Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Wil Willis
Original hometown: “Everywhere”
Job: Willis is a former Army Ranger and Air Force Pararescueman who now hosts Forged in Fire, the History Channel show in which world-class bladesmiths create iconic historical weapons before a panel of judges.
How did the transition from the Army and the Air Force to hosting a TV show come about?
I was an Air Force brat. I was born off the coast of Portugal and we moved to Texas when I was about 2 years old. Then to Florida when I was about 5, and then to California when I was 8. I graduated from high school in Northern California. Then I was in the military and moved all over the place as well.
I left the army in 1998 and I joined the Air Force, where I was a Pararescueman until 2008. In 2009, I hosted a show back on the Military Channel, called Special Ops Mission. I also hosted Triggers: Weapons that Changed the World for the American Heroes channel.
I also taught emergency trauma care as an independent consultant to troops before they go overseas. When you’re part of a TV production, you’re a cog in a bigger wheel, just like you are in the military. It’s a very structured thing, so it translates well for me. As an instructor in the military, standing and talking to people and teaching is a big part of my background, so I’m learning a lot and I feel like the audience is learning a lot. It’s a great experience.
Obviously with your military background, you come with knowledge about modern weaponry. Did you have to study old-fashioned weapons to host Forged in Fire?
I have three judges that are all experts with the things we deal with. My experience is in the intent and purpose of weapons as part of my military training and background — whether it’s an older weapon or a modern weapon, like a M4 or a rifle or a machine gun.
Each one of the judges brings something special to the show that I don’t think anybody else can bring. With J. Neilson you have the science behind blade-making and the experience behind making high-quality knives. On the other side you have Marcaida, who’s a user. He doesn’t make knives, he respects the process, he is somebody that is a weapons specialist. Dave is our history expert. He takes what J. knows and what Doug does and combines them and connects those things to the historical aspect to the final blades that we’re making. I lean heavily on the judges and their knowledge.
Since you’ve worked in so many different areas, what do you find the most rewarding?
It’s rewarding to me when somebody tells me that something I taught them saved somebody else’s life down in Afghanistan or Iraq or in everyday life. As far as the shows go, it’s rewarding to me to bring to light things that people didn’t know about certain aspects of the world around them, whether that’s military special operations and weapons, with my previous two shows, or craftsmen and blade-making and all of the things that go with this show. I think that it’s all very rewarding to see people respond to that.
What’s the most challenging part of hosting Forged in Fire?
Standing in one place. For any amount of time. I’m a very active guy, so the person with the hardest job on set is the person who has to keep an eye on me.
And what about when you were in the Air Force?
As an Air Force rescue man, you are a search and rescue recovery specialist. You’re one of 300 guys in the world that can do that job. The training is extensive. It requires attention to detail, integrity, courage, candor — a lot of these things that are part of the warrior ethos that I really gravitated to. There’s a brotherhood or a sense of family within that. I appreciated that about the Army and the Air Force. The actual experience of jumping out of planes and all that is great while it happened, but what carries us into the future are the relationships we built while we were engaging in those activities. The most memorable thing is the people I met and became friends with.
Have you met many memorable people though the show too?
Every single bladesmith that comes on that show is a character in it of himself. There are a few that really stand out to me. There was one guy that was the largest human being I’ve ever met in person. He was the most mellow; he had the opposite personality of what you would think. We had two female smiths on this season and they were both fantastic competitors. We had maybe our first villain — I don’t know if he was a villain, but our first truly cocky competitor this season. That was interesting to see.
There are so many intelligent, wonderful guys with different backgrounds. But when you listen to their stories about how they gravitated to their craft, it isn’t that much different than anybody else. There’s a spark that ignites an interest and that interest turns into a hobby and that hobby becomes a profession. A lot of people can relate to that.
Did you know much about the craft before the show?
I’m an uber-nerd, so I used to read a lot of Dungeons & Dragons types of books. With that comes a lot of armor and sword making, so I knew some of the vernacular and a little bit about the process. But to tell you the truth, until you see it happening, you really can’t imagine that this is even possible.
It surprises me every time that a smith comes into the forge and is able to take something like a spring, and turn it into something totally different, from his own imagination.
And how much of your job as a host is scripted versus improvised?
Obviously the challenges are set before the smiths ever arrive. So there’s a lot of memorized expectations. When we launch our bladesmith into the challenge, the conversation that happens between myself and the judges is on the fly. There’s a lot of things we reiterate each episode. We understand that if a viewer is tuning in for the first time and we’re talking about the way that light refracts off of a finished blade, it’s going to have to be explained every episode. So there are things that are redundant, but the conversations on the floor and our reactions to what’s happening is all spontaneous.
Did it take time to get used to reacting in a way that’s interesting for viewers? Or does that come naturally?
I mean, if somebody catches their knuckles on fire, I’m going to react to that. My first instinct is to make sure I’m not on fire as well. You can’t help anybody if you are also on fire. Then I also want to help that person, but this is stuff that these guys deal with all the time, so the play must go on. I get concerned for the smiths if I see that they’re struggling. In reality, I just want to see them do their best work.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned?
The most interesting thing I’ve learned is that other people really dig it. To end a season with so many people watching, so many people invested in these crafts that I would say the majority of Americans didn’t even know existed anymore. To know that people are interested — are willing to watch and follow it — I think that that’s the most interesting thing. People are curious and people will watch stuff if it’s compelling and educational and motivating.
Weapons in general are a big piece of human history. There’s a lot of romance that goes along with the idea of muskets or the things you’re using to right the wrongs of the world. Or a character using that sword to bring in light where there’s only darkness. There’s a romance with that era. You have this flood of interest in shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings and these dramatic period pieces. I think the interest has been reignited. People tune into these things and they realize that this is stuff that still exists today.
Do you think your military background gave you a better appreciation for the craft?
When I was in the Army, I was in the Third Ranger Battalion. That battalion has a history attached to Rogers’ Rangers. Rogers had 19 rules, one of which was to keep your hatchet scoured clean and so on and so forth. When you go through Ranger school, you learn bayonet fighting techniques. We did fighting techniques with fixed bayonets and with plastic training knives. The idea of using weapons as a close quarter tool is still there; understanding and appreciating a well-made knife.