Do you have to put your life at risk to be a professional stuntman? No, but that’s how Gary Davis got started. Now he’s one of the most experienced stuntman and stunt coordinators in film and TV. The reality is Davis’ amazing career could (and probably should) fill an entire book of amazing stories and lessons, but when I sat with Gary I had one question; how do you start in stunts? The answer surprised me.
I always assumed there was a special certification you had to have to be hired to do stunts. Turns out, no, you don’t. Davis, whose IMDB stunt credits read like a greatest hits collection of action films, simply asks “Are you a SAG Member? Yes, then you’re legal.” Now, to be clear, he wasn’t saying that meant anyone carrying a SAG card should be a stunt person, he was simply pointing out that anyone with a SAG card could be a stunt person, per the rules. There is no separate union or official certification to work as a stuntman.
However there are independent organizations and associations, which run much like a networking fraternity more than a definitive qualification or experienced based union. They help provide stunt people resources and job leads. But unlike the United Kingdom, in the United States there is no definitive qualification checklist. Not yet.
The question he asks of those interested in getting involved or working stunts is simple; are you a stunt person, or an actor? If the answer is both, which one are you first? He made a clear point, directors and casting directors hire actors and have them do stunts. Stunt coordinators hire stunt people. If they need to act, then he’ll hire stunt people who can act, not actors who can do stunts.
Though primarily Davis hires those he’s worked with, or have been referred to him, he does find the need to hire those he hasn’t worked with before. One such resource he has used is iStunt.com, a Casting Calls America like site for stunt people. But when looking at people there he’s still focused on who they’ve worked with and what specialty training they have.
The number one thought Davis has when selecting his team is about the safety of the cast and crew, not about putting actors in harm’s way. And technology has made it even easier to separate the two.
Before the prominence of CGI, if you need a close-up of a guy going through a wall or window, and the director needed to see their face, it had to be that actor. Now, Davis points out, you can do the same shot with a stuntman and replace the face with the actor.
The same is true for car chases and other vehicle related stunts. Davis, who also works as a second unit director for many amazing films, says “No one will ever beat my world record for car jump distance, because they don’t need to. These stunts are all done without a driver now.” This leads to much safer sets with fewer human lives being put at risk and fewer untrained actors doing stunts, but it also means fewer jobs on both sides.
But in some instances, it means better film. Davis points out the scenes of the ship tearing apart in Titanic. For that film they combined CGI effects with real stunts. The actors falling down the ship in closer shots were done by real actors/stunt people whereas the long drops were obviously CGI. Without both, the scene wouldn’t have been complete.
So even with the explosion of CGI, there is still a need for quality stunt people, so how does one start there? First, be professional. Davis mentions if he’s having a safety meeting and someone looks at their cellphone, they’re gone. Period. Second, have a skill. If you meet Davis and want to talk about doing stunts have something to offer. Martial arts experience, advanced driving (donuts in the local parking lot do not count), have an expertise he can’t find anywhere and everywhere. Third, work. Find an opportunity, with Davis or someone else who has a good reputation. He points out the first thing he looks at when auditioning stunt people is who’ve they’ve worked with before. He also stresses that unlike a work reel for actors, actually talking to other stunt coordinators and directors is far more important to him to learn if a stunt person is professional, properly trained and can actually walk the walk.
Overall, it’s about focus. Davis, who has plenty of screen credits as an actor, knows he’s a stuntman who acts, not an actor who does (and coordinates) stunts. But having that acting knowledge helps. You’re still are part of telling a story and have to be able to do that. Every movement, whether in a fight scene or the direction and driving style a driver makes in a chase scene, matters. It’s focused and point-on to the story and to the characters. Potential stunt people should be similarly focused on what they want, and where they want to go.