Stunt doubles deserve more recognition

December 10, 2018 — by Kaitlyn Wang

In August 2017, stuntwoman Joi Harris died in a motorcycle accident on the set of “Deadpool 2.” Harris was the “first African American female professional road racer,” The Guardian reported, and she had successfully run through the scene four times beforehand. She was 40.

The accident was the second on-set death that year. A month earlier, stuntman John Bernecker died during a fight scene for “The Walking Dead” when he fell 30 feet from a balcony onto concrete, according to The Guardian. He was 33.

In the midst of explosions, flames, fight scenes and car crashes, actors step away, letting stunt doubles step in to perform such a convincing job — along with the behind-the-scenes technical pros — that the audience often isn’t aware that it is watching a different person performing the stunts.

While stunt doubles take on the most dangerous scenes, the pressure they face can reach ridiculous heights. Many viewers would do a double take if they knew that a stunt double was severely injured or had died while filming a scene from a favorite movie or show.

Actor Daniel Radcliffe’s double in seven “Harry Potter” films was stuntman David Holmes. During a wire gag in the first “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” movie, a wire pulled Holmes back into a wall while an explosion occurred. He fell to the ground and has been paralyzed from the chest down since 2009.

Despite the horrible, life-altering accident, Holmes told The Guardian that he still loves the excitement and challenge of the stunt industry and continues to consider performing stunts “the best job in the world.”

But Holmes wishes that people in the entertainment industry wouldn’t view stunt performers as “cannon fodder,” not seeing the sacrifices stunt performers make and the risks they take to bring the thrilling scenes audiences love to life. He hopes that more recognition — in award shows, for example — will result in greater appreciation for stunt performers, contributing to more regulations and a lower likelihood of fatalities.

Recognizing stunt performers’ roles is crucial because they deserve to be acknowledged for their work. While some actors like Tom Cruise choose to perform most or all their stunts and risk possible injuries, the most dangerous work is usually carried out by stunt performers.

Andy Armstrong, who coordinated stunts for “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Thor,” told The Guardian that the Screen Actors Guild should have more control over who can work on a set. Armstrong said that regulations are so loose that a member of a film crew could walk into a restaurant and ask a waiter to become their film’s stunt coordinator. In other words, the safety of performers may lie in inexperienced, unqualified hands.

Avoiding the danger of stunts by using CGI is an option, but Armstrong noted an element of authenticity from stunt people that CGI cannot replace.

As if falling dozens of feet and crashing into cars wasn’t dangerous enough, stunts can be even more dangerous for women because they are often expected to perform in high heels and revealing clothing. Women also face more pressure to be thin, even though “crash dieting” can hurt a stuntwoman’s performance because of lost muscle tone.

A New York Times article examined the experiences of eight stuntwomen, including Lisa Hoyle, who performed a 93-foot fall for “Charlie’s Angels,” and Jadie David, who broke her back twice: once while jumping from a rollercoaster in “Rollercoaster” and once while doing a high fall for “Truth and Consequences.”

Some stuntwomen have chosen to stop performing stunts and have shifted to coordinating stunts instead, while others have continued their high-risk careers. Hoyle agrees with Holmes that stunt performing is the “best job in the world” — though the world might not recognize the sacrifices they make.

Stunt performers too deserve appreciation. Although they appear on screen, an audience may not see them as the separate actors they are, instead remaining focused on the way a story unfolds. According to IMDb, “Saving Private Ryan” included 58 stunt people, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” included 88 and “Blank Panther” included 181. The role of stunt doubles does require them to substitute for actors and not draw attention to themselves, but they literally risk their lives to tell stories. Too often they receive broken bones, bruises and worse but little or no recognition.

 

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