WELCOME TO EARTH Feature Photo

In the new Disney+ and National Geographic series, Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith embarks on an adventure around the globe, with his sights set on the lesser-explored regions of planet Earth. He's accompanied by several experts, including Erik Weihenmayer, a professional adventurer and mountaineer with a Guinness World Record. Weihenmayer shares his experience with us.

“All the best things in life live on the other side of fear.”

In the Disney+ and National Geographic six-part original series Welcome to Earth, actor Will Smith shares an incredible moment with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person ever to summit Everest. They descend into the heart of an active volcano - Mount Yasur on Tanna Island in Vanuatu - to investigate sounds beyond human hearing. Standing at the edge, Smith describes what he sees to Weihenmayer as the volcano throws up lava that comes down as rocks.

“[It’s] like looking into the gates of hell,” Smith says, as Weihenmayer takes off his sunglasses to fully take it in. Smith’s narration glides in over the stunning images of exploding red, orange and yellow hitting the dark rock: “You just forget that [Weihenmayer] is completely blind. I mean, this is a man who climbed Everest and hiked this volcano without a single stumble.”

But the moment really lands when Smith asks Weihenmayer whether or not he has any emotion around not being able to see the volcano erupt. Weinhenmayer’s response hits like a shotgun blast to the heart.

“You know, when I went blind [at the age of 13], there was a time when you sort of regret, but eventually, I think I learned that you got to say goodbye to that sighted life and take on a new life. So, a part of you dies, and a part of you is reborn.”

WELCOME TO EARTH photo 1

(L to R): Vulcanologist Jeff Johnson, Will Smith and explorer Erik Weihenmayer prepare to descend into a volcano to install sensors.

It’s always extraordinary to see what images National Geographic captures in their nature explorations. Each frame is nearly worthy of pinning to your wall to admire. But it’s rare when a show can cause you to take in your surroundings on a more profound level. Weihenmayer’s perspective, fearlessness and sonic descriptions are true works of art. The way he chronicles landscape changes, hikes up and down mountains (while massive rocks are falling all around him) and tears up over things we often take for granted is a beautiful wake-up call. It’s so touching and informative, and that feeling carries across the entire series.

To open up Welcome to Earth’s simple beauties further, we rang up Mr. Weihenmayer to discuss going into the farthest reaches of our planet to explore just how wondrous and wild it truly is. In the transcribed chat below, we talk about peeling back the layers of sound, keeping the adventure within yourself alive and how he personally powers through fear.

Join Will Smith on an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime adventure around the world. Welcome to Earth, an original series from National Geographic, is streaming this December only on @DisneyPlus. #WelcomeToEarthSeries

Q&A:

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 1. Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. Enjoy the conversation, and be sure to stream Welcome to Earth on Disney+ today!

Preston Barta: I'm from Texas, but I'm chatting with you from New York. And what’s funny is, in “The Silent Roar” episode that you're featured in on Welcome to Earth, Will Smith discusses peeling back the layers of sound in New York City. The first image that's shown when they mention New York is of a family standing on Umpire Rock, which is literally right outside my window. So, after this call, I'm going to walk down there and start peeling back the layers of sound to see what I discover.

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah, that's really cool! I do that as well. When I'm in a city or bombarded by so many layers of sound, I'm constantly trying to do that, in a way, because I have less experience interpreting sound (in my senses) in a big city. It's harder. But it's easier for me in nature because that's more of my comfort zone.

Yeah. Much easier to pick up certain things.

There are a lot of subtle sounds in nature that are beautiful. Just the way ice sounds when it falls and lands on a [hard surface], or the way sound absorbs into the snow, bounces off objects, or when sound vibrations move through space. There's a beautiful sense of infinite expanse through that sound. There are subtle sounds, and then there are big, gigantic, booming, violent sounds like the rapids in the Grand Canyon or the volcano Mount Yasur. That's about as roar as you can get.

WELCOME TO EARTH photo 2

Sulfurous gases escape from the crater of Mount Yasur and roll down the slopes.

You know, it's pretty astonishing what this show achieves, especially by the end of your episode. It shows other explorers crawling through a cave’s tightest spaces. I can honestly tell you that I would probably never do that in my life, but it's really neat to go there in this series because the reward on the other side just stops you in your tracks. 

You say that, and I hear that from a lot of people, but I bet you would do it. It doesn't matter whether you are the most elite athlete on Earth, there's always this fear, anxiety and worry, and, “Oh, my God. Can I do this?” And then on [the other side] are hope, excitement and adventure. We're all straddling the same thing when we're out there. As a living person, you straddle that just as well as anyone. 

You know what? You’re right. I have to say that I find your confidence and fearlessness so infectious. You dance with danger all the time. 

[Laughs.]

I cracked up a few times watching your episode, especially when Will Smith is trying to keep his cool, stating that you are about to walk into a volcanic area that could erupt at any moment, which means bye-bye for you all. And you’re like, “Right,” and you proceed up the mountain. When did this way of thinking really begin to take shape for you? 

Everything scares me. Consequences scare me. They say when you're climbing, falling doesn't scare you, the landing scares you. So yeah, there are real consequences out there. So, I mean, as a kid, I was always terrified. I was always thinking, “Oh, God. Am I just this Walter Mitty who's dreaming about these outlandish things like many little kids do, and I have no ability to fulfill it? So, you're always kind of questioning yourself. 

But I also hated being on the sidelines. I hated the thought of being this blind kid who would be missing out of everything. So, I would go to the nature preserve near my house, and I'd climb cliffs and race my bike down steep hills. I'd fly off a ramp and fly through the air and land on a big ramp that I’d set up like 10, 15 feet away. Then, I'd jump off cliffs into the river. 

As a kid, you don't know how to explore exactly. You know what I mean? It's a personal exploration. So, as I got older and went totally blind, well, I got this opportunity to go rock climbing, and I said, “OK. I'm terrified, but I'm going to say yes to this because I don't want to be on the sidelines.” That, to me, was way scarier than the fear of going blind and seeing darkness. Living a meaningless life was a terrifying thought. So often, you find yourself in this prison, and it's scary staying in that prison. It's scary breaking out of that prison. So, I figured I'd choose the direction that would give me more possibilities. 

That’s amazing. It’s something to definitely mentally dog ear. 

[Laughs.]

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Will Smith, left, and explorer Erik Weihenmayer discuss the sounds of the volcano.

Now, I’m not sure if you remember this, but I’ve actually tossed a question in your court before. A few months ago, a Television Critics Association press conference was held for Welcome to Earth. And I submitted the last question that was hit with all kinds of technical difficulties.

Oh, yes! I remember. The signal kept dropping whenever we tried to answer.

Yes. So, I wanted to give you a clear space to answer it. 

Sounds good.

Watching this series allows the viewer to experience some of the most mysterious and beautiful things life has to offer. And as close as I get to understanding it all through this very vivid series, I imagine there are some things that no one will ever know until they’ve walked in your shoes. So, what is something that I will never know until I actually have been where you have?

I think they've done a phenomenal job of capturing these things that you experience in person. But I'll tell you, standing on the rim of the volcano with Will Smith – I told him to close his eyes, and we sat there for an hour. You could hear in 3-D all around you. You could listen to the line of the jungle in the distance. And then we were kind of standing on the edge of this dead zone. And then in front of you were these lava lakes that were splashing and exploding. It sounded like a beautiful, violent ocean with this energy source erupting from the bowels of the Earth. I've done some crazy stuff, but I have never experienced anything like that. I remember at that moment going, “God, I hope they can somehow give people a sense of what I am hearing right now. I hope that can translate.

Oh, it did. It was incredibly moving.

Great.

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On a remote island in the Pacific, Will Smith descends into the heart of an active volcano to investigate sounds beyond human hearing. Will discovers that everything on our planet creates its own unique sound—even if we can’t always hear it. With the help of technology, we can tune into the hidden sounds of our planet, from the pull of the moon on our mountains and cities to a silent rumble so deep and powerful, it can move the earth around it.

Lastly, I have to bring up the most impactful line when you talk about regret, blindness, and how a part of you dies and is reborn. Through that rebirth, what sound has painted the most beautiful picture in your head?

Hmm. I would have to say when I climbed the mountains. I love the sound of a summit. I love being up there. It’s like you’re on an island in the sky, a very sacred place. Now, I know I'm not really designed to be there very long as a human being, but I got to say a couple of prayers, thank the heavens, cry a little bit, take some photos and experience this moment fully. It's so improbable. You're listening to the sound of vibrations moving out infinitely through space, and they have nothing to bounce off of. It's like you're this tiny little spec that the sky has swallowed. It's just humbling, beautiful, terrifying and awe-inspiring all simultaneously.

Well, this has been really special. Thank you for your time and words. I’ll stay hungry for adventure, and hope you’ll do the same.

Oh, thank you so much.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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