Behind the Movies Part 1: So You Want to be a Hollywood Stunt Performer?
Published: March 11, 2011 - 8:36pm
When I decided I wanted to be a stunt person people thought I was crazy and to this day, I am not entirely convinced they are wrong. I knew nothing really about the business. It sounds silly, but I never even knew that stunt people existed until my mid 20’s. I didn’t assume that the actors did it all, I just never even thought about how it was all put together. That’s why I was never really good at watching horror movies… I could never just see it as make-up and special effects. So with all this in mind, when someone suggested I become a stunt person and I thought that sounded interesting, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
I was a pretty active, physically fit person and I assumed that really was all it
would take. Hollywood was waiting for me baby! So naively I just wandered
around my town telling anyone who would listen that I was going to be a stunt
performer. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen, I just was. Luckily
for me, after only a month or so of this wandering around and spouting out
my line in random bars, someone pointed out an actual stunt performer sitting
at the very bar I was in. I summoned up my courage and walked over to this
unassuming man, interrupted his quiet evening drink and said, “I want to be a
Having been in the business myself for many years now, I can only imagine what
this man (let’s call him Dan) thought. Probably it was - “Not again!” followed
closely by “You? It’s probably a little late for that…” To Dan’s credit, he actually
invited me to sit down and chose to give me some valuable advice and I will
never forget it, as it was really the launch pad to me being able to achieve my
stunt performer dream.
The first thing he asked me was “Do you have a headshot?” A headshot?
Man, I didn’t even really know what a headshot was. I mean, I knew it was a
photograph but I didn’t know what size it was and what it needed to look like.
Color? Black and White? Full body? Just face? These days, the best form of
headshot is a color 8” by 10” full body shot that most accurately represents how
you look in real life. Photoshop may work in the acting world but if you turn up for
a stunt job 20 pounds heavier than your headshot, you will not get the job.
So headshot. I could figure out how to get that done and even though in the
past I really never liked getting my photo taken, I guess if I was going to be in the
movie business, I should get used to it. The next thing Dan asked was about my
skill set. Did I know any martial arts? Gymnastics? Was I the most amazing in
the world at any sport? My answers? “No, No and No”. Dan sighed and looked
back at his beer and my spirits dropped slightly. “What’s your thing?” he said.
“Um, I’m a climber and I rappel a lot. I see them do that in the movies all the
time. Maybe I could do that.” Dan sighed again.
The next thing to do is to identify your skill set or build one. The more you have
in what I call your “bag of tricks”, the better chance you will get a job and then
keep on working. Martial arts are a good thing to do because chances are,
at some stage, you will be required to do a fight scene. Stunt work eventually
Gymnastics is a great thing to do too. If you have not done it from childhood, you
may not be able to throw a series of flips and twists but just playing around with
simple trampoline moves and dive rolls will give you better air sense which really
helps with high falls, wire work and just knowing where your body is in the air if
you are falling. And you are never too old to start. Take it from someone who
did their first back handspring at 32 years old!
Driving, high falls, dirt biking, water sports and basically anything super active
also help if you can achieve a high level in it.
Once you have identified the skill set you have, write that down on a sheet of
paper and staple that to the back of your newly acquired headshot. Make it look
good but never ever exaggerate what you can do. You will be employed as a
result of this skill set and if you get to set and have slightly expanded on what
your actual experience is, you will probably have a hard time getting a second
stunt job. Also add your height, weight and contact details.
Dan drained his beer, I ordered him another and sat waiting for his next pearl of
wisdom. “Is there an agent for stunt people? People in Hollywood have agents
right?” He laughed at me, kind of tiredly I thought, and replied “No. There are
no agents for stunt people. You get work through word of mouth and you are
only as good as your last stunt day”. At the time I thought that was kind of unfair.
How was a new person supposed to break in to this industry? And what if you
have a bad day? Maybe you are a little tired when you turn up to work and
don’t remember exactly what you were supposed to do? Now I understand the
reasoning behind this. As a stunt performer, you quite often are responsible for
not just your safety and wellbeing, but other peoples as well. A bad day at the
office might result in a file being put in the wrong order whereas a bad stunt day
can result in people dying or being seriously injured. Also, if you were about to
jump out of a plane and had to chose someone to pack your parachute, wouldn’t
you get someone you know has the skills to pack it because you have seen them
do it before rather than someone you haven’t seen pack one ever? So in this
way, people tend to prefer working with people they have worked with before or
people who they have heard have done a good job before.
I was dismayed at this revelation. How could I get people to trust that I could
do the job? Then the answer came to me – I could video myself doing stuff like
rappelling a bunch of different ways and falling down some stairs and I could
show them I could do it that way.
Get a good demo reel together. Remember sometimes less is more when you
are first starting out. Don’t show people what you can do badly… I wish my first
demo reels would all spontaneously combust so there would be no evidence of
how bad I truly was at first. I think I had some footage of me twirling kali sticks
and spinning a long staff that should never ever see the light of day.
I’m guessing by this stage my complete lack of experience was showing because
he asked me “Have you ever been on set before? This is a good place to start.”
Get a Background Performer Agent and get on to as many sets as you can. This
is a good way to begin to understand how a set works. There are many people
all working to get the film or TV show together and each person has their own
place and routine and everyone is always racing against the clock to get things
done. Understanding how this works will cut down your confusion and mistakes
when you eventually begin to do stunt work. Doing Background work is also
a great way to meet stunt coordinators if they happen to be working on set the
same day as you are.
The last pearl of wisdom that Dan imparted to me was “train where stunt people
train”. This can be a dojo, a local gymnasium or a stunt-driving course. Use my
old trick of wandering around saying “I wanna be a stunt person” and sooner or
later someone will point one out. They will help you find those places to train.
Meet stunt people, train with stunt people, do a good job and eventually those
stunt people may recommend you to a coordinator for a job. It worked for me.
There is a little more to it than this but these are the basics and will provide a
good platform to go from. Remember, this is just the beginning of a long road.
Becoming a successful stunt performer was the hardest thing I ever did. I had
to think stunts, breathe stunts, and live stunts. Every day I made sure that I did
one thing that could help me attain my goal whether it was a fight lesson, sending
out headshots to stunt coordinators, researching new training styles and places
or going for a drink at a bar that stunt people drink at. It took over a year and
that was only because I got lucky. Most people say that you should expect to
be training seriously for stunt for almost 3 years before you expect to work in the
industry. You need to want it with every part of you and then go for it. It cannot
be a whim dream. If the sound of all that is off-putting to you, then do something
else. If the sound of all that makes your heart pound with the excitement of
wanting and the eagerness for a challenge, then you are probably the person for
the job. I’ll be waiting to meet you out there some day.
Till next time -- S.L.