When I call Sterling Spencer at his home in the sleepy Gulf Coast town of Pensacola, Florida, our conversation starts in a typically tongue-in-cheek fashion. Spencer is quick to slip into character during interviews, and he talks about his new mockumentary surf film, Gold, as if it's based in fact. Spencer claims to have ridden custom surfboards shaped by Bob Saget, been kidnapped by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, and fathered big-wave icon Laird Hamilton. But as our conversation continues, Spencer starts to reveal the cracks in his comedic armor, and the man behind the online persona shows through.
Over the last few years, in the wake of losing his father and one of his best friends, Spencer has fought hard battles with depression and anxiety. But the more serious life got, the more he relied on his absurdist sense of humor to continue surfing and filmmaking.
TP: Gold was one of the most unique surf movies ever. How was making this different than videos you've done in the past?
SS: I didn't have any sponsors backing it, so this was my own independent project, and it moved in fits and starts. It was like having an old car that you keep in your garage and go work on when you can. It's crazy how expensive it is to make a surf movie. I had to be really clever to figure out how I was going to do this movie and not go bankrupt. But it was something I wanted for myself and for my career—just to make something exactly the way I wanted to and not have to answer to anyone as far as the creative direction goes. The surf world can get very political when you have sponsors, and they expect certain things. I'm super stoked to make a movie that's exactly what I wanted it to be.
Is it ever hard to get surfers to play along with your gags?
It depends on the surfer. With someone like Rob Machado, there's definitely chemistry and we have fun. I'll go into it with one idea, but we'll be joking around and it might change into something completely different. With a lot of pro surfers, though, everyone is worried about looking cool, so it can be tough. For every surfer who agreed to be in the movie, there were a bunch who were like, "No way." Jack Johnson has a small part in it, but he was really freaked out going in. When Jack walked into the room, he was like, "I'm not getting punked, am I? I know what you did to Kelly!" [Laughs.] I told him, "No, it's all good. We're just going to shoot this scene where I pretend that I wrote the song 'Banana Pancakes,' and we're gonna eat a bunch of banana pancakes." He paused for a few seconds and then asked, "Do I have to?"
You tease guys like Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton in the movie. Do you ever worry that one of these guys is going to take your jokes the wrong way?
I feel like if they were going to hurt me, they would have done it by now. [Laughs.] There's actually a funny story behind the Kelly Slater scene in Gold. We were about to shoot the part where Slater kidnaps me and throws me in the trunk of his car. My wife, Amanda, was putting the bald cap on my head, and my cousin Ryan was getting the camera ready, and all of a sudden the doorbell rings. Ryan goes down to answer it and it's my brother and he's standing there with Kelly's brothers, Sean and Steven Slater. They live nine hours away in Cocoa Beach, and I hadn't seen those guys in about 10 years. I immediately think, "This is a sign; Sean should play Kelly in the scene!" But he wasn't having it. He was like, "You can get away with that, but I don't think I can."
How did you get Bob Saget to play your shaper?
I literally sent him one email, and he got back to me right away saying that he'd love to do it and to send him a script. He actually went kind of overboard with his lines and it got pretty graphic. Especially that last line—that wasn't in the script. [Laughs.] But the whole thing was surreal, just hanging out in a shaping bay with Bob Saget.
So you paid for the movie yourself, and rather than try to recoup your money with the online release, you asked for donations to help out other surfers. Can you tell me about that?
It started with the first premiere, in my hometown of Pensacola, where we raised a bunch of money for a local guy named Tom Davis, who was paralyzed while surfing about 10 years ago, and for the family of my friend Cody Cobia, who passed away last year after fighting with muscular dystrophy. I made this movie 100 percent for the stoke. The money was just an afterthought at that point. I've been in the surf biz for so long; I think this is my 15th year as a pro surfer. I just wanted to do something meaningful, and that was kind of my driving force throughout the making of the film. I've actually been battling depression for the past few years, and I hit a real low point while making the movie. My whole motivation to keep working on it was the idea of doing it to help someone else.
I don't think many people in the surf world knew that was going on with you. How long have you been struggling with depression?
I've kind of secretly had depression for the last 10 years or so, and I started struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after I lost my dad and a few other people who were very close to me. I realize now that I wasn't dealing with death the way that I should have. I was just ignoring my feelings for so long and letting them build up. Honestly, I felt suicidal for a while. It became really hard for me to travel, and I fell into this downward spiral. At the same time, I started having trouble with my sponsors, and I realized that society doesn't really know how to deal with mental illness. It's a medical issue, but people don't treat it like that. If you tell people you broke your leg or got malaria, everyone is like, "Get better, dude!" But if you have depression, no one knows how to act toward you. It's almost like people just think you're being a wuss, or it's your own invention, which isn't the case at all. That was a hard thing to deal with.
Honestly, it's kind of crazy to hear you say that, because you've created this persona of being such an unflappable guy, and you have a gift for making people laugh.
Yeah, a lot of people who watch Gold will probably think, "How can this guy be depressed?" But it can happen to anyone. One in four people has a mental illness, but when you're that one in four, you feel like you're all alone. I think something about humor has kept me alive, and that's probably why I turn to it so much. I remember when I was younger and I first started having these struggles with depression, humor felt like the only antidote. If I had been serious all the time, I probably would have just lost it completely. But making fun of everything kept me feeling sane and normal.
So you've always leaned on your sense of humor when you were in a difficult spot?
Yeah, as far back as I can remember. It's funny, because my dad was such a driven person, and he wanted me to have that same drive. He honestly wanted me to be a world champion. But I never wanted to be a champion of anything. [Laughs.] I loved surfing, and I loved surf movies, and that was it for me. I've always wrestled with it, because I know who I am, but I still hear my dad's words in my head. I always felt like the artsy outsider in my family. I think my humor is so weird because, in a way, I'm using this fake persona to make fun of my actual life.
It's good that you realized who you were early on and just ran with it. I can't picture what would have happened had you tried to be a contest machine.
Yeah, it cracks me up because there's so much importance placed on the idea of winning and having some way to measure your life's accomplishments. I see a lot of old surfers who carry that one contest win around with them their whole lives like a badge, like it defines who they are. I think it's weird that so many people live for that stuff. Why not just be stoked to be a surfer who gets to ride waves, and not worry so much about where you fit into some kind of hierarchy? There are so many things in life that are much more important, like family, friends, and having good relationships with people and with yourself.
I think a lot of people don't realize that you aren't anything like your Internet persona.
Every time someone meets me, I feel like they're so bummed. They're like, "Wait, you're just a normal dude?" [Laughs.] And I'm like, "I know. I'm sorry, man."
Have you turned a corner? Do you feel like you're happier and healthier now than you were a year ago?
Yeah, I'm so much happier now. I've gone to a lot of therapy and tried to work through my issues. I recently got married and am about to have a kid, and I've got a new sponsorship in the works so I can have the right people backing me. I'm happy to put that behind me, and I'm happy I lived. Just thinking about my wife and child, it's crazy to think I was willing to give it all up. But it's tough when you're in that headspace and feel so alone. That's why I think it's good to talk about this stuff. If I can help someone else in any way, that makes what I went through worth it. There are kids out there feeling really bad about themselves, and they should know that they aren't alone. These days it can feel like you have to be the best, and if you aren't famous or super successful, then you aren't worth anything. But that's not true.
Did surfing help you with your depression at all? Surfing is so therapeutic, but when it's your job, it's probably more complicated than that.
It was hard for me to surf for a while after my dad died, because I realized that surfing was our thing. But at the same time, there is a meditative aspect that has helped me stay grounded. I had a weird love/hate relationship with surfing for a while. For my dad, it was always simple, and he was always stoked. I love surfing, but I don't love it as much as he did. I don't think that anyone could.
Do you think that everything you dealt with over the last few years made finishing your movie feel more meaningful?
Definitely. At the Pensacola premiere about 500 people came out, and it was such an overwhelming feeling. Have you ever seen It's a Wonderful Life? Well, I felt like the main character of that movie. I wasn't expecting much of a turnout for the premiere, or any kind of response, really, but all these people showed up and were so excited. People were telling me, "Man, your stuff cracks us up and gets us so stoked to surf," and hearing that was the most gratifying thing. I couldn't believe it. It was such a reality check. You can go down these negative paths and put yourself in a hole, but that's not real. People are kind and care about you, and you have to remember that.