How to Become a Stunt Performer

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

We’ve all seen those amazing movie scenes that really make your jaw drop. Whether it’s a wild car chase, a death-defying jump, or an incredible tumbling sequence, it can be difficult to imagine a real human being performing those actions.

However, there very often is a real person behind those amazing visuals, taking part in the art form known as stunt work. These artists perform highly specialized physical skills for film, television, and theater projects that take years of training to master. What they are able to accomplish truly does go down in theatrical and motion picture history. Think of the jump off the dam in “Goldeneye,” the chariot race in “Ben Hur,” or the car chases in “Starsky and Hutch”—just to name a few. So if you’re an athletic person, have a strong background in specific physical skills, are interested in working in the entertainment industry, and are not afraid of a long, hard day of work, pursuing a career in the stunt field might just be for you!

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What does a stuntperson do?

A stuntperson executes a specific set of physical skills needed for a film, TV, or theater project.

They are, in essence, movement professionals. Usual stunt skills include but are not limited to: stage combat, sword work, falls, gymnastics, horseback riding, and vehicle maneuvering (cars, motorcycles, helicopters, and more). 

“When I go to work, I light myself on fire, I jump through glass windows, hang from helicopters, and get blasted by cars,” says Luci Romberg, McCarthy’s stunt double on films like “Spy” and “The Boss.” “I describe my best day at work as going home in one piece.”

What’s the difference between a stunt double and stuntperson?

A stuntperson acts as their own character in the production and a stunt double is hired to perform stunts on behalf of a certain actor instead of the actor doing it themselves.

A stuntperson and a stunt double fulfill two different jobs on a production. A stuntperson is hired as an actor themselves, whereas a stunt double is hired to perform a skill on behalf of another actor. A stunt double usually looks enough like the actor that it can be implied the character is doing the action herself. Also, be aware that sometimes the term “stuntperson” is used as a catchall to refer to both the job of a stunt double and stuntperson, even though they are technically two different positions.

If you’re a stunt performer doing a lot of stunt work as yourself (and not doubling for another character), it is crucial that your face not be seen in the shot because once it is, you might be ineligible for work on the rest of the TV season or film shoot due to the importance of continuity in the production. Having your face seen in a shot is colloquially referred to as “being burned” in the industry and is, therefore, something to prevent if you can so that you can be hired for as much work as possible on a specific project.

It is also important to note that stunt professionals should not be confused with stand-ins. While a stunt double does the action of standing in for an actor when performing a specific skill on their behalf, the job title “stand-in” is a different profession entirely. A stand-in is someone who is similar to a specific actor in stature and coloring, and will literally stand on their mark while the shot and lighting are being set up so that the actor can prepare for the scene elsewhere. Stand-ins do not perform stunt work.

What does a typical day on set look like for a stunt performer?

A stunt performer’s day varies tremendously depending on what is being shot.

A stuntperson might be on set anywhere from eight to 20 hours at a time, but only filming for a small portion of that. The rest of your time will be taken up by things like hair, makeup, wardrobe, warming up, waiting around, possible rehearsal and discussion of the stunt with any fellow stunt performers, the stunt coordinator, and possibly even the director.

A stuntperson’s job is not just to perform a certain stunt on command. They are also a unique type of storyteller. Whether you are your own character as a stuntperson or you are filling in for an actor as a stunt double, you must be able to move the narrative of the piece forward through your action. Additionally, the action you complete must be believable and lifelike, which is why it is so important to think of a stunt performer as a movement professional. 

“Stunt performers are absolutely actors,” says Romberg. “We have to embody that character, we have to become the character of the person we’re doubling or it doesn’t work.... Anyone can fall down the stairs but it’s up to the stunt performer to be able to do it over and over again consistently and make it look as gnarly and out of control as it can be.”

A Day in the Life of a Stunt Performer

How do I get started as a stunt performer?

To get started as a stuntperson, you need to train, network, and develop relationships with industry professionals who can recommend you for future jobs.

What does connect all stunt performers, though, is “passion for everything about the world of stunts,” says Colin Handley (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”). “That is the key for how to become a stuntman.” Of course, “stunt professionals are [also] made through immersing themselves in core skills instruction and demonstrable practical activities.”

According to Buster Reeves, stunt coordinator and performer on “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld,” and “Kick-Ass 2,” aspiring stunt performers should “get proficient in multiple sports, including gymnastics or martial arts or swords, as fighting is a huge aspect of action onscreen.” Reeves himself began his career as a professional martial artist before being “fortunate enough through my sport to have an opportunity to showcase my talents for a movie that was casting a martial artist—and the rest was history.” 

Romberg took a different path: “I was a national championship gymnast in college. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and one of my teammates was out in L.A. doing stunts and acting, and basically convinced me to come out and try it.” 

Or take Haaron Hines (“Rampage,” “Luke Cage”), who was working full time as a research analyst before applying to a Backstage casting call for “The Dark Knight Rises” on a whim given his background in martial arts and weapons straining. Or J.R. Seay, who worked as a PA, camera assistant, and lighting assistant before getting work as a stunt double on “Woodlawn” and “Necessary Roughness” thanks to his background as an arena football player. Or Damita Jane who landed her first stunt gig doubling Eve in “Whip It” due to the fact that she was a great roller derby skater. 

Everyone gets into stunt work differently,” says Romberg, and while the above career paths all show that to be true, there is one connecter between all working stunt performers: a background in physical activity and the training that goes along with it. (More on that below.) 

In terms of the less-tangible aspects of getting your stunt career started, the number one most important thing is hustling and networking. Not unlike the daily hustle and grind of an actor, this refers to finding out from friends where the stunt coordinators are working, going to set to meet them, bringing along a headshot, résumé, and stunt reel, and trying to form the beginnings of a relationship. Be sure to go when they are on their lunch break, though, and always bring your connection or advocate who will introduce you. (Never interrupt a set while they are at work and when not invited!) Outside of set, hustling involves keeping up with your stunt training, networking at gyms, and developing relationships with other industry professionals for them to recommend you (and you, them) for future projects.

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Eddie Braun, a famous stuntman who successfully performed Evel Knievel’s legendary jump over Snake River Canyon, emphasizes the importance of people skills for getting your foot in the door. As a stunt coordinator, he hires a lot of people and states that he “hires their manners and people skills,” too. 

What training and skills do I need to be a stunt performer?

A stuntperson needs a wide range of skills like fighting, falling, riding and driving, agility and strength, water skills, and sports.

Before getting into the physical skills needed by a successful stunt performer, it’s important to understand what it takes mentally and emotionally. Backstage Expert Gregg Sargeant writes that while “a highly specialized set of skills is required for stunt work.... It takes total commitment and far more than a desire to add something to a résumé.”

Braun echoes this sentiment to Backstage, saying that the two most important things you need as a stunt performer are to have heart and people skills. He describes stunt work as a tough industry that you can’t give up on—you need to be able to get up one more time than you’ve been hit down, sometimes literally! He also emphasizes how invaluable it is to have people skills by conducting yourself with manners and class. Braun believes that training 25 hours a week in a gym won’t help if you can’t get the job because you don’t know how to conduct yourself in a social setting.

In terms of physical skills, Los Angeles stuntwoman Maddy Curley (“Stick It,” “Chalk It Up,” “Starting From Scratch”) specifies that fighting technique, weapons training, learning how to fall so that it looks natural, being able to shoot a gun, and knowing how to make it look like you’ve been shot by a gun believably are all invaluable skills to acquire as a stuntperson.

Meanwhile, stuntwoman Jessica Erin Bennett, who is based out of both Atlanta and L.A. and is known for her work on “The Walking Dead,” “Making History,” and “Chicago P.D.” believes that “the more well-rounded you are, the better.” She advocates becoming an expert in one or two areas and then rounding out your proficiency in other arenas to make you more employable overall. Adrian McGaw (“Snatch,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) agrees: “If you want to be a stunt performer, start training a skill set you can use, whatever it is. You can either specialize in something or you can be an all-arounder; a good foundation is boxing or martial arts. The majority of stunt work revolves around fighting and training with actors and bringing their skills up to a level where they can do it for themselves.”

Bennett is also a strong believer in doing your homework. In addition to training at the gym, she says a working knowledge of the field is important and recommends checking out books like “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” by Mollie Gregory, “The Full Burn” by Kevin Conley, “Action Movie Maker’s Handbook” by Andy Armstrong, and “Stunts: The How-To Handbook” by Angela Meryl. Bennett also recommends watching classic movies with famous stunts to better understand how stunts are done, as well as to know the background of well-known stunts when they are referred to on a job.

To be a stuntperson, you need to constantly be training and honing your craft.

Consistent training at the gym is key. You must constantly be honing your craft and committing yourself to be in top shape, both to perform at a high level and to ensure your own safety on set. Training at gyms is also a large part of how to network and make connections in the industry.

Sargeant writes, “Not all stunt classes and training schools are created equal. I’m always surprised when people pay to train with someone they know nothing about. You wouldn’t pay an acting coach you’ve never heard of who has never worked as an actor, so why would you do the same for a stunt instructor?” He continues, saying, “If you can, seek out an instructor who’s a working Hollywood stunt professional, as they’re respected as the best in the world.”

Most stunt performers have an area of expertise, which you should focus on keeping at a high level. However, it is also important to educate yourself in other areas to make yourself as employable as possible.

For example, Curley has 20 years of gymnastics under her belt, so is often called on for gymnastics and tumbling stunts. However, she has also regularly done CrossFit training, sword training, and stunt fighting, which allow her to work in multiple facets of the industry. Her favorite gyms to train at in L.A. include Valley CrossFit and JAM Gym. She also emphasizes how important on-the-job training can be—you must try to get on set as much as possible to learn about how performing different stunts in the gym translates to real-life on set.

Meanwhile, Bennett suggests parkour gyms as a great way to start developing your skills. Favorite gyms of hers in L.A. include Tempest Freerunning Academy and Los Angeles Valley College Fitness Center. As for her well-rounded approach to stunt work, she also believes in the helpfulness of acting training, movement classes, Viewpoints instruction, and fighting for the camera lessons.

Stunt performers also need stamina, a go-getter mindset, and the physical capacity of a professional athlete, while also being emotionally and intellectually prepared to fulfill the acting part of the job.

Sargeant writes, “It’s a big commitment in a very specialized field, a lifelong pursuit of physical and mental action and intelligence that needs to be mastered. We may be ‘actors,’ but we are also athletes of a special kind.” 

What are the risks of being a stuntperson?

While stuntpeople are trained professionals who take safety seriously, accidents do happen.

Whether it is a bad bruise, broken bone, critical injury, or even death, there are occupational risks associated with being a stunt performer. As Sargeant writes, “As stunt actors, we’re the only members of the moviemaking process who can die doing what we do.”

Recent accidents of note include the death of Joi Harris on the set of “Deadpool 2” in a motorcycle accident, as well as the passing of John Bernecker on the set of “The Walking Dead,” who fell 22 feet onto concrete below, both in 2017. There is also the famous accident of David Holmes, Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double, who in 2009 was thrown backward into a wall during a wire gag on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and left tetraplegic.

Again, safety should be the top priority of any project, and if you are uneasy for any reason, be sure to bring it up with the stunt coordinator, director, or SAG-AFTRA.

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How do stunt performers stay safe on set?

Safety on set should be ensured through a system of checks and balances, and constant communication with the stunt coordinator. 

A stunt coordinator is the person in charge of the overall action onstage or on set. They are constantly working with the other departments to make sure the action serves the overall story of the project, while also ensuring the safety of each individual stunt. However, safety does not fall solely on a stunt coordinator’s shoulders.

Braun suggests that everyone is in charge of safety as a collective. “Stunts are so different, [and] different parameters of safety need to be addressed,” he says. “Rely on everyone’s input. No one person is the ‘stunt god.’ ” He emphasizes a need for a “system of checks and balances.”

Bennett, meanwhile, urges individual responsibility and advises, “At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own safety. If you aren’t sure, you need to do more homework.”

Additionally, it should be noted that SAG-AFTRA has many safety protocols, not just for stuntpeople but for all union members, which must be adhered to on a set to ensure the overall safety of all employees and the set as a whole. It is always important to look out for your own safety on set, as well as that of those around you, and to make sure to speak up if there is anything that does not sit well with you.

What’s the career path of a stunt performer?

Being a stunt performer is a lot like being a professional athlete in that it is a very physical job, one that can wear your body out over time.

As veteran stunt performer Braun puts it, “You never retire, the business retires you.” That’s not even taking into consideration the possible injuries that may mean you have to retire early. However, if you play your cards right, you can do stunts well into your middle age and early senior years, though which types of stunts you do may change over time.”

While there is no hard age cutoff for retirement, stuntpeople do transition to other areas of the industry as they get older. There are many options for what work stunt performers can transition to over time. Most logically is stunt coordination, which oversees all stunts on a project from the hiring of talent and performers to deciding the best way to execute them. “The older you get, the harder it is to recover from the big hits,” says Emmy-nominated stunt coordinator Cort L. Hessler (“The Blacklist,” “Sneaky Pete”), who still does a few stunts but “coordinates so much that I’ve kind of been just letting the younger, more improved stunt performers” step in.

Other options include producing, stunt directing, acting, rigging, opening up a shop related to the industry, or continue working as a consultant. 

But before reaching the point of retirement, some of the best gigs a stunt performer can get are for lead actors, especially if that actor gets work on a lot of different projects or has a long-running TV show. Curley states, “[The] dream is to double someone you work with all the time.” Since so much of the industry is about connections and who you know, if an actor befriends their stunt double and they form a good relationship, the actor can have it written into future contracts that all stunt work must be performed by their stuntperson. James Franco is open about his friendship with his go-to stunt double, Pat Millin. Brie Larson brought her two “Captain Marvel” stunt doubles on stage to accept her MTV Movie Award for Best Fight. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is, in part, an ode to the career-spanning relationship between an actor and his stunt double.

Where do I find work as a stunt performer?

Stunt performers can find work through their connections, professional network, job boards like Backstage, and their union.

Backstage, Mandy, ProductionHUB, MediaMatch, Staff Me Up, and EntertainmentCareers.net all host job postings for stunt needs. Be sure to also use non-entertainment industry job boards like LinkedIn, Indeed, and Job Monkey—though still performance-based, many stunt jobs are with amusement and theme parks and camps. 

And, as with many jobs, getting hired in stunts about who you know. For better or worse, networking is going to benefit any career in the arts, but some performers struggle with making connections and relationships that last. 

Curley attributes building lasting relationships to that popular idea of “the hustle.” Find where other stuntpeople are going to the gym, have them introduce you to stunt coordinators on set, put in the training, find a specialty and excel at it—all while working to develop other stunt skills, too.

Also, don’t forget that work begets work. Don’t just meet the other stuntpeople on set. The more people you get to know overall in the industry, the more people there are out there who can recommend you for future projects.

Outside of your network, stunt work is often advertised as standard casting notices for productions. 

How much money will I make working in stunts?

A stunt performer’s salary depends on their level of experience, the scope of a project, and the number of stunts required.

According to Zip Recruiter, stunt performers earn an average of $85,000 annually (though the range goes from $17,000 to six figures). Based on a Vanity Fair report, a film with a $200 million-budget could see the stunt double for a lead actor take home $116,250, while stunt player #19 would only make $1,000.

Stunt performers are represented by SAG-AFTRA, which means they’re guaranteed a minimum rate for their work on union productions. Currently, union stunt people make $1,005 a day (or $3,746/weekly) on a scale union production, and are eligible for residuals and stunt adjustment pay based on the difficulty of the stunt performed. For example, a pratfall—a simple fall from standing—would earn an additional $100, while something more difficult and dangerous like a cannon roll—when a nitrogen cannon is used to propel a vehicle into several rolls—would earn $5,000 every time it’s performed. On the other end of spectrum are stunt performers working in live shows—like those at theme parks—who make about $12/hour. 

Do I have to join the union to be a stunt performer?

Union stunt jobs typically pay more, there will be more restrictions and regulations involved, and they will usually be for larger projects.

Just as there are union and nonunion film sets (and, therefore, union and nonunion actors), there are also union and nonunion stunt performers. Since stunt performers fall under the SAG-AFTRA union, the same rules apply: If you are a union stunt member, you cannot work a nonunion job, and vice versa (unless you are hired under a waiver or are joining SAG-AFTRA through the job).

Bennett did a lot of nonunion work before she earned her union card. She thinks it is a great place to cut your teeth, learn the ropes, and gain experience: “Sometimes that’s where the most awesome things are. [It’s] very, very rewarding.”

Curley does caution, however, that if working on a nonunion set, it is perhaps even more vital to look out for your own safety as well as the safety of those around you, as you do not have a union representing you.

 

 

Do stuntpeople ever transition into acting?

Yes! Jackie Chan, Burt Reynolds, and Chuck Norris are a few famous examples of stunt professionals who have transitioned to acting.

It really reiterates the notion that you must also be a trained actor and storyteller to be a successful stunt performer.

So if you have the physical expertise, have put in the training, exercised your people skills, and take part in the hustle, then you might be cut out to be a stunt performer. Braun summarizes the profession quite eloquently: “Stunts, show business—you’re going to take hits. Can you get up and take another hit and another hit and another hit? If it doesn't knock you out completely, you’ll be successful. Go back to your heart. You’ll succeed.”

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