A Fight Director on What Actors Need to Know About Stunt Work

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"To me, it's all about acting. I believe action has to drive the story and articulate character, but what I really like about action is that it's a visceral medium and can involve an audience at a level that's difficult to achieve merely through spoken words," says actor, fight director, and weapons expert Anthony De Longis.

An acclaimed sword and whip master, De Longis trained and choreographed Michelle Pfeiffer in her whip work as Catwoman in Batman Returns and has coached countless other celebrities, including Harrison Ford, Charlton Heston, Anjelica Huston, and Ellen Barkin. As a performer, he is best known for his combat work with Jet Li in Fearless and for playing First Maje Culluh in television's Star Trek: Voyager. He began his 35-year career as a Shakespearean actor; taught fencing, stage combat, and character movement at UCLA; and has been the resident fight director for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera since 1985.

"Stunt work is an odd amalgam," De Longis says. "As often as not, you labor in obscurity. You can establish a name for yourself within the stunt community, but as far as the general public goes, you're invisible. You're there to make the star look good. You come in when the risks are unacceptably high for the actor or to do something they're not capable of. Most stunt workers enter the field with a specialty—gymnastics, martial arts, weapon work, car skills—and then expand into other areas. But these days the best stuntmen are also actors. They refer to themselves as stunt actors, and some are developing prominent acting careers."

As a stunt actor, it is extremely important to be able to deliver what you promise. "One of the old axioms of this business is 'Tell them you can do it, and then run out and learn how to do it.' But not in the stunt world," warns De Longis. "People depend on you. Literally, there are lives at stake, mostly your own. If you say you can do something and there are 60 people standing around on salary, you better be able to deliver or you'll never get another opportunity. And you have to be able to deliver your skills under extreme pressure and great distraction. There is no place less user-friendly than a movie set."

De Longis believes that actors should do as much of their own action as possible. "By that, I don't mean the high-risk things, like high falls, body burns, or car crashes. These are things that require a specialized stunt professional who has trained enough to bring the risk down to an acceptable level. What I'm talking about are things like fights. It gives the performer more credibility if the audience really sees that it's you doing the action. Remember, as an actor, the more skills you have, the more choices you have."

Don't Fence Me In

De Longis began exploring stunt work when he was an aspiring stage actor uncomfortable with his body. "I was one of those typical young actors who didn't know what to do with his hands. So I began studying fencing, which gave me poise and balance and seemed to connect the parts. And I enjoyed what that brought to my performing. I realized that good action has the ability to be very emotionally evocative."

From fencing, De Longis branched out into martial arts and then weapon work. "The more I trained, I discovered there are fundamental concepts that connect all the movement arts. So when I teach people, I start with the foundational movements, and then it becomes a matter of simply adding the style or cultural characteristics and the weapon-specific adjustments."

If you've already mastered one kind of movement—be it dance, a sport, or a specific form of stunt work—it can be relatively easy for you to learn different sorts of action skills. De Longis recalls a fight scene he had to stage for an opera: "I had a group of terrific ballet dancers, but I didn't have time to teach them the sword basics I wanted to do. So I told them, 'Do a tour turn and just keep the blade level. You'll pass through, and my guy will react.' In a half-hour, with just one fighter and four dancers, we put together a rather spectacular piece, because the dancers brought with them such a high level of movement understanding."

To actors who may fear doing stunts because of the physical danger involved, De Longis says, "The technique will keep you safe. If you have the knowledge, both mentally and physically, your level of danger drops to almost nothing." And fight scenes are choreographed in such a way that the danger is "covered" before an action starts. "In a sword fight," he says, "I may be trying to stick this sword through your throat, and the way you're stopping me is by your footwork and body angling, but you have actually covered the line you need to protect yourself before I even start my movement. Of course, the audience doesn't notice that. But that's how you and your partner take care of each other."

Anthony De Longis operates a school at his ranch just north of Los Angeles, where he produces instructional videos and specializes in training actors, professional action performers, and martial artists. For more information, visit www.delongis.com.