How To Become a Stunt Performer

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

If you’ve ever wondered how to become a stuntman or stuntwoman, this guide will break down everything you need to know about pursuing a career as a stunt professional—from an in-depth job description to the skills and training you’ll need to succeed.

We’ve all seen those amazing movie stunts that make your jaw drop and set your heart racing. Whether it’s a wild car chase, a death-defying jump, or an incredible tumbling sequence, it can be difficult to believe that it’s not just CGI.

But there 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. While the training can be grueling, it’s worth it to create these astonishing scenes that go down in theatrical and motion picture history—the jump off the dam in “Goldeneye,” the chariot race in “Ben Hur,” or the car chases in “Starsky and Hutch.”

 

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What does a stunt performer do?

A stuntman executes a specific set of physical skills needed for a film, TV, or theater project. Essentially, stuntmen and stuntwomen are movement professionals. A stuntperson will often need to utilize the following stunt skills, among others:

  • Stage combat
  • Sword work
  • Falls
  • Gymnastics
  • Horseback riding
  • 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, Melissa McCarthy’s stunt double on films like “Spy” and “The Boss.” “I describe my best day at work as going home in one piece.”

A stuntperson is a unique type of storyteller and must be able to move the narrative of the piece forward through action. Their stunts must be believable and lifelike, which is why it’s 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.”

Like an actor, a stuntperson might be on set anywhere from eight to 20 hours at a time. Only a small portion of that time will involve filming—the rest of the day will be taken up by things like hair, makeup, wardrobe, warming up, waiting around, rehearsals, and discussion of the stunt with fellow stunt performers, the stunt coordinator, and possibly even the director.

There is one key difference between stuntpeople and actors, however: A stuntperson’s face should not be clearly visible in a shot. Once it is, they might be ineligible for work on the rest of the TV season or film shoot due to the importance of continuity in the production. In industry speak, it’s called “being burned”—and you’ll want to avoid it so that you can be hired for as much work as possible on each project.

What is a stunt double?

A stunt double is hired to perform stunts on behalf of a certain actor, rather than the actor doing it themselves. A stunt double usually looks enough like the actor that the swap isn’t obvious to viewers in the final product. Sometimes the term “stuntperson” is used as a catchall term to refer to both the job of a stunt double and stuntperson—even though they are technically two different positions: 

  • A stuntperson is hired as an actor themselves. 
  • A stunt double is hired to perform a stunt on behalf of another actor. 

Here’s another important distinction: Stunt doubles are not the same thing as stand-ins. A stand-in resembles a specific actor in stature and coloring and will stand on their mark while the shot and lighting are being set up. (That way, the actor can prepare for the scene elsewhere.) Stand-ins do not perform stunt work.

What skills do you need to be a stunt performer?

A stuntperson needs to learn a wide range of skills through stunt training, including fighting, falling, horseback riding, driving, agility and strength, water skills, and sports. 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.

To be a stuntperson, you constantly need to be training and honing your craft. Here are some suggestions from the pros on how to develop your career as a stuntperson:

  1. Start stunt training at the gym—and stick to a consistent routine. You must commit to being in top shape, both to perform at a high level and to ensure your own safety on set. Training at gyms is also a big part of how to network and make connections in the industry. In addition to training at a regular gym, stuntwoman Jessica Erin Bennett, known for her work on “The Walking Dead,” “Making History,” and “Chicago P.D.” suggests parkour gyms as a great avenue into developing stunt skills. 
  2. Learn fighting techniques. Many veteran stunt workers say it’s best to begin your stunt training with classes that teach you the basics of fighting. Adrian McGaw (“Snatch,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) says that “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.” Los Angeles stuntwoman Maddy Curley (“Stick It,” “Chalk It Up,” “Starting From Scratch”) adds that additional specific fighting technique—such as 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.
  3. Become proficient in a specialized skill. Most stunt performers have an area of expertise. 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. 
  4. Hit the books (in addition to the punching bag). Bennett is a strong believer in doing your homework, and she 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, and to know the background of well-known stunts when they are referred to on a job.
  5. Round out your skillset. Becoming an expert in one or two areas is key to finding specific jobs, but Bennett advises rounding out your proficiency in other arenas to make you more employable overall. She also believes in the helpfulness of acting training, movement classes, Viewpoints instruction, and fighting-for-the-camera lessons.

As stuntman Expert Gregg Sargeant notes, “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.”

How do I get into stunts?

To start a career as a stuntman, you need to train hard and develop relationships with industry professionals who can recommend you for future jobs. “Everyone gets into stunt work differently,” says Romberg. But the starting point for most working stunt performers is the same: an established set of physical skills.

Take Haaron Hines (“Rampage,” “Luke Cage”), who was working full-time as a research analyst. On a whim, he applied to a Backstage casting call for “The Dark Knight Rises”—and landed the job based on his background in martial arts and weapons training. 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 her skill as a roller derby skater

To break into stunt work, you’ll also need to network. Find out from friends where the stunt coordinators are working, go to set to meet them, bring along a headshot, résumé, and stunt reel, and try 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 or when you haven’t been invited!) 

You can also try networking at gyms and developing relationships with other industry professionals so that they’ll recommend you (and you, them) for future projects. Eddie Braun, a famous stuntman who successfully performed Evel Knievel’s legendary jump over Snake River Canyon, emphasizes the importance of people skills for those looking to start a career as a stuntman. As a stunt coordinator, he hires a lot of people—and he “hires their manners and people skills,” too.

Where do I find work as a stunt performer?

Stunt performers can find work through their connections, professional network, online job boards, and their union. Backstage, Mandy, ProductionHUB, MediaMatch, Staff Me Up, and EntertainmentCareers.net all host job postings for stunt needs. You can also try 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. 

Like most careers, getting hired in stunts is partially about who you know. Figure out which gyms are popular with stuntpeople and start building relationships. Curley’s favorite training gyms in L.A. include VCF Athletics and JAM Gym; Bennett recommends Tempest Freerunning Academy and Los Angeles Valley College Fitness Center.  

Some of the best gigs a stunt performer can get are those in which they double for lead actors, especially if that actor gets work on a lot of different projects or has a long-running TV show. “[The] dream is to double someone you work with all the time” Curley says. If an actor has a good relationship with their stunt double, 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.

Do I need to join a union to get stunt work?

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 are covered by SAG-AFTRA, 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 says these projects can be 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.” That said, there are obvious benefits to union stunt jobs: They typically pay more and will usually be a part of larger projects.

How dangerous is being a stunt performer?

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

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

Due to the dangerous nature of the work, safety should be a top priority of any project. This is typically achieved through a system of checks and balances and constant communication with the stunt coordinator, the person in charge of the overall action on stage 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. But safety should be a collective effort, says Braun. “Rely on everyone’s input. No one person is the ‘stunt god,’” he notes. Bennett, meanwhile, urges individual responsibility. “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, SAG-AFTRA has many safety protocols—not just for stuntpeople, but for all union members. Look out for your own safety on set, as well as that of those around you. Speak up and notify the stunt coordinator, director, or SAG-AFTRA if there is anything that does not sit well with you.

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How much do stunt performers make?

If you’re wondering how much stunt doubles make or what a typical stuntman salary is, you’ll find that these numbers can vary wildly, depending on a stunt worker’s 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 who are represented by SAG-AFTRA are guaranteed a minimum rate for their work on union productions. Currently, union stunt people make $1,005 a day (or $3,746 per week) 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. 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 the spectrum are stunt performers working in live shows—like those at theme parks—who make about $12/hour. 

What happens when I age out of stunt work?

Being a stunt performer is a lot like being a professional athlete—it’s an intensely physical job that wears your body out over time. Many stuntmen “age out” of the career because their body simply can’t handle it anymore.

“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”). Or, as veteran stunt performer Braun puts it, “You never retire, the business retires you. 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.”

Stuntpeople tend to transition to other areas of the industry as they get older. 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 continuing to work as a consultant.

Do stuntpeople ever transition into acting?

Jackie Chan, Burt Reynolds, and Chuck Norris are a few famous examples of stunt professionals who have transitioned to acting. Not surprising, considering you must be a trained actor and storyteller to be a successful stunt performer. Braun summarizes the profession 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.”

READ: How Hunger Games’ Actor Elena Sanchez Flipped from Stunts to Acting

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Backstage team and/or a Backstage Expert. If you purchase items through these links, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partner. 

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