Upon finishing his eight year starring stint on television’s popular ER series, Anthony Edwards took his wife and children on a trip around the world. While they were visiting Kenya, Edwards went for a jog with a young Masai Warrior named Lettura.
“That jog sparked an idea,” says Edwards. “I thought, if Lettura loves running, why doesn’t he come to run the marathon in New York?”
And that thought sparked the idea for a documentary about dual assimilations. With good friends behind the camera, Edwards returned to Kenya to record his own eye-opening interactions with Lettura’s family and friends, and Lettura’s journey to New York City, where he ran his first marathon and, in doing so, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars towards building a children’s hospital in Kenya.
Edwards’ documentary, “From the Mara to the Marathon” is currently available on SnagFilms.com, and Edwards took time to talk about his experiences in Kenya, his relationship with Lettura, and the passion for altruism he’s had since he worked at a theater for the disabled during his teenage years.
JENNY HALPER: The first thing that strikes me about your documentary is that it’s extremely balanced – you’re as in awe of Kenya as Lettura is of New York City.
ANTHONY EDWARDS: There’s something incredibly moving about being in an environment that hasn’t changed in millions of years. People talk about getting back to the roots of humankind, and the best way to experience that is to witness how similar we all are.
We got to have a visual first time experience with the filmmakers, who had never been in Kenya before, and that’s why I think it feels real. But I found that being in the middle of the wild, in the middle of the Mara, was incredibly comfortable – and it was something I thought wouldn’t be comfortable.
HALPER: Did you have a similar experience with running?
EDWARDS: Yeah. I started running when I was thirty seven because I wanted to do something I never thought I could do before physically. I wanted to change my health, make sure I didn’t smoke ever again. Really, I thought it was something I wasn’t naturally drawn to and I realized how much I loved it after that. The whole idea of the film came out of the idea of having an exchange with Lettura: here we were having this incredible run. He’d been to Nairobi and run a half marathon before and he loved that. And I thought, “wouldn’t it be great if Leturra could come and run in New York?” And a month or so later I thought, “maybe I should document that.” But the idea was really, “wouldn’t it be great for him to have that experience?”
HALPER: How did you know he’d be able to run that distance?
EDWARDS: I’m a total amateur jogger and I’ve run a marathon. I know people can do it. I also know it’s a sport you don’t have to win to have an amazing experience. It’s about the journey. At times you’re completely by yourself, and yet it’s also a sport that can be enjoyed in groups of twenty thousand. It makes it more universally accessible. The thing that I kept realizing in the process of making the film was I projected my own fears – “what’s going to happen we’re taking this innocent young man into New York City?” The truth is New York City or escalators or elevators or twenty thousand people, they aren’t necessarily more of terrifying than survival or the ritual of being a Masai. It didn’t terrify him or shock him or make him re-evaluate his life. It confirmed what I hoped, which is that we really do share so much. He was feeling good energy and it made him comfortable, and it was simply the smile and warmth – he’d be on the subway and people would bump into him – that simple act made him feel a connection that we take for granted.
HALPER: Do you think people in Kenya connect with others more instinctively?
EDWARDS: We are all just one hello away from feeling very connected. There is an isolation that happens in our culture out of pure fear of connecting with others. It’s in the film. We talk about the fact that people in Kenya don’t say “what’s your name?” they say “how are you?” They say, “how do you feel?” It’s a small thing but it’s a big distinction. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s “how are you?” – to me it’s a difference of living in NYC and living in Los Angeles. In a car culture there’s a lot more fear and a lot more separation. I want to live a life of feeling connected to people not a life of “I’ve controlled everything.” That’s why I gravitate to travel.
HALPER: Did you ever consider running alongside Lettura?
EDWARDS: I didn’t when I knew I wanted to document it. I guess I felt I didn’t want to be that central in the film.
HALPER: By running in the marathon, Lettura raised a lot of money for Shoe4Africa, which is, among other projects, building a children’s hospital in Kenya, but this isn’t brought up in the documentary. Why?
EDWARDS: The making of the film was not to raise money or to promote the cause of empowerment through sports, but the roots of that are very similar – they come from the same place of experience with other people in other cultures. For me I don’t think there’s a separation between whether you’re a filmmaker or a tourist or a philanthropist as long as you’re connected through a genuine desire to communicate or share.
HALPER: You’re involved with several charities, Shoe4Africa, Direct Relief International…
EDWARDS: That’s always been part of the culture of my family. I’m the youngest of five kids and my father was always doing things to help people in small ways. I always felt you should spend your free time (helping others), I’ve always had these incredible experiences. I worked with a theater company in Santa Barbara when I was seventeen, and I worked with them for almost nine years. It’s called Access Theater, and it was giving people with all different disabilities access to theater both as audience and as actors. I made a small documentary about that years ago called “Speaking Through Walls.” Maybe it’s something I should offer up to Snag because we didn’t have that access years ago.
The most fundamental thing I learned working in that arena was that disability really is what unites us – when we’re born we’re disabled and when we die we’re disabled and in between we’re disabled at different times, and that’s the common language of what it is to be human. That’s why people go to the theater and listen to music, to find that commonality. The commonality is not, “we’re number one.” And as a result it’s a soft documentary. Most people don’t want an hour and a half of something that’s “nice.”
HALPER: You don’t produce very commercial movies, do you?
EDWARDS: We always tell our friends anything worth doing is going to be difficult. Just because you’ve got the right story to tell doesn’t mean it’s easy to make. The fun of it, the important thing is, it has to be something you care about. What I care about is the process, not the result. That’s why I’m not an incredibly commercial producer.
HALPER: How far along are you in raising money for the children’s hospital?
EDWARDS: We are almost at our first million which will mean that we can break ground. We have a six month goal working with people in the corporate world to raise the other four million so we can have the entire building funded, so that’s what we’re working on for the next six months.
HALPER: And the hope is that doctors who might leave Kenya because there aren’t resources will decide to stay?
EDWARDS: What you discover in Africa is there’s no lack of will or passion. There’s only the lack of opportunity. By getting buildings and equipment you create a huge resource of opportunity and that’s what will keep doctors and nurses and give them the space to train.
In their world, buildings and institutions don’t exist. There is no public children’s hospital in the country of Kenya. It’s so out of balance when people say “Why Africa, why not America?” You can’t throw a rock without hitting a children’s hospital in NYC. Eighty percent of children who die in Kenya die without ever seeing a health care provider. We really need to take care of one of the weakest links in our global culture in relation to health care and help the whole world.