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“It sounds crazy to compare the Airborne tryout to So You Think You Can Dance, but they felt the same at times” – Actor Danny Lewis dives into his (former) military life.
What’s your backstory?
I’m an actor, dancer, writer, and entrepreneur. This is my story. I grew up in a pretty normal middle class family in Rocklin, California, a suburb of the state’s capitol, Sacramento. Though my parents divorced when I was 9, they both supported my brother and me in our various endeavors. I was one of those kids growing up who saw the movie “Top Gun” and knew exactly who I wanted to be for the rest of my life: a fighter pilot.’ I worked my ass off in school, earned super high grades, and somehow convinced my congressman to nominate me for The US Air Force Academy.
I was the nerd who was in Junior ROTC in high school, so I had been wearing an Air Force uniform since I was a teenager, but getting to The Academy as a cadet was a total shock. I went from being the top guy in a local ROTC unit to just another Freshman. It was a tough adjustment. I was always sort of a rebel growing up, and didn’t even make it out of basic training without earning a spot on the probation list. I made my way off the list, but I realized that I’m not a huge fan of bureaucracies. It’s tough to have a boss who’s your boss simply because he or she is older or has more seniority.
It makes you appreciate hard skill, talent, and character. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing experience. I made lifelong friends, earned my degree, and commissioned as a lieutenant. I even earned a ticket to pilot training in Mississippi, which was a crazy and awesome experience. For over a year, my classmates and I hammered out 20-hour days learning to fly three different planes. We learned the basics, aerobatic flying, formation flying, it was all pretty fast and crazy. The stress was intense. 4:30am briefings so that we could get to the plane and prep to take off at exactly sunrise.
It was intense, stressful, and the most difficult thing I had done my whole life. Pilot training was one of those life experiences that pushes you hard. It forces you to take massive leaps out of your comfort zone every single day. Just when you get comfortable with anything you’ve learned — takeoffs, aerobatics, landings, and solo flights — you’re pushed to do something new and super uncomfortable.
You never feel quite right in pilot training. You never really feel settled. But I think that was instructive more me. It taught me to take a chance and do what feels uncomfortable. And when you lend some thought to it — serious thought — you intuit that the only way to grow is to push beyond one’s comfort zone. After earning my wings, the Air Force stationed me in Las Vegas, Nevada and tasked me with flying Predator “drones.”
It was beyond surreal. I went from wearing a helmet, oxygen mask, and flight suit, flying 300 knots, to sitting in a modified storage container flying about 75 miles per hour in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few other spots. It was one of those jobs that is 99% boredom and 1% pure adrenaline. I remember one night we went from flying on autopilot around a building for hours to celebrating hunting down Bin Laden.
We were doing super important things, but it often felt mundane. I think that’s what the important things in life often feel like, and that’s OK. I just needed some excitement more often, so I got into ballroom dancing as a side project. Really, it was a friend who suggested I buy one of those daily deals and go with her. I took a week of convincing me, but I finally went. It only took another week for me to fall in love with dance.
Now, maybe five years later, I perform routines all over and compete when I find the time. I absolutely love it! In fact, it’s a big part of what I do now as a performer. After a few years of drone flying, I got out of the Air Force and moved to Los Angeles. Ultimately, I thought my goal was to become a general in the Air Force, or an astronaut, or something like that. But it took me a few years to figure out that, even as a kid, I didn’t really want to be a pilot like in Top Gun. I really wanted to be the guy playing the pilot. I wanted to ACT. I wanted to create compelling stories filled with rich characters facing impossible odds.
It sounds trite, I know, but I really wanted to plum the characters I’d met along the way in the Air Force. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by what makes other people tick. What motivates them to do what they do. Acting, story-writing, and content production lets me do this on a deep level. I get to know a character inside and out, and I get to really understand what it is that drives people. It’s fascinating! I mean, I’m sure story exposition and character development aren’t everyone’s idea of fun time, but I just love the stuff! Now, I spend most of my time developing characters and stories with my various content partners, and hone the crafts of dancing and acting.
I don’t think I’m world class — I’m definitely a better pilot than I am a performer — but I’m putting the time in to getting there. I think that’s the toughest part of any career. I think it’s super tough to keep your head down and focus on getting better, even when you don’t see an immediate return, but I feel like I’ve had a great of training that keeps me in the zone and focused on becoming better every day. And really, that’s all we can ask of ourselves.
Can you tell me the story of your prior successes, challenges, and major responsibilities?
A few years ago, just after I left the military, I decided I wanted to start a company that helped people find drone services for everything from real estate photography to aerial cinematography for film and television.
I brought on a few investors and called the company “Skyborn.” We began building out the platform — think of it like a Yelp! for drone pilots that lets you book the pilot — but I failed to get it going fast enough to support more investment. I know this sounds like a failure, but it was a huge win for me. It was my first entrepreneurial endeavor, and I learned a ton about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Skyborn is still going. I’m doing it on my own.
The point is, I learned how to hustle, how to provide value to customers, and how to manage folks who may not be as bought into an idea as me. And that’s really what a career in Hollywood is. You have to find a way to bring value all the time. You’re selling yourself, ALL THE TIME. But, ironically, it’s authentic. That’s really the only way to sell yourself in Hollywood or anywhere. You have to be honest to others and true to yourself.
You have to work hard, take responsibility for your own life, and approach everyone you meet with integrity. And you really can’t quit, ever. You have to push through challenges and take responsibility for your own success. That’s entrepreneurship. That’s acting. Skyborn didn’t become a billion-dollar company. I mean, we’re still around and growing, but it’s more of a side hustle now. The skills I learned along the way are the real win. A commitment to tireless effort, integrity, and a never-quit attitude are my bedrock values.
Can you tell me about a time when you almost gave up, how you felt about that, and what you did instead of giving up?
I remember being a sophomore — a “Cadet-Third Class” — at the Air Force Academy and had the opportunity to be a part of a program that gave us the chance to go to the Army’s Airborne school in the summer where they train paratroopers. I was dying to go, but the Air Force on gets three or four spots, if any, a year. So the upperclassmen from the previous year put us through the ringer. There were about 100 of us who showed up to the tryout — sort of like an audition.
It was something like 4 in the morning in the dead of winter in Colorado and we had 50 or 60 pound rucksacks we had to carry throughout the tryout. I remember it was brutal. We started by unpacking and repacking the rucksacks in the snow with numb hands. The rucksacks had to be packed perfectly. Upperclassmen swarmed us.
These were some of the toughest people I’ve ever met. The kind of people you read about in history books about Air Force Special Tactics, Navy SEALs, and Army Special Forces operators. They ran us for something like ten miles in the woods, in the snow. We did push-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, Ranger claps, buddy carries, you name it, all day. My peers dropped like flies. I’ll be honest, I thought about quitting that day. A LOT.
It’s tough to put into words how tough this day was, but I’ll always remember what one of the upperclassmen told me while I was simultaneously freezing and sweating on the ruck run. He asked my where I’d rather be than on the ruck run. Remember, we each had something like 60 pounds on our backs and were dead tired. With a slight smile, I told him I wanted to be in a hot tub in Vail with an ice cold Coke and steak. Weird, I know. I’ll never forget his response: “There’s nowhere else you should want to be right now. You should want to be right here, right now, feeling every second of the pain and learning to love it. You should embrace the discomfort and use it as fuel.” I won’t said who it was that told me this, but the guy would later go on to be a hero in Afghanistan. Oddly, his words pushed me. I thought about quitting that day almost every second. But his words brought me solace. Maybe it was thinking that others were probably having the same trouble I was having, or maybe that one of the upperclassmen who had successfully made it through the tryout was giving genuine advice to get through it.
I’m not sure, but that advice has stuck with me. When So You Think You Can Dance called me into their auditions, I had to struggle for a month straight to learn a routine I had never done before and get the technique and my fitness as perfect for it as I could. I thought about that day I wanted to quit on that run and it really pushed me. It pushed me to max effort and dance better than I think I ever have before and enjoy every second of it.
I know it sounds crazy to compare the Airborne tryout to SYTYCD, but they felt the same at times: in both cases I had to push myself harder than I ever had before to focus on rapid personal growth in the face of surmounting burden of the desire to quit. But you can’t quit. You have to keep going and learn to love the pain along the way. I think 25 of us finished that day. We started with 100.