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First Person

A Kick to the Head

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A Kick to the Head
Sprawled on my back, I stare up at the unnatural glare of fluorescent lighting.

I hear my name and feel a hand shaking my shoulder. At the same moment, flashing through my mind is that tidbit from CPR class about the importance of assessing someone's injuries before moving them.

I try slowly moving my jaw up and down, it's not broken. Check.

I feel my face, not bleeding. Check.

I spread my hand in front of my eyes, five fingers, not blurred. Check.

I use my tongue to scan for missing and/or broken teeth, they are all there. Check. (At least I think they are; it's hard to tell with this odd Novocaine sensation.)

As more hands grab my shoulders and try to get me to stand up, I rudely spit out, "Let go of me!" which sends a pang of regret into my Midwestern conscience, and a sting to my jaw from opening my mouth.

I stand up and lean against the cash register of the station. A make-up artist swiftly appears by my side with ice and a handful of aspirin. "To help reduce any swelling," she says. I gulp a few down while she stares into my eyes. "I want to make sure they aren't dilated," she offers. "A sign of a concussion."

"Hmm, they look normal, but we will have to redo your make-up to cover up all the redness & swelling." 

As I hold the ice pack to my numb face, I replay in my mind the events leading up to this moment.

*************

We're shooting in Willmar, Minnesota. It's a low-budget indie in which I'm playing a gas station attendant who—stupidly—fights back against a would-be robber.

As choreographed, I'm supposed to kneel down to retrieve a gun off the floor, and the actor playing the villainous robber is supposed to kick it out of my hand with his steel-toed cowboy boots.

No problem. 

We rehearse and rehearse in slow motion.  Four times, five times.  Everything goes perfectly.  Then we shoot a take. A little awkward. Another take. Everything's perfect. "Let's do it one more time," says the director.

Each movement has a beat. One, two.  I turn. He swings, misses. I hit him.  He drops the gun, I lean forward to grab it.  Up comes his foot. 

Unfortunately for me, the tempo of the choreography is mucked up. He misses the gun by about two feet, kicking my face instead. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that he's wearing steel-toed boots, the kind that went out of style in 1987.

My head whips back, I land on my back. My skull thuds against the tile floor.

*************

I seem destined to be that actor that gets pummeled, kicked, and bruised every time I try to do a stunt. But why? 

On the West Coast, I had a conversation with a stunt woman about the list of my stunts that seemed to go haywire. "Was I doing something wrong?" I asked.

"No," she said. She pointed out a little-known fact about why stunt coordinators are so valuable to have on a film set. "When doing stunts," she opined, "Method actors are something we keep an eye out for. They are a danger to themselves and their fellow actors."

Ah ha!  A lightbulb turns on above my head. From my memory, a pattern starts to take focus.

Now, let's be clear: I do know that you'll get a bruise here and there when doing your own stunts. It's just par for the course—nothing too surprising.

But this guy was lost in what I now call 'Method Madness'—the desire to be real, not act.  And the only result is pain, usually mine.

My first experience with this kind of actor happened in Des Moines, Iowa. I was playing a Meth addict who gets the crap kicked out of him. 

It started simply: I'm on the floor. My fellow actor is straddling me, holding a gun in his palm. In the scene, his character is supposed to pistol-whip my face.

It went splendidly during the rehearsal. Once, twice, three times.  The crew settles in, camera rolls, clapboard snaps, and the director yells "Action!"

The actor begins fake-whacking my cheek, and I act like it is slamming against my head. So far so good. Then I see the actor's eyes narrow, and he starts whacking the cold steel to my cheek—for real.

I struggle to get loose of this actor-turned-maniac, but seeing as he's got about seventy pounds more weight than my 125-pound body, I couldn't escape.

As I try to wriggle out, the irony is not lost on me: What's supposed to be fake became so real that no one can tell I'm being hurt.  They think we are simply doing a great job faking it.

Only when the director yells "Cut!" does the actor release enough of his weight for me to wiggle out of his grasp. Like an injured animal, I abruptly bolt to the opposite side of the set, trying to put as much distance between him and me as possible.

The actor keeps pace with me, still brandishing the gun in one hand. While reaching for my shoulder, I jump, but he blurts out an apology. Turning to him, my cheek visibly swollen, I tell him in the coldest voice I can muster: "Get away from me." He backs off with a "what did I do?" look.

Fortunately, I didn't need stitches.  Other than bruises that were visible for a full week, I came out of it mostly uninjured, if a little skittish.



Since that first stunt-gone-wrong experience, I've striven to do due diligence on every role to make sure that I'm not put into that position again. That's difficult, since a large portion of my work is in low-budget films, most of which can't afford real stunt coordinators.

It's when I find myself getting my face kicked in, and pistol-whipped so bad that I have bruises for a week, that I ask, "How could this have been avoided? Should I have turned down the project? Should I have said 'no'?"

"No" is a hard word for me. I like to be agreeable. I like them to like me. And I like to work as an actor.  I take pride in my work.

Recently, though, I found that the only antidote to Method Madness is with that two-letter word.

In the script, my character heists a ski-lodge-styled mansion. After the homeowner's boyfriend unexpectedly arrives, I grab a heavy wooden candlestick holder—the size of a baseball bat—and hide in their mammoth kitchen, awaiting the cinematic moment to pounce. I'm supposed to knock him out, and make my dastardly escape into the night.

It read great on paper. But being skeptical, I took my concerns to the director.  He reassured me over and over that the stunt would be handled safely. So I signed up.

But once I arrive at the three story mansion, however, the director changes his tune.

As we discuss the scene in the ultra-modern mansion kitchen, he turns to me and says, "I've decided you should really whack the actor on the back." Stunned, I'm not sure what to say.  If that's not bad enough, my fellow actor loudly agrees.  "Yeah, be real with it!" he enthuses, "Really whack me!  It'll give my character motivation." 

Ohhhh-kay.

The whole situation quickly evolves into a surreal "Twilight Zone" moment, in which everything moves in slow motion. The crew are looking at their watches while I stand between the director and the actor, both of whom are egging me to smack the actor's back for real.

For some reason, my mother's voice suddenly pops into my head, repeating her well-worn cliché—you know the one: "Just because the other kids are about to jump off a cliff doesn't mean you have to." 

So, turning to this Method-crazed actor, I say, "No movie role is worth you losing the ability to walk." Inflated by my principled stand, I make a 180-degree turn, hand the candlestick to the director.  "Before I hit anyone with this," I add, "you show me how to do it."

The director smiles.

Without pause he takes the bat, hefts it up like Babe Ruth, and winds up for a swing. I take a deep intake of breath, turn my face away, and tightly shut my eyes in anticipation of the loud sound of wood crunching the man's spinal cord and vertebrae...

Nothing happens.

I open up one eye and listen another moment, but all I hear is the pleasing thump of solid wood being set onto stone-tiled floor. 

The director then tells his D.P. to change the angle of the camera changed so that no contact is made between the wood and the actor's body.

Now, I'm annoyed.  Why couldn't he have just done that from the start and avoided the whole "hit me for real" peer pressure conversation?

But I'm also relieved. Let's just say that I was glad, for once, not to be on the delivering or receiving end of a mighty thwack. 

**************************

As the ice pack starts to burn my cheek, I remove it, set the pack on the counter and sit down.

Snapped out of my reverie, I suddenly see the difference between the three experiences.  In Iowa, it was pure madness. Here in Minnesota, it was a simple accident.  And in the ski-lodge-mansion, it was a bit of insane method. 

I laugh and wonder if this stunt-Method-madness is curable.

Probably not.


Paul Cram hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was home-schooled. Got bit by the acting bug while doing plays in church. Some current work includes "Peer Gynt" performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as bit parts in several small independent films that have made it to DVD rental shelves. When not acting, Paul can either be glimpsed with his head in a book between the rows at the library, or running to look for loose railway spikes at an old train station with his younger brother. To see clips of Paul's acting, visit www.PaulCramActor.com

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