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Mack Kuhr
Mack Kuhr

16 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Stunt Performers

Mack Kuhr
Mack Kuhr

Whether it’s a kung fu fight, car chase, or stair fall, most film fans can name a favorite action sequence that wouldn’t have been possible without a stuntperson. These men and women, who arguably have one of the most dangerous jobs in Hollywood, have come a long way since the days when Buster Keaton and other silent film-era performers did all their own stunts. We talked to several film and television stunt performers for some insights into their risky—if highly entertaining—trade.

1. NOT ALL OF THEM ARE NATURAL-BORN DAREDEVILS. 

A stuntman rappels from a Jeep lifted by a helicopter during a promotion for Universal Studios. Image credit: Getty Images

It seems like only a special type of person would be drawn to the sometimes dangerous world of stunts: someone who is fearless, thrives on adrenaline, and spent their childhood climbing to the highest tree branches. And indeed, many stuntpeople were early risk-takers. “I have studied karate since I was 7 or 8 years old,” says Grant Koo, a stuntman and stunt driver known for his work in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and on the television show The Blacklist. “I used to watch all of those cheesy kung fu movies on a Saturday—and beat the living crap out of my couch!”

But not all stunt performers start early. “My parents never let my brother and I participate in sports when we were younger. They were afraid we’d break an arm,” says Vera Lam, a stuntwoman based in New York. “I’m certain I failed my fitness test in grade school except for the flexibility portion.”

2. THEY COME FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS.

Some stunt performers parlay a background in martial arts or another athletic pursuit into a career, while others begin as actors and move into stunts. Jennifer Lamb, a stuntwoman and stunt coordinator who has worked on 10 Coen brothers movies and other high-profile projects, transitioned into stunts from the world of soap operas. Lamb was playing a waitress on One Life to Live when she met stunt coordinator Danny Aiello III, who believed that her toughness, ability to take direction, and small size would serve her well in stunts. He also gave her her first break—getting tossed off the balcony of a beach house in the Hamptons.

3. THEY EXPERIENCE THINGS THAT MOST OF US (HOPEFULLY) NEVER WILL.

Grant Koo in a death scene for the TV series The Originals. Image credit: Grant Koo.

In the course of their work, stuntmen and women come as close to experiencing catastrophic events as one can without actually, well, going through them. Lamb says, “I have hung by my ankle under a hot air balloon, leapt out of a burning building 60 feet up, gotten dragged behind cars, crashed through a barn in a Ford Model T—none of which seemed crazy to me.”

Koo might have the most impressive all-in-one experience, though. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, he performed in a scene where he and his fellow stuntmen ran from 500,000 gallons of water being emptied from five 100,000-gallon tanks, while at same time dodging boats, buses, and cars being dropped from the sky. “That was one of the craziest days I’ve ever had,” he says, “but very rewarding.”

4. THEY SPECIALIZE.

Mack Kuhr in stunt rehearsals with action cinematographer Richard Clabaugh for the film Abysm (2016). Image credit: Mack Kuhr

Koo describes himself as a “utility player,” or a well-rounded performer skilled in all aspects of stunts. But even within that, there are certain areas he has gravitated toward. “I like to do the fights, the falls, and the driving,” he says, calling himself a “crazy driver” even in real life. 

Mack Kuhr, a stunt performer and Keanu Reeves's body double in both John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter Two (2017), has built early experience with military-grade firearms into a specialty. His father was in the military, and his studies in strength and conditioning at Virginia Tech led to training with Navy SEALs at Virginia Beach. Kuhr got his stunt break on The Dark Knight Rises (2012), when director Christopher Nolan was in need of someone who could handle a “hot” HK G36 submachine gun (one that contained blank bullets). Meanwhile, Jared Kirby, a fight director and stage combat instructor in New York, has spent years perfecting a different sort of weapon—he specializes in historic and classical fencing. 

5. THEY ARE GAME FOR (ALMOST) ANYTHING.

Jared Kirby (center) working fight choreography for Kevin Keating: Vampire Hunter. Photo courtesy of jaredkirby.com

Stuntpeople sometimes show up on set without knowing exactly what stunt they are going to be asked to perform. As Koo explains, occasionally they “know when it is and where it is, but not what it’s going to be.” As a consequence, they have to be prepared to deal with new experiences. Lamb says she had never even been inside a helicopter before she was asked to cling to the outside of one while working on the Neil Jordan film In Dreams (1999). Kirby says he likes to throw curveballs at his students during fight training—such as littering a stage with garbage or turning out the lights—so that they won’t freeze up when conditions change on set. On the other hand, every stuntperson has his or her limitations and stunts they won’t do, like fire burns and high falls, which are specialties in themselves. Koo, for instance, says he won’t do fire scenes, to protect his face.

6. THEY DO GET HURT SOMETIMES.

A good film crew takes every precaution to keep their members safe, and injuries are the exception rather than the rule. But accidents do happen. Koo emphasizes that many of the action sequences that people assume are done with green screen are in fact happening in “real life,” particularly on big-budget movies. As a consequence, bruises, bumps, and sometimes serious accidents will occasionally occur. Lamb says she has suffered a broken clavicle, a blown ACL, and a broken back, but continues to return to the profession she loves after getting well. “Advil is our friend,” she says, as is a good masseuse. (Performers who agree to a particularly dangerous stunt often also receive a pay increase, known as an adjustment.)

7. THEY KEEP THEIR COOL.

Despite these risks, a stuntperson cannot afford to get nervous. “When you get nervous, that’s when you get hurt,” Koo says. His approach is to think through a stunt and then put any worries out of his mind. “I tell myself ‘that’s it!’ Don’t get nervous. Just do it.” That’s not to say that jitters don’t come into play sometimes. “I think all stunt performers get that nervousness like any other performer,” Kuhr says. He says multiple rehearsals are invaluable in cutting down on both nerves and risk.

8. STUNTWOMEN TAKE MORE OF A BEATING THAN STUNTMEN.

Special padding is part of a stunt performer’s arsenal, but if you’re a woman it may not be an option. “Sometimes certain articles of clothing like skirts prevent us from wearing thicker pads or even pads at all,” Lam explains. “Sometimes a little improvisation is needed. My skinny jeans were so tight one time I used gel petals for knee pads.” Lamb alludes to instances of having to wear “just a towel to do a fight or a stair fall.” She adds that high heels can present another hazard, but since she has often doubled for “11-year-old boys or senior citizens,” she has mostly been able to avoid them.

9. THEY ARE ACTORS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT. 

Mack Kuhr with Keanu Reeves on set for John Wick 2. Image credit: Mack Kuhr 

When doubling for an actor, stunt performers have to do more than bear a passing resemblance: They must consider the actor’s physicality and movement, too. “It is truly an exercise in impersonation,” Lamb says. “You as the stunt double are there to merely match [the actor’s] action and then take over and honor their work as you get tossed out of a moving car.” This is particularly true when a young stuntperson is doubling an older actor. Lamb explains that older people tend to move differently, and often have a different center of gravity. She says she once coached a young actress who was doubling an older person falling to “think light and then go heavy like a noodle.” 

10. THEY HAVE AN UNUSUAL IDEA OF “FUN.”

If you’re going to put your neck on the line for others’ entertainment, it might as well be fun. Fortunately, stunt performers say it often is—although their idea of joy might not match the rest of society’s. Lam describes squib hits, or onscreen gunshots, as particularly enjoyable. “I get to wear a mini blood packet that explodes when the squib guy presses a button,” she says. “The blood comes pouring out and there’s a big smoky hole in my shirt.” 

Koo describes working on car hit scenes with a budget as a bit like being a kid in a sand box. “It’s kind of like we’re demolition,” he explains. “They tell you: money is no object, don’t worry about wrecking stuff because it’s in the budget. You’re like a big kid that gets to break stuff.” Lamb expresses a fondness for stair falls, with her first-ever fall being a famous scene in the movie Fargo (1996). However, she admits her favorite stunts are “the kind that leave me in one piece.” 

11. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO LOOK BAD.

Some of Kirby’s students include highly skilled martial artists hoping to apply their abilities to stunt and stage combat work. However, it’s not always helpful for a stunt fighter to fight as well as Bruce Lee, since the film’s stars are the ones who need to look the best and often win onscreen fights. “If you are lucky enough to get into that fight with Tom Cruise,” Kirby says, “you better be willing to suck.” 

Koo confirms this. “You don’t want to showcase your skill unless you’re the principal person that’s supposed to win that fight. You’re there ... to get beat up and thrown around, and that’s your job.” Lamb adds that she needed to set aside her gymnast’s ability to land gracefully in order to convincingly fall out of a window. “One of the things we need to do is to be sloppy and be ok with it,” she says.

12. STUNT WORK AFFECTS THEIR DAILY LIVES. 

Lamb explains that her decades of stunt work have infiltrated her daily life in certain ways, including how she views her physical environment. For instance, she often assesses sets of stairs in terms of how well they would work for a stair fall. “I might be looking through Real Simple or Architectural Digest and think ‘oh, those are good,’” she says. She also says that her work has influenced her parenting (or as she describes it, her role as a “stunt mom”) and imparted resilience to her children. “They do know how to take a tumble and roll right back up and keep moving.” 

13. THEY ARE CONSTANTLY LEARNING.

Employability, for many stuntpeople, depends on developing new skills and perfecting old ones. Lam says she takes a variety of martial arts classes with the aim of becoming a more well-rounded fighter, and is training with a rope dart and chain whip—two traditional kung fu weapons. “The beauty of this industry,” she says, is that “it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things.” As a fight instructor, Kirby has the opportunity to observe many honing their craft. “The best people in this industry never stop learning,” he says.

14. AND THEY ARE CONSTANTLY TRAINING.

In between jobs, stuntpeople keep fit and train frequently so that they will be able to “spring into action,” literally, at a moment’s notice. “You never know when the bat phone will call and it’s time to suit up,” Kuhr says. Stuntpeople may train at specialized gyms where they can learn from and work with other performers like themselves, or typical gyms. Kuhr’s regimen, which includes cardiovascular training (to help with constant sprinting on set), strength training, agility work, martial arts training, sparring, and good nutrition, is typical of many stunt players.

15. THEY LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER. 

Stuntpeople describe their community as tight-knit, with bonds forged by unique experiences. The people in this high-risk profession look out for each other, both in terms of safety and when it comes to nailing a new stunt or developing new skills. “We all look out for each other and train together,” Lam says. “If I don’t know how to do something, there will be someone within the community who will lend advice. You teach me how to do a car hit and I teach you about affective memory in Method acting.”

16. THERE IS NO OSCAR FOR WHAT THEY DO.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no Academy Award category for stunt work. (There are other awards, including some from the Screen Actors Guild and the Taurus World Stunt Awards.) Nearly all of the stunt performers interviewed here mentioned the lack of an Oscar for their work. A petition called Stand Up for Stunts is currently circulating to change that, and has received over 83,000 signatures so far.

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Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling
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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.

 

Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!
Funko

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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