How to Become a Stuntperson

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 is someone hired to execute a specific set of physical skills needed for a film, TV, or theater project. They are, in essence, a movement professional. 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). There are two types of stunt hires: a stuntperson, who acts as their own individual character in the production, and a stunt double, who is hired to perform specific stunts on behalf of a certain actor instead of the actor doing it themselves.

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

As mentioned above, a stuntperson and a stunt double actually fulfill two different types of 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 that the actor could not execute. A stunt double usually looks enough like the actor that it can be implied that 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 technically refer to two different types of 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 actually 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 skills (physical and mental) does a stuntperson need, and how do I acquire them?

As for the mental skills needed for stunt work, Backstage Expert Gregg Sargeant writes, “A highly specialized set of skills is required for stunt work, so for actors who are just looking to add a new trick to their bag, this probably isn’t the right trick.” He adds, “It takes total commitment and far more than a desire to add something to a résumé.”

Eddie Braun, a famous stuntman who successfully performed Evel Knievel’s legendary jump over Snake River Canyon in Idaho and has a new documentary directed by Kurt Mattila titled “Stuntman” (Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia at Seven Bucks Productions produce), echoes this sentiment. He tells Backstage that the two most important things you need as a stunt performer are to have heart and people skills. He goes on to describe 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—known for her work in “Stick It,” “Chalk It Up,” and “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. Bennett is also a strong believer in doing your homework as a stuntperson. 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.

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Where should I be training? What should I be training in?

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 in order 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.

How is my safety ensured while on a set doing stunts?

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 on set 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 are the risks of being a stuntperson?

While stuntpeople are trained professionals who take safety quite seriously, accidents do happen on film and TV sets, as well as in theater. 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 Hollows” 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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What are additional requirements to the profession?

In terms of additional aspects of the profession that are helpful to know about, 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.” Stunt performers need to not just be emotionally and intellectually prepared to fulfill the acting part of the job, but you must also have the stamina, go-getter mindset, and physical capacity of a professional athlete.

Additionally, it is good to know that there are both union and nonunion jobs. Just like with acting, union stunt jobs will pay more, there will be more restrictions and regulations involved, and they will usually be for larger projects. More on that below.

What’s the difference between union and nonunion gigs for a stuntperson?

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.

How do I get my foot in the door as a stuntperson?

A term used frequently across the stunt professional world is “hustling.” 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.

Braun emphasizes the importance of people skills for getting your foot in the door. During his work as a stunt coordinator, he hires a lot of people and states that he “hires their manners and people skills,” too. After all, as Bennett suggests, “Be the person who someone else wants to hang out 16 hours with.” If you have to spend countless hours a day with someone while on set, you want to be able to get along with them and know that they are working on behalf of the entire team.

Bennett also recommends keeping up with hobbies outside of work. It is helpful to be the person you would want to talk to on the weekends. While many stunt performers talk shop with each other, it is refreshing to talk about other aspects of your lives, as well, such as a weekend trip, a fun outdoor sport you are picking up, or some other activity or hobby that makes you a more interesting and well-rounded person. It will also provide a well-deserved outlet for the stress of the industry and help you come back relaxed and a better human being. Not to mention, many sports-like hobbies actually help to provide stunt-relevant skills! (Think: canoeing, hiking, skiing, surfing, etc.) It really all comes full circle in the end.

What is life on set like for a stuntperson?

A stuntperson will be hired by and report to the stunt coordinator. This is always their first point of contact on set.

As a stunt performer, just like any other performer on set, you will essentially be told to “hurry up and wait.” This means you 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 director, and possibly even the director, as well.

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, as a stuntperson 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. All performers should also train in acting.

Do I have to have a celebrity doppelgänger to be a stuntperson?

If you are working specifically as a stunt double, it is important to look something like the actor you are doubling. While this can be aided by costumes, wigs, and makeup, if you look too different from an actor, the job will probably go to someone else. For example, if an actor is 5 feet tall and the stunt double is 5 feet 11 inches tall, this would clearly be noticeable on film, even if they dyed the stunt double’s hair and put her in the same clothes. Therefore, for stunt double work, you will be called in partially on how you look.

However, some of the best gigs a stunt double 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. For example, James Franco is an A-list actor who is open about his friendship with his go-to stunt double, Pat Millin.

Are there actors who do their own stunts?

There are some actors who do their own stunts. Sargeant writes, “Not every actor is comfortable doing action—it’s why stunt doubles exist. But it can be the deciding factor between getting the part or not, especially since it’s easier for a stunt coordinator to know if an actor can handle him or herself in the middle of a ‘fight.’ That said, be really honest with yourself about whether you’re truly on board with doing stunt work. Imagine getting cast and then deciding midshoot that you’re actually not comfortable with the physicality of the role.”

While some actors do their own stunts, it really depends on who the actor is and what the specific stunt entails. Braun states, “It’s true that producers are seeking actors who can handle the physical aspects of a role now more than ever, but those kinds of roles often come with intense training, both physical and mental.”

Bennett points out that even actors who do their own stunts often have stunt doubles for the most difficult of tricks. Rarely does a famous actor perform 100 percent of their own stunt work across their career. (The exception perhaps being if an actor started out as a stunt double and transitioned into acting.)

What is it like being a female-identifying stunt performer?

Like much of Hollywood and the similarly physically centered sports and fitness world, stunt work is an industry by and large run by men. Curley says she has only ever had one female-identifying stunt coordinator on a set—and it happened to be when she was personally in charge of the hiring for that position. She does feel as though there are more female-identifying stunt performers working the longer she is in the industry, especially with the rise of more female characters in action films, but that the ratio of men to women stunt performers remains imbalanced.

Meanwhile, Bennett explains that in the stunt world, “there are still men being wigged as women”—a startling fact, considering there are many professional stuntwomen out there vying for jobs. She states that it is “really tough for females” and that “for every ‘Wonder Woman,’ there are five dudes.” In fact, there has only been one woman to ever win an Emmy for stunt work, which was Shauna Duggins in 2018 for her work on Netflix’s “GLOW.” Women have won awards at the Taurus World Stunt Awards, however, which is an awards show specific to stunt performers.

How do I build lasting relationships within the industry?

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. Bennett advocates for simple and timeless advice: “Be nice.”

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.

Is being a stuntperson a viable long-term career?

As veteran stunt performer Braun puts it, “You never retire, the business retires you.” 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. 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, per se, stuntpeople do transition to other areas of the industry as they get older. Braun also emphasizes the importance of going out at the top of your career. The re-creation of Knievel’s stunt and the filming of his “Stuntman” documentary surrounding it was a way to “bow out [and] do my mic drop,” he says, after a “very blessed, great career of over 35 years.” (That said, he still works full-time as a stunt coordinator and stunt performer, particularly with projects that involve vehicles.)

Curley also emphasizes the importance of saving your money while knowing the general age limitations of a stunt worker, and she recognizes the importance of receiving residuals on shows that she has worked on.

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. Other options include producing, stunt directing, acting, rigging, opening up a shop related to the industry, or continue working as a consultant. After all, if you love being on set, you can find a way to keep that as part of your day-to-day life.

Do stuntpeople ever transition into acting?

Yes! Jackie Chan, Burt Reynolds, and Chuck Norris are a few famous examples of stunt professionals who have done just that. 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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