There’s a short gag in Hail, Caesar! where Hobie Doyle, a lovable if simple former rodeo wrangler played by Alden Ehrenreich, films an action scene for a mid-budget cowboy picture. Out in the bright desert, Hobie the hero fires at a group of outlaws on horseback before giving chase himself. He whistles to Whitey, his loyal horse, and jumps onto her back as she’s running at full gallop, rolling into the saddle as if he’s being pulled by a rope. The scene is shot through a thicket of brush, obscuring the handoff where a stunt performer takes Hobie’s place in the saddle. Hobie proceeds to behave as though he doing it all himself, from the impressive riding to the absurd backwards handstand he does on Whitey’s back to the mid-gallop mounting of a different horse from a tree. At the end of the take, he says, “I can do the handstand smoother if you give me another shot at it.”
Set amid the backlots, meeting rooms, publicity events, and corporate offices of 1950s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is a behind-the-scenes farce on Hollywood and its “ration of dreams.” One of the many fantasies punctured is, of course, the idea that actors are doing their own stunt work.
But in the earliest days, most of them actually did. The likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd came from live performance backgrounds with varying degrees of danger and athletic requirements: vaudeville, the circus, traveling variety shows. Stunt doubles weren’t unheard of in the early 20th century, but the silent era’s famous action-comedy players were coming up with gags for themselves that started with their physical ability and their idea of a funny scene rather than the other way around. In 1920’s Haunted Spooks, Harold Lloyd lost two fingers to a prop bomb. In 1924’s Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton fractured his neck falling from a water tower. The spectacle that we fawn over now whenever Tom Cruise actually jumps out of a plane or Keanu Reeves actually does an intricate one-take fight scene is the much-refined result of years of innovation, peril, and skill. And even on the rare occasion it really is the actor doing their own stunts, they have a team, an entire department really, to coordinate, choreograph, and cross-check for safety so he can do it multiple times.
Stunts are one of the more popular “unsung” components of cinema, a facet of the business people love to say gets snubbed during awards season while lauding the high-profile actors and directors who make the enterprise more glamorous even if they’re not really the ones who make the stunts happen. This is not to say that Charlize Theron isn’t a game and capable action lead in Atomic Blonde or that the hours and hours of training Bob Odenkirk put in for Nobody doesn’t show up on screen. It’s more that what seems to impress people, in the same way a radical makeup job or accent does, is the transformation of a relatively normal person into something previously unthought of. In this case, a pampered movie star becomes a coordinated, convincing facsimile of a stunt person, capable of taking and dishing out hits in balletic fashion, expertly handling all manner of weaponry, and maneuvering large/fast vehicles. Still, who helps usher in that transformation and who steps in when temporary training isn’t enough to close the gap is still fodder for DVD extras.
There is a measure of glory and romanticism to the stunt profession for the sheer volume of pain and durability it entails. During the DVD commentary for Fight Club, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt point out how Norton’s stunt double had to shoot 12 separate takes falling down a long flight of concrete stairs in boxers without pads. “And what take did you use?” Pitt asks. “It was take number one,” David Fincher says smiling. Because of more obvious requirements like this, stunts are often associated strictly with the action and martial arts genres. The truth is that stunts are in nearly every televisual project, from The Notebook to Grey’s Anatomy. If someone takes a fall, or gets hit, or jumps across a mildly wide chasm, or even throws a weak punch, there’s usually a stunt team there to help stage and supervise the scene. Not to mention the ever-expanding realm of motion-capture for animation and video games, which regularly utilize the talents of stunt performers to model and duplicate movement.
Recent years have seen more prominent examples where the front-of-house acknowledges the efforts and underappreciated accomplishments of the crew. During the press cycle for Mad Max: Fury Road, Tom Hardy seemed almost belligerently adamant that his stunt double Jacob Tomuri sit with him for some of the interviews. But the call for institutional recognition of the people behind movie stunts has been going on since at least the early ’90s, to say nothing of earlier films like The Stunt Man or even 1997’s The Game riffing on their place in the collective imagination.
Veterans like stunt coordinator Jack Gill have been bugging the Academy to add a Best Stunt category for decades. Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television have both given out annual awards, for Best Stunt Ensemble and Best Stunt Coordination respectively, since 2007. People like Gill argue that in addition to institutional bureaucracy (the establishment of a stunts branch within the Academy, the requisite number of members and votes for it, etc.), there’s a whiff of industry classism. Speaking to Vulture in 2019, Randy Butcher, a stunt performer and coordinator for films like Suicide Squad and Orphan Black, said, “There is this sense that actors are artists, while we’re the ones who fall down for a living.”
This separation between workmanlike stunt person and creative artist is not seen as quite so tidy to the rest of the world. Stuntmen and martial artists like Scott Adkins, Daniel Bernhardt, Iko Uwais, and Joe Taslim have all appeared in both high-profile blockbusters and direct-to-video cult hits, garnering massive international fan bases. That’s the real division in this conversation and what makes the lack of institutional recognition for stunts and martial arts so embarrassing. Even if veterans like Donnie Yen, one of the highest paid actors in Asia, or Tony Jaa, one of the foremost Muay Thai performers who worked for 14 years as a stuntman before shifting to acting, are legends around the world, their inability to break big in Hollywood is symptomatic of more than just American myopia.
These are people who are expected to be exceptional athletes and coordinators working in a section of the filmmaking world where ruggedness, invisibility, and gruff professionalism are assumed as givens. Without them, there would be no Mission: Impossible series, no Shang-Chi or MCU of any kind, the spectacle of Game of Thrones and Star Wars wholly the province of CGI. Stunt people do the dirty shit and they do it for real and without them, the substitutes look hopelessly fake. It’s ironic that American audiences so readily gobble up these big-budget franchises while being so resistant to appreciating how much work goes on behind the scenes. If, as Martin Scorsese says, “cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out,” there is no entity more present yet unrecognized than the stunt performer.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.