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Bear Grylls on staging dead animals and Running Wild’s move to NatGeo

While Running Wild with Bear Grylls hasn’t aired a new episode since the summer of 2018, it has not been cancelled. It returns to television tonight, having moved to a new home, National Geographic Channel, for season five.

I previously looked at how real and/or staged Running Wild with Bear Grylls is, and the show’s move gave me the opportunity to ask Bear himself about just how produced, planned, and/or fake the reality show actually is. His candid answers surprised me.

First, for the move to NatGeo (Tuesdays at 10), Grylls told me that not much has changed with the reality series, except that he thinks the channel is better fit for the show.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we’re totally reinventing it, but for me it’s about the natural fit of a home,” he said. NatGeo is “the home of adventure, they are the home of exploration, always going that little bit further. And if I had to sum up Running Wild in three words, it’d be that: adventure, exploration, and going that little bit further. For me, it’s totally like coming home.”

Previously, the show aired on NBC and then, for international broadcasts, “we sell it to Discovery around the world.” He said “it makes much more sense to have it on NatGeo,” which broadcasts internationally, and “we bring in global stars.”

“But we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We have a format that has proved already so popular on NatGeo,” he said, citing reruns of the show that aired last year.

The celebrities on Running Wild with Bear Grylls season five

Armie Hammer climbing in Sardinia, Italy, on Running Wild with Bear Grylls season 5
Armie Hammer climbing in Sardinia, Italy, on Running Wild with Bear Grylls season 5. (Photo by Jeff Ellingson/National Geographic)

“We’ve got better stars than we’ve ever had before,” Bear Grylls told me, although when I interviewed him in the early spring of this year, he couldn’t yet discuss who they were.

But NatGeo has since released the list of 10 celebs for season five’s 10 episodes (full episode descriptions and air dates are at the end of this story). Here they are, in alphabetical order by first name:

  1. Free Solo star and climber Alex Honnold – professional rock climber and the first climber to free solo Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan wall (Free Solo)
  2. Call Me By Your Name actor Armie Hammer
  3. Captain Marvel actor Brie Larson
  4. Dancing with the Stars winner and American Idol mentor Bobby Bones
  5. Suicide Squad actor Cara Delevingne
  6. actor Channing Tatum
  7. actor and former wrestler Dave Bautista
  8. comedian Joel McHale
  9. comedian, actor, and Holey Moley co-host Rob Riggle
  10. actor and The Chair star Zachary Quinto

On Running Wild, Grylls said, “my job is to say, keep them safe, make it really fun, rooted in adventure, and honest and revealing about their journey.”

NatGeo says the show “transports viewers across remote locations in the US and around the world, including crocodile-filled mangroves of Panama and underwater caves in Sardinia to deep crevasses on Iceland’s largest glacier and scorching desert slot canyons throughout Arizona,” where “cast members must face their deepest fears and tackle everything from wild animals to rock repelling as they journey through some of the world’s most unforgiving wildernesses” and have to “rely on their survivalist intuition, bush-craft techniques and sheer grit before their adventures come to a thrilling end.”

Bear Grylls on scouting locations and staging dead animal carcasses

Dave Bautista and Bear Grylls in Horseshoe Bend, Ariz., looking at the Colorado River on Running Wild with Bear Grylls
Dave Bautista and Bear Grylls in Horseshoe Bend, Ariz., looking at the Colorado River on Running Wild with Bear Grylls. (Photo by Ben Simms/National Geographic)

Bear’s first big show in the U.S., Man vs. Wild, made headlines when it was revealed he sometimes slept in hotels, not in the wild. And how real Running Wild is continues to fascinate people, including me.

I told Bear that I’d read this 2007 interview from Outside magazine, which was conducted after revelations about how parts of the show were staged. Back then, he told Outside that, given he chance to re-do season one, “I’d want to make the shows more transparent in terms of how they are made, and also go into more detail.”

I told him that I appreciated that idea, but to me, “Running Wild feels the opposite” of that kind of transparency.

Bear said, “I think once I was burned in the earliest days, partly through ignorance, and partly through whatever—it’s made me really tight and really savvy on that sort of stuff now.”

Then he pivoted back to talking about celebrities: “Running Wild‘s such a cool show like that, because they want the experience. These are stars that have never in their life camped out, they’ve never in their life done this sort of stuff—even if they’ve done big, sort of stunt-y movies. The number of times guests of ours have said, I can’t believe we’re really doing this! If this was a movie, I’d have stunt guys checking harnesses and helmets, and you’re asking me—we’re tying off to this root of a tree, and we’re going off this thing?

The celebrity participants, he said, are sometimes surprised that what they’re doing is very real, and not just being staged for television. “Sometimes people say to me, We’re really sleeping out? We’re not going back to a motel or something? and they love that. That’s part of the experience,” he said.

I asked more about the actual production process, saying that the point A to B to C felt “pretty planned.”

Bear said I was actually understating it: “To say ‘pretty’ is loose. It is planned, and I will send a team out probably a week before, and they’ll meet with all the local rangers, and they’ll scout an area on foot. And they’ll come to me—well, they’ll e-mail me a whole bunch of things: there’s a wicked river, there’s a cool little escarpment, we know there’s a place where there’s crocs.”

After that initial scout, Bear scouts, too. “I’ll go, Okay, that sounds cool, and then I’ll go out the day before, and I’ll do it. 90 percent of the time, do it by helicopter. We’ll fly over it. We’ll scout from the air,” he said. “But we’ll keep it loose, that’s the magic of it.”

I asked if he actually does the route first, and he said, “No, but we know where it’s going to start, where it’s going to start, four or five key things in the middle: where we’re going to camp, probably. And then it’s a coil of a rope, a small crew: two cameras, that’s it. Two cameras, two sound, and a guide for each of those guys to keep them safe on the ropes.”

“Then we go, and again I think it’s part of the experience the stars of love is that they’re going, It really is a coil of rope and a small team and we haven’t really planned it. The reason we don’t totally plan it is that you can’t adjust for things on the day. You get really mega-bad weather, or somebody’s really scared of this,” he added.

Bear said that, while it is planned out, “the journey’s flexible like an elastic band. I can adapt and adjust and keep that element of spontaneity that is, again, the joy for them.”

Although it allows for spontaneity, Running Wild with Bear Grylls does hit familiar beats every episode: physical and mental challenges to conquer, sleeping in an unexpected place, which is usually where the show shifts into talk-show mode. They’ll usually discover some kind of dead animal and/or eat something unexpected.

“We’ve become maybe a little kind of formulaic,” he added, “but that’s okay.”

I asked specifically about what I called “the stumbling across an animal carcass,” which seemed to me like one of the most produced, almost comically phony parts of the show. Not that the dead animal is fake, but the discovery feels that way—oh look, a deer head right here!

Cara Delevingne looks at a cooked rat during her episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls
Cara Delevingne looks at a cooked rat during her episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls. (Photo by Jeff Ellingson/National Geographic)

Bear admitted that the production is usually responsible for planting and staging those.

“We will pre-place stuff like that, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Not always, but often the best stuff is when it’s totally, we’ve just found it. But we’ll often—especially for the UK version … where we make the decision we never kill anything.” (There are strict animal cruelty laws in the UK.)

He added, “I’ve now started just taking, like, rats in my backpack. It’s fun: pull those out.”

“But on Running Wild, if we’re in a really barren place, where we know we’re not going to find anything, I don’t feel bad about saying to the crew—I won’t say where, I’ll just say dump a deer head somewhere on the journey, I know we’re near there,” he said.

He gave a specific example: “We did a great one recently with our first guest: We were in Iceland, and I knew there was going to be nothing up there, and I got the search and rescue to parachute in a elk—a moose head, in a crate, with a tracker. And it’s great. It’s all part of the story.” (The Iceland episode features Rob Riggle.)

So, the pre-planted things have a tracker so he can find them. “It’s pre-planned, but I don’t know where it is—well, I know roughly where it is, I’ve got a tracker. It’s kind of fun and part of it. So, you’re right, we do produce that, but that’s okay,” he said.

The things that are planted? They are very real, as I asked about. He joked that it’s not “all made out of licorice.”

“I pride myself on giving the totally authentic, full-on adventure. And they love that,” he said about the celebrity guest stars. “It doesn’t last forever; it’s only a day and a half, you know, and they have an amazing time.”

“I keep in touch with so many of them—when I see them six months afterward, maybe their stories have grown a bit that they tell their friends. The cliff’s grown a little bit, the size of the croc—but what they feel proud of is that they’ve really done it.”

Running Wild with Bear Grylls season 5 episodes

Here are the new season’s 10 episodes, premiere dates, and NatGeo’s descriptions:

Episode 1 – “Brie Larson In Pearl Islands, Panama”
Premieres Tuesday, November 5, 10/9c
Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson, accompanies Bear on a jungle adventure across a remote island in the Gulf of Panama. A 48-hour getaway from Hollywood is what this Oscar winner needs, but there’s no such thing as a relaxing vacation with Bear Grylls! They begin their journey by jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean. From there, they make a perilous trek through a crocodile-filled mangrove swamp that turns into a dangerous maze as the tide rises. It’ll take Bear’s bushcraft skills and Brie’s super powers to complete this adventure!

Episode 2 – “Joel McHale in Arizona Slot Canyons”
Premieres Tuesday, November 12, 10/9c
The often clever, always snarky actor and comedian Joel McHale joins Bear Grylls in the Arizona desert for an adventure unlike any other. They set out to traverse a massive slot canyon in hopes of surviving the wild, but first they have to survive one another! Huge cliffs, nasty food and unorthodox survival strategies abound in this hilarious misadventure!

Episode 3 – “Cara Delevingne in Sardinia Mountains”
Premieres Tuesday, November 19, 10/9c
Actress, supermodel and social-media influencer Cara Delevingne realizes a long-held dream of accompanying Bear Grylls on an adventure. Sweeping Cara off her scooter and onto a helicopter, Bear leads Cara up the mountains of Sardinia. At nearly a mile high in elevation, Bear shows Cara how to brave several heart-stopping obstacles including pulling herself across a horizontal line suspended 200 feet in the air and rappelling down a dangerous waterfall.

Episode 4 – “Rob Riggle in Iceland”
Premieres Tuesday, November 26, 10/9c
Comedic actor Rob Riggle joins Bear Grylls on an adventure on Iceland’s Vatnajokull Glacier. Their journey begins with a helicopter ride over “the land of fire and ice,” aptly named for constant volcanic activity beneath the surface. Once dropped off, Bear and Rob must navigate a stretch of jagged ice fields, deep moulins and deep crevasses. Without food or supplies to make shelter, their mission is to find an airdropped emergency cache; without it, there’s no way they can survive the frigid night!

Episode 5 – “Armie Hammer in Sardinia
Premieres Tuesday, December 3, 10/9c
Golden Globe-nominated actor Armie Hammer pairs with Bear Grylls to scuba dive in search of an underwater sea cave reportedly used by smugglers somewhere off the coast of Sardinia. Along the way, Armie battles his paralyzing fear of heights and samples some local delicacies — and things take an unexpected turn when he gets hijacked in the middle of the expedition!

Episode 6 – “Dave Bautista in Glen Canyon, Arizona”
Premieres Tuesday, December 10, 10/9c
Bear Grylls takes former WWE world champion and action star Dave Bautista on a super-sized adventure in the Arizona desert. Navigating through perilous canyon descents, brutal falls and the raging Colorado River is no easy task. With Bear as his tag-team partner, Dave is up for the challenge to see if he still has that fight inside, but Mother Nature could prove to be his toughest opponent yet in this match of a lifetime!

Episode 7 – “Channing Tatum in Gloppedalsura, Norway” – Tentative title
Premieres Tuesday, December 17, 10/9c
It’s been five years since Channing Tatum first appeared on Running Wild with Bear Grylls, and he’s back for more – this time in the wilds of Norway! Their journey kicks off by skydiving into brutal terrain where giant boulder fields and towering cliffs stand in the way of extraction. During their seven-mile trek, Bear tests Channing to see how far he’s come as a survivor – from foraging for food to Navy SEAL-style cold-water immersion training. Channing even learns the ancient art of trout tickling!

Episode 8 – “Alex Honnold in the Swiss Alps” – Tentative title
Premieres Tuesday, January 7, 10/9c
Free Solo rock-climber Alex Honnold joins Bear Grylls for a breathtaking adventure through the Swiss Alps! Alex is no stranger to dizzying heights, but he’s not used to falling from them, so Bear kicks off the journey with a skydive into the jagged mountains. From there, it’s a six-mile trek through craggy valleys and sheer cliffs where Bear teaches Alex how to survive in the wild, but the tables turn when Alex takes Bear on a hair-raising climb!

Episode 9 – “Bobby Bones in the Norway Fjords” – Tentative title
Premieres Tuesday, January 14, 10/9c
On-air radio personality Bobby Bones joins Bear Grylls for the adventure of a lifetime in a massive Norwegian Fjord! A helicopter ride into the mountains is where their journey begins, but from there, danger lurks at every turn – from giant rock domes and deadly bogs to raging rivers with currents strong enough to move cars. On top of that, the only way to reach their extraction is to rappel down a 300-foot waterfall that leaves even Bobby speechless!

Episode 10 – “Zachary Quinto in the Panama Jungle”
Premieres Tuesday, January 21, 10/9c
Bear Grylls and actor Zachary Quinto race the clock to traverse a dense Panamanian jungle before an impending storm makes landfall. Their adventure begins with a helicopter ride, but once dropped off deep in the brush, they must rely on a primitive navigation technique to help them reach their extraction point, and it won’t be easy! From massive cliffs and steep ravines to an underground river cave and an old crashed plane, there are obstacles at every turn!

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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