Justin Baldoni is famous for his role on the CW hit “Jane the Virgin,” a show where he’s bare-chested half the time, he jokes. But he’s so much more: a passionate entrepreneur, writer, and producer who is on a quest to transform Hollywood.
Raised by a mother who was an artist and a father who worked in product placement, he says he saw the cross-section of art and commerce at a young age. It would be the precursor to his life as an actor-turned-producer. With his friends Ahmad Musoil and Farhoud Meybodi, Baldoni started Wayfarer, a digital media company focused on content that inspires, gives hope, and tackles social taboos. Their biggest success has been “My Last Days,” a docu-series about individuals fighting terminal illness, which appears on CW and SoulPancake, and has hit more than 60 million views online. Last summer, he also filmed a new online series, “Man Enough” that tackles the complex conversations around masculinity in modern-day America.
This month, the company got an additional boost, announcing a $25 million investment from a social impact investor to grow Wayfarer, hire a studio head and CEO (fyi, they’re actively looking for female candidates), and put more socially-driven content into the works.
But it’s not always been an easy road to success for him. I spoke with Baldoni about the evolution of Wayfarer and how he hopes to build an alternative type of Hollywood business.
Esha Chhabra: You started this company almost a decade ago. What led you to start it?
Justin Baldoni: When I was around 26, I had been acting on Jane the Virgin for a while. I was supporting myself as a music video director and directing commercials, but I just didn’t really feel like I was being used for anything positive. I didn’t feel like I was offering anything to the world. I took a trip to Haifa, Israel because I follow the Baha’i faith. I know we’re getting into a little bit of spiritual stuff but it’s an important foundation for what I do.
So I went to Haifa and was praying, ‘All right God, use me in whatever way I’m supposed to be used because right now I’m not doing anything I think that at the end of my life I would be happy with — guest stars on television shows, taking my shirt off on shows. I think that I could do more for the world.’ When I came back home, my house was going into foreclosure, I couldn’t get an agent or a manager. I could not get an acting job. And I just was in this place where I said to myself, ‘Let me start to come up with ideas that I think will actually make a difference in the world, regardless of whether or not they will pay me.’ And one night I came up with about 35 show ideas, and it just so happened that my friends had started a small digital media company.
One of these ideas was My Last Days, correct?
Yes, I’d always had this very unique connection with people who were closer to death than I was. I noticed a change in behavior. And I also noticed how it made me think about my life in my actions. And I remember being at a very young age and being able to empathize with individuals who were experiencing cancer or life-threatening disease or simply like old age. It made me look at myself and question my own actions and my own mortality, which in turn, I noticed created a change in my behavior, albeit temporarily, and made me a better person. I thought, I wonder if I can create a show that sends a tidal wave of that same kind of introspection.
It was quite simply a show about living told from the dying. My hope was to inspire people to become their best selves and not wait for the end. I found my ambition in that show and we made the whole first season for less than $35,000.
Me and my business partner Ahmed and Farhoud started the company in the living room of the house that was going into foreclosure. This became the foundation of the business. It is to tell stories that help us remember that we are living, that we are breathing, that we are connected, that we are human, not to tell stories that you know make us feel better about being worse people. Which is what so much of the content these days.
This feeds into some of the issues you’ve spoken about, some of your frustrations within the entertainment industry. What do you want to change about Hollywood?
Hollywood is run by fear, and we try to approach things with love. You’re in love. You’re not alone. I’ve had doors shut on me for the last decade. What we’ve seen time and time again is the industry making choices based on fear and solely on whether or not there will be an immediate financial gain. But what nobody realizes is that by improving the lives of their audience through content, it will eventually create financial gain because there will be a brand recognition with that show or with that company which will cause repeat viewers.
Regarding your success with My Last Days, is it because we live in the digital era? Do you think that if you tried to do this twenty years ago it would have been much harder, you would’ve had to knock on those traditional doors of television and film in Hollywood?
Yes, of course. I actually think that twenty years ago it just would have been a little bit different. If you look at some of the shows that inspired me the most growing up were far more uplifting: look at “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.” Some of these were the #1 shows in the country at the time.
So Hollywood has changed and also has not changed so much. Today, there’s a superficial change in that everybody wants to say that they’ve changed. But we all really know that the core of our industry is like Instagram: you look around and you see everybody is trying to be authentic, which in turn means nobody is.
This is why at Wayfarer, we are trying to make sincere content. The business hasn’t changed. But the way people talk about the business and the way people want themselves to look in our business has changed. In an industry where people are more concerned with perception, we really are concerned with our actions and what we’re doing and our intention behind what we make. That’s why I was willing to risk my life savings and my entire salary on Jane the Virgin, on this crazy little company with a few of my friends.
Twenty years ago, we also didn’t have this bombardment of social media attacks on us. We didn’t have keyboard courage. You didn’t have the news buzzing on your phone in front of you telling you all the horrible things happening in the world, all at the same time. I don’t think as humans we are able to take on that onslaught. Now I believe we need balance: just as much hope and positive in our lives as the fear and anxiety on other platforms.
As someone who is challenging the norms, do you find yourself to be an anomaly of sorts in the industry? And from what you’ve described, it seems like it’s a long road ahead to change Hollywood, correct?
Basically, yes, I think it’s a long road ahead, and it’s going to be a bumpy one, that’s maybe a lonely one also, but an important road to go down. I don’t think I’m an anomaly, but yes people do question and judge because of the body that I’m in. Like, ‘How could somebody, maybe that looks the way that I do actually think and care about the things that I care about?’
That’s why I care about disrupting Hollywood in a positive way. For instance, I’m not doing deals like how other people do them, not trying to screw people over with my very first offer on something. We’re approaching all of our content, our partnerships in a very fair way because I’ve been screwed out of so many things. And now that I’m in the position of being able to grant creators opportunities, I never want to make somebody else feel the way that I was treated.
Unless somebody starts to change that behavior, it will never, ever change.But people are afraid because we live in a ministry, in a world that’s run by fear, from our political system to our entertainment system.
This latest investment though is a testament to change: that there are people who will invest in content that makes the world better and changes behavior because they want to know that their money at the end of their life has gone towards something positive.
If we at Wayfarer were not able to do it, then who was going to do it. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about dollars and cents. Because we can’t take any of that stuff with us. I just want other content creators, actors, creatives to know that you don’t have to sell out. You don’t have to do things just because everybody else is. There is an alternative.