For some, Adrian Grenier invokes Vinnie Chase from the HBO series Entourage or “the boyfriend” in The Devil Wears Prada, but behind the scenes this philanthropic creative has been using the mediums of film and music to ignite much needed conversations about the social and environmental health of our people and planet. Raised as an only child in the city of New York, Adrian learned early on to respect others and has been making contributions toward a better world long before his celebrity status.
In addition to acting in films like his latest, Marauders, which released last month, Grenier maintains a busy schedule that includes directing and producing socially-minded documentaries, promoting conscious consumption through environmental advocacy and initiatives, and founding and operating community-enriching programs. From creating the SHFT Mobile Kitchen Classroom, a high school program that teaches students about food and its impact on their health and the environment, to empowering artists through Wreckroom a culture-shifting music incubator and record label, Grenier’s care for humanity extends to the global community. He has even partnered with Dell to engage others with eco-friendly choices through digital storytelling and advocacy.
The latest mission of this ambassador for change? Ocean and marine life preservation through the Lonely Whale Foundation and the soon to be released documentary 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale—a film that unveils environmental issues like ocean noise, plastic pollution, acidification, and over-fishing.
When did you first become socially and environmentally conscious? Was it through a particular experience or has this empathy always been a part of your life?
Well certainly it’s been planted and cultivated by my mother. I think it partly has to do with having been raised in New York as an only child separate from the rest of my family who lived in New Mexico. I really saw a distinction between my lifestyle and the privileges that I was allotted and that of my cousins’ who lived a different lifestyle. Whenever I would go see my cousins I was really happy to have them around and my mother taught me to embrace and appreciate others—the people that I cherish— and to be sharing and generous with them and to take care of them. To me this is an extension of our global community. When I go around the world there are people I cherish and care for and I want to take care of them even though I don’t see them everyday or they don’t even necessarily live next door to me. It’s an extension of that feeling that we have to take care of each other and to take care of ourselves. My mother also taught me to clean my room and be responsible for myself and how I create my world, not only personally but for the larger community.
A lot of your work centers around community building. Where do you think that notion originates for you?
I think this idea of a “chosen family” and building community and family that isn’t born of blood, but is born of shared values and vision, is something that came from being an only child with a mom who forged her own destiny despite her shortcomings and the limitations of her upbringing. And it’s also a part of a general philosophical curiosity and rebellion against convention—what everybody expects. I really feel like we live in a society that we all take for granted. We think that it’s as inevitable as the tides, but it’s not. It’s just one possibility created by man that can be improved upon. I think it’s our duty as human beings, as citizens, to always be questioning and always be improving. And if you look out in the world it’s very, very, very clear that our democracy, that our capitalist foundation, that our America—while it’s symbolically done some great things and created a lot of freedoms—it has also missed the mark in a lot of ways. It’s our job to reinvent and recreate and push our democracy to be better and to address the environmental shortcomings of our capitalism and business and also the social justice shortcomings with regards to people of different races and creeds and sexual orientation. So to me it’s just a civic duty, also philosophical challenge, and a curiosity to constantly create and to make something that works better.
How do you maintain balance with your outrageously busy schedule?
Well, you know they say: “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life” —that’s how I feel. And really the work that I do is creative work. I’m lucky. I don’t have to just simply survive. I can actually create and build a world that I envisioned and that’s a privilege. When I have to act and make movies and tell stories and do work to change the world that’s all the kind of work that I think wealthy people do—and that’s not wealthy monetarily, that’s wealthy in the spirit. I don’t see it as work. Premal Shah, who started Kiva, is a friend and he introduced me to this great quote by David Brooks, “Live for your eulogy, not for your resume,” and that’s how I feel. Life is short and I try to make sure every day is a moment of pride for me in that I’ve done my job as a human being, rather than being a cog in the machine.
You’ve made several documentaries. How did you get involved with the Lonely Whale Foundation and was there something that stood out or resonated most for you with the story of 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale?
My friend Lucy Cooper approached me because of the documentary work that I’ve done and also the social and environmental work that I’ve been doing. She said this was a perfect film and she was right. So she invited me on to help her produce it, which I’ve been doing, and that sort of blossomed from there. Documentaries always need a call to action. After people watch a documentary they need a place to direct their energy, or their outrage or motivation to change the world, and often times the call to action is created in hindsight and I didn’t want to make that mistake again. So I agreed to build all the social campaigns off the bat so that by the time the film comes out there’s already an existing movement. So that’s what I set out to do by creating the Lonely Whale Foundation. We have an amazing executive director, Dune Ives, who’s taken what we’ve built initially and has perfected upon it and is growing it. We have many great campaigns and we’re very happy about the work we are doing. We’re very distinctly committed to collaborative philanthropy: working with others to achieve shared goals. We want to bond people together and connect them with the ocean and build empathy among people and the ocean.
Can you tell us about some of these ocean-preservation initiatives—mainly your campaign against single-use plastic cups, bags, straws and the like?
Well, single-use plastic is really a huge issue. If we don’t watch out, there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than there will be fish. It’s time that we just reject single use plastic and that’s our initial campaign right now. This summer we ran a ‘make a splash campaign’ to invite people to get involved, share their love for the ocean and recognize how important it is to all of us. I’m pushing strongly for rejecting plastic straws and single-use plastic bags. I think it’s about time we got rid of those.
You and your business partner started SHFT.com as an online vehicle for change in 2010. Will there be a re-launch of SHFT.com? What’s the scoop?
Right now we are trying to figure out what SHFT 2.0 will be. We were really ahead of the curve in the online space of making sustainable options cool and sexy and aesthetically accessible. We feel like we really helped spark a revolution online. There is so much messaging out there that is fantastic, but now we are trying to figure out how do we get that inspiration out in the real world and how do we get people to take what they now understand in their heads and make it active. So now we are trying to create offline opportunities to engage and that’s what we are trying to solve for right now.
What is Wreckroom Records doing to push boundaries in the music industry today?
Wreckroom is really about putting more power in the hands of the artists and disciplining the artist to recognize that they not only have the power but they have to exercise the muscle of autonomy—and that’s not easy. We [musicians] often are looking for the labels to discover us or save us and make us successful, but we really can do it on our own with the tools of technology and community. Wreckroom is just a support system for emerging artists and we’re helping them help themselves. That’s sort of the basic principle and it’s just a matter of giving artists the tools to do what they do anyway.
So one of the first bands to come out of the Wreckroom are ‘The Skins’. Tell us about them.
They’re just absolutely phenomenal—a wonderful group who were developed and nurtured through this community and they are part owners of the Wreckroom. That’s sort of how we do it —it’s community support and taking ownership of themselves. The Skins are a really special band and I think they are really going to inspire people to see how things can be done differently. They are worthy of the success they are getting and they’re here to stay. Stay in the loop for an exciting EP release this fall by following @theskins on social.
Text by Andrea Plell