Justin Baldoni never planned on being famous. "I never thought I was going to be an actor. I was far too insecure," he says. "I never really thought I'd become a director. I never thought that I'd be making movies or launching a studio or any of the things that have happened."
Yet, it all came to be anyway. Though he'd been working as an actor for a decade, Baldoni's breakthrough came in 2014, playing Gina Rodriguez' love interest, Rafael Solano, on the CW telenovela, Jane the Virgin. He would go on to direct movies like 2020's Clouds for Disney+, along with founding the production company, Wayfarer Studios, with a focus on "disruptively inspirational content to celebrate the human experience." But before those things could happen, however, the success of the series coincided with a personal, professional, spiritual and emotional "perfect storm" in Baldoni's life.
"The attention that I was getting [from Jane the Virgin], which I had never previously received as an actor, and my work with masculinity outside of myself, combined with being newly married and also becoming a father, it was a lot all at once," he explains in conversation with A.frame. "I was learning how to be a father, I was learning how to be a husband, I was working with all women on the most feminist show of all time. And I'm becoming slightly famous. And I'm like, "What do I do with this?'"
What Baldoni did always know was that "whatever my path was going to be, I had to use it to be of service," he says. "If I ever were going to be put in the situation where I had influence or following or celebrity, I would use it for the betterment of humankind. That was the promise that I made."
In 2017, Baldoni gave a TED Talk, "Why I'm done trying to be 'man enough,'" that was an extension of the work he was doing on himself and his advocacy on social media to break down barriers of masculinity to be vulnerable in discussing topics including mental health. A book, Man Enough: Undefining my Masculinity, followed in 2021.
"I was programmed to view vulnerability as weakness," Baldoni opens up. "So, I've had to really reprogram myself after 36 years of doing the opposite, and that has been the hardest work of my entire life. And healing journeys are messy, and every human being on this planet needs to take one. I believe that so many of the ailments that are prevalent in the world are from us as human beings acting out our trauma like children, because we haven't taken the time to heal."
Baldoni's forthcoming book is his attempt to begin these conversations sooner: Boys Will Be Human: A Get-Real Gut-Check Guide to Becoming the Strongest, Kindest, Bravest Person You Can Be (out in October from HarperCollins) is intended for boys ages 11 and up and is the book Baldoni wished he'd had at that age.
"I realized if I had started this work at about 11, if somebody had had a conversation with me about my body, about how it was changing, about what it was for, about feelings around that age, when really masculinity and middle school boys and hormones and all these things were at their peak, it could have really changed the way that I moved through the world as an adult," he explains. "I actually think this is more important than my adult book. It's been a really beautiful therapeutic healing process, to go back and imagine, 'What did I wish somebody would've told me?'"
On Tuesday, Baldoni took part in Gold Rising's "Destigmatizing Mental Health" panel alongside fellow actors and filmmakers Lana Condor, Brittany Snow and Christy Desai (LMFT therapist and CEO of OK Humans). Gold Rising is the Academy's summer program for students and young professionals from underrepresented communities, now in its sixth year.
"I love that these conversations are happening more and more and more," Baldoni says. "For me, what I always come back to with these kids is reminding them that who they are, as they are is already enough."
Especially for those hoping to enter the entertainment industry, and young men hoping to be actors, Baldoni can now reflect on what he wishes he'd known at the beginning of his career about keeping mental health top of mind. "The next young heartthrob gets off the bus and it's like Hollywood wants to mold them into the thing that Hollywood needs them to be," he says.
"I kind of allowed myself to be molded and I tried to conform and I gave power to agents and managers who told me that my eyebrows were too thick or I looked too ethnic or I needed to get buff or all the things. It's far worse for women, but men struggle with the same thing," Baldoni opens up. When in reality, if you look at the people that are the most successful, they are uniquely them. Hollywood doesn't need another Chris Hemsworth or another Chris Pratt or another Chris Evans. right? Hollywood doesn't need another Chris. It needs another you. It needs another whoever you are and whatever you have to give."
Reporting by Angelle Haney Gullett