So you wanna be a stunt performer?

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 stunt person”.

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 equals fighting.

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.

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