There are two amazing things worth noting about Running Wild, the new reality show from British survivalist Bear Grylls—which premieres on NBC this Monday, July 28th, at 8pm ET. First, the series is touted as featuring celebrity guests, who are taken on death-defying adventures with Grylls. On pretty much every reality show, “celebrity” really means C-listers like Andy Dick, Joey McIntyre, and one of the Real Housewives. But Running Wild has actual famous people, like Zac Efron, Ben Stiller, Channing Tatum, Deion Sanders, and other celebs who can get their agents to call them back.
The other remarkable thing about Running Wild is that it allows you to watch famous people do disgusting or dangerous things not because of some sadistic double dare (remember Fear Factor?), but because they need to do those things to stay alive. When, in an episode of Running Wild, Efron eats an omelet made of pigeon eggs and earthworms, he’s not doing it to win a cash prize or a chance at a career resurgence. He’s doing it because it’s the only source of protein available, and without it he might not have the strength to make it home. It’s amazing what a human being, famous or otherwise, is capable of if the plan B is “I guess you don’t eat anything and just die alone in this jungle.”
I called Grylls—who you may remember from his long-running Discovery Channel hit Man vs. Wild—to ask about the new series. We also talked about drinking pee, the stinky similarities between dead camels and Tauntauns, and what to do if a piranha decides that your testicles look like a tasty snack.
First of all, your name is amazing. Where did it come from? Is it a nickname?
It’s a nickname, yeah. My real name is Edward. I wasn’t even born a minute and my sister decided it was the most boring name in the world. She was like, “I’m not calling him that.” So she came up with Bear. That’s what I’ve been called ever since I was a little baby.
Did you have Bear-like qualities as a child?
No. She just took Edward to Ted to Teddy to Teddy Bear. And that got shortened to Bear. I hated it at the time, but it could have been so much worse.
At school, some of the kids started calling me “Monkey,” because I’d climb everything. I’d climb buildings and trees, anything I could find. Between Bear and Monkey, I think I ended up with the better nickname. I remember being six, and being so upset about my name. I was like, “I wish I had a normal name.” But I learned to love it.
You’ve got some surprisingly marquee talent on Running Wild. How’d you convince them to do it?
We were lucky. A lot of these guys, Ben and Zac and Tatum, they said to me, “We’d do this even if it wasn’t filmed.” I think they’re country boys at heart. They spend their time doing movies where everything is make-believe.
They won’t actually be hurt on a movie set.
Right. But doing something like this, it’s a real risk. It takes them through a bit of adversity, and they get a little beaten up and covered in mud and bruised and abused, and they get that rush of adrenaline.
Were there waivers? Did they or their publicists impose any limitations?
Oh sure. There were a lot of waivers. But for the most part, they put themselves in my hands, no questions asked. While we were in the midst of it, a few of them even said to me, “Oh my god, if my publicist had any idea what I was doing, they would be freaking out.”
Were any of them gluttons for punishment? Were they ever like, “Seriously, I want to drink my own pee to survive. Let’s do this!”
A few of the guys said, “Don’t hold back. I want the full monty, the ultimate ride. Give it to me!” But by the end of the day, they’d be on their knees, absolutely beat. They’d turn to me and go, “I need water!” And I’d have to say, “There’s nobody to help you. There isn’t any water. It’s just you and me on this mountain.” That can be daunting for some of these big actors.
So what you’re saying is, there was a lot of pee-drinking.
[Laughs.] I’m not going to spoil it. You should watch and find out.
Come on! Who broke first? Ben Stiller? I bet he totally drank his own pee.
I’ll just say that nothing is ruled out. They gave me total free reign to take them on this journey and let me dictate the terms. We ate some strange things. They were like, “Whatever it takes. I need the energy. I’m right beside you, brother.”
Let’s talk in hypothetical terms then. Say you’re in a survival situation, and you’re depleted, and you need to drink somebody’s urine fast. Your only options are the celebrities on your show. Whose piss do you drink, Channing Tatum’s or Tom Arnold’s?
[Laughs.] Well, I guess I’d have to say Tom.
You’re kidding me. Seriously?
Well, sure. Now hear me out….
That sounds like urine Russian Roulette. God only knows what’s floating around in his piss.
He’s been living clean lately. But Tatum, he’s one of the boys. He likes to work hard and play hard. So Channing’s piss is going to have more booze in it. And when he’s not in training, he loves cheeseburgers, and hates vegetables and fruits. His urine would probably be pretty potent, I think.
Not the most nourishing piss.
But Tom Arnold? He’s not a poster child for healthy life choices.
Ironically, I think it would actually taste better. He’s cleaned up his act. He’s doing well now. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Are you getting at a point in your career when you’ve run out of crazy shit to try? You’ve survived basically everything at this point, right?
I feel I’ve hardly even begun. I really do. There are so many terrains still out there, and so many different techniques left to try. I haven’t scaled a mountain with a shoelace yet.
That seems like a doable thing to you?
Sure. Why not?
Because it’s insane.
You’re limited only by your imagination.
Here’s a test. I’ll name two batshit crazy things you’ve done to survive, and you tell me which one you’d do again.
I have to pick one?
Yeah. If you had no choice, and you had to repeat one of these experiences, which one would it be?
Okay, I get it.
Walking over hot lava or giving yourself a dirty enema on an ocean raft.
Well, probably the enema because it’s less unpredictable.
Even though it’s unpleasant, at least I can control the enema. You start messing around with molten lava, it takes very little for something to go wrong, for something to collapse under you. It doesn’t matter how big or brave or smart you think you are. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re not going to win that one.
You’ve had your boots catch on fire while walking over lava, right?
Yeah, that’s happened a couple of times. You learn to choose your battles in the wild.
I guess with an enema, there’s no chance that some part of you will spontaneously burst into flames.
[Laughs.] I hope not. But I should add as a postscript, I do not want to find myself again on a raft, giving myself an enema with dirty, poo-infested water.
Okay, next choice. Eating a zebra carcass or sleeping inside a dead camel. Which would you do again?
Eating zebra, without a doubt. It was great fresh meat. I mean, it’s difficult because it doesn’t taste very nice and you’ve got lions circling around you. That’s a big factor. But you’ve just got to get in fast, eat the meat, and move on. The night spent inside a dead camel was long and horrendous and I definitely don’t want to repeat it.
Remember that part in Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo cut open a Tauntaun so Luke could sleep inside it, and he said “I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”
Would you say the same thing about a dead camel?
Probably worse. A camel smells bad inside and out.
Worse than a Tauntaun?
Way worse. It’s not a fun place to be.
Another choice: Escaping from quicksand or eating a live snake.
Eating a live snake. I can control that.
You can control a live snake?
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been stuck in a lot of different types of quicksand, and it’s more powerful than you think. It’s a miserable way to die. At least with a snake, once I’ve got it, I’ve got it. I’m going to win that battle. My brain is bigger than the snake’s. A human will always win over an animal, as long as he knows what he’s doing.
Last one: Squeezing water from elephant poop, or swimming with flesh-eating piranhas.
The elephant dung every time. It’s hydrating. It didn’t taste very nice, but it was beautiful as it went down my throat.
The moisture was so…
… satisfying. Just wonderful.
I’m going to throw up.
You had to be there.
You’d take that over piranhas?
You don’t want to mess with piranhas, especially if there isn’t a lot of food around. They can strip a human carcass in a matter of seconds.
Have you heard about this Pacu fish that somebody found in a Michigan lake?
I guess it’s a South American relative of the piranha, and it eats testicles.
[Laughs.] Well that’s interesting. I wonder why testicles.
A Pacu expert from Denmark said that testicles “sit nicely in their mouths.”
Yeah, yeah, wow.
So let’s say you’re swimming in a Michigan lake—which, full disclosure, I have recently, and plan to do this weekend—and a Pacu bites down hard on your balls. What’s your best option? What would you do in that situation?
Sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice a body part to survive.
What? No, no, no. That is not an option.
You may have to be okay with losing at least one testicle.
I’m not okay with that.
I don’t know how big this fish is. Maybe you could just grab it and kill it and get its jaws open. Don’t let that fish get away with your testicle.
None of this is making me feel better.
If a situation like this, your best defense is to be prepared. If you know that there’s a testicle-eating fish in a Michigan lake, maybe don’t go swimming in that particular lake.
Well I won’t now.
But if you absolutely have to swim there, maybe wear a wetsuit or at least a pair of swimming trunks.
Don’t “ring the dinner bell,” so to speak?
That’s right. Keep them tucked away. Once that dude’s got your testicles in his mouth, he’s calling the shots.
Is there a way to make your balls seem less appetizing to a Pacu? Do they like certain testicular odors?
In general, it’s never a good idea to pee in open water. Pee will attract all sorts of fish. The salts and the crystals in urine, it’s all fascinating to them. Don’t pee. And wear swimming trunks.
What about a Sharknado? Any tips on avoiding those?
[Pause.] Say again?
Sharknado. It’s a tornado with a man-eating shark inside it.
That’s not a real thing, is it?
Um…. not really.
That’s the movie, right?
I’m just so excited about Sharknado 2!
Even though Sharknados are probably fictional…
Well, you never know. You can’t rule anything out.
I did read that a vortex of fish hit a town in Australia once. That’s kind of Sharknado-esque.
I guess so, sure.
If something in the Sharknado genre of flying carnivorous fish disasters were to inexplicably occur, what’s our best bet for survival?
I guess, um… [Laughs.] That’s a tough one. I suppose I’d take cover under something heavy. Get in a cave. And try to remember it’s all just CGI.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)