Each year at the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford hosts a “Filmmaker’s Brunch” for the directors of all the films featured in the festival. My schedule kept me from attending the first year I went in 2010 but two years later, when I was there in with Liberal Arts, the second film I directed, I was able to attend.
I didn’t speak to Redford that morning or even get all that close to him (he looked great from across the room!) but I’ve never forgotten something he said in his remarks. He stressed the importance of “starting from zero,” which is essentially that when you’ve scaled certain heights, when you’re at the top of one mountain, you have to dare yourself – and humble yourself – to become a newcomer again. To start over, basically, and begin the long trudge up an entirely different mountain. For Redford, he was the world’s biggest movie star in the 70s but he’d never directed a film. So he started from zero and directed his first film. He had also never started a film festival so in 1978, he started one.
The film Redford directed was Ordinary People, which won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture (Redford also won Best Director) and the film festival he started, of course, was Sundance. So when it comes to “starting from zero” Robert Redford is batting a thousand. Winning streaks like Redford’s are rare, but the notion of not staying comfortable, of daring oneself to leave the comfort and security of one’s perch and embark on new adventures – against the stern warnings of our egos which long only for the safety of the known – made a huge impact on me. I had already proven to myself the upsides of starting from zero: It was writing and directing films – which at the outset I was unsure I could do – that took me to Redford’s festival and to his words that particular morning.
My guiding philosophy as an actor these days is that I do my best not to repeat myself. It’s tough to be in an industry that asks you to keep hitting the same notes over and over once you’ve proven those are notes you can reliably hit. There’s an additional danger in the fact that after years of playing one role, you yourself start to wonder if those might be your only notes. Range unexplored is range in danger of atrophying. I’ve been grateful and delighted with the roles I’ve gotten to play in my career thus far and the last few years have been a particular treat. I’ve played a host of prickly, flawed, dimensional characters and learned something about myself through each of them.
But my greatest joy these days is making music. Three years ago, I started writing songs with my friend Ben Lee, who has had a many-decades-long and accolades-laden career as a singer-songwriter. Songs tumbled out of us every time we got together and what began as kind of lark or potential side project turned into something we both began to treat with increasing seriousness and dedication. We released our self-titled debut album, Radnor & Lee, last November and are currently at work on recording our second record. Our first shows at The Hotel Café in Los Angeles were for less than a hundred people and we’ve now played to audiences in Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, as well as across the U.S.
Though we wrote all the songs together, Radnor & Lee began as a one-guitar band (that guitar being Ben’s.) But about a year-and-a-half ago I wrote a song by myself, called “Foolish Gold,” with the few chords I knew on guitar. Ben loved the song and I began playing it at Radnor & Lee shows and audiences seemed to like it too. I began picking up the guitar at my house – which had sat idle for years – and playing more and more. At some point Ben said – with his unique brand of enviable enthusiasm – “Let’s be a two-guitar band!”
And so here I am, typing this with calloused fingers: a song-writing guitar player who practices and plays every chance I get.
That I became a touring musician in my forties is a fact that continues to astonish and delight me. I sometimes have to fight the doubting voices in my head that ridicule me for starting a band and learning to play guitar at my age. Aren’t you supposed to do that when you’re fifteen in your parent’s garage?! But here’s something that helps me swat that unhelpful thought away: I didn’t have much to say when I was fifteen. If nothing else, by the time you hit forty life has knocked you around sufficiently. Through the simple act of staying alive, I’ve acquired some small measure of wisdom and perspective that I simply didn’t have in my teens and 20s. When I sit down to write a song I have a much deeper well of experience to draw upon.
I sometimes get confused by having so many careers, hit with this feeling that I’m supposed to pick a lane and stick to it. But there is something that unites everything I do and that’s ‘story.’ I love hearing and telling stories. As an actor I’m a participant in other people’s stories. As a film director I create my own ninety-minute stories. And as a songwriter I’m telling three-to-four minute stories set to music. I now have a storytelling form to suit whatever mood I’m in.
I had been an obsessive music fan for years but it never occurred to me that I myself might one day be writing my own music. Learning that I could write songs – that I could actually write the kind of music I most wanted to hear – was like discovering some latent superpower. There was, it turns out, a songwriter inside of me all those years. I just needed to give myself permission to unlock him. I needed to find the courage to start from zero.
In June, Ben and I played at the historic L.A. music venue The Troubadour. At Radnor & Lee shows we generally each do one solo song in the set. Here’s a video of me playing one of my songs, “Pretty Angel,” with my friend (and world class concert violinist) Kerenza Peacock. The song is about being unable to fall asleep while under attack from anxiety and worst-case scenario thinking. I assume some readers will be able to relate.
And here’s a video I directed for the Radnor & Lee tune “Be Like The Being” (It was nice to have all my worlds collide on this one).
If you enjoyed this story from Josh, read his other Thrive Global pieces on fame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.
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