Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job performing stunts

When Ryan Sturz was 15, his younger brother helped him record stunts with a video camera their father bought them.

They’d get a junk car, promising to dispose of it properly. He’d ask his brother to drive the car past him a few times until he was happy with the speed. Then his brother would hit him.

For the record:

9:57 a.m. Sept. 30, 2022An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Ryan Sturz used his parents’ car to film stunts. He and his brother found people who would give them their junk cars to wreck.

Now, he’s a professional stunt performer and coordinator who specializes in car and horse stunts.

“You use common sense,” he said. “You figure out where the hard parts of the car are. You don’t want to get hit by the bumper or the front end of the car. You also don’t want to get hit by the windshield frame.”

But the windshield itself is actually quite soft, he said. If you can jump high enough, so that just as the car hits you, you land on the windshield and roll onto the hood, the forward momentum will spin you up.

“The only thing you have to worry about is landing,” he said. “And as long as you don’t land on your head, you’re typically fine.”

It’s safer to practice this with professional — or at least adult — supervision. But growing up in Germany and Suriname and enamored with westerns and action flicks, Sturz put on his elbow and knee pads and hoped for the best.

The pros often do it without pads — and with a lot more training.

“If you want to break our industry down really, really simply into one sentence, we get paid to take a beating,” said Banzai Vitale, veteran stunt professional who runs Stunt Performers Academy in Los Angeles. “Our job is to hit the ground and take a beating, so the actor doesn’t have to. And that requires a level of physical training.”

There are stunts in almost every film, said Mallory Thompson, who worked on “Top Gun: Maverick,” the upcoming “Avatar” films, and doubled Zendaya for “K.C. Undercover.”

Some are flashier — people flying around on wires or getting set on fire. Some are quieter or more intimate; for example, a drowning or domestic violence scene. Some are funny — people often trip or fall off things in comedies.

The Times talked to Sturz (“Captain Marvel,” Eternals”), Thompson, Vitale (“True Blood,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and fellow stunt professionals Alex Daniels (“Bosch,” “Veronica Mars”), Alfred Hsing (“The Watchers, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), Katie Rowe (“Will & Grace,” “American Horror Story”) and Noah Garret (“Ms. Marvel,”The Mandalorian”) for advice on how to get into the industry.

Who becomes a stunt performer?

Stunt performers need a strong athletic background. Think gymnastics, martial arts, diving or motocross — sports in which you develop body awareness, timing, coordination and discipline.

Daniels, veteran stunt coordinator and a board member of the Stuntmen’s Assn., was a cheerleader. Garret has done martial arts since he was 2. Hsing won the first American gold the 2009 World Wushu Championships. Vitale did martial arts and pole vaulting. Thompson was a pole vaulter and gymnast. Rowe started out as a swimmer, and she is often called upon for water stunts.

A person who pursues stunts has to have an adrenaline-seeking personality, but it’s not the wild ones who succeed, the experts said.

“People think that I’m a daredevil, and that’s not true,” Sturz said. “I’d bungee jump if you paid me, but I wouldn’t do it for fun.”

You also have to be able to think about a million things at one time, Thompson said. Sometimes that includes scanning the surroundings and putting pads on a table with sharp corners. Sometimes it’s having the dexterity to make small adjustments — for example, turning your head to hide your face — while maintaining the same energy for the camera. Other times, it means knowing your body well enough to understand how many safe takes you have in you.

Garret, who doubled for four characters in “Cobra Kai,” had to perform a scene where Robby kicks Miguel over a rail. He hits another rail and then tumbles down some stairs. At first, they practiced with a decelerator, which is the cable controlled by technicians to take the speed off the impact, but the result looked unnatural. After assessing the risk, Garret opted to do it without the decelerator and just went for it. “Sometimes it’s when you do it multiple times that you get hurt,” he said. “Sometimes one-and-done is safer.”

Sturz said superstar stunt performers can be gregarious and fun to be around: “We have great stories to tell.” But they also tend to be very calm.

“When the film set becomes chaotic because they’re running out of daylight and they’re rushing, rushing, rushing and rushing, the good stunt performers slow way down,” he said.

How do you get started?

Get proficient at the basics. Many people come in with a specialty — and become known for a specialty. But professionals say it’s best to be well-rounded.

“Everybody’s kind of expected to be able to drive and do some basic fighting and pratfalls,” said Rowe. That includes getting punched and falling; rolling over a table; doing 20-foot falls; doing basic wire work; swimming; and scuba diving. It’s also important to know how to handle a car and drive a stick shift.

“It’s for safety, but it also increases your market value,” Sturz said. “If somebody brings you on a four-month run of a movie, they want to be able to plug you into different positions.”

All martial arts are worthwhile, but Thompson recommends taekwondo and judo because movie fighting is mostly about kicks, punches and throws. Kali is also helpful to learn weapons, she said.

It’s essential to master the training. It’s for your safety and that of the stunt team and other cast and crew members.

Schools and classes can teach you other specific skills.

Make friends. It’s equally important to find a community to train with — that becomes your network.

When Thompson was starting out, she asked everyone where they trained, what gyms they were going to, what classes they were taking.

Hsing, who grew up in San Jose, moved to Asia after his gold medal win to work on films with action legends Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. But when he decided to come back to the States, he had to rebuild his network.

One of the ways he does that is by regularly creating content with other stunts performers. He shows behind-the-scenes footage of training and hosted a series called “Martial Arts and a Meal,” where he connects with other martial artists through food.

“Typically, you don’t audition for anything,” said Hsing. “You just get called and hired. So it’s important for people to vouch for you.”

Impress people who will become your mentors. Daniels was doing a production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” when veteran stuntman Bob Yerkes taught him to juggle and walk on a high wire. Yerkes saw talent and encouraged Daniels to pursue stunts.

“He likes to say that he saved me from a life of Shakespeare,” Daniels said.

Get into the union. Many professionals will say that your career starts when you get into the union. Stunt professionals are represented in SAG-AFTRA, alongside actors, dancers and other performers.

In other Hollywood careers — for example, directing or costume design — it’s typical to start on independent projects, and even possible to make an entire career working outside the union. You don’t want to do nonunion stuff, Vitale said, because of unclear insurance arrangements and the reality of injuries in this work.

A common way for stunt performers to join SAG-AFTRA is to work three days as a background actor. (Be sure the work is covered by a union contract.) You may not do any stunts, but you can observe how a set works.

You can also get hired for a job that will apply for a waiver to get you into the union. Thompson was training in New Orleans when she got a call to fill in for a performer who couldn’t be in Louisiana.

“There’s a lot of skill that goes into [preparing for your first job], but also luck and timing and just being ready,” she said.

What are the career paths?

There are different levels of stunt performers, explained Rowe, president of the Stuntwomen’s Assn. of Motion Pictures.

Stunt doubles match an actor’s look and do their shots. Nondescript stunt performers are the ones “running away from Godzilla,” she said.

Specialists are hired for more extreme stunts. If you need someone to be thrown off a 100-foot building, for example, you need a high-fall specialist.

Stunt riggers handle a lot of the technical equipment — including pulling people wearing wires and harnesses to make them look like they are flying.

One common career trajectory is to move up toward management and filmmaking.

The stunt coordinator is the department head in charge of hiring the stunt performers, as well as working with the directors, producers or showrunners to design the action sequences.

Often, the stunt coordinator choreographs all the stunts, but if the project demands it, there might be a fight choreographer or water coordinator to handle specific scenes. Normally, there’s just one stunt coordinator, Rowe said, but bigger-budget action projects may have several.

In recent years, more stunt coordinators have become second-unit directors, who often help shoot elaborate action sequences. Some, including Chad Stahelski (the “John Wick” franchise) and David Leitch (“Bullet Train”), have gone on to be blockbuster directors.

But for those who prefer to stick to performing, another common trajectory is to take on more acting, especially as they age.

“Most of us can [do basic acting] because we’ve been doing this so long,” said Sturz. “We’ll get hired for a part where we say one line, and in the end, we die and fall down.”

How do you make money? (And what kind of money?)

“If somebody wanted to get into the stunt business to make money, I would tell him that there are better and easier ways to make a lot of money,” Sturz said.

The SAG-AFTRA base rates can look fairly high — $1,082 a day. But for most stunt professionals, even veterans, the work has busy and slow periods. Stunt adjustments, Rowe added, pay performers extra for particularly dangerous or difficult stunts. But it takes many years to get to that level.

It’s typical for it to take five to 10 years for aspiring stunt performers to start making a living, experts said.

Flexible side gigs are therefore important to pay the bills.

Thompson recommends finding a workplace where you’ll be meeting a lot of stunt people and training with them. For example, you could work in a stunt gym or free running gym.

Sturz runs the Motion Picture Driving Clinic that was originally founded in 1997 by Rick Seaman. In the late ‘90s, Sturz was a student and instructor there.

Another popular job for aspiring Hollywood stunt performers is live shows. Daniels used to perform and coordinate the Batman stunt show at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and later doubled for Val Kilmer and George Clooney in the Batman films of the 1990s.

“It’s good training for performance, because you can’t go, ‘Oh, cut! Start over,’” he said. “You have a live audience there.”

And lastly, you could work for a stunt organization — or at least volunteer for their events, Thompson said.

“It’s so that people remember you,” she said. “When anyone needs somebody who’s a 5’7” brunette, I want to be the first person on their mind.”

How is this career different from 10 or 25 years ago?

For one, it’s becoming more inclusive.

Thompson, who started her career in 2009, said there used to be very few women stunt coordinators. “Now, you’re seeing a lot more female leads, you’re seeing a lot more female action, you’re seeing just a lot more female characters, and that directly affects my job,” she said. “It affects how many women I get to hire, how many women I get to double.”

Before the Screen Actor’s Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists merged into SAG-AFTRA, it used to be much harder to get into the union, Vitale said. Members would have to petition for newcomers to join, and because they were able to control the influx of people, up-and-coming stunt performers were intensely mentored.

When it became easier to get into the union, “it created a huge influx of people, and that’s when the mentoring started to drift off,” he said.

Filling the mentorship gap is one reason he started the Stunt Performers Academy.

“When I train people, I am training them in old-school ethics combined with new-school techniques,” said Vitale. “We figured out all this modern stuff — how you can be aware of concussions and taking care of your body. All the [expletive] we didn’t do in the ‘80s.”

At the same time, he explains the culture of the industry to the newcomers — how it’s helpful to always be in the stunt coordinator’s eye line in case they need you; how if you see a coordinator moving equipment or pads, you should go over and help them, otherwise they might think you’re rude. Understanding and respecting that will give you an advantage, he said.

Another evolution in the stunt industry is the integration of practical stunts and visual effects, which can make risky actions safer and foster creativity.

“There are some stunts that you might have been able to do five times,” Garret said. “But if we can find a way to make it safer, and you can do it 10 or 20 times, safely, we’re going to try to find those ways.”

What advice do pros always hear that is wrong?

Daniels often hears that there isn’t enough work to go around in this very competitive field. That can lead some to be unwelcoming to newcomers.

But he sees a need for more stunt performers of color. “Thankfully our industry is becoming much more diverse,” he said. “I think if people have it in their heart to do the work, now’s a good time to pursue the industry.”

Hsing highlighted body-type diversity too.

Stunt performers are universally athletic, but that doesn’t mean they’re all built like Marvel superheroes. “Sometimes you’re just a pedestrian on the street, and you have to look like an everyday office worker,” he said.

Vitale, who is 5-foot-4, built his career doubling 12- to 14-year-olds. “It’s great because there’s not a lot of people my size, so I got a lot more work,” he said.

What’s some good advice?

Make sure your reels have only your best work. Decades ago, when Vitale’s generation was using VHS tapes, he said they would put only their polished Hollywood performances on their reels.

Now, “it’s accepted to post training videos,” said Vitale. But he recommends having two social media accounts: a public, professional account and a private one where you can post whatever you want. On the public one, post only the videos where the skill and technique is good enough to be on a film or TV show, he recommends.

Learn how to work a camera. It’s becoming more popular to have stunt performers help with stunt previsualization (“previz stunts”).

Garret said he can film a fight scene, for example, to give a director a sense of the action. That’s a good entry point for people who want to get into stunt coordinating.

“It’s like a dance,” Hsing said. “The actual fighting, chasing and performance happens in coordination with the camera.”

It helps you as a performer, because you learn to adjust your movements, Sturz said. “The new generation is naturally good at that, because they grew up on TikTok, and just about every new performer that’s coming up through the ranks understands camera and editing,” he said.

Don’t be a jerk. “It’s so easy to get written off really fast if you have a bad attitude,” Garret said. “It doesn’t matter how much talent you have. People don’t want to spend 16 hours a day with somebody that makes them feel really bad or is really difficult to work with.”

Commit. Doing stunts has to be a lifestyle, the professionals agree. “Those first few jobs, they are hard,” Vitale said. “If anyone is thinking, ‘I’m going to give this six months, and if it doesn’t work, then I’m gonna go,’ I tell them, ‘You might as well just go now.’ It’s hard enough to succeed when you’re passionate and you absolutely want it.”

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