By Allen B. Ury
Stunt work has been at the heart of moviemaking since its inception. Before Garbo spoke, before King Kong scaled the Empire State Building, stunt professionals were falling off rooftops, being dragged behind runaway stagecoaches, and running across the roofs of speeding trains. Of course, the viewing public wasn’t supposed to know these were stunt doubles. That was supposed to be Errol Flynn falling off the building, John Wayne being dragged behind the stagecoach, and Cary Grant on the speeding train. Such is the magic of Hollywood.
Today, despite being featured in films like 2007’s Death Proof and 2019’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, or on TV shows like The Fall Guy, stunt professionals — both men and women — remain some of filmdom’s greatest unsung heroes. We caught up with three of Hollywood’s busiest stunt players to learn what it takes to get into — and stay in — one of the industry’s most demanding yet unheralded specialties. Hear directly from three people who risk life and limb for our entertainment.
Barnett was literally born into the stunt business. Son of Emmy-winning stunt coordinator Gregory J. Barnett, Jeff got his first stunt gig at the tender age of five and has been active in the business ever since — and, like his father, has been inducted into the elite stunt group Stunts Unlimited. As a stuntman, stunt coordinator and actor, he’s appeared in more than two hundred fifty films and TV shows, including such current series as Euphoria, Big Little Lies and, yes, Ballers (2015-2019).
You’ve literally spent your entire life as a stuntman. Yeah, my first job was in 1985 on a Disney film called The B.R.A.T. Patrol. There was a Variety article about me being the youngest stunt kid ever at the time. I was a five-year-old guy groomed in the business by my dad [Emmy-winning stuntman Gregory J. Barnett]. Nepotism got brought up early and I had no choice. I just got thrown into the gantlet and [started] falling off roofs and doing a little BMX work.
Why did your father think you were ready for that kind of job at such a tender age? Prior to that, my dad was in a stunt group called Stunts Unlimited. It’s the top group, probably, in the stunt world as far as second unit directors and stunt coordinators. [My dad] had me around those guys all the time and [they] were testing me at that young age to see if I could do it. We’d always have these stunts on these picnics, where we’d jump off roofs and guys would be crashing cars and dirt bikes and skydiving. I remember getting thrown off seven- or eight-foot roofs onto airbags and pads and soft stuff like that. So I was OK with heights. Some kids might shy away and be scared. But I remember thinking, “I want to crash that, I want to jump off that high stuff, I want to go into the air bag, I want to be shot five times.” At five, I played all these sports and had no fear. The stunt coordinator of [The B.R.A.T. Patrol] was in that group and he said to my dad, “Hey, Greg, I need to double this young actor who’s seven. Would Jeff be up for it? He can get his SAG card.” So I ended up killing it and doing a good job.
From then on, other guys said, “Hey, listen, we need some young kids to get abducted.” My next job might have been Jake and the Fatman. And then Simon & Simon, I was also five or six, hanging off the Santa Monica Pier [from] a balloon in a harness up about twenty-five feet, looking down, thinking it was the Grand Canyon. That was my dad and all his best friends running all those top ’80s hour-long dramas.
Was there ever a time when you considered a more conventional career? I thought I could probably be a pro baseball player. But stunts always lured me back in. All through my high school and junior high years, I doubled Hobie (Jeremy Jackson) on Baywatch, the youngest actor. My dad was the stunt coordinator, second unit director and doubled David Hasselhoff. I was there from the inception to the very end, for about fifteen years total. I cut my teeth on that whole show. I turned pro surfer, traveled the world, did the contests, competed, traveled with the best of the best. At that time, too, I got [a stunt] to do on Blue Crush and [then other] surf movies. [I was] right back into it, working for my dad, doing more water action, surf work, boat work, free diving, water safety, doubling actors on surfboards and all kinds of water work. At eighteen, I could’ve been a pro surfer. … At twenty-one, I was busy being a TV stunt guy and [doing] features out of town, doubling well-known actors.
What is the most dangerous stunt you’ve ever performed and how did you prepare for it? On CSI: NY. It was a two-week job doubling a guest star, and it was a big foot chase with Gary Sinise down in the Long Beach area, the big power plant. He was chasing me and I did a series of running, jumping and swinging off stuff prior to that. Then I had to get to a fifteen-foot-high fall. I jumped off the third story of the power plant onto a truck pad. I hit that, and then the big [stunt] was on an overpass, jumping onto an oncoming semi-truck that was bearing down the road at probably ten, fifteen miles an hour. Just having to time that out — seeing that down the road, leaping off that overpass into that [truck pad] to my knee, to a shoulder and then getting up and walking to the back of the truck and grabbing some static line. Then doing a slow rappel down the back of the truck, as it’s moving quickly, and then letting go and falling on my back, then rolling out of that and then running away when the foot chase ensued. That was a pretty good day of action right there. If I missed my mark on the semi- truck, I would roll off the back, and then you’re free falling twelve, fifteen feet to the asphalt. So that was a heads-up play. That was a good one.
How do you set up a stunt like that? Is it rehearsed before it’s shot? When you do sketchy stuff like that, you just have a pretty good idea how to execute it. It’s the off days, the cardio, the running, the swimming, the surfing, putting the time in. All the prep leads up to these stunts. It’s all that stuff you do behind the scenes. I can see a stunt and then I can execute it in my mind and that’s exactly how, when I do it, I play it out.
What serious injuries have you had on the set? And how did you push your way through to get back to work? A lot of staples. A lot of stitches. A lot of hematomas. A lot of heavy bruising. Minor broken bones — thank God, nothing too major. Fractures, small breaks, stuff that you can power through in a day— then you just have to go back the next day. I was built different and I’m made for this stuff. I can take a lot of pain and I don’t like to quit. I can’t go to the hospital if I’m cut, bruised, bleeding. If there’s a way to duct tape it, Super Glue it, fix it really quick so you can finish out the job … you can finish up the day’s work, whether you’re doubling or you’re a stunt performer. And it looks good, too, in front of the stunt coordinator, for your reputation. You finished it out. You get shredded, you get shards, and you get stitches, and you get some staples. But you don’t run off and go to the ER. You save that stuff for later on in your own time.
So no major injuries so far? That’s good. Well, in 2000 I was doing a pilot on the back lot at Paramount Studios and I got burned really bad. Some fire got out of control. I was playing a jogger and running under a building and there were six windows, and out of the windows was supposed to be minimal fire and a lot of black powder ash just raining down on me. That’s what I was told. As I was running, explosions [were] coming out of windows, big fireballs that went up well past the building, and the concussion threw me on the ground pretty [hard]. I just got rained on — [by] fire. So I got burned pretty good. My neck was bad, eyebrows singed off, hair pretty singed, third-degree burns on my lower back, my whole right hand — my wrist to my fingers was all third degree. Pretty much, the skin melted off my left hand. My face was second degree; [it was a] really, really bad burn all over. I remember coming up and being in excruciating pain. Got in a transport van and passed out. Woke up drinking a Sprite and then went straight to the Grossman Burn Center in West Hills. I was treated all day, got the dressing on, got it cleaned out because there was a bunch of asphalt in it and it was pretty bad. I was twenty years old. I was out for about three months dealing with burns.
Did that give you any pause as to whether or not you want to keep doing this for a living? That one stood me up a little bit. I knew I could power through and get back to being healthy and strong again. I definitely didn’t have any mindset of, “I’m done, that’s it, I quit,” because I’ve seen this happen to my dad my whole life and his friends. That’s just part of the gig. This one got out of hand. I wasn’t told what I should have been told. That one took me out three months. But it’s a good testament. I look at my discolored hand and go, “Yeah, I got through that. I can get through other bad stuff.” And I have.
You mentioned different types of stunts that you have done. Is there one type of stunt that you are most known for or are you a jack-of-all-trades? I do feel like a jack-of-all-trades. But my specialty is water work. Coordinating a big water show, any kind of underwater breath holding, surfing, swimming, paddling, diving off boats, off piers, anything like that — that’s my forte.
Explain the difference between “stunt work” and “stunt coordination.” As a stunt coordinator, you’re in charge of hiring and executing the stunts as the boss. You’re working closely with the director and the producers to execute all the action in a safe manner so no one gets hurt. You’re doing the scouting, the prep, the constant meetings. You’re setting up all the action with miniature cars in every single department in a shoot. Working closely with special effects, getting certain windows scored so people can go through windows — you’re just making everything safer for the people. You’re hiring as a stunt coordinator or second unit director. As a stunt performer, you are the one doing the stunts. You’re in the hot seat. You’re doubling the talent, or you are playing yourself as a bad guy. You’re doing the fight, getting beat up, getting dragged behind the car, doing the carpet. You’re sliding the car. You’re jumping off buildings. You’re doing the hard work. You’re doing all the cool, crazy stuff that everyone wants to do that you see in the movies. Then you get older and you realize that you still want to do that, you don’t want to lose that edge — but you also want to take yourself to another level, and you want to start being the boss. You want to be the one working behind the scenes closely with the director, setting up all the action. I was lucky to do that in my midtwenties.
Movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Drive, Deathproof, and even that 1980 movie The Stunt Man have a very romantic, probably inaccurate view of what stunt work is really like. What do movies, when they portray stunt people, get wrong? What does the public not understand? When I see movies like that, the stunt guys are portrayed like: “Stunt guy. Big tree. Fall hard.” We’ll do anything; we’ll hit the ground. And that’s not the case. We’re very safe. We have a close rapport with our actors that we work with, and our directors. We take our time. It takes rehearsals. We’re right there in the same realm as the actors; we’re just making them look good. Those guys respect us and we respect them. We’re cut from the same cloth. They’re the frontrunners and we’re the secret heroes making them shine. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t really need the credit so long as he’s happy and the director’s happy and we did our job. That’s what’s cool. We’re the unsung heroes. The quiet warriors. And I respect that about us.
If someone wants to become a stunt person, what’s the best route? Latch on to young stunt performers that are busy and working and can network and meet other stunt coordinators. And train, train, train, train. Perfect everything. Train in every aspect; train and fight, train with some firework, train with some heights, do some ratchet, do some high falls, low falls, get behind the wheel, practice your car work, be a good driver.
What is a “ratchet”? A lot of superhero movies are ratchet. … It’s basically a high-speed winch; you have a harness on a hook to a cable and on “Three, two, one,” they push a button, and you get ratcheted back or fall up or down.
Like the guy who gets the shotgun blast in the chest. Right. That’s a ratchet. They’re pretty fun. They can also sting you. A lot of people come from a good history of sports — a lot of gymnasts, motocross racers, surfers, swimmers, ex-ballplayers, ex-fighters. You see guys crossing over into stunts. I’d say find that realm, keep training and then just hone your craft and dip into other areas. Make sure you’re a well-rounded jack-of-all-trades so you don’t lose out on work.
Once somebody has gotten their first break in stunt work, how do they go about raising their visibility? Every job propels you forward. Every job that you do, someone’s going to notice, and they’re going to spread the word: “Jeff did a great job here in this fight scene. He’s a great fighter.” Word travels so fast. You’re known if you do something really insane, really good. [Say] there’s a big stunt around town and someone did something off a pier, did a 100-foot-high fall — someone nailed this. That word gets out.
These days, a lot of stunt work is being augmented or even replaced by CGI. How do you see computers affecting the stunt trade over the next decade? You’re always going to have VFX right in the corner with special effects. No matter what, you’re going to have stunt people still doing stunts. And I love the visual effects stuff. I like when they get in there and they remove wires and fix stuff that the stunt player can’t fix. But you’re always going to have a stunt driver flipping the car. You’re always going to have a guy sliding in a car. You’re always going to have a person really doing a fight, going up on a high roof, getting lit on fire. The real stuff always supersedes. You want to see the real fire, not the visual effects. You can add some flames to it, but you’re always going to have a stunt player and directors always want that real action. And there’s nothing better than watching an action movie and knowing that it’s real.
Professional athletes have a shelf life. You can’t keep abusing your body year after year without having some deterioration. What do you see yourself doing five, ten or twenty years from now? My dad just turned seventy-two and he’s still in the game. He’s still excited, too. He wants to work. He’ll do a car hit, do a ratchet. He’ll do a high fall. He’ll get lit on fire. He’s seventy-two and still feels like he’s forty, ready to go. I just turned forty October 4. I still feel like I have the edge. I’m like Maverick in Top Gun. I just feel like I’ll always be so excited to be a stunt coordinator and then progress into second unit directing. But like you said, there is a shelf life. And you transcend into different areas and become a full-time stunt coordinator. I’d love to direct half-hour sitcoms; I love comedy — the comedy stuff with the fun, wacky stunts.
Have you ever done second unit directing? I have. I haven’t really gotten the credit for it, but I’ve set it up, done the fight, the car work, stuff like that. The first unit stuff seems the most fun. Getting into that would be incredible. The next five to ten years, that would be where I’d want to go. That’s setting it all up, watching it come to life, talking to the talent and knowing, from a stunt background, how to do the stunt. Then I can work on the lighting in the camera and how to shoot something.
So go the Hal Needham route. Exactly. Doing what Hal Needham did would be incredible. I would love that. That would be a good plan.
Follow Barnett on Instagram @_jeffbarnett
Dorsey is the youngest member of our trio, having been a stunt professional for just nine years. But in this short time she’s been able to amass nearly one hundred twenty stunt and acting credits, having appeared in 2021’s The Matrix 4, 2020’s Birds of Prey and Lovecraft Country. She is currently filming the DC Universe TV series Titans.
When did you first become aware that this specialty existed, and why did you think this would be an occupation for you? In 2012 I was doing the AVP [Association of Volleyball Professionals] tour locally in California, trying to go up in my ranking, when I was told that they went bankrupt. My partners all went and played in different countries. I, on the other hand, happened to be training Quentin Tarantino, and he was also one of my sponsors for volleyball, and he was getting ready to film Django Unchained in Louisiana. He asked me, “Alyma, since you’re not playing volleyball this summer, would you like to come with me to Louisiana and train me while I’m filming and keep me in shape and healthy?” I said, “Of course!” It was only supposed to be four months. It ended up being seven months. I ended up only training him maybe two or three times the whole time I was there. I sat on set every day, all day long, from beginning to the end, and watched him work and I watched the actors, I watched the stunts, I watched the grips, the props, cinematographers — everything. Because that was my first time really being behind the scenes. It was a real honor for me.
Two months before we wrapped, I went up to him and said, “Q, I could do stunts!” At this time, we’d known each other for about four years. We’d become really good friends. He looked at me and [went], “Yes … you … can. Jeff Dashnaw!” [That] was the stunt coordinator. “This is Alyma Dorsey. Alyma, Jeff Dashnaw.” So I actually started training with some of the stunt performers who then became my mentors in the stunt industry.
So how did you land your first job? Two months before we were about to leave, one of the stunt mentors said, “Hey, I want you to meet a coordinator. He’s having a meet-and-greet.” I [didn’t] have a resume. I had nothing. But I [went] in to meet him. This is going to sound like a bad joke, but there was a black guy, a white guy and a white woman sitting in a row … and in the middle was the stunt coordinator. So I went up to the stunt coordinator and said, “Hi, my name is Alyma Dorsey. Nido,” who was one of the stunt performers who became my mentor, “told me to come in to meet you.” The black guy [said], “Excuse my language, but who the hell is Nido?” The white lady [said], “I don’t care who Nido is, she’ll be good in this part.” And he [said], “No, no, no, no, no. Let’s put her in this part.” The coordinator looked at me and [said], “Welcome to The Butler.” [The black guy] was Lee Daniels, the producer. I had no idea.
But that’s just half the battle. Booking the job is one thing. Performing is a whole other thing. I didn’t have a stunt bag. I didn’t have pads. I didn’t have anything. I really had to get help with all those other things as well. But that’s really how I got my first opportunity to do stunts. Needless to say, I never went back to playing volleyball. And two-and-a-half years later, Quentin hired me on The Hateful Eight. So it was a full circle — he completely started my entire career. I owe pretty much everything to him. He put me in front of one of the best coordinators in the business and in front of some of the best stunt performers in the business. It was a win-win situation for me, but it was really about being ready for the opportunity, because a lot of opportunities come your way. But if you’re not ready, they’ll pass you by.
What do you think made you ready? I’d been playing sports my entire life. Everything in my life that I had done in the past led up to this moment: my athletic career, my mental stability, what I learned in the past about how to get ahead, how to move forward. Everything that I did as an athlete completely translated over to being a stunt performer: the discipline that it takes, the camaraderie, the teamwork, being able to change at the spur of the moment, and being able to actually take direction very well. Someone tells you what to do and you have to actually be able to do it in a blink of an eye.
What were some of the other skills that you had to learn to be a stunt person? My mom put me in every extracurricular activity a child could do: ballet, jazz, tap, baton, gymnastics, swimming … I started singing opera at eight years old. What eight-year-old child likes opera, you know? So when it came to learning new things, that was very easy for me. But there were a lot of things that I needed to learn, like how to really fight, how to take reactions. I drive. I ride motorcycles. I do stunts and cars. I drove a boat on Baywatch. (I didn’t know how to drive a boat before.) Hitting the ground. Knowing how to hit the ground. Air awareness, so when you’re up in the air, you know how to fall and you know where you are in the air so you don’t fall on your head. Everything that I do in stunts is a newly learned behavior.
Where do you go to learn all this? A lot of the people that I trained with are current stunt performers or performers who are going out of the industry, but they were at the top of their game. I trained with Erik Betts, who was a Power Ranger. How much better can you get than training with a Power Ranger? You know what I mean? You find the best in the industry and that’s who you train with. It’s really about making those relationships, and it’s also about people believing in you that want to put that time and energy into you. Just because you say you want to do something, that doesn’t mean someone’s going to help you. Right? They have to know that you’re going to be able to take in what they’re giving you and then go back out there and do what they say because their names are on the line, especially if you tell anyone you trained with them or they refer you. People really pick and choose who they want to train and who they want to help out, because they want to make sure that you’re serious about what you’re doing.
Once you’re in the business, how do you go about boosting your visibility within the industry? How do you make people think about you? Times are changing with social media. That’s how a lot of the newer generation and the newer kids are getting work — putting themselves on social media. I personally try to let my work speak for itself. When I get on set, I try to be the most professional person that I can be. I try to show them that I’m dedicated, that I can make them look good, that I can do the job, and I try to leave a lasting impression on them as well. That being said, I also post things on social media. Whenever I have a job that has come out, I might put something on there so people actually remember me, or they see what I can do.
Do stunt people have agents and managers the same way actors do? [That’s] more for commercial work. We have agents and managers that will help us get those commercials. A lot of us also do stunt acting, so a lot of us will have some acting agents as well. If not an acting agent, they’ll definitely do some acting classes so that they can be called in for auditions.
How did you get the acting gigs? There’ve been a couple of times where I’ve had to send in an audition. Normally, it’s the coordinator who will put our name in and then the casting agent will reach out to us. Or if we’re already in the system, we’ll also put our stuff on L.A. Casting or Casting Frontier. So when they’re looking for a commercial that deals with action, they’ll go there and nine times out of ten call a stunt person to fill that.
The industry is changing, including the growing use of CGI, sometimes even replacing humans with computer imagery. How do you see that affecting your profession over the next ten years? I don’t think it’ll work against us. It could work for us, especially when they want to create something that’s just super dangerous. “CGI? It’s OK. Go for it.” You have my permission because sometimes the imagination can outwit the body. Sometimes the body can’t do everything we think that it can do. You don’t really want to push someone to that limit, especially when safety is really the huge issue when it comes to stunts. That’s our main thing.
Have you been injured on the set? We get injured all the time, but we never tell anyone.
What’s the most serious injury that you’ve experienced? And what were the circumstances? I would say my most serious injury was an experience training for a job. That was on a motorcycle up in Topanga Canyon, and I totaled my motorcycle. Me and the mountain went head-to-head, and the mountain won. I fractured my sternum. I tore my AC joint from my clavicle. I tore my back and all the intercostal muscles on the right side of my chest. But what made that such a difficult injury is, as I was on my way to the hospital, I got a call from a coordinator saying, “Alyma, what are you doing?” And I said, “Sir, I just totaled my motorcycle.” He [asked], “Can you walk?” I was like, “Yes, sir, I can walk.” “OK, we have a plane ticket waiting for you. I need you to get to the airport and come to New Mexico.” My mom was bawling as she was driving me to the airport — like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
You should have been going to the hospital and instead you were going to the set. I was sitting outside, waiting to get on the plane, and the pilot came out [saying], “Hey, you can’t get on my plane like that.” I [asked], “What if I sign something?” They eventually let me go on, but it was pretty crazy.
How obvious were your injuries that the pilot would say that? I was sitting there with an ice pack on my chest and an ice pack on my arm. At that point, I didn’t know what I had done because I didn’t make it to the hospital. I just knew my arm was dangling and my chest … everything was a wreck. I had ice and [I was] waiting to board the plane. So that was interesting.
One injury I got while working was on the show 9-1-1. Even the coordinator doesn’t know this because I didn’t even tell anyone. But I was doubling one of the leads on there and I had to do a high fall from the second story. They gave me a little area about my size to land in that had pads. But around it was actually solid brick, like mortar from actual walls because it was an earthquake. So maybe the third or fourth time, they wanted me to throw myself a little bit differently. I remember the coordinator saying, “Alyma, be careful. Don’t throw yourself too much.” Of course, when you tell someone not to do something, that’s exactly what they do. I threw myself too much and half of my body landed on the pad and the other half landed on the cement blocks, which happened to be my pelvic bone and the whole side of my body. I actually ended up fracturing my tailbone that day. And I had to do it again. I fell — you could hear my pelvis hit the slab. There were real firefighters around us because that’s what they use for those shows, and the guy looked at me and [said], “Don’t move … We heard that.” I was like, “I’m not moving.” Then the director said, “OK, let’s do it again!” And, of course, I had to get up. He was like, “Are you going to do it again?” Yeah, I’ve got to do it again. So [the fireman] held me up. I walked around because I had to go up. I passed the director, my stunt coordinator, and they looked at me and [said], “You hurt yourself, didn’t you?” And I was like, “No, sir, no, I didn’t. Ready to go again.” They were like, “All right, let’s do it.” I went up. I did my fall. I got it. Then I called my mom. You walk out and then you go to the hospital and then you heal. You don’t tell anyone and then you go to work the next day.
A lot of subterfuge in this business. You don’t want to tell people because … I went on Ghostbusters three months after I had that accident. I wasn’t healed at all. I remember, there was this one scene where I had to reach out and grab the other actor as she was going over the edge because she was possessed by a ghost. And, of course, it was [my arm] dangling. I had to grab her and hold her and she was swinging. I let her break my finger because that was the only thing that I could swing at that moment. We came back and the other stunt girl was like, “You broke your finger, didn’t you?” I was like, “Yup.” And she said, “You better show that to somebody.” And [I said], “After the show.”
You must have a very high threshold for pain. You have to have a very high threshold for pain because times are changing. It’s not like how it used to be. However, my mentors are old school, and they didn’t even have pads back in the day, so who am I? Mind you, our stunts are getting a little bit more gnarly than theirs were. But you don’t complain. It takes a special type of person to be a stunt person.
What would you say are the key benefits of your job and what are the sacrifices that you have to make? The benefit for me is it fulfills my passion for life. Everything that I do in stunts is actually what I would be doing on my own. I just now get paid for it. I get to get up every day and actually go ride motorcycles all day, you know, go slide cars all day, go rappel down a mountain all day. Filming is really the icing on the cake. It fulfills my dreams and my passion outside of the industry, to be honest with you. What fuels me is what I get to do when I walk away from the set. That’s what I love the most, the training aspect of it and the lifestyle that it has led me to have.
The sacrifice: I’m very lonely. I found, in this industry, if you are a working stunt performer and you do not have an immediate family, you’re always on your own. I’ve been in Canada for seven months, since last October, [working on Titans] and I’m by myself constantly. It’s very difficult to build long-term relationships, when you’re here for a month or two months, here for four months. I would say that aspect is very, very prevalent. We sacrifice our bodies on a daily basis. I’ve broken just about every bone in my body, and I keep going. What’s this going to say about me twenty years from now, with arthritis and everything else that might come into play? As a stunt performer, we don’t have anything to help us with that, to gracefully exit this industry. So the sacrifice is definitely our body.
As a black woman in the industry, what kind of discrimination, if any, do you encounter – either because of your sex or because of your race? Are there opportunities that you would like that you don’t feel that you’re getting because of who you are? As an African-American — and my father is Cherokee Indian — there’s racism everywhere, you know? The sad part is, I’m used to experiencing it. It’s not that I’m numb to it. I just learn how to maneuver around it and through it and not let it affect me.
How is it manifested in the stunt business? There is a gentleman who’s been in the industry for quite a long time, and a lot of us would actually go and train with him because he’s an amazing performer. And he’s known to some people as being racist. I didn’t really care about that. I remember countless times asking him if [he would train me]. No, no, no, no, no. Finally, one day he let me come in and train and there happened to be another African-American young lady there. I remember him coming up to me that day, and I was thanking him for letting me be there and he [said], “Yeah, I already had one of you here. I don’t know why I had to have another one of you here, but I’m glad you came.” Little things like that, like, “I already had one black person here, I really didn’t want another black person here. But since you’re here, I’m glad you’re here.” It was along those lines, so it could get deep like that or it could get as deep as me showing up on set and I’m the only African-American there.
Also, I can’t name one in-demand African-American female stunt coordinator in the industry. That should tell you something. I’m now trying to put myself in that role. I’m trying to create a mentorship program that I can present to SAG and AFTRA for minorities and stunt people of color. I’m on two SAG boards right now. One’s a stunt and safety [board] and one’s a task force ensuring equitable hiring. My main goal is to make sure that other people can move up in the industry as well. That’s [also] going to be a gateway to help myself become a stunt coordinator and second unit director, because at the end of the day, you have to create and open your own doors. You can’t wait for someone to do it for you.
Follow Dorsey on Instagram @alymadorsey
Ho was competing in martial arts when he was discovered by Hong Kong superstar Jet Li in 1987. With more than sixty film and TV credits, including 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2018’s Vice and NCIS: Los Angeles, he currently works as a fight coordinator for the Walking Dead TV franchise.
How did you get into stunt work? There are a lot of different ways to become a stunt person. I fell into it — literally. I was competing on the National Karate Circuit and Jet Li discovered me. He saw me at a tournament at University of California, Irvine and then the next day I got a call from one of his associates asking if I wanted to be a part of the stunt team for a film that was shooting in San Mateo. I had no idea what that meant exactly. I just knew that there was obviously a stunt profession, even though I never really investigated it or even thought about it. And, at that time, I had no idea who Jet Li was. They introduced him as Li Lian-Je. I hadn’t seen any Jet Li films. But I took the job because they offered me two hundred bucks a day and all the food I could eat. So, to me, that was great!
How old were you? I was maybe nineteen or twenty.
How long had you been doing martial arts? I had started martial arts when I was about twelve. So I was putting myself through school, training, teaching … My schedule was packed and, to be honest, I wasn’t very happy. It was difficult for me to put myself through school and at the same time train and pursue that. When this opportunity came, I thought, “Well, you know what? This may not come again. I should jump on this and if I like it and it leads somewhere, we’ll see where it goes. If not, I can always go back to school.” So I took the opportunity. I worked with Jet in San Francisco, loved it. That led to me working on another film with him.
What kind of stunts did you do on that first job? Jet had just gone through some surgeries, so I was honored to be able to double for him in a couple of scenes. When I say a couple of scenes, it’s really a couple of shots.
You’re talking about fight scenes? Yeah, fight scenes. I played a thug, falling down hills, getting kicked — the usual fare for a kung fu movie. And that led to me becoming one of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Part II and Part III. So, all of a sudden, I was in the business. I was a stunt person.
Were you actually in the costume? I was in the costume, yeah.
Which character did you play? I did the stunts for Donatello.
What was that like? How heavy were those costumes? Well, there were two groups. There was an acting group that had the animatronics, and they’re in the film for most of the time — you know, when you see the turtles talking and doing basic walking motions. Then what we did was any action scenes. That could be running or going on a roof. But predominantly they were the fight scenes. Our costumes didn’t have the animatronics in it, but they were still a good forty to fifty pounds. The weight was tough because the majority of it was in the shell, so it completely threw off our balance.
They changed your center of gravity. Yeah. The hardest part really wasn’t the center of gravity. It was really the fact that we couldn’t see. And it was difficult to breathe. That took some getting used to.
Stunt work can also be inherently dangerous. How many times have you been injured on the set? Injuries happen all the time. I’m going to answer the question by saying how many times I had to have surgery for a major injury.
As opposed to a sprain? Yeah, that’s just the nature of the beast, right? You go into a stunt oftentimes knowing that you’re going to get injured or hurt. But I’ve been under the knife at least ten times. The biggest was on Ninja Turtles, when there was a scene where a trap net was picking us up and the cable accidentally snapped. We all fell from the net and then the supporting beam landed on my foot and everyone else landed on my foot and it basically crushed my foot. The doctor told me at that time that if I hadn’t been wearing the costume, it would have completely cut my foot in half.
Ouch. As it was, they almost had to amputate, but it took about five surgeries over a year to heal from that.
That was an accident during what should have been a fairly routine stunt. Correct.
What is the most dangerous stunt you have performed and had to prepare for? Nothing that I do is really too dangerous for me. I’m not a high-fall guy. A lot of people are. A lot of accidents [occur] on the airborne stuff with the wires. I’ve been fortunate; I really haven’t had anything that was too major. When you’re dealing with pyrotechnics in a lot of war movies, that’s always a little bit dangerous. That always forces you to keep your head on a swivel a bit more than normal, because if you step in the wrong place, then you’re going to lose your foot. A lot of the war films that I worked on, like We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers, where there was a lot of gunfire and pyro … those were moments where you were just always on point. Fortunately, there were no major accidents on those sets at all.
Have you ever encountered a situation where you were asked to do a stunt that you thought was too dangerous and refused to do? I have not. I’ve been fortunate to work with a group of super professional stunt coordinators. And for the most part, when the coordinators make the hires, they already know the capabilities of their performers. So it’s not a random request like, “Hey, who’s going to do this? Why don’t you try this?” It’s really planned out. That’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that a lot of people don’t [see]. There’s a ton of prepping and practicing for a stunt to go down. It’s not daredevil work.
Talking about preparation, what is your exercise regimen like? Well, I’ve always been a fighter, that’s my specialty, so all different forms of fighting.
What kinds of fighting do you specialize in? As a stunt professional, and if you’re a fight guy, you have to know everything. I started off as a kicking specialist, and that’s what got me in the door. As I got older, I transitioned more into boxing, where I’m using more of my hands because my knees just can’t take it anymore. As far as working with other people, I’ve trained people [with everything from] swords to knives and kicking to boxing. You know, fighting with a frying pan, the sky’s the limit.
What’s the oddest tool you’ve ever had a fight with onscreen? It was a film I did called Operation: Endgame where all the fighting was basically in an office. We used anything that could be used as a weapon — staplers to a paper shredder. Movement is movement, right? Holding a staff is the same thing as holding a golf club. The only thing different is going to be a little bit of the weight distribution. But if you’re versed in basic sword work and basic staff work … basic stickwork … you should be able to apply that to anything that you pick up, whether it’s a flashlight or a tree branch or a spatula. It’s all the same.
What have been some of your favorite sets to work on and why? I trained Brad Pitt for Troy in sword fighting for about six months. That was really fun. I worked on Pirates of the Caribbean II and III [Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End], and that was an amazing experience because there were so many stunt people I knew involved in that. On any given day, there would be over a hundred stunt people on set. My kids are in the background coaching me here to say I’ve been a guest on Conan O’Brien’s show for the last ten years. I’ve been his lead guest about twelve times. I’m like Super Dave Osborne to them.
How did you get connected with the Conan camp? When they moved from New York to L.A. back when he first got The Tonight Show, they brought me on to consult. It was similar to the situation with Jet Li; one day, the producer asked me if I wanted to go on the show. I had never seen an episode of Conan, and my initial response was remembering the Indian convenience store workers on David Letterman. That didn’t always sit well with me, and I thought, “Oh, he’s just going to clown on me,” you know? I didn’t know Conan; he doesn’t do that. I didn’t know. I said, “No, thank you. I’m busy.” I made some excuse and they asked me a few times, and then my wife ended up slapping me on the back of my head, like, “Why are you saying no to something that could lead to something great? And that could be a lot of fun?” So, as always, I took her advice and we did the first show and it was magical. I teach him how to do stunts or teach him how to fight, and we have different themes. We go for a good eight to twelve minutes, and I feel like I’ve earned my master’s degree in improv comedy through Conan. It’s been, I would say, the highlight of my career for me personally, as far as personal gratification.
You sound like someone who really enjoys his job. I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate. I’m currently an action consultant for The Walking Dead; I work in many different capacities, as a choreographer, as a trainer, as a consultant for their franchise. That’s been really, really fun for me.
More and more special effects are being done with CGI, and that includes stunt work. What does CGI spell for the future of real-life people and the stunt profession? It’s fearful. There will always be a need for a stunt coordinator and for performers to plan out the director’s vision or the writer’s vision, the producer’s vision, to give an idea of exactly what they want. But once they figure out how to have a library of different stunt moves, in the future it’s going to be easy to replace a lead actor’s face on a computer body. It’s not going to be great for our industry. They will always require someone there to explain the body mechanics and show how things are realistic or what doesn’t look realistic, or what would work in an actual fight to give their opinion on the action, whether it’s for fantasy or for realism. There will always be a need for a coordinator. But as far as the performers, that’s going to be difficult. It’s going to slim down quite a bit.
So what advice would you give to someone who might be thinking of becoming a stunt person? If there’s anything else that you can think of doing that you would enjoy, pursue that instead.
Because …? Because, to be a stunt person, you have to really, really want it, because it’s more than just the hype that you see onscreen. Right? You’re not going to jump in there and all of a sudden you are in a Marvel movie and you’re doubling Iron Man and getting to do all this crazy wire work. It doesn’t happen like that. You have to first pick up your skills, which means you’re coming in with a specialty, right? Maybe you’re a world-class gymnast or you’re a world-class rock climber or martial artist. You’re either getting in the door through a specialty or, if you don’t have a specialty, then you’re doing your homework and you’re practicing every single trade that there is, from rigging to fires to driving to fighting, and becoming a well-versed, all-around stunt person. So first you have to learn all of that. Then you have to meet the right people, meaning you have to hustle. You have to get out there. You have to meet with other people that are starting off. You have to get in with coordinators. It’s very political, as well. It’s not an easy career. If you’re a dentist, you graduate from your dental school, you go out and you respond to an ad or you go on LinkedIn and you go on interviews and eventually you get a job fairly quickly. It’s not like that at all. There are so many factors to it, and the nature of the beast of Hollywood makes it even more unstable.
How competitive is the industry today in comparison to five or ten years ago? When I first started, you were put in your groups. That’s just the way it was, right? We need Asian bad guys. We need Asian good guys. We need a Hispanic gang. That’s just usually how it was and is, unfortunately. At that time, I felt I filled in the gap of the Little Asian Guy. You need an Asian guy who’s small? OK, then there were, like, two names to choose from. You need to pick up and throw them? There were just a handful of names to choose from that fit my description. Nowadays, I can think of forty guys that are my size and height and weight. The pool is definitely much larger than it was before.
Why has it expanded? People know what it is to be a stunt person now. Back then, being a stunt person had always been one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. That’s why there’s no nomination for Best Stunt Performer in the Academy Awards.
Haven’t they been pushing for that? It’s been pushed for decades. They just won’t do it, for whatever reason. It’s got to be coming soon; it’s just crazy. Every department has an Academy Award nomination category except stunts, which is a really major aspect of filmmaking.
And has been from the beginning. Yeah, from day one, from Buster Keaton. That’s what gets people in the door for action films or even action comedies.
Like professional athletes, we assume that stunt people have a shelf life simply due to the physical rigors. What is your Plan B for when you can no longer jump and kick and fall from things? I would recommend anyone who is getting into the stunt business, or who is already in the stunt business, to learn as much as they can about the business and the different trades in the business and not just being a stunt person. Know how to edit. Know how to get experience directing, get experience writing, get experience coordinating, if you can. Coordinate a student film. This way, you can transition out of stunts into coordinating or choreographing, second unit directing, editing. There are other fields that you can go into with a background in stunts. The great thing about stunts is that you have the opportunity to work on many big budget films in a short period of time. And that exposure and knowledge is invaluable.
Follow Ho on Instagram @steviehaute or visit stevenhomartialarts.com for more info.