Seven years ago, actor and director Justin Baldoni was in a dark place. His acting career had bottomed out after a handful of soap opera appearances and roles in films like House Bunny and Spring Break Shark Attack. He was directionless and beset with self-doubt.
During a very late night soul-searching session, Baldoni asked himself a question banal and yet life-changing in its simplicity: What am I really doing here?
Baldoni told this story Thursday (Dec. 6) at the End Well Symposium, an annual conference in San Francisco about death, design, and rethinking approaches to mortality. His question, he explained, wasn’t just a late-night existentialist lament, but a challenge: What did he have to contribute that could bring value to others and purpose to his own life?
Baldoni, now best known for his role on the sitcom Jane the Virgin on the CW network, said he took a piece of paper and scribbled the following: “’My Last Days’—a show about living told by the dying.” It was just a brainstorm thought, but the words on the page looked back at him with the expectancy of a newly birthed idea.
What if, Baldoni supposed, he made a documentary series where people living with terminal conditions told their own stories? It was enough to get him out of his funk and back to work.
Two years later, the first episode of My Last Days appeared on SoulPancake’s YouTube channel. The first season featured Zach Sobiech, a 17-year-old American boy diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
“I’ve been told I have a few months to live, but I still have a lot of work to do,” Sobiech told the camera in the documentary’s opening minutes. “I want everyone to know you don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.”
The series struck a deep chord. Sobiech’s episode alone has been viewed nearly 15 million times.
Before his death in May 2013, weeks after his 18th birthday, Sobiech released a song, “Clouds,” and was the first unsigned artist to top the iTunes charts. There have been three seasons of the YouTube series and a spinoff mini-series on the CW network.
It was the beginning of a turnaround for Baldoni, both personally and professionally. After hearing Baldoni talk about his girlfriend, Sobiech told him to go propose to this woman he clearly loved. They’re married now. And through the production company Baldoni founded to create the series, Wayfarer Entertainment, he launched the Man Enough movement to challenge unhealthy definitions of masculinity.
Baldoni has found new purpose to his career by facing uncomfortable subjects head on, starting with that dark night seven years ago. In doing so, he said, “I really saw how death and joy can be seen in the same sentence.” And it ended up changing his life.