“To thine own self be true.” I never chose this mantra to define my life, but I don’t think we choose who we are. We choose what we do, what we say, how we say it, but the trajectory of our lives and who we are at our core, we don’t ever get to choose that. The cool thing is, if we tap into who we really are, we can be whoever we want to be in life. And we’ll toss in one more quote, Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregor Collins.
Gregor Collins is an author, speaker, actor and contributor living in New York. He started his career in Los Angeles producing reality TV before shifting gears to acting, performing on stage, on television and in independent feature films. His writing and acting have been featured in “The Los Angeles Times,” “The Guardian,” “Huffington Post,” “Publishers Weekly,” “Cinema Editor Magazine” and others, as well as on Off-Broadway stages across New York. Collins travels the globe with his memoir ”The Accidental Caregiver: How I Met, Loved and Lost Legendary Holocaust Refugee Maria Altmann,” sharing with audiences his experience caring for Altmann, who was portrayed by Helen Mirren in the movie ”Woman in Gold.” Collins also created and curates “Humans in My Phone,” an ongoing micro-documentary series featuring the humans in his phone. To learn more, visit gregorcollins.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
A heightened sensitivity to the world was an early indicator of a future path in the arts. Not more than five years ago, we had some old footage of my brother Christian and me transferred to Vimeo. I was two and Christian was four as we gallivanted around our home in Montclair, New Jersey in the late 70’s. While watching the footage as an adult, I noticed as a toddler I would occasionally pause with a look of wonder at my surroundings — how strange and interesting every little detail seemed. My brother, on the other hand, was going a mile a minute in the background, never stopping to think about anything but the task at hand. The world didn’t seem strange to him, it didn’t seem overtly interesting, it was just kind of what it was supposed to be. This uncontrollable curiosity intensified as I grew, which led me to Los Angeles to become a storyteller in television and film, and then eventually to New York to work in theater. Back when I was in LA, I randomly met a Holocaust survivor named Maria Altmann, became her caregiver and wrote a book called “The Accidental Caregiver.” It’s brought me around the world. It’s made me a better man. The accidents in our lives are what define us.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?
I ran a Girls Gone Wild tour in 2005. I was 28 and living in Los Angeles. I had been producing an assortment of reality TV shows and was in between jobs, and my friend Jason Ehrlich (who is now a hot shot at NBC) gave my name to a producer who was working with GGW creator Joe Francis, at that time dubbed “The Next Hugh Hefner.” Joe was looking for someone like me, who had legit production credentials that would offset the infantile “frat mentality” of his company that he so wildly and proudly nurtured. I interviewed at Joe’s mansion in Bel Air — he lived at the top of a high hill next to Stephen Spielberg and Quincy Jones. His living room was the size of an airport hanger. I remember him testing me as he stuffed his mouth with a turkey sandwich: “Gregor, you like to bang chicks, right?” I knew he already decided I was right for the job, so I sensed he wanted brutal honesty. I gave it to him: “Absolutely!” He was relieved. He could officially trust me now. I told my mom I was working for a show on the Travel Channel, which wasn’t too far off from the truth. We (me and six camera guys) embarked on a lecherous 30-city-in-30-day tour across the country. I saw a lot of breasts, drank a lot of booze and broke up a lot of fights but, contrary to what all my (jealous) friends assumed, most of my time was spent in distress, having to field threatening phone calls from Joe about how he wasn’t getting enough footage and that the camera guys were shooting “too many ugly girls.” He threatened to fire me every phone call. Many guys viewed my position as the “dream job” — it was that way for about three days. The remaining 27 were hell on earth, not to mention the moral quandary with which I was forced to reckon. But I look back on it not with shame but with a sense of accomplishment. And it was all part of a master plan — after that show I was so burnt out that I quit reality TV to become an actor, met a fellow actor named Tom, who introduced me to Maria, who changed the course of my life. Without doing that GGW tour that caused me to reexamine my life, I would probably have never become an actor, would never have met Tom and would never have met Maria. You have to say yes to things that are scary or out of your comfort zone, it’s the only way to find any meaning on this strange and beautiful journey.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Spend your money on two things: experiences and relationships. True success has nothing to do with how the media or Instagram influencers view it. It has nothing to do with money or physical objects. Here’s what a successful person looks like in my book: Someone who follows their passions to become the best at what they care about most. You can’t do that living by anyone else’s terms. Do what you love, with love, and with the people you love. Those who embrace this have a tough journey living up to it — the safe life is the easy life — but it’s better to have loved and lost…!
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
Maria Altmann! Hands down. I could write a book about my relationship with her. And okay, just to have a little fun here, suppose I were to write a book about it — I’d call it The Accidental Caregiver: How I Met, Loved and Lost Legendary Holocaust Refugee Maria Altmann, and I’d publish it and then travel around the world spreading her love and then I’d turn it into a stage play in New York and then I’d write a sequel and then I’d release it in July 2020 and then I’d do an interview with Authority Magazine. That would be pretty cool.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
I’m not an activist or anything admirable like that. I don’t pretend to be doing nearly as much as I could be doing to help the world. I bring goodness in my own ways: through my treatment of others, through my book, through being a mentor to kids and students on how to tell stories and write scripts. I’ve also ushered in the afterlife for many elders, making their final years, their final days, as good as they could be. Just because you’re not out there on the front lines shouting and holding picket signs doesn’t mean you aren’t contributing to the betterment of the world. I think our own journeys of self-discovery and self-awareness, our fervent pursuit of spiritual truths, can be our beacons of light for others to see how impactful a life can be when it’s spent going after what you love… with love.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
I have daily correspondences with readers around the world who tell me that my book about caring for Maria in the last three years of her life helped them through a difficult time as a caregiver caring for a loved one. I never wrote the book for agents, publishers, any kind of “knowers” or even caregivers. I just did what Hemingway thought every writer should do: I sat down at my typewriter and bled. The rest worked itself out and opened my life up to many unforeseen gifts. When you open up your heart, when you go after things with unwavering fervency and genuineness, the world opens up for you.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I don’t have three things, I have one, and it’s an idea I’ve thought about for a few weeks now. I think kids, especially in America, don’t value elders. They’re just “old people” who have nothing to offer. It’s extremely sad because it’s a loss for everyone. So here’s the only solution: Get a handful of YouTube influencers — those who collectively have hundreds of millions of followers around the world — to make regular videos showing how totally cool and awesome elders are in their lives. The harsh reality is, kids are more influenced by YouTube celebrities than they are their own parents and teachers. We need to fix this. It’s not fair. It’s the little things — do you know what a simple smile and hello means to an elder who may have spent their entire day with no human interaction? With no one to show them how their life still matters? Ghandi said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Substitute “elders” for “animals” and it still rings true. I would love to team up with a few YouTube celebrities to make these kinds of videos — it’s a win-win for them, too, because it would only enhance their exposure and further diversify their audience.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
After slaving over this question for ten minutes and not having one single thing to say, I’ve concluded that I don’t ever look back or think about doing things differently. Sure, we can all get caught up in a hypothetical, but what good would it really do? James Joyce said: “There are no mistakes… only portals to new discovery.” Here I am today, holding in my body a treasure trove of incredible adventures that have shaped me as a human, that may not have come about had I listened to any advice, let alone travelled back in time with “future” advice.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Okay, assuming money and resources were there, I would spearhead a program where every underprivileged, troubled or low income household, every child with autism or any kind of disability — basically every young “outcast” of any kind — would, at least once a week for as little as an hour, be assigned a mentor to sit down with the family, talk about their problems and show them how important they are to the world. We need more mentors. The government should make sure every family who needs one gets one for ZERO money.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
Choosing one quote is like choosing one donut — but I’ll give you one that comes to mind, and it’s from Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” I never chose this mantra to define my life, but I don’t think we choose who we are. We choose what we do, what we say, how we say it, but the trajectory of our lives and who we are at our core, we don’t ever get to choose that. The cool thing is, if we tap into who we really are, we can be whoever we want to be in life. And we’ll toss in one more quote, Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I could say people like Conan O’Brien, Michael Jordan, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Stern, Larry David, and they would be great, but here is my number one: The entire cast of Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum (And if I couldn’t get the entire cast, I’d choose Michael, Mark and Chloe). After riding the emotional highs and lows of that series, I would quit everything I’m doing to help those precious, precious souls. They all stole my heart. I want to give them all a big bear hug and tell them it’s going to be okay… and then I want to adopt them. You don’t see childlike innocence in the world like you do with people on the spectrum. Maria, who wasn’t on the spectrum, had this childlike innocence at the age of 94. Innocence is a true gift.