Resilience through Adversity
The story of Robert McCrea – a successful producer and actor, reads like something out of a Hollywood movie. His personal journey screams “resilience through adversity .”
Rob’s father managed to escape from the prison camp. He was a refugee from Burma at the end of the second world war whose reference for fathering was the Japanese prisoner of war camp which wasn’t much fun. His grandfather was executed in front of his father. Rob’s grandmother managed to escape from the women’s prison camp with two of her daughters. They managed to collect Rob’s father and his slightly older brother from the men’s prison camp.
With all of the guns, they actually had to cross the battle plane to get to the other side. The two week walk through the jungle, from a place called Michiana in Burma through the jungle to Lido road, which is where the allied forces were based could only take place at night time. Unfortunately, they didn’t all make it on that journey. This environment that Rob was born into with very high achieving brave and strong women. His grandmother underwent hardships that you can’t even begin to imagine! Brought up by a father who knew anything can happen in the world, Rob become a very resilient child who grew into a very resilient young man. Rob and his sister lived in a lot of different Asian countries without actually going to Burma. His father was keen that his children had the opportunity to live and be schooled in those countries, not as expats, but as locals. While they were in touch with where they came from, they had no understanding of prejudice. For an early age Rob and his sister realised the importance of being non judgemental.
“There are things that we can control, but there’s a huge amount that we can’t control. And for the things that we can’t control, it’s important that we have an inner strength, that can take us through to the other side and not give up and just say, ‘gosh, this is too hard’, or ‘this is too far’, or ‘ this is too high, I’m not going to make it. Sometimes the most unusual people have that inner strength ‘.Rob McCrea
“If you’re sitting in a big organisation there is a responsibility to address the core issues. Leaders fulfill different roles. The coordination role is a serving role. Some people are good on detail, others are creative and entrepreneurial. Creatives come up with new ideas for the organisation to take it forward. When I attended drama school, I knew that that was the role for me.” continues Rob
As a citizen of the world, Rob embraces people for who they are. It doesn’t matter where they are. They are people first and foremost and every other thing is secondary.
00:00:00 Paula: Rob was so wonderful that he decided that he would do a second session with us. And so this time we have him as a guest on “TesseLeads”. So, welcome to “TesseLeads” with your host, Tesse Akpeki and cohost Paula Okonneh. “TesseLeads” is a safe, sensitive and supportive place and space to share, hear, and tell your stories and your experiences. You will hear from top experts and thought leaders, strategies, tips, and techniques that they have found useful in navigating a diverse range of challenges, and also how they have navigated difficulties, the limits, as well as shaping opportunities. Our guest was a guest on “TesseTalks”, and he has honored us by being a guest on “TesseLeads”. So Rob McCrea is a producer, he’s an actor, he’s a leader, he’s a mentor and he is the producer at umbrella factory film. He is producing the six pop comedy for the television show called “The Brothers Darwin” where the fellow producers Jenny Penrose and Ben Kellett. There’s so many things to read about Rob, so I’ll just try and summarize it. He has worked at the coalface in Siberia, Croatia, the US, Belgium, France, Brazil, and the UK. I have to take a long breath so I can read that. He has trained at Bretton hall, the league of gentlemen. He divides his time between acting, producing and being a senior management mentor. And there are so many places you can find him, Aeronauts and Britannia is one of them. One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Rob, is his fun, loving side of motorbike riding and that has stretched over a period of 37 years. If you have listened to “TesseTalks” you would hear me saying, “I think he must have been five when he did that”, but now I talked with him, I think he probably was one, because he looked so young! Welcome to “TesseLeads” Rob. It’s great to have you here.
00:02:19 Rob: Thank you.
00:02:20 Tesse: Welcome Rob. I’m a fan. I told Paula that we will set up a new club called the Robbites club, where we follow you. It’s not, we’re not, we’re not trolls. We’re not kind of stalking you, but they’re just a lot of things that, you know, over the years since we’ve worked together and we’ve kept in touch, that I’ve learnt about you. And I’ve met your lovely wife and I just think she’s amazing. And so, very much I see myself as an extended member of your family. So, It’s from that point of view and from the part that you’re such a professional, I’d love to hear your stories. You have such diverse range of skills, you have a lot of experience, you have so much expertise, you on so many Genres. I am in awe. This journey, you know, if you were to sum it up, how did you get from where you were as a child to where you are now? What were the milestones in that?
00:03:10 Rob: I’ll try to sum it up fairly, quickly for you. But my father, he was a refugee from Burma at the end of the second world war. And he spent his early formative years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. And his father was executed in front of him. And they managed to escape from the prison camp. There was a women’s prison camp and a men’s prison camp. It was actually my grandmother who managed to escape from the women’s prison camp with two of her daughters and they managed to collect my father and his slightly older brother from the men’s prison camp. They then went on a two week walk through the jungle, from a place called Michiana in Burma through the jungle to Lido road, which is where the allied forces were based. And they could only do that walk at night time, and with all of the guns, they actually had to cross the battle plain, the theater of war to get to the other side. Unfortunately, they didn’t all make it on that journey. My family would not make it, but that my dad did. The reason I’m telling you my dad’s background is because I think it’s important, because that was the environment that I was born into. I was born into a family that had undergone that experience. So I was born into a family that had very high achieving brave and strong women. And I think that’s, you know, a really important bit there, because it was not my grandfather who survived, it was my grandmother. And she did what very few people could do and underwent hardships that you can’t even begin to imagine. But I won’t go into detail here, but you know, it’s Burma, it’s wartime. You know, what she went through on those two weeks where she lost one of her daughters and, you know, it was just what they had to do. And so, yeah, they’re very, very strong women. And I think that had an influence on my dad because my father, contrary to a lot of people of his generation, I was brought up in a house where my father cooked, he did the ironing, he did the cleaning as well as my mother. They shared everything. I think they had a very close relationship. Because at the time that they were born, and the separate set of experiences that they went through. And I suppose as a child, that is that on the negative side. Remember my dad’s reference for fathering was a Japanese prisoner of war camp, so that wasn’t much fun. It made me, a very, very resilient child. But then turned into a very resilient young man. So, for me, I think that background is a really key milestone in my formation as a child because I was brought up to be very resilient. But I think my father did that, was because he knew that anything can happen in this world. There are things that we can control, but there’s a huge amount that we can’t control. And for the things that we can’t control, it’s important that we have an inner strength, that can take us through to the other side and not give up and just say, “gosh, this is too hard”, or “this is too far”, or “this is too high, I’m not going to make it”. Sometimes the most unusual people have that inner strength. And that was something that he and my grandmother, because I knew her, were able to pass onto me. And then after that, we lived in a lot of different Asian countries. Moved around from Britain because without actually going to Burma, but he was very keen that his children, myself and my sister had the opportunity to live in those countries and be schooled in those countries, not as expats, but as locals. So that we were very in touch with where we come from. And that’s another big thing, because of course, what does that mean? It means that I grew up, completely not understanding prejudice as a child. And there’s a guy called Dr. Jonathan Bonds. He was the national teaching fellow here in the UK. So quite an important figure. He’s a close friend. And back in two, around 2007, 2008, he published a book called cross-curricular training. And in that book, I think it’s either chapter seven or chapter eight. He writes about me as a person. He writes about me as a teacher and he writes about me as a leader. He wrote, particularly focusing on one aspect, which is about how important it is, if you’re in any of those roles to be non-judgmental. And when I was interviewing with him for that book, when he asked me about where does it come from? I said to him, I think it probably comes from, as a child, I was brought up in many different countries and exposed to many different cultures, many different peoples, many different belief systems. And I think that it probably comes from that. So I’m hugely grateful to my parents for giving that to me. Hugely grateful. And then in terms of the leadership stuff, I think I first discovered I was a leader when I was at drama school. And I did my third year directing project and I got a first for the project and I think it’s probably because there was some innate leadership, kind of raw talent in there somewhere, and I enjoyed it as well. And so I think from that moment, onwards, I’ve always sought roles where I’m kind of in charge, because I feel I take that responsibility very seriously. And I understand that in any sector or any environment, there’s a group of people and we all fulfill a different role. And that leadership role is not the most important role, it’s just the leadership role. It’s the coordination role, it’s the serving role. And then you’ve got other people there that are really good in the detail, and you’ve got people there who are really creative and entrepreneurial and can come up with new ideas for the organization to take it forward. It’s just one of many important roles, but I knew that that was the role for me.
00:09:12 Tesse: That’s actually gorgeous. I’m going to hand over to Paula and before I can. People don’t see this, but you know there are tears in my eyes, really. I knew your story, I didn’t know how deep it went. And when the reference for your grandfather is a war camp, that serious pain and trauma, and what I hear, is that the love you got from your grandmother and the love that you got from your father and for the other women in your life and actually the unconditional acceptance of having an education, which was about knowing your identity, where you are, led to you being even more resilient. Paula?
00:09:59 Paula: Yes. I listened to that as well. Then what struck me was how adversity, you know, it’s like, you know, the glass half full, half empty. Your grandmother could have decided to be bitter, and that would trickle down to your dad and trickle down to you. But instead, you know, she looked at it and she turned it into a positive experience. And because of what she went through and even your dad, it’s made you into the man you are, to be resilient, able to look at, you know, as you said, no ounce of prejudism, because you know, people have no control over their circumstances. And I think that’s a plus if anything, the world has gained, because of what you guys were subjected to.
00:10:45 Rob: Well, one of the things that I remember about Britain prior to Brexit, is when they did the surveys, in terms of who wanted to leave Europe and who didn’t want to leave Europe, they found that the larger percentage of people who wanted to leave Europe were in the areas of lowest migrant influence. So, what does that tell you? It tells you that the people who are most wary or most prejudiced are the people who actually know least.
00:11:15 Paula: Yeah.
00:11:16 Rob: So they don’t actually know what they’re frightened of. And so I think that’s just following on from what you’re saying, I think that’s one of the reasons why I was just so lucky and benefited so much from the upbringing my parents gave me. Because I was brought up in the world. I wasn’t brought up in a country or a region or a.
00:11:31 Paula: Yes, that makes sense.
00:11:34 Rob: That the world has those good and bad.
00:11:38 Paula: And being the citizen of the world, as you said, you’re able to embrace people for who they are, doesn’t matter where they are, but they have people first and foremost and every other thing’s, secondary, you know?
00:11:50 Rob: Yeah. It’s funny, In 2019, I was filming in a movie called “Jagame Thandraim”. Which I’ve got a fun pronunciation. It’s on Netflix now, it’s actually in the top 10 on Netflix, It’s in the top 10 most watched films at the moment. And there was a large Tamil cast, an Asian cast in that film because it was a co-production between the United Kingdom and India, south India. And the Muslim actors would not introduce themselves as Muslims. They were afraid of revealing their faith. And I found that very interesting because we’re all, when you’re working together and everything, we’re all there talking about different bits and bobs. And of course everybody, particularly amongst Asian peoples, they’re all trying to identify their backgrounds and everything. Of course, you’ve got Ceylon Tamil, then you’ve got south India Tamil, all chatting to each other. and you’ve got Hindus there and everything. And they’re all chatting quite. And I noticed that a couple of the guys that I worked with were sort of just staying very quiet and very much in the background the most. And I said to him, “what’s your background because everyone here thinks you’re Indian.” and he said, “I’m not Indian, I’m Pakistani but they don’t know that.” I said, “well, if you’re Pakistani, you must be Muslim.” And he said, “they don’t know that either.”
00:13:08 Paula: Yeah. And because you were a citizen of the world, you understood the differences. We are similar, but with differences. So you knew, oh, he’s not Indian, so he must be Pakistani. And if he’s Pakistani, then he must be Muslim. But if you haven’t traveled or you haven’t been exposed to such things, you just put everybody on the same slate for want of a better word and assume, okay, he’s Indian, he must be. And that’s not how it is. And I know that’s been beneficial to you and has helped with your success in being not just who you are as a person, but your success as a producer, as an actor, and even in your leadership roles. Tesse, I’m going to turn this over to you.
00:13:52 Tesse: It’s getting deeper and deeper and deeper. And I actually get a sense of how humor, and Rob and I, you should see us when we go anywhere. The last time I met Rob in-person, in fact, it was the lighter part of just before lockdown. And we went, we were in Greenwich and you were filming and we went to this, and we laughed so much. They brought us a second helping off chips because we’ve been having such fun. And so it’s kind of like, that thing about Rob. I’d love you to, I’d love you to talk to us about your love of food and drink and coffee. What do these offer you? Because anytime I’m with you, I’m like, oh, I have to come back and walk it up because I put on so much whatever, but I don’t like saying goodbye. So, what is it that these offer you?!
00:14:40 Rob: It’s the food. That’s why you don’t like saying goodbye. Tesse knows this about me, Paula, but you won’t know, but I’m a very keen cook and I did own a restaurant for a little while. Again, very eclectic cooking, but I suppose as I’ve got older, I’ve really focused in, on Brazilian cuisine, African-Brazilian cuisine, Italian cuisine. But my family all like it when I cook up something Asian. But, you know, I was brought up eating that, you know, three times a day. But I love all the stuff.. As you can imagine over the years, I’ve really honed it and so yeah, if anyone eats anything that I’ve made, they usually will stay for a few days. you can’t get rid of them.
00:15:27 Paula: Another reason for me to visit England.
00:15:29 Tesse: oh, Paula, I’m taking you. I’m going to ask his lovely wife and we are there. As Robbites, we just have to be there.
00:15:37 Rob: I’d happily cook for you both. Yeah, it would be my pleasure. Yeah.
00:15:41 Paula: It’s now been announced to the world, so you can’t get out of it.
00:15:46 Rob: The only thing is that I very rarely drink coffee here in Britain, because I was so spoiled when I lived in Brazil. You know, the coffee there is just, it has its own flavor and it’s just really kind of impossible to capture that here. Even though, I mean, we have an expresso machine here in the house and the wonderful Italian expresso machines that we have in cafes and restaurants. It’s very difficult to get the coffee like it is in Brazil. And so, Tesse used to love it when she came into my office, if I’d make a coffee, cause it had that flavor, I could do it. Yeah.
00:16:21 Tesse: Yeah. You know, that was the highlight. It was your company’s whatever right? Like your passion for the forgotten. Rob, what do you say, what’d you have to say to those who are forgotten, those who are left behind?
00:16:32 Rob: Yeah, that was a really good linking style. You stopped me from saying Tessie used to walk into my office on the floor and leave on the ceiling.
00:16:41 Paula: Okay.
00:16:42 Tesse: No, don’t tell people that!
00:16:46 Paula: So that has to come out.
00:16:49 Tesse: That had to come out. But the serious thing is this, is that when we did hard work and we work hard, I always was able to put things in perspective, and that’s true. I think It’s the environment you created that did that.
00:17:01 Rob: some really important things just out of, just some statistics coming out of what you’ve just said about the forgotten, is when I was a prison governor, my responsibility was the foreign national regime. And I was, my particular area of responsibility was reducing re-offending. That’s about making sure that when they leave the jail, they’re equipped to not have to commit any further crimes. And I think the general public don’t want to think about prisoners. They don’t want to think about them and they absolutely don’t want to think about foreign prisoners. So it’s the forgotten of the forgotten. You know, one of the things that I remember just statistically ,is we did a lot of research into them to try and understand the risks and needs that they presented and 52% of foreign prisoners in this country at the time that we conducted that research were victims of torture. And that’s a very high percentage. I think it was around about 82% of them were displaced. And then coming away from that and just looking at my role as chief exec of Migrant Help , which is still my team, made it into the largest migrant supporting charity in the UK, one of the largest in Europe. We’ve got the same company and to conduct the same research across the asylum seeker population of UK. And we found 82% of them were victims of torture. And I have to say for me, it didn’t surprise me. And one of the reasons I wanted to do it across the asylum seeker estate is because I used to go around, Tesse remember this ,I used to didn’t stay in the office, I used to travel around the country a lot and visit the accommodation where they were all being housed. And we would see the new people arriving in and they looked like they’d been tortured, you know, physically and emotionally. And from different regions, there was showing signs of similar injuries because they had particular ways of doing that in those regions. And so we conducted the research to raise awareness. People need to understand that yeah, these people, yeah., They could have stayed in France on route or yes, they could have stayed in Sweden, but they’re not they’re here. They actually chose to come to us for help. I think it comes down to that whole first world conversation that we had in the other chapter. Because a lot of people in developed countries do not have the global experience to actually understand the depth of trauma and suffering that in this case, we know from our research that 82% of that population in this country have been through. They all have stories like my family’s story. They all have stories like Alex Ntung and they’ve made it and they’ve survived. So I always find it incredible. There is very little understanding across the general public as to what it means to be an asylum seeker.
00:20:17 Paula: Well, you’ve 100%. And so that was a question I wanted to ask you before we wrap up, about your role in encouraging inclusion and your role in encouraging equality.
00:20:31 Rob: But you know, you heard Tesse. Tesse and I, we were talking a little bit about the new meeting the old not quite happening. So I think that was one of the areas of contention. So within that organization, one of the things that I did was, I managed to use my network and I brought in Dr. Jonathan Barnes, who was the national teaching fellow at the time. And I put him in partnership with Alex Ntung, who was a published author, to set up a really realistic education initiative that could be rolled out across all of the schools in the United Kingdom. To try and counter this lack of information and lack of understanding that was out there. I was just going to say, you know, I think if you’re sitting in a big organization like that in this country, you have a responsibility in a larger sense to address the core issues.
00:21:19 Paula: And it’s all about awareness. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s only when someone points out or educate you or makes you aware of things that you don’t know that you become aware of that. And so one of the things I like about “TesseLeads” is that we have a lot of stories from people in leadership or the C-suite who are saying, okay, this is the personal side of me. And these are things that you don’t know, you know. And I think this is very helpful. This conversation is really enlightening
00:21:50 Rob: In a country like the UK, to drive forward initiative, an initiative like that, that would make a real difference requires real leadership.
00:21:59 Paula: Yes!
00:22:00 Rob: Because it’s not popular.
00:22:01 Paula: Certainly isn’t.
00:22:03 Rob: And it will change things. And there are a lot of people here who do want things to change.
00:22:09 Paula: You said it, you said it all. You said it all, change is hard. And when you’re on the positive side, I mean, when you’re the sideway on the equation where you, you don’t know lack, and all you’ve known is for want of a better word privilege, why would you want it to change? I mean, it’s to your advantage.
00:22:29 Rob: You don’t even necessarily know that it is privileged at all.
00:22:32 Paula: Yeah, Its something that you’ve known all your life. Oh my gosh. I could keep talking and talking with you. I think you have to come back again, Rob.
00:22:43 Rob: I want to, Its been a real pleasure.
00:22:45 Paula: Yes. Sorry, I have to run. I’m getting notification. So I’m going to read the outro and then we have to plan another one. Because this has been such an incredible time.
00:22:59 Tesse: This has been incredible.
00:23:01 Paula: Yes.
00:23:02 Tesse: Definitely.
00:23:02 Rob: I’m hoping that there’s something in there that
00:23:08 Paula: There’s a lot. I feel we’ve just touched the surface of everything.
00:23:14 Tesse: Yeah.
00:23:15 Paula: So for our listeners, as we see on every episode, your precious stories and your lives do matter. We really would love for you to share them with us and we encourage you to share them with us. And so please head over to Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or anywhere where you listen to podcasts. And if you haven’t clicked subscribe, please do so today, if you have any questions or topics that you’d like us to cover, please send us a note. And if you would like to be a guest on our show, please head to www.tesseakpeki.com/tesseleads to apply. I’ve really learned so much from you today, Rob. Thank you for that opportunity.
00:24:10 Rob: Thank you for having me.