the parental ties. Only then can a new relationship between the man and his mother form. As for the boy, he naturally wants to stay in a safe place of being cared for by his family. Who wouldn't? But we can't do that and achieve an enlightened understanding of who we are as a unique and valuable person to the world, who can stand on our own two feet, and know what we want out of life. And this, this, was Kerry's moment, the moment she drew that line and took control over what she wanted to do with her life. And what she wanted to do, at that moment, was travel.
Kerry David: We went to Spain Italy Yugoslavia Greece, every island and Greece, lived on Crete for three months. We ended up in Switzerland. We ran out of money in Switzerland a year later. So we went for a two week trip that we came back 12 months later from.
Richard Janes: We’re going to then jump forward a couple of years. You decide to do another two weeks, and I’m seeing a pattern here, but this time in Australia.
Kerry David: Yes
Richard Janes: But it didn't last two weeks.
Kerry David: It did not. It lasted two years.
Richard Janes: How on earth do you go from, well I think we've just heard the first example, go from going to two weeks to two years.
Kerry David: But it's what we talked about earlier. Now, I didn't lock on to the fact that it was just two weeks, and in fact when we left France, I was just going to go to Italy. But when we went to Italy we got a job so we started make more money so then we could go to Spain and we just kept going because we were getting jobs along the way. I couldn't have planned that. At first it was just country to country. So it was the same in Australia, I did go for two weeks. I had such a great time and I didn't want to leave. My uncle didn't want me to leave. And then on the way over there I thought I'll break the trip up, it’s so long, I'll stay for a week in Tahiti before I get to Australia. And I met this guy in Tahiti and he had just been backpacking around America and had had an amazing time and he was heading back to Perth and he said “Well what are you going to do in Australia? Are you going to backpack?” And I thought that's a great idea. I hadn’t even had that idea yet, so I thought “Yeah, I would totally backpack” and he said, “Well look, I'll be back for a couple of weeks, why don’t you get your bearings, and I’ll drive you back, pick you up, and just go up to the Cape Tribulation.” And I said “Sounds fab” And so that’s what we did.
Richard Janes: Question that comes up with all of this.
Kerry David: Yes.
Richard Janes: Does Kerry David have any big big plans for the future or is it all a case of small steps. Let's just see where it takes me.
Kerry David: Yeah. No big plans at all.
Richard Janes: None.
Kerry David: None.
Richard Janes: And that doesn't scare you.
Kerry David: No I don't think about it.
Richard Janes: That's fantastic is it.
Kerry David: Really?
Richard Janes: I think it's really interesting because I think a lot of people get overcome with big plans for the future. And, am I on track to hit it now.
Kerry David: Why would you set yourself up that way. I would say... I mean, the thing about the journey is the destination is a real thing. And I have friends that I love who are depressed and miserable, and earning a fortune thinking they're on the right track because this job will take them through retirement. Meanwhile, your life, which is nine to five, at that job. That was your life and now you've got some big Fortune 500 company that has just sucked your marrow out. That's not living to me.
Richard Janes: So you chase your passion and purpose at every opportunity you can?
Kerry David: I'm sitting here, talking to you now, and I can understand how it sounds that way. But even that isn't really how I live my life. It's not so thought through. I can look back and say “oh, I could see how that would look like that”, but I may not get inspired again between now when I die and then it'll be Over And Above Africa, because it's so much inspiration for me. Looking back and talking to you I'm thinking probably that's not going to happen because I know I'm going to do another movie. I'm working on something really fun now that I'm excited about. There's always something that will want my attention and will light a fire in me and I'll pursue that.
Richard Janes: How do you know when something lights a fire? What's the feeling?
Kerry David: It's an energy. When I lock on something, I get an energy and it feels good. It's a powerful energy and I feel like I can do anything and nothing will stop me and I label that Passion. It may not be what other people think Passion is but it's like I wake up, I can't wait to do it, I don't care what time it is when I go to bed, could be 2 am, and I'm still wanting to go, but I know I need to sleep, so I'll go to sleep but I can't wait to wake up. That's when I know that I'm on purpose.
I'm an animal advocate and I was invited to an elephant fundraiser downtown L.A. and there was a presentation being given and it was a film shot by a drone that spent two years in Africa flying over this Pacific region and everywhere that drones flew, there was no poaching incidents. They didn't at that time know what that was down to whether they thought that might be like an eye in the sky and the poachers could be seen and you know it was new back then anyway. I was watching this incredible footage and I was learning that within ten years our endangered species will be gone forever. There would be no elephants in the wild, no lions, and no rhinos. All of these animals that are so iconic to Africa will be gone. And I'm an animal advocate didn't know that. So I thought well the rest of the world isn't going to know that for sure. I'm somebody who when they know better they'll do better. I live by that credo.
So I now knew better and I had to do something. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I knew that it would involve that footage. So I had to go and find out who owned that footage. And I did. I went and found the CEO of the company, he was there that night, and I said I want your footage. And he said “What do you want it for?” I said “I don't know. But in the next week I'll come back to you and I will know”. And he said “Great, come back to me”. So that's what I did. I thought I needed to explore why people are not involved in this, and why I don't know about it. And we're losing our iconic animals.
There were three things to overcome.
It was that Africa was so far away it just didn't affect people it was just too far away.
The second thing was there was a mistrust about charitable organizations. People didn't believe the money was going where they say the money was going. And so that was new to me and something that I had to think about.
And then the third thing was what was my one voice going to do anyway. People didn't want to get involved because there’s just one of me.
So those were the three things that I had to overcome.
So I thought right, I'm going to take that beautiful footage, I'm going to create a website that is so gorgeous that when you put up your laptop you're immediately in Africa. Right now it's in front of you. Now it's not so far away. And we use these gorgeous footage shot by this drone over the beautiful landscapes.
The second thing was the trust element. Well, I thought if we could raise funds and then we could film those funds and bring them back to the people who are funding them, then they will see their money being spent and nobody was doing that. And I'm a filmmaker so I thought this is something I can do. And the third thing was you know my one voice doesn't count.
And I thought well you've got to make it affordable so that everybody's voice comes together so it becomes a sea of voices. And I thought, so this has to be so inexpensive for people that they don't miss the money that they're giving to the charity. We charge five dollars a month to be a member of Over And Above Africa. But five dollars a month from one person, not a lot of money, but times a million people around the planet every month and we give that money away to effective initiatives that are working...
Now you have an impact.
Richard Janes: A lot of people can get paralyzed. “I want to do something but I don't know what it is” so they don't put a step forward. Were you not worried about him saying “Well what do you want to do with this?” and you just saying “I've no idea”.
Kerry David: No, because he had told me that a lot of people had approached him for that footage. I wasn't the first but I thought “He hasn't given it away, and no one's come to him with an innovative idea.” So I consider myself fairly innovative and creative and I love animals so much. I knew whatever I would come to him with would be authentic and pure and it would be different because it would have to be. Nobody was micro financing philanthropy and we call it “Affordable Philanthropy”. He could have said no, and I would have been okay with that. I would have found another way to get that footage. I would have approached a filmmaker in Africa and said “Look, work with me on this”.
I'm a filmmaker by nature so I'm used to hearing no. No doesn't frighten me at all. It just means I am one “no” closer to a “yes”.
Richard Janes: Obviously, that takes a lot of courage knowing that you can just pick up the phone whenever and…
Kerry David: I would contest that.
Richard Janes: Oh, go for it.
Kerry David: Where is the courage in picking up the phone and asking someone for help?
Richard Janes: That they may say no?
Kerry David: And if they say ‘no’ you will die! Oh no, you don't die.
Richard Janes: This is one of the things that I think marks your gold out, this courage because so many people listening will go “Of course I'm not going to die. Of course, I should just pick up the phone and I should just try and make that connection”. On Facebook now, It's that four point eight people away from whoever you want to be in contact with. But for so many of us, that's a big gulp and a big move to make.
What is it that's gone inside Kerry David's brain that says “That doesn't apply to me”.
Kerry David: It's not like it doesn't apply to me. It doesn't occur to me. I'm going to pick up the phone I'm going to ask somebody to do something and they're going to say yes or no. If they say “no” I'm going to pick up the phone and call someone else and ask them if they're going to do it for me. And then they're going to say “yes”.
Somebody saying no to me doesn't stop me. It just redirects me. If it were fatal, if someone someone's saying no to me and I'm going to die, yeah, I would be terrified and I don’t want to die, I love my life. Yes I would understand that. It's just a no. And that person might have a very valuable reason for saying no, and that fine. And then of course you offer help back as it's not a one way street. You're like “Listen, how can I help you?” “Here's what I need from you. You tell me what you need from me to make this work?”
We've been meeting some of the most incredible conservationists and people doing incredible work in Africa but they don't know each other. But we know them. So we've been introducing people to each other all over the continents that are struggling with this and now they're all working together. And so with these non-profits, the walls are coming down, they're starting to work together and in four months, we have been able to do that because we're like it's about saving the animals, it's not about who you're philanthropist is and who your biggest donor is. People get caught up in that. It's about “Get over yourself, and get into the problem. Let’s all work on this together”, and now everyone's helping each other they just didn't know each other.
Why would you not want to try that. If that was the outcome that something would be brilliant.
On the other side of it why wouldn't you risk a no for the other side of what it could be?
Richard Janes: I'm completely with you. When I look back over my own life, the big opportunities that I've had have been as a result of putting my head above and saying can you do this. Can we work together? And, yes, you get knocked back sometimes but it isn't the end of the world is it.
Kerry David: It's not. And actually when you get knocked back it just makes you a little bit tougher. It really does. I like the idea of putting yourself out, not every day, but putting yourself into a place that feels uncomfortable once a week will make you grow as a person. You know I think that's easy to do. And if you haven't done it, it's a great time to try.
Richard Janes Commentary: Putting yourself out there, to a place that makes you feel uncomfortable, at least once a week. Now what would happen in your life, if just once a week, you took an action around a dream or a passion, action that took some real guts. As I say in my seminars how do you run 365 miles? One mile a day. At the end of the year you've got your 365 miles. The worst thing you can do is be so focused on the 365 miles, so daunted by such a big number, that the magnitude of the task prohibits you from doing anything.
Life is taken one step at a time.
One proactive decision at a time.
As Kerry wonderfully demonstrates, you never know where life will take you.
Richard Janes: That is a great lesson to leave us with today. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you sharing your passion and purpose with us and I look forward to having you back with your next movie.
Kerry David: Thank you so much this has been really fun. Thank you.