Episode 14: Where Have All the Stuntmen Gone?
Today, we’re talking all about stunt acting.
And I know, I know…y’all are probably like Oh here’s Stef with their people doing weird stuff with their bodies for money bullshit again or maybe you’re like Oh here’s Stef with their Hollywood bullshit again, but I think y’all will probably recognize that it’s been a while since stunt acting or stunt performing has been part of our everyday conversation, which is what led me to bring it up now.
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OK, brother, so we always kick things off with a little preamble, and of course, this will be no different. I know people love consistency so we try to keep it consistent over here…
I have this in parts as usual, the first part being why I’m talking about this in the first place.
Part I: Why does Stef care?
I’ve mentioned a few times before on the pod that my dad–like most dads, let’s be real, he’s not special in this regard–has always been an action movie head. Like to this day, he gravitates to movies where, as he would put it, “someone is getting whacked.” And in that realm, he really loves films with some kind of hero or antihero, and he really loves shit where people are seeking vengeance or street justice for some wrong perpetrated on them or someone they know. He’s a straight, white dad who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s…I assume this is what they all like. So obviously, I grew up watching these films…it was a lot of Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tommy Lee Jones…A lot of shit blowing up, a lot of buildings on fire, cars launched into the air, car crashes, shoot outs, dramatic monologues, you know who and what I’m talking about
Did your Dad watch these kinds of films, brother? What’s your experience here?
I have to say, though, that as a kid, I also gravitated to things where a lot was going on. I mean, that’s what’s appealing when you’re a kid. Flashy shit. I loved Independence Day and Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero. To this day, I still love the Rush Hour series, and as I’ve said a bunch of times, I think, now, Men In Black is one of my favorite movies of all time. I don’t know if this is what people think of when they think about action films, but they technically are. They’re action-packed! And there’s lots of shit blowing up and people getting hurt and heroes saving people.
Were you also fans of these kinds of films??
As I got older and became tween and then a teenager, like everyone else our age, I started watching a lot of MTV. And on the heels of the Y2K panic, we got the wonderful, terrifying, riveting…Jackass. Around that time, I also had a friend whose older brother was into The Crow, so then of course, we heard the tragic story of Brandon Lee and how he was killed on set doing his own stunts. So, it was really a mixture of these things that woke me up and made me realize “Wow, people are actually doing this shit to their bodies. These are real things people have to do sometimes.” And that was such a wild and scary thing to me. I could go on and on about Jackass and the worlds it opened up to me, but that’s probably better saved for another episode. What’s important here is that revelation from watching it.
I’m sure you had a similar experience because I know you share in my love of Jackass…
What kind of reignited my interest in stunt performing overall is that running gag in Righteous Gemstones about Gideon Gemstone training to be a stunt actor. And it kind of hit me that we don’t talk about stunt performers or stunt actors anymore like we did in the early 2000s. Back then, I feel like that was part of our conversation. I remember people talking about how Tom Cruise and others do all their own stunts and how big of a deal that was because there was this whole industry of people whose only job was to do stunts for actors in movies.
So, what the hell happened to stunt acting? Well, we’ll get there……
Part II: A Very Brief History of Stunt Acting
Stunt acting kind of covers a broad range of things…so it can be anything from fighting and shoots to car races and car crashes to falling from high places to being dragged by a car or a horse to being blown up by explosives.
Prior to doing this research, I very erroneously connected stunt acting with cinema only, which I’m sure a lot of people do, but stunt acting has been around since the mid-19th century. Back then, they called stunt actors cascaduers, and they were mostly trained gymnasts and acrobats who worked with circuses and other traveling shows who mostly did in-air tricks. In the late 19th century, Wild West shows and other kinds of vaudeville shows became more popular, and those required different kinds of physical stunts so that’s really where the stunt performer was born. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was also people who practiced the art of stage combat, which is exactly what it sounds like. When there would be fighting in a play, stage combat people would choreograph “safe fights” with weapons or without.
As cinema was created in the early 1900s, the role of the stunt performer became more and more important. Three things were going on as the movie industry began to boom. First, in the beginning of film, people were so hyped about it that they were willing to work in and on the films for free, which meant directors and producers could take advantage of performers easily. And second, the Second Spanish American War had just concluded, and there were a lot of physically fit, tactically trained young men around to handle firearms and other weapons on movie sets. And finally, there wasn’t really a wild, wild west anymore, so traveling wild west shows were dwindling a little bit, and the performers from those shows, along with trained cowboys from all over the west, were looking for work to supplement their incomes. Hollywood took advantage of this, and most films that were made at that time featured funny car wrecks, high dives, pitfalls, and other kinds of stunts. As a result, many comedians and trained circus performers–like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton–became the first tried and true accepted stuntmen in the business, and to this day, their stunts and physical comedy are held up as beacons and models for other people doing this kind of work.
Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of effects available to these people during this time, so stunt acting was even more dangerous than it is now. People were constantly getting hurt, people died on the job, and studios didn’t make a lot of attempts to make this better.
I’m going to fast forward a little bit to the later 20th century because that’s where our connection to it really is. By the 1960s, stunt technology greatly improved with the help of the many stunt actors who tried to make the industry better and safer for everyone who joined it. They developed things like bullet squibs, air bags, air rams, decelerators, and dragline cables, along with protective gear that helped prevent injury and death during stunt performances. And this gave birth to the modern action movie era that it felt like we were living in up until a few years ago.
I would be remiss not to mention also the importance of Hong Kong action cinema which really became so prominent because of the work of Jackie Chan. Similar to the reverence that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton get in the industry, Jackie Chan’s work was highly influential in the action movie industry and is held up as a standard to follow. And of course, I just have to throw this in there, Jackie Chan’s work influenced one of my favorite actresses and stunt people in the world…Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame but really y’all should also watch Yes, Madam and Police Story 3 and Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Part III: What happened to stunt acting?
I know that was a VERY brief explanation and history of stunt acting, but it was kind of by design because I wanted to give us time to talk about what happened to stunt acting.
So, first, I want to start with a question…do you remember when we–as a society–discussed stunt acting more? What do you remember about it?
To me, the conversation about stunt acting, I think, is related to a larger conversation about cinema in general. And I know this conversation is other happening right now, but I think it’s worth having here, too. Obviously, a lot of what stunt actors do is extremely dangerous, so in a way, it makes sense to try to find different ways of making stunts happen that is wayyy less demanding for people’s bodies. HOWEVER, now it seems like CGI is replacing every goddamn thing. I don’t want to sound like one of those old people who is like “THE MARVEL COMIC UNIVERSE FUCKED EVERYTHING UP”...I’m not Martin Scorcese, I don’t have the qualifications really to say those kinds of things. But it kinda did. Not because they’re bad movies–I mean, I don’t like them that much but they’re technically not bad, I guess–but because they’ve become the standard, and I do think that’s fucking shit up.
Where did all the action movies go? What happened to just a regular degular ass movie where people are saving people and shit is blowing up? What’s going on here?
What does this mean for the tradition of stunt performance then??