Whether it’s a kung fu fight, car chase, or stair fall, most film fans can name a favorite action sequence that wouldn’t have been possible without a stuntperson. These men and women, who arguably have one of the most dangerous jobs in Hollywood, have come a long way since the days when Buster Keaton and other silent film-era performers did all their own stunts. We talked to several film and television stunt performers for some insights into their risky—if highly entertaining—trade.
1. NOT ALL OF THEM ARE NATURAL-BORN DAREDEVILS.
A stuntman rappels from a Jeep lifted by a helicopter during a promotion for Universal Studios. Image credit: Getty Images
It seems like only a special type of person would be drawn to the sometimes dangerous world of stunts: someone who is fearless, thrives on adrenaline, and spent their childhood climbing to the highest tree branches. And indeed, many stuntpeople were early risk-takers. “I have studied karate since I was 7 or 8 years old,” says Grant Koo, a stuntman and stunt driver known for his work in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and on the television show The Blacklist. “I used to watch all of those cheesy kung fu movies on a Saturday—and beat the living crap out of my couch!”
But not all stunt performers start early. “My parents never let my brother and I participate in sports when we were younger. They were afraid we’d break an arm,” says Vera Lam, a stuntwoman based in New York. “I’m certain I failed my fitness test in grade school except for the flexibility portion.”
2. THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS.
Some stunt performers parlay a background in martial arts or another athletic pursuit into a career, while others begin as actors and move into stunts. Jennifer Lamb, a stuntwoman and stunt coordinator who has worked on 10 Coen brothers movies and other high-profile projects, transitioned into stunts from the world of soap operas. Lamb was playing a waitress on One Life to Live when she met stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, who believed that her toughness, ability to take direction, and small size would serve her well in stunts. He also gave her her first break—getting tossed off the balcony of a beach house in the Hamptons.
3. THEY EXPERIENCE THINGS THAT MOST OF US (HOPEFULLY) NEVER WILL.
Grant Koo in a death scene for the TV series The Originals. Image credit: Grant Koo.
In the course of their work, stuntmen and women come as close to experiencing catastrophic events as one can without actually, well, going through them. Lamb says, “I have hung by my ankle under a hot air balloon, leapt out of a burning building 60 feet up, gotten dragged behind cars, crashed through a barn in a Ford Model T—none of which seemed crazy to me.”
Koo might have the most impressive all-in-one experience, though. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, he performed in a scene where he and his fellow stuntmen ran from 500,000 gallons of water being emptied from five 100,000-gallon tanks, while at same time dodging boats, buses, and cars being dropped from the sky. “That was one of the craziest days I’ve ever had,” he says, “but very rewarding.”
4. THEY SPECIALIZE.
Mack Kuhr in stunt rehearsals with action cinematographer Richard Clabaugh for the film Abysm (2016). Image credit: Mack Kuhr
Koo describes himself as a “utility player,” or a well-rounded performer skilled in all aspects of stunts. But even within that, there are certain areas he has gravitated toward. “I like to do the fights, the falls, and the driving,” he says, calling himself a “crazy driver” even in real life.
Mack Kuhr, a stunt performer and Keanu Reeves's body double in both John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter Two (2017), has built early experience with military-grade firearms into a specialty. His father was in the military, and his studies in strength and conditioning at Virginia Tech led to training with Navy SEALs at Virginia Beach. Kuhr got his stunt break on The Dark Knight Rises (2012), when director Christopher Nolan was in need of someone who could handle a “hot” HK G36 submachine gun (one that contained blank bullets). Meanwhile, Jared Kirby, a fight director and stage combat instructor in New York, has spent years perfecting a different sort of weapon—he specializes in historic and classical fencing.
5. THEY ARE GAME FOR (ALMOST) ANYTHING.
Jared Kirby (center) working fight choreography for Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter. Photo courtesy of jaredkirby.com
Stuntpeople sometimes show up on set without knowing exactly what stunt they are going to be asked to perform. As Koo explains, occasionally they “know when it is and where it is, but not what it’s going to be.” As a consequence, they have to be prepared to deal with new experiences. Lamb says she had never even been inside a helicopter before she was asked to cling to the outside of one while working on the Neil Jordan film In Dreams (1999). Kirby says he likes to throw curveballs at his students during fight training—such as littering a stage with garbage or turning out the lights—so that they won’t freeze up when conditions change on set. On the other hand, every stuntperson has his or her limitations and stunts they won’t do, like fire burns and high falls, which are specialties in themselves. Koo, for instance, says he won’t do fire scenes, to protect his face.
6. THEY DO GET HURT SOMETIMES.
A good film crew takes every precaution to keep their members safe, and injuries are the exception rather than the rule. But accidents do happen. Koo emphasizes that many of the action sequences that people assume are done with green screen are in fact happening in “real life,” particularly on big-budget movies. As a consequence, bruises, bumps, and sometimes serious accidents will occasionally occur. Lamb says she has suffered a broken clavicle, a blown ACL, and a broken back, but continues to return to the profession she loves after getting well. “Advil is our friend,” she says, as is a good masseuse. (Performers who agree to a particularly dangerous stunt often also receive a pay increase, known as an adjustment.)
7. THEY KEEP THEIR COOL.
Despite these risks, a stuntperson cannot afford to get nervous. “When you get nervous, that’s when you get hurt,” Koo says. His approach is to think through a stunt and then put any worries out of his mind. “I tell myself ‘that’s it!’ Don’t get nervous. Just do it.” That’s not to say that jitters don’t come into play sometimes. “I think all stunt performers get that nervousness like any other performer,” Kuhr says. He says multiple rehearsals are invaluable in cutting down on both nerves and risk.
8. STUNTWOMEN TAKE MORE OF A BEATING THAN STUNTMEN.
Special padding is part of a stunt performer’s arsenal, but if you’re a woman it may not be an option. “Sometimes certain articles of clothing like skirts prevent us from wearing thicker pads or even pads at all,” Lam explains. “Sometimes a little improvisation is needed. My skinny jeans were so tight one time I used gel petals for knee pads.” Lamb alludes to instances of having to wear “just a towel to do a fight or a stair fall.” She adds that high heels can present another hazard, but since she has often doubled for “11-year-old boys or senior citizens,” she has mostly been able to avoid them.
9. THEY ARE ACTORS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.
Mack Kuhr with Keanu Reeves on set for John Wick 2. Image credit: Mack Kuhr
When doubling for an actor, stunt performers have to do more than bear a passing resemblance: They must consider the actor’s physicality and movement, too. “It is truly an exercise in impersonation,” Lamb says. “You as the stunt double are there to merely match [the actor’s] action and then take over and honor their work as you get tossed out of a moving car.” This is particularly true when a young stuntperson is doubling an older actor. Lamb explains that older people tend to move differently, and often have a different center of gravity. She says she once coached a young actress who was doubling an older person falling to “think light and then go heavy like a noodle.”
10. THEY HAVE AN UNUSUAL IDEA OF “FUN.”
If you’re going to put your neck on the line for others’ entertainment, it might as well be fun. Fortunately, stunt performers say it often is—although their idea of joy might not match the rest of society’s. Lam describes squib hits, or onscreen gunshots, as particularly enjoyable. “I get to wear a mini blood packet that explodes when the squib guy presses a button,” she says. “The blood comes pouring out and there’s a big smoky hole in my shirt.”
Koo describes working on car hit scenes with a budget as a bit like being a kid in a sand box. “It’s kind of like we’re demolition,” he explains. “They tell you: money is no object, don’t worry about wrecking stuff because it’s in the budget. You’re like a big kid that gets to break stuff.” Lamb expresses a fondness for stair falls, with her first-ever fall being a famous scene in the movie Fargo (1996). However, she admits her favorite stunts are “the kind that leave me in one piece.”
11. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO LOOK BAD.
Some of Kirby’s students include highly skilled martial artists hoping to apply their abilities to stunt and stage combat work. However, it’s not always helpful for a stunt fighter to fight as well as Bruce Lee, since the film’s stars are the ones who need to look the best and often win onscreen fights. “If you are lucky enough to get into that fight with Tom Cruise,” Kirby says, “you better be willing to suck.”
Koo confirms this. “You don’t want to showcase your skill unless you’re the principal person that’s supposed to win that fight. You’re there ... to get beat up and thrown around, and that’s your job.” Lamb adds that she needed to set aside her gymnast’s ability to land gracefully in order to convincingly fall out of a window. “One of the things we need to do is to be sloppy and be ok with it,” she says.
12. STUNT WORK AFFECTS THEIR DAILY LIVES.
Lamb explains that her decades of stunt work have infiltrated her daily life in certain ways, including how she views her physical environment. For instance, she often assesses sets of stairs in terms of how well they would work for a stair fall. “I might be looking through Real Simple or Architectural Digest and think ‘oh, those are good,’” she says. She also says that her work has influenced her parenting (or as she describes it, her role as a “stunt mom”) and imparted resilience to her children. “They do know how to take a tumble and roll right back up and keep moving.”
13. THEY ARE CONSTANTLY LEARNING.
Employability, for many stuntpeople, depends on developing new skills and perfecting old ones. Lam says she takes a variety of martial arts classes with the aim of becoming a more well-rounded fighter, and is training with a rope dart and chain whip—two traditional kung fu weapons. “The beauty of this industry,” she says, is that “it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things.” As a fight instructor, Kirby has the opportunity to observe many honing their craft. “The best people in this industry never stop learning,” he says.
14. AND THEY ARE CONSTANTLY TRAINING.
In between jobs, stuntpeople keep fit and train frequently so that they will be able to “spring into action,” literally, at a moment’s notice. “You never know when the bat phone will call and it’s time to suit up,” Kuhr says. Stuntpeople may train at specialized gyms where they can learn from and work with other performers like themselves, or typical gyms. Kuhr’s regimen, which includes cardiovascular training (to help with constant sprinting on set), strength training, agility work, martial arts training, sparring, and good nutrition, is typical of many stunt players.
15. THEY LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER.
Stuntpeople describe their community as tight-knit, with bonds forged by unique experiences. The people in this high-risk profession look out for each other, both in terms of safety and when it comes to nailing a new stunt or developing new skills. “We all look out for each other and train together,” Lam says. “If I don’t know how to do something, there will be someone within the community who will lend advice. You teach me how to do a car hit and I teach you about affective memory in Method acting.”
16. THERE IS NO OSCAR FOR WHAT THEY DO.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no Academy Award category for stunt work. (There are other awards, including some from the Screen Actors Guild and the Taurus World Stunt Awards.) Nearly all of the stunt performers interviewed here mentioned the lack of an Oscar for their work. A petition called Stand Up for Stunts is currently circulating to change that, and has received over 83,000 signatures so far.