For Bear Grylls, it’s human experience that makes ‘Running Wild’ unique

Bear Grylls
Bear Grylls shows Daveed Diggs how to build a fire as they camp at the end of their first day of adventures at Eldorado Canyon, Utah.
National Geographic for Disney/Ben Simms

Typically, when you see adventurer Bear Grylls on your screen, you know as a viewer, you’re about to embark on an adventure with him. And with countless shows under his belt from the Discovery channel, National Geographic and beyond, Grylls latest venture brings him back to one of his fan-favorite programs: ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge’.

The concept is simple: Bring a celebrity out to the wild with Bear and show them how to push past their comfort zone. The act of doing it all, however, is not quite as simple, and it’s those hard parts, honest conversations and vulnerability that we see from the guests (who have ranged from Will Ferrell to Jake Gyllenhaal to Natalie Portman) that makes this show so unique.

Bear Grylls
Bear Grylls and Tatiana Maslany enjoy their elk bone broth dinner at their campsite, at the end of day one of their journey across the Laramie Mountains in Wyoming.National Geographic for Disney/Ben SimmsR

Why and how did this show start?

Grylls: Well, ‘Running Wild’, we’ve done seven or eight seasons of this show now, and we’ve always evolved it every year or so. It’s just sort of grown and built, and it comes from humble beginnings I suppose from the ‘Man vs Wild’ show that I did for Discovery Channel all those years ago. And after about eight seasons of that, I knew that I really wanted to grow it—I wanted to start taking other people into the wild.

We’d had a few Hollywood folk approach us and [ask] if we could we take them on some private adventures, and I think we started it off with such good names and we’ve always kept a great level of talent and we’ve never been greedy like that—we haven’t done hundreds and hundreds of shows. We keep them really top-end and really positive, really empowering and just get to know the stars in a really honest, raw, vulnerable way that you’d never normally see on a chat show. I always think the real star of this show is the wild—it does my job for me. 

Do you reach out to people to be on the show, or do they normally approach ‘Running Wild’?

It’s generally a mixture of both. Sometimes it takes a while for schedules to line up. I’ve kind of learned not to push things too much… just trust the universe with that and the right things will happen at the right time. 

I think so many of these stars, they don’t need the money or the fame, but they want the experience that the wild can give us all. They like taking some sort of risk, but with people that they trust. We really try and sort of every time, just give them a really empowering, life-enhancing, one-of-a-kind and unique experience, and I think it becomes word of mouth very often. People chat to their Hollywood friends and it’s almost like a little ‘Running Wild’ club now, and I love that.

Bear Grylls
Bear Grylls and Bradley Cooper enjoy the view as they get ready to spend the night on a paraledge hung off the edge of Pathfinder Canyon, where they will rest safely out of mountain lion range. National Geographic for Disney/Ben Simms

How do you help the different guests on the show navigate their fear?

Well, first of all, I think fear is part of life, isn’t it? But it’s all about how we react to fear. This adventure ultimately is a state of mind, and I think being able to deal with fear is really all about how much exposure you allow yourself to it. If you spend your life running from whatever’s scary, when you’re then confronted with something, you don’t have the tools or the muscle or the equipment inside to deal with it. 

It’s always empowering and there’s an elation at the end because you’ve overcome something—and we’re much braver and stronger than sometimes we realize. But you can’t expect to be brave or strong if you never exercise that inner muscle. So, I really think it’s a state of mind and certainly with ‘Running Wild’, it’s going to be scary, but we’re moving forward together inch by inch.

Do any moments from the past season stand out to you?

That Russell Brand [episode] was a really special one for me. I’ve been a big supporter of his stuff for years, we almost did a show with him before—he’s an example where we almost did it right at the beginning, but he was in a different stage of his life. And actually, I’m so pleased we didn’t do it then because he’s now had such a personal journey, and he is a family guy and he’s a real voice for society. 

He’s so smart. He’s got a faith now and he’s someone who’s really lived 10 lifetimes in his short life so far. I love that. And for me, doing it with a fellow Brit, that was a great meeting of minds and we laughed a lot. We were in Scotland and I saw him the other day and he was just telling everyone so many fun stories from the journey that I kind of forget about. And I love that sense of pride that so often these guests have.

Bear Grylls and Russell Brand chat about their journey. National Geographic for Disney/Ben Simms 

How do you choose where to go for each trip?

It’s a mix of where are they, where is their availability and where have we been. I’ve learned we don’t need to go to the ends of the world—that’s just a pain for the stars and it’s difficult for production. We do so much in America, there’s just so much incredible diverse wilderness here, and we do quite a lot in Europe as well. We try and pick places where good infrastructure in terms of search and rescue helicopters, and reliable pilots [will be], and we try not to go to the real extremes of temperatures. 

It does sometimes happen, but generally, it just makes everything harder. So, those tend to be the factors we look at. And then we try and double up in locations and film two shows in one area and just move, you 30 miles that way or 30 miles that way for the other one.

And what for you overall is the best part about getting to do ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls’?

I think always the sort of privileged access to be able to get to know some of these stars in a real way and in a non-work capacity. They’re not there promoting a film, or trying to be funny on a chat show, they’re there for the experience, and I think the bonds you create are often really strong. 

It’s raw, and you’re seeing them at their most vulnerable, they’ve often never camped out before. And I just think that sort of time together in such an intense environment and the trust from them to me—I love that and I never take it for granted. 

Catch ‘Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge’ when it premieres on July 9 on National Geographic and Disney+