Hi, I'm Jason Flom, and on my new series, Righteous Convictions, I speak with some of today's most prominent and active agents of change, people who see the wrong in the world and are driven to make it right. Our guest today always had the will to make a difference, but lacked the way until finding it in the phenomenon of celebrity.
The difference between selfishness and selfish altruism is the kick that we get is through human connection, somehow improving the life of another or making a contribution. Whereas selfishness is a closed circuit, we are social creatures and we need that context. It's an essential component of happiness and you don't have to be rich to do it. Just start. He's most well known as an actor while he invests himself in charitable and humanitarian organizations. Actor and philanthropist Tony Goldwyn right now on Righteous Conviction's.
Welcome back to Righteous Convictions. This is a show where I get the privilege of interviewing people who have a righteous conviction that they have pursued, and I do it in the hope that it may inspire you to pursue that side of yourself as well. And I'm sure many of you are doing that already. So without further ado, today's guest, my friend, Tony Goldwyn. Tony, welcome to The Righteous Convictions. Hi, Jason. Thanks for inviting me.
I've had the privilege of getting to know you from our work together on the board of the Innocence Project. But there's a lot more to your philanthropic work, and I want to hear more about that. But for those of you who may have been without Internet or cable for the last 30 or so years, Tony first became what really burst onto the scene for his breakout role in the movie Ghost, but also the Divergent series, wonderful work on Broadway.
I recently saw Tony, a network with Bryan Cranston and now the TV series Scandal. But that's not what we're here to talk about. What I'm interested in is how you got involved in the various causes that you are involved with, which are as diverse as America's stand up to cancer, second stage theatre. I mean, that would make sense to me and the motion picture and television fund and even the Innocence Project. Yeah, for me, in my 20s, I was always looking for like, how could I engage and be of service in some way?
And but I just couldn't figure out how to do it. And what motivated it in a more purposeful thing for me was actually the phenomenon of celebrity. As you mentioned, like when I broke on the scene with Ghost, all of a sudden I like got famous after being a struggling actor for a number of years. And I felt really uncomfortable with the attention. I was thrilled for what it meant for my career and I was happy to get more work and all that kind of thing.
But but the idea of just being famous and people treating me somehow special felt fraudulent to me. And I didn't know what to do with them, that I sort of realized that, oh, no, that's a great lever. Like there's tremendous leverage and celebrity. And after a few years of being asked to speak out on behalf of different charities and to get engaged in these sort of philanthropic work, again, it felt very superficial, you know, I mean, like, I'll show up at an event or take my picture with something or speak once on the thing and pretend that I'm informed.
And honestly, I went through a few years in my thirties. It troubled me a lot. I just felt shallow and performative. And the one that really clicked first for me was the Innocence Project and every charity or non-profit that I'm now kind of deeply engaged with. There was some organic connection for me and like the Innocence Project was a good example. I made a film conviction that we met about 10 years ago, which was based on a true story of wrongful conviction.
I knew nothing about the Innocence Project. My wife actually saw the story on the news about this man who got out of prison after 18 years for a murder he didn't commit. And his sister had been poor, uneducated kids. And my sister was the only one who believed in him. And she went back to school and got her law degree and became an attorney just to get her brother out. Betty Anne Waters, the hero in that movie, a girl without a high school diploma who had two kids, single mom trying to make ends meet and and somehow or other found this gumption, this gear, this courage to go back to school and get her college degree and pass the bar and get her brother out of prison, all for him to die.
This very strange accident. It's a crazy, amazing story. And in chasing down the rights to make a movie about it, I met Barry Scheck, the cofounder of the Innocence Project, and got very emotionally invested in the work that the Innocence Project does. And there was no other choice but to get more deeply involved. And many years later, being asked to join the board with you after being a supporter and a sort of spokesperson for the project.
But it was a very organic thing that became very personal to me. It's almost like the Hotel California hello. Once you get in, you can never leave because the feeling that we get from the work that we do is so it's just such a it makes me feel useful. I like feeling useful. You know, a lot of people have a cause that they support. You've got some very diverse causes that you support. So I want to hear about we've obviously talked about the Innocence Project.
You know, as I was saying before, each one was sort of organised around the time I got involved with the Innocence Project Americana's, which is a health focused humanitarian relief organization that was a first responder in both disasters, but really builds long term health infrastructure in communities that suffer from poverty or disaster around the world.
They happen to have been based in the town in Connecticut where I raised our kids and, you know, a neighbor invited us across the street to a cocktail party just to. Introduce us to the organization. I heard their story and I was like, holy crap and got to know the people and just got more and more involved. And again, the same kind of thing. Like you said, once I was in, I couldn't get out. And particularly, you know, the celebrity thing is useful to not for profits.
They wanted someone who wanted to be substantively involved. And over the past 20 years and the more I understood the work, the more I wanted to contribute to the work. And it made me, as you just said, made me feel useful.
Can you talk more, Tony, about what America's does? So, for example, in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, there are a little different than Doctors Without Borders, which drops in immediately, similarly. And we'll just sort of pop up medical relief to address a crisis. But then when the crisis is past, Doctors Without Borders leaves and goes somewhere else. They're amazing, but that's what they do. What America does is they are also in partnership with organizations like Doctors Without Borders will go and be first responders, but then they will stay in the country and in West Africa, for example, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, they set up a series of health clinics around the country, both in urban and very rural areas, to create a sustainable health system.
So when the Ebola crisis passed, we're still there training, providing medicine and equipment and and wherewithal to make them sustainable. And we do that all over the world. And in terms of efficiency, you know, basically 98 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to those in need, which is incredibly high. Percentage of Americans believes correctly that with good health comes good economics. Good economies comes, good families comes. Education comes all of the things that we need to live a productive, successful life.
And without health, none of that is possible.
What about these other organizations that you support, the second stage theatre is one of the great off Broadway institutions in New York. I had worked at second stage 25 years ago and a number of times over the years as an actor and had a very personal relationship with the artistic director and really believed in their mission of supporting living American writers. My mother died of lung cancer, tragically, and I helped with stand up to cancer. They have celebrity ambassadors who I do whatever they ask me to do whenever they ask me to do the motion picture television fund was something that for people that don't know, it's another incredible organization in the film and television industry, which is a very insecure business, as most people know.
And they will provide medical insurance, they'll pay your rent, they will help you get a mortgage. They have urgent care. I'm from a showbiz family, and my grandfather, who was one of the kind of founders of the motion picture industry, was one of the founders of that organization. And so it was something you're you're that Govan. Yeah. Samuel Goldwyn was my granddad. Is that an MGM? Was your idea or you didn't know that?
Yeah, I you know, that was he was an extraordinary guy. And so it was very important to him. So that was sort of a family connection there. It's funny, Tony, I'm listening to you and how passionate you are about all this good work. You know, here's a guy who got his big break playing sort of an arch villain. Right. And go for it. Right in real life. And I know they're going to be a lot of people listening who are listening.
And they're going, this is all great, Tony. But I got to hear some showbusiness stuff. I got to hear something. What's free association for the people who are tuned in? They probably want to know some sort of a story that they've never heard before. What's the first one that pops in your head that would give people a peek under the hood inside of the Hollywood side of Tony? Oh, gosh. The first one that pops into my head is about Ghost, which was my first experience with the phenomenon of people recognizing me or knowing who I was.
When the movie first came out and was a big, big hit, I was doing a play in New York and I was rehearsing down in Greenwich Village, literally in theater.
And I was on break and I went into a little restaurant shops and down in the village I walked in there. No one was in there at like a 45 minute dinner break or something. And I said to the waitress, you know, can I just sit down? And she said, I'll be with you in a minute. And she was kind of rude. And I stood there and she would not see me. And I was like, what is going on?
And I look at my watch and I said, I'm sorry. Excuse me. Can I can I just sit? I have a little time. And she's like, fine, sit there. And she's being really rude to me. And I sit down and then she wouldn't take my order. And I tried to flag her down and she sort of throws the menu down in front of me. And I'm like, what is up with this woman? She takes my daughter finally and I'm waiting for my food and she's staring at me.
And then she comes over to me and she says, Excuse me, I'm sorry, are you an actor? And I said, Yeah, sure. In that movie goes right. And I said, Yeah, right, that's me. I said, Oh, my God, I'm sorry. I was a total bitch to you. I knew I knew you and I knew I hated you. But I couldn't figure out where I knew you from. I thought you were a guy that I had slept with who had been really, like, mean to me.
And she said she apologize for me and then was like, really nice to me. But that was my first experience with the glamour of fame. It's an unbelievable movie the other day called Give Up Tomorrow, it's a crazy wrongful conviction case in the Philippines where seven kids were wrongfully convicted of a double murder under the most dubious of circumstances imaginable. And the one kid who's the main protagonist in this was one of the seven all since the debt. But the crazy thing is, unfortunately, he was not executed, but he talked about how he would say to the other inmates who would come to him or they would have conversations and and guys were on the verge of of of giving up.
And he would say, if you want to give up, no problem, give up tomorrow. Today we're going to fight. And every day he'd repeat that like a mantra to anybody that will listen to him. I'm going to I'm going to use that. That's so good in terms of wrongful conviction, you know, whether it was Betty Anne and Kenny's story and conviction or every single one, that's a necessary ingredient because these are folks who have the worst injustice done to them and there literally is no hope.
And the thing that distinguishes every one of these people is their ability to just keep going. And in my recollection, almost every exonerated that I've talked to says that what kept them going there was someone in their family or a partner or their mother or whatever who believed in them and pushed them to keep going to give up tomorrow. And then even there are some who even say it was a stranger that came to their rescue, just a letter that somebody randomly wrote or that there's some little light in the darkness.
You know, I always wanted to be that person from the time I was a kid. You know, in certain cases, I've been able to be helpful to people when they needed it. And I call it selfish altruism, because I feel like when we do these things and there's nothing wrong with that. By the way, I think that. All right, to some degree, selfish. I mean, I know that it makes me feel good.
I hear it in your voice. It's interesting. You know, people say to me they hear my voice change when they talk about the work of the Innocence Project, even as opposed to talking about the excitement I feel discovering a new artist. And for you, it's when you make a great movie or you're on Broadway, everything that I could hear, that little change in your voice when you talk about some of these other things that you're engaged in.
And so many people are doing so many wonderful things out there. But I hope for people who haven't yet found that, that maybe we give them a little spark today that will help them to discover that hidden magic that and everybody has it. And there's always something that they can do. And that leads me right to my next question, which is the two part question. One is, if you had a magic wand or a genie popped out of a bottle and said, you know, all right, Tony, we can change something, we can make a big change, what would it be?
And the second part of the question, which is tangential but related, if someone's listening now they hear this these things you're working on, they want to help. What could somebody do? How could they learn more about what you are doing? How could they get involved?
OK, part one, I guess if I could wave a wand, it would be to eliminate the part of human nature that stops us from listening to one another, that we have an impulse to make other human beings the other. You know, and our impulse toward tribalism is something that I think is an incredibly destructive force in our nature, that if I could eradicate that, I feel like that would do so much for humanity and for our future on the planet.
And on the second question, well, I can just say, well, simply, you know, the way to learn more, every organization that I'm involved with has a really great website that will tell you all kinds of really interesting and digestible information about what they do. So if you go to Innocence Project, dawg, it tells you how to contribute and volunteer and what's going on in your community. It's just great. Similarly, America's big if you want to support the theater, go to the second stage.
Doug, you know, right now we're in a time where the arts in America are an existential threat because of covid-19 and the American theater is really struggling for its very existence. And second stage needs help and need support and deserve support. So that's that's a you know, any of the organizations that we've talked about that I I'm a part of and champion their work, you really can learn more and see what triggers your emotion, because I want to comment on one thing you said before you ask the question, and that is the sort of selfish altruism thing.
The difference for me between selfishness and selfish altruism is the kick that we get is through human connection. It's that sense of connecting with another person or group of people's lives, knowing that you are having an impact on someone's life or somehow improving the life of another or making contributions. Whereas selfishness is a closed circuit, it just feeds me and my ego and my own condition. We are social creatures and we need that context. It's an essential component of happiness.
And you. Have to be rich to do it. You don't have to be able to write big checks, you don't have to be able to do big things or impact in a big way. Just start just start in your community, find some way to engage. And you may not find the organization that speaks to you right away, but just by reaching out and create a sense of community and it is almost instantaneously satisfying and gives you the lift that you just mentioned.
Thank you for listening to Righteous Convictions. I'd like to thank our production team, Connor Hall, Jeff Kleiber and Kevin Ward as the music in this production was supplied by three time Oscar nominated composer Jay Rühle. Follow us on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Twitter at Wrong Conviction and on Facebook at wrongful conviction podcast. Righteous Convictions is a production of Lolla for good podcasts in association with Signal Company No. One.