Don't Try This At Home
You're racing to the curb side in front of a gallery on a busy downtown street. With one arm, you're trying to protect a fragile sculpture, while your other hand wields a gun. Suddenly police cars come around the corner. They're not going full-speed, but they're moving fast enough to cause serious injury if you don't time this right. You race into traffic, dodging vehicles, and hit the front of one of the cars. You roll from the bumper over the windshield, and fly off the top. As the car moves past, the ground is waiting for you - and for the statue, which shatters and sends shards flying toward your face.
Let's get one thing straight. Film stunts are just as dangerous as they look. You know how those ads announce that a dangerous maneuver is being performed by a professional, and you shouldn't try it at home? That's because even the pros risk death and serious injury. "The work can be extremely risky. You can get killed in any of these stunts, really, if something goes wrong," says Michael Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-based actor and stuntman.
Or, as John Bennett, a Los Angeles actor and stunt performer, puts it: "Stunt people are considered crazy! The risk factor is that you can be hurt severely - in fact, quite a few of my friends have been killed doing what they do, and they were very skilled professionals."
Johnson and Bennett come out of different backgrounds - the former, a classical actor, is a stage fight director, while the latter has trained on specialty equipment from jetskis to high-fall protective devices. But they are both adamant that anyone who tries stunts without proper training is behaving irresponsibly. Both got started in stunts accidentally, when the need arose during a film shoot, though Johnson - who says he wouldn't call himself a stuntman although he's done a lot - was asked to try a stunt, whereas Bennett asked to be allowed to perform one. Johnson and Bennett have something else in common: they have both doubled for actor Avery Brooks, Johnson on A Man Called Hawk and Bennett on Deep Space Nine.
Though one must acquire a certain level of expertise to try any stunts, most training is on-the-job by default, because there are too many variables to predict how any given stunt will work no matter how much training one has, says Bennett. "I trained everywhere I could get anyone to show me something - I just let it be known that I really would like to learn," he explains, adding that there aren't stunt schools like acting schools which take in large numbers of pupils. Instead, stunt performers train with seasoned professionals who have the necessary equipment, and keep up on their skills by working with others in the business. "One of the guys who trained with me in my first high-fall training went on to become a specialist in high falls, he even had equipment that he leased to productions," Bennett adds. "It's pretty much training by individuals. Paul Stadter at one time had a school, and quite a few professionals who are in the business today trained with Paul."
Maria Kelly, a veteran stuntwoman who's doubled for Teri Hatcher, Natasha Henstridge, Geena Davis, Meg Ryan, Dana Delaney, and many other famous names, trained with Stadter. An actress and model who'd always been athletic, Kelly studied fights, high falls, stunt motorcycling, dirt bikes, and various specialty skills that are needed in the industry. "A lot of things I learned as I needed to - I wasn't going to go in the backyard and put myself on fire," she explains. "I waited until I had someone I trusted enough, and safety people who'd worked with me, they put you on fire and they put you out - you need a lot of faith."
Though he had worked as a double previously, Johnson stumbled into stunt work for A Man Called Hawk. "Central Casting called me up and said, 'Michael, they're looking for somebody to do stunt work, would you like to go down and talk to them?' I said, 'Yeah. Why not?!' We hit it off very well together." His first stunt job was being hit by a car on East Capitol Street in D.C., not far from his home. The first thing he learned was that in car hits, it's important for the performer to hit the car before the car hits him, in order to control the sequence of events.
"The car is being driven by a stunt guy," Johnson describes. "It's coming at me at 25 miles an hour, and braking. And, as it's braking, it's supposed to hit me, but in actuality, I hit the car, so I can control it. I hit the car, let it come to a stop, and then roll off it. That's the precision thing about it." Car hits can be unpredictable because a machine moving at 25 miles an hour can easily send a body flying - and the ground, Johnson laughs, is always waiting. The propulsion takes care of itself, but the trick is the landing, which is why experience is so important. Twenty years of fight training gave him background in how to minimize the trauma and go with the falls.
Filmed stunts are like stage fights, Johnson explains, in that a stuntman wants to look like he's hurting someone without actually injuring his opponent. "If a sword is coming toward my head, the actor will give me a big cue. Then I will duck, then the sword will go right where my head was. And it looks very good on film and on stage. When you look at TV or film and you see something coming at someone's head, the first thing you're going to see is that person duck, and then you're going to see that sword whiz by where the head was - I'm telling you one of the secrets right now!"
Because of his comprehensive martial arts training - more than twenty years of gymnastics and acrobatics, plus stage combat - Johnson doesn't have a lot of respect for actors who don't study martial arts for their films...but neither does he have much respect for martial artists who think they can master acting without lessons. "Jean-Claude Van Damme. Steven Seagal," he mentions scornfully, adding that he wrote an article for Martial Arts Magazine on the subject. "Chuck Norris actually tried to get training as an actor. The only martial artists that I know of who had real training as actors and were pretty good were Bruce and Brandon Lee - Bruce Lee trained under his father in the opera."
Though he enjoyed doing stunt work for other characters on the show, Johnson thought he might get to play Hawk on camera in a scene where Brooks was supposed to fight a dog. But the producers rearranged the scene so that the stunt coordinator could do it. "I think I had a gun fight with Avery at one point," he recalls. "They would dress me up. Most of these guys that I was stunt double for were in their twenties, and I was in my mid-thirties. So I thought that was quite interesting that they would get an old boy." Does resemblance matter? Not really, apparently. Says Johnson, "Avery is taller than me, but it wouldn't have mattered on film because of the way they shot it."
Bennett, on the other hand, looks so much like Brooks that people stop him on the Paramount lot to ask for his autograph. "When he had hair and no beard, I had hair and no beard - when he went bald-headed, beard, I went bald-headed, beard." Still, he adds, "I may look like him, but I'm never going to be Avery Brooks. The man is a consummate athlete - we're not talking about a weekend athlete here, we're talking about a man who can play anything from football to track." Were it not for his creativity and talent, Bennett suspects that Brooks might easily have become an athlete. "There are times when I slipped and became a little pudgy, and he'd walk by and say, 'Better work on that!'" he relates. "It's no joke! I can't make him look bad!"
Despite his own training as an actor - classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute and with Ann Geddes - Bennett has no jealousy of Brooks' role on Deep Space Nine. He lavishes praise on the star: "Standing back, as an actor, and watching Avery Brooks lend persona and expertise to written word, into believable and charismatic human form - it really is a craft to lend who you are to the words. I'll read the script, and I'll think, OK, this is how I would do it and this is what I would lend to it and inflect. But the truth is that, after watching Avery do it, there's no question who's the better actor."
Bennett maintains that stunt training makes the audition process more enjoyable even in cases like Deep Space Nine where he didn't get the role he auditioned for. "I've been called in for acting parts where I didn't get the part, but I ended up working the job anyway as the guy's stunt double. I said, 'Hey, this is not bad - if I don't get the job, I get the job!" The more stunts he did, the more of a reputation Bennett was able to build as someone who was valuable to have on a set.
A college athlete and former electrical engineer who has three grown sons he can still beat at basketball, Bennett discovered early in his acting career that producers pay the the difficulty of the stunt, and realized that he could support his children by supplementing his income doing stunts. After his first few jobs, "the coordinator told me that if I had some training, I wouldn't be bad at this, and I thought, this is another skill I can offer - 'I'll act for you, and I'll do my own stunts!'" It turned out that the training was more expensive than he imagined, and it's an ongoing process which he works at to this day. "It's not simple to do fire burns and glass work and ratchets and decelerators," he points out.
After doing stunts for the series, it took a lot of work on Bennett's part to convince the Deep Space Nine producers that he could act, too, and to let him audition for speaking roles. "I wouldn't give up. I figure they said, 'OK, bring the guy in, he doesn't have any talent so he'll sweat, and then he'll shut up.'" Though he didn't get the first role he auditioned for, he learned that the director had wanted him, and concluded that he just had to be better - "I had to make it so good that they'd be doing a disservice to the show not to hire me." When he went in a second time, to audition to play Kozak, the drunken Klingon from "House of Quark," he left the producers' mouths open. "After that, they started bringing me in."
"House of Quark" was one of the few times Bennett has gotten injured on the job. As he explained the stunt, he was about to stab Quark, but he tripped on his own feet and they fell down some stairs with a knife between them. "This is like a 14-inch knife, these things are not made out of flimsy plastic, there's a good chance both of us could get stabbed," he explains, adding that this was supposed to be the risky segment to shoot. The sequence was supposed to show them falling together, then cut to a shot of the knife embedded in Kozak's chest. That part went very well, despite the six or seven takes it took to get right. Then Kozak was supposed to die on top of Quark, who would push him off onto the steps to reveal the knife in his chest. "He pushed me off, and because of the closeness of the camera, when he pushed me, I had to be loose, because I'm dead! So my arm flipped back and hit the edge of the stairwell, which is metal. It chipped the bone. I couldn't move."
Bennett seems to take these hazards of the job in stride, and can laugh about them later. "In 'The Way of the Warrior,' I played a cocky, snotty little brat, a young Klingon. Worf steps up and says, 'You are Drex, son of Martok...I am Worf, son of Mogh,' and slaps the piss out of me! At which point of course I pull my knife to stab him, and he flips me." Bennett and actor Michael Dorn had staged the flip so that Bennett would land on his back in the precise spot where the camera could catch his hand releasing the knife. "The first couple of times it went okay," he reports. "The third time, Michael got a little exuberant with the flip - he picked me up what felt like fifteen feet, and I came down on my tailbone, I thought I had broken my back! When you hear the 'Unngh!', it's real!"
Brooks and Dorn do many of their own stunts, which is not all that unusual among actors with stunt training, but that's not always an asset to stunt performers playing opposite them. "When you work with [an actor], the hardest thing to explain to them is that they have to put the acting in the background and be conscious of their physical movements," says Kelly. "That's when people get hurt - everybody gets so caught up in the acting. I've been hit by more actors, because they're doing an acting job and they get so emotionally into their characters; they forget that they need to separate their physical bodies."
Like Johnson and Bennett, Kelly has acting in her background, and dance (she's the daughter of famed choreographer Maurice Kelly). Unlike the two men, however, she defines herself primarily as a stuntwoman; she does not seem to have aspirations to become the next Patricia Tallman, who went from doing stunts on Deep Space Nine and Voyager to starring on Babylon Five. Kelly reveals that after years working as an extra and training as an actress, she finds stunts more fulfilling.
"When you're acting, you're really emotional vulnerable on a consistent basis," she says, pointing to the devastating impact a critic can have on an actor's self-esteem. "With stunts, you know the minute you do the job whether you did a good job or a bad job. I felt more validation doing stunts."
Kelly has been fortunate to work with actresses who appreciated her work enough to request her as their regular stunt double. She worked on many shows and movies at Teri Hatcher's request, and Connie Selleca asked for her specifically in P.S. I Love You. "I have certain actresses who have always stuck with me - I've doubled at least 250 other actresses - and Tracy Scoggins has always been really good to me. So has Carol Alt."
While doubling famous actors, Kelly has had the opportunity to work opposite their talented counterparts in scenes - doubling Meg Ryan, for instance, got her into a scene opposite Julia Roberts, who was then just hitting her high point. "It's hard, because you don't want to interfere with their processing, and half the time when you're doing stunts, you're dealing with the hardest times they have, acting - their character is either getting raped, beaten up, pushed around, driven over, or dying," she points out. "So it's tough for me to duplicate the character, to mimic what the character is doing, so that when I step in, the frames that they show don't show a totally different person - moving differently, looking differently, or acting differently."
In addition to the sort of stunt work Kelly describes, in which a double takes over the role of another actress when specific skills are needed, there are also utility stunts - scenes which require a stunt performer to create a role because the gimmick of the role has to do with the stunt, or where a stunt actor is seen in background involved in a dangerous maneuver. In such cases, the emphasis is generally purely on the action - matching type with another actor doesn't factor in. Bennett has created several characters on Deep Space Nine which made use of his stunt training - fans may remember him as Gabriel Bell, the savior of twenty-first century America from the episode "Past Tense," though the character was stabbed to death shortly after his introduction and impersonated by Sisko - an ironic reversal on the stand-in/actor relationship.
Kelly believes that most actors are sympathetic to the efforts of doubles because they go through the same body politics and work just as hard to establish themselves: "There's times when I really get a chance to sit down with the actors, like Carol [Alt] and Teri [Hatcher] - I get a partial script, and if I don't know the character, or if I don't know the way they're walking - sometimes they break off into first and second unit, so sometimes you're in the middle of a script but trying to validate what the actress is going to do, so you need to know." Kelly thinks having studied acting helps her greatly. "I wasn't successful," she starts to say, then reconsiders: "Success is in the moment, and I don't know if success if financial or physical or mental - success to me is in how the person is after they've become successful. I always found it easier to trust somebody who's going to drive a car into you than it is for an actress to trust that somebody's not going to sell some information to the Enquirer.
Kelly stresses that a stunt double has to trust the stunt team implicitly, but it helps if the actress trusts her enough to let her feel out the character from the actress' perspective. "In a way I'm mimicking them, but in a way I'm not - it's stepping into their character for a few moments, and processing myself out of it. The difference between acting and stunts for me is that in acting, you're emotionally and consciously involved - in stunts it's the opposite, the acting is subconscious and the physical movements are conscious."
Is it ever hard to step back and let an actor finish a scene? Sometimes, says Johnson. "At one point doing Meteor Man, the stunt coordinator asked me to get ready do a fight with Tiny Lister. I get dressed up, thinking, 'Oh my goodness!' And I'm walking onto the set, then one of the assistant directors says, 'Michael, you're going to have to get out of the costume, because Robert Guillaume wants to do this by himself, and we don't want him to see that we were looking to you as a stunt double.' Waaaah!" So Guillaume did the fight with Tiny Lister...even though Tiny's not tiny at all.
Johnson and Bennett cackle gleefully that they have, on occasion, made a prominent actor work his butt off to pull off a scene. "In The Pelican Brief, at one point Denzel [Washington] comes into his hotel room and sees this figure who's in this room, who runs through the room to the balcony and Denzel chases him off the balcony - that was me," laughs Johnson. "So I was rehearsing, and Denzel was watching on the monitor. I didn't know he was there! He says, 'Man, you're testing my manhood!' Because he wasn't going to do it himself, he was going have his stunt double do it, then he saw me said, 'I think I'm going to have to chase you myself.'"
Bennett laughs that he will offer Avery Brooks extra rehearsal time on stunts, and Brooks will look at him and say, "'You would love to do this all the time, wouldn't you?'" (in a dead-on imitation of the actor). On the other hand, keeping up with the actors has complicated his life on occasion. In one instance, Bennett was doubling actor Tim Russ in the Voyager episode "Learning Curve," and had to lose weight to be believable as Tuvok. The shot involved carrying another actor on a ladder in a room filled with gas. "So I had lost all this weight, and in the shot, the nitrogen gas was making me lightheaded," he recalls. Bennett slipped a rung on the ladder and fell, carrying the actor down with him.
Kelly's still recovering from her hardest stunt, a truck hit on Pacific Blue. "Physically, it was hard because it hurt - usually when you do a stunt, you don't feel the pain for hours, because your adrenaline is up." Though she's a veteran of such maneuvers as taking a jetski off a fifty-foot waterfall and working underwater for several nights on When A Man Loves A Woman, this one bothered her because the pain registered so much.
"It's a matter of what your system can actually take - when you ignore pain for too long, the body will shut down, so it's a matter of trying to relate to every part of your body when it's hurting," she says."It helps to give back to your body, whether it's a chiropractor, a facial, having your hair done. When I do something that's going to traumatize my body, I tell my body what's going to happen, so there's no shock - the adrenaline rush is like a morphine high. But you get to a point where you're physically blown out and you're emotionally shut. Your body will break down - like your car, you have to take it for a tuneup.
The performers explain that there are several different speeds at which stunts are performed, though speed and difficulty don't necessarily increase together. "If you're shooting 24 frames in one minute, that's normal speed; if you're undercranking, it's fast, if you're overcranking, it's slow motion," Kelly explains. For a stair fall, for instance, one can do a "ten," which is full speed, or bring it down to a "seven," which Kelly describes as "opening your eyes and slowing down." Which speed to use depends upon the camera setup, how many frames are being shot per second, and what the stunt coordinator and the director want. "If it's a violent film, it's going to be a fast stunt," says Johnson, though Kelly adds, "The faster you go down stairs, the less it hurts, because it's like being in water - you skid along, there really isn't any traction."
Bennett has trained stunt performers, and says he can tell early on whether someone has potential. "If they stick through first part, and then I say we need to do this again, they say, 'You're nuts! That ground is hard!' But that's the nature of the business. Make sure that any stunt you agree to do is something you can do twenty to thirty times. If you only have to do it two or three times, it's gravy, but if you see a guy get blown up, chances are he did not only do that one time - if you see a close-up and then you see him go flying across the screen in a wide shot, that's not a one-take thing."
Painful, violent stunts can be difficult, says Kelly, because "you don't want to process the violence. You want to make it fun." She tries to visualize the perfect situation for the stunt, so that her subconscious will know what's going on if something goes wrong. "You think about what can happen and you guard your body against that. I believe in angels and divine guardians, there are certain things you have to take from your spiritual orientation. If you process negativity, you're going to get it back, but in stunts there's no room for it. There can be no vindictiveness in stunt work, there can be no hate, there can be no anger, because people die doing this job. One broken link and that person's gone."
Kelly has never "chickened out" on a stunt, but she is quick to add that if a situation did not feel right to her, it wouldn't be chickening out to walk away - it would be suicide to continue. "If you don't feel right, you should not do it, because that will kill you - any subconscious fear that comes forward," she stresses. "Learn your craft, do your homework, because it's not like saying two lines and flubbing them on camera. You mess your body, your mind, and your soul up if you do not come at this craft correctly." Her favorite show to watch is Xena, because the stunts they do "are all circus stuff, it's so different from what we do - that's the character every woman wants to be, the strength. Xena is the one person besides Princess Leia that I really wish I played. They don't show blood, nobody really gets killed, everything is kind of in jest."
Bennett has done stunts where unpredictable factors like wind and weather have caused him to get badly scalded during fire burns where he didn't have enough protective gel, and has at times depended on the improvisational techniques of the crew to keep him safe. "I did a thing on TNT where I fell off of a tower, and it just so happens that the day I did the fall, they forgot the pad [to land on]. When you're talking about $10,000 per shot, you can't waste the film, you can't go back and get any additional equipment because there's no time." The crew set up crates, so that he would fall off the tower onto a crate and then onto another crate, and then onto the ground. "It had to be choreographed just right or I'd have broken my neck. Stuntmen are expendable! 'He's dead, bring in the next guy!'"
Jesting aside, Bennett has worked with every kind of equipment he's been able to get his hands on, so he'll be prepared for whatever might be needed. "I do water work, and I had to get on a wave runner. I have friends who have jet skis and boats. You've got to try everything, it's why I became a certified scuba diver. If I had the time, I would love to jet ski. Once you've become acclimated to it and you learn to do it safely, you have no fear of it." He likens stunt work to downhill skiing. "The first time down, you're scared, but eventually you want better skis and better bindings."
Bennett then groans, analogizing that desire to his kids asking him for money for their cars. Does he worry about being in such a dangerous profession? "Hey, they're proud of me now! They were ashamed of me for years!" he laughs. Kelly, too, says that having a child would not deter her from continuing with stunts.
"I would never tell my child 'Don't do this' about anything. It's expanding your wings," she says. "I do it because I like it." Of course, she adds, "if you have a baby, you have to take two years off of the business and then everyone thinks you died!"
Stunt work certainly sounds like it takes a tough constitution, but, interestingly, successful stunt performers seem to have much greater longevity than successful actors. Kelly hopes to continue doing stunts well into her 50s, which is past the age when most actresses are considered marketable; the president of the Stuntwoman's Association, she says, is probably the most skilled stuntwoman in the business even though she's older than most of her peers. Bennett expects to remain in stunts more because it's in his blood.
"Sure, some days even I think I'm nuts," he agrees. "But then I just get up and do it again! I'm really proud of what I do, and the work that goes into making a good production."
And in this genre, those productions couldn't happen without the stunt people.