**note: I recently had a much-compressed version of the three-parter I call “I Do My Own Stunts” in the Spring 2014 edition of The Fight Master journal. If you’re an SAFD person, check it out. The following is a re-post from the old blog of my “I Do My Own Stunts” series. ~Jenn
I Do My Own Stunts
It’s an actorly sign of badassitude to claim to do one’s own stunts. It’s a mark of admiration (“Craig did all his own stunts in Casino Royale!” “Ooo.”) and praise in that world. I even subscribed to this attitude myself, until recently.
I had the opportunity to review Vic Armstrong’s autobiography recently on website Nerds in Babeland, and he had a perspective on the whole do-my-own-stunts concept that changed my mind about the whole thing. Mainly it was refreshing to hear his perspective as a stuntman only (as opposed to an actor-combatant, like me and many of my students), and his view was much different than the view from the giant ego of an actor. He said that not only was it an unnecessarily reckless and dangerous choice for an actor, but it literally takes work away from the professionals when they make that choice.
A stuntman is trained specifically for the dangerous occupation, and actors very often aren’t. When an actor gets hurt, it can stop shooting (and certainly shows on camera, whereas a stuntman can easily hide his face, etc.) which costs a lot of money. Especially when the actor is a star–just imagine how much money it cost when Harrison Ford, for example, got hurt during Raiders of the Lost Ark. A stuntman is a) less likely to get injured, as he is trained for the work, and b) doesn’t stop a whole shooting schedule when he does get injured. I mean, if Harrison Ford, say, breaks his back, that’s the end of the movie until he recovers. If a stuntman breaks his back, another one steps in and the movie continues.
In one part of Armstrong’s book, he recounts having this very conversation with Christopher Reeve during Superman II–that Reeve would get so excited about doing his own stunts, but then when Armstrong would say, “Listen, you’re literally taking money away from me when you do this,” he changed his perspective and did only some of the stunts (albeit under Armstrong’s close supervision). Reeve already had top billing, Armstrong reminded him, and when he then also did his own stunts, the professionals were out of a job (and a star was at unnaturally big risk).*
We don’t get stunt doubles in live theatre, so I think actors like me (especially trained actor/combatants) tend to have this attitude about film acting that it’s a lazy or not as well trained actor that would let the stunt double do all the hard work for him. Theatre actors have to be highly trained in a huge volume and variety of different skills to be able to pull off some of these roles, because it’s all in real time and all done by the actors onstage, no cuts or do-overs either. So theatre actors tend to get pretty full of ourselves about the perceived skills of others in similar fields, just from ego and competition one-upsmanship. We theatrical egos just need to understand a bit more about how filmmaking and acting across the media actually work. Armstrong has a strong point: let the professionals do the stunt work.
Of course, there are exceptions to this: actors who are either first or just as completely trained in stuntwork of course can do stunts because they are also stunt professionals. Ray Park, for example, first worked in show business as a stuntman, before learning acting and landing roles himself (Darth Maul being his most famous to date).
*For more stunt stories from Raiders, see excellent documentary Raiding the Lost Ark. The discussion especially of the famous sword-vs.-gun scene is informative and highly entertaining.