Tips for Aspiring Stunt Professionals
After working in the film industry and teaching stage combat classes in LA for the past 20 years, I'm frequently asked how to get started in Hollywood as a stuntman. The following is a list of tips and links to get you started, as well as a few words of advice to keep the gig once you get it.
Become a Stuntperson
What to Train
Where to Train
Getting the Job / Hustling
Associations and Agencies
Make Your Own Work
Peter Hassall's Stunt FAQ
Manny Siverio - How to get into Stunts
Why Become a Stuntperson:
Lets hope the answer isn't money, because there are a lot of stunt people out there with tons of credits who still have a tough time making a living doing stunts. You've got to love it.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of stuntmen and women who make a good living doing what they do, but they are definitely few and far between. When I first came to LA in 1987, I heard about a survey that was done that said the average actor makes $800 a year.
True, you can make that in one day as a working stuntman, but getting the gig is the tricky part. To get a better idea what a working stuntman makes, check out my section on rates.
I don't try and discourage people from getting into stunts, but I do try and give them a realistic idea of what to expect. I also try to convince them to have another source of income to fall back on. Many professional stuntmen I know also work in construction, security, web design, etc. I'm thankful that I also have a career as a VFX artist.
All that aside, doing stunts has been quite rewarding for me. In addition to the occasional gig where you make rent in a day for falling down, I've been extremely lucky to work on some major feature films, fly around the world to work in exotic locations, hang out with celebrities, and my background as a swordsman and martial artist has helped me land several starring roles.
What to train:
Stunt work has become highly specialized over the years. There's high falls, fire burns, fight scenes, swordplay, air ram, ratchets, horse stunts, car gags, motorcycles, weapons, and the list goes on. I would advise to learn as much as possible from as many people as you can. You never know what might get you the job.
However, don't choose a skill that you're obviously not comfortable with. Also be aware of the danger involved. Most aspiring stuntmen are initially drawn to doing high falls, yet high falls don't constitute the majority of stuntwork and they are typically responsible for the most severe and fatal injuries.
The majority of stuntwork is fights and "ground pounding" (basic falls), For basic movement, tumbling, conditioning, stretching, and air awareness, it would be advisable to take an adult gymnastics class.
For fights, you can benefit from practically any style of martial arts: Wushu (featured in Matrix and Crouching Tiger), Tae Kwon Do (a good foundation), Judo, Karate, Aikido, Kali, Savate, Capoeira, etc.
However, I'd strongly recommend you also take a stage combat class to learn about things like safety, distance, reactions, choreography, and staging for the camera. I'd say that 80% of all stunt-related injuries that I've seen are from fight scenes, and most of those are from kicks or punches that were just too close.
I've run into plenty of martial artists that are confident in their abilities to pull a punch or kick, but when you're on set, the adrenaline gets going, the lights are in your eyes, you're wearing a costume or shoes that don't fit, the floor is slippery, and the director wants you to get closer. Someone is going to get hit. If you know some on-camera basics, not only is the shot safer, it can also look better.
However, don't have any illusions that being a martial artist or taking a stage combat class will get you a role in a film. Take an acting class. They will typically cast an actor in a starring role before they consider a martial artist or stuntman. However, they will occasionally cast stuntmen if they know they might have to take a hit. Either way, an acting class will help your marketability.
If you want to learn more about how things work on set, a good introduction is work a few days as an extra or a production assistant. There are several casting agencies around in LA such as Central Casting that can find you work as an extra.
Lastly, keep an eye on what's in production. If there's a pirate film getting ready to shoot, it's probably time to learn how to swordfight or brush up on your skills. The Hollywood Reporter has a weekly listing of films that are in production and preproduction.
Where to Train:
My best advice to someone trying to break into the biz is to train with the professionals. So that means going where the work is. These days, tax incentives have created a shell game has led production all over the country - from Florida to Louisiana to Michigan to Georgia. But the sad reality of tax incentives is that they eventually dry up, forcing production companies to look for the next big thing.
If you want to find a place that has consistent film production work and opportunities, LA is the place to be. Unfortunately, there are very few actual stunt classes in the LA area, which I think is surprising. There is some speculation that professional stuntmen have enough competition as it is, and aren't interested in training others to do their job.
Over the years, I've seen several stunt schools come and go. They typically disappear because of insurance issues, they can't maintain enough students, or the instructors get busy and they don't have time to teach anymore. I've even been witness to a few classes closing down due to pressure from the local stunt associations - claiming that the instructors don't have the training it takes to safely teach a class. And whether someone is safe can an be extremely subjective issue.
If you're not in LA, you can benefit from almost any gymnastic or martial arts class. There are also stunt schools scattered throughout the country such as Kim Kahana's Stunt School in Florida, LA Stunts Training Center in Georgia, and David Boushey's Stunt School in Seattle, Washington which offers training in almost every aspect of stunts. There's also the SAFD (Society of American Fight Directors), which has stage combat instructors across the country.
In LA, there's Rick Seaman's School for stunt driving, and various stage combat classes such as Samurai Action School and The Academy of Movement. There are also dozens of martial arts and gymnastics studios with adult classes such as LASG or JAM. However, only a few of these are stunt-friendly such as Gymnastica Olympica in Van Nuys, and LA Valley College gym (5800 Fulton Ave) has an open workout on Tuesday and Friday: 7pm - 10pm ($6) Advanced Class - Monday and Thursday: 7pm - 10pm ($12). You might want to call to confirm the schedule (818) 947-2600. And there's movement classes such as parkour, which you can find at places like White Lotus, PK Cali at LASG in Culver City, and the Tempest Freerunning Academy. These places can also be an excellent place to network.
Every stunt professional I know in LA also has their own private workout such as Bob Yerke's place in Northridge which is run by stunt coordinator John Moio. There are also stunt teams such as 87Eleven, Action Factory, Stunt People, Reel Kick, etc.
However, these workouts are typically by invitation only. DO NOT just show up at one of these workouts without an invite. The hardest thing to overcome in the industry is a bad reputation and news like that can spread like wildfire.
Find out who the coordinators are, who they work with and where they train. When they're looking for people for a gig, they will always go with the people they've been training with. Be advised that just because you train with a coordinator or stunt team doesn't mean they will hire you. There are several classes in LA that promise work to their students, which is not only misleading, it's actually illegal (charging money in exchange for work).
There is also the problem of being associated with a particular stunt team. If anyone on the team should develop a bad reputation, that will undoubtedly reflect on the rest of the team. What's more, particular coordinators do not get along with everyone and will not hire you if there's someone on your team they simply do not like. My advice is - don't lock yourself down to any single place for more than a couple months. Spread yourself out and try to work with everyone.
Getting the Job / Hustling:
Hustling is how most indie stuntmen try to find work. You find out where a particular film is shooting and show up with a copy of your headshot and resume to hand to the stunt coordinator.
This can be tricky nowadays for a few reasons. It used to be possible to pull up a list of filming locations (called the "Shoot Sheet") online at www.eidc.com. After 9/11, however, this information became unavailable to the general public.
Even trickier is how to approach the stunt coordinator. It is recommended that you go with another stuntman (preferably someone who can introduce you) and wait for just the right moment to introduce yourself. Typically, this is around lunchtime (1pm for most shoots). And you don't want to approach the same coordinator too often. The rule of thumb is about 1-2 times a month.
Timing is everything, and you'll occasionally hear stories about stuntmen getting hired on the spot, which I've seen. Beyond who you know in LA, it's being in the right place at the right time.
Other than hustling, there are a few other ways to help you get work. Be sure to check out the following sections on "Agencies" and "Marketing". But once again, my best advice for getting a job is to train with the folks who are already working in the industry.
Whether you're visiting or working on set, there are a few rules to follow if you want to get the job or just keep it.
Do not follow the stunt coordinator, director, or stars around the set asking them a lot of questions. They've got a job to do. Do not get in the way, make noise, or jump around in an attempt to show the stunt coordinator what you can do. Do not attempt to go over the stunt coordinator's head by asking the producers or director for a job.
If you're working on the set, make yourself available at all times to help out with anything the coordinator asks of you. This can include everything from helping to move pads, working as safety on a stunt, set up equipment, or even sweep the area. Don't disappear without telling someone where you're going. Be on time to set or call if you're going to be late. Be prepared with the right gear, pads and wardrobe. Don't make things difficult for anyone else on the production.
Essentially, don't piss off the stunt coordinator. He can make your job extremely difficult (if not downright dangerous) on set. He may never hire you again, and what's worse, he will tell all of his buddies (it does happen).
Word does spread quickly in the stunt community, and if you develop a reputation for talking trash about other stuntmen, coordinators or directors, everyone will know. Go with the flow and do your best to keep your opinions to yourself. If you can't say something nice...
If you're thinking about making your living as a stuntman, it's a tough road. If you get hurt, you're done. I typically recommend that people have something to fall back on (and not acting). You never want to be standing at the edge of a building getting ready for a questionable jump thinking that you need to make rent or put food on the table. Even stuntmen can't remain stuntmen forever. Their only hope at longevity is to become a coordinator or second unit director.
Be honest. If you have never done a gag before, don't lie. At the very least, you may piss off the coordinator that hired you. At the very worst... Well, it can get pretty ugly. The general public rarely hears about serious injuries or fatalities on set, and they happen more often than you may think.
Always check your own equipment - never rely on someone else to check your rigging. This is especially true with live stunt shows. A good coordinator will respect you for double checking everything for safety. Also, keep an eye out for everyone else's safety. You'd want them looking out for you. Besides, if someone gets hurt on set - even if it wasn't you, it will ultimately reflect badly on you. Word gets around.
Do not allow peer pressure or egos pressure you into doing a stunt. There's a lot of pressure on set to get the shot, and accidents typically happen when people are rushing. Slow down, take your time to rehearse the fight and/or make sure the gag is safe.
All this aside, there's a term you should know - cowboy up. This is when you've agreed to do a stunt that might get you hurt. Every stuntman has been in this position at one time or another. It's an inherent part of the job. The best you can hope for is to minimize this as much as possible, and the best way to do that is to train, be honest about your abilities, and always look for a safer way to pull off the gag. Ultimately, it's an illusion. Your job is to make something look as dangerous as possible while keeping it as safe as possible.
Many professional stuntmen make a decent living during their downtime working stunt shows at local theme parks such as Universal Studios and Magic Mountain. It's not a bad gig, but the pay isn't as great as most people would think - about $50 a show. But if you work five shows a day, that comes to $250.
Most stunt shows have regular castings that advertise in trade magazines such as Backstage West or online at LA Casting or Actors Access. They constantly need people because they typically have several teams working the same show and there's big turnaround due to people taking other jobs or getting injured.
A word of warning, stunt shows are even more prone to accidents due to the constant repetition of shows. Cables fray, pyro goes off at the wrong time, tech crew forgets to set a pad or load a gun correctly. And once again, the general public rarely hears about serious injuries or fatalities, which do occur.
Most stuntmen begin their careers and start filling out their resumes by doing non-union work. You can find non-union casting notices in publications such as Backstage West. There are also online casting notices on sites such as LA Casting and Actors Access.
To work on union shows, you need a SAG card, which is obtainable by getting a certain amount of SAG vouchers (typically by doing extra work). If, however, you are fortunate enough to have a skill that is sought after by a union shoot, they can "Taft-Hartley" you, which essentially means that they pay a fee to SAG to make you eligible. You still have to pay for your membership to SAG (currently over $1000), but your first gig will probably cover that (approx. $650/day).
The latest way to get your SAG card (though it may not be around for long) is to work on a webseries which is SAG signatory. This is part of SAG's New Media Contract and you can find info about it here: http://www.actinganswers.com/whats-the-fastest-way-to-get-into-sag-aftra/ I've had several folks achieve this through shooting an episode of my webseries, which you can find at www.thehunted.tv
Be warned though, once you go union, you can no longer take non-union work (unless you register as "Financial Core"). Many actors and stuntmen who get their SAG card too soon find that they don't have the experience or resume they need to get them a union gig.
For non-union work, rates can vary all over the place. As a beginning stuntman, you may do a gig just for your stunt reel, or the experience, or the possibility of working with someone who may give you a paying gig somewhere else down the line. You never know.
I coordinated a non-union show once for $100 a day, but it really paid off years later when the prop master became the producer of a SAG feature and hired me onto a $20 million dollar show.
The only standardized rates you will find come from the Screen Actors Guild, and there's plenty of different contracts for film, tv, low budget, experimental, etc. For a complete listing check out SAG's website or this guide to SAG indie rates.
The main rates for film work (as of 2016) are:
Daily Contact: $933
Weekly Contract: $3,479
(same for a stunt performer or coordinator)
This does not include any additional "adjustments" or "bumps" which are given by the coordinator at their own discretion and usually run a couple hundred every time a stunt is performed.
A SAG contract also means residuals - a portion of your paycheck is sent to you every time the film is shown on TV or cable. I'm still getting residual checks from shows I did 25 years ago. But every time you receive a residual check, your pay is typically half or the previous check, so it's not unusual to eventually get checks for 2 cents.
Associations and Agencies:
There are a handful of stunt associations in LA such as Stuntmen's Association and Stunts Unlimited which are typically by invitation only (it's who you know). That doesn't mean, however, that they will not hire freelance stuntmen if the need arises. I've had some success dropping by their offices, saying hi and leaving a resume.
There are several talent agencies that also handle stuntmen such as KMR and Bobby Ball, although they prefer if you already have a SAG card. For a complete listing of these agencies, you can pick up a guide at the Samuel French bookshop on Sunset in Hollywood.
There are also "call services" such as Missy's, Joni's or Teddy's (approx. $50/month), which take calls from coordinators and occasionally farm out work to their clients.
There are many schools out there that offer certification in various skills. This applies mostly to stage combat, but I've also heard about stunt schools offering certification for driving, high falls, etc. I believe that any student who completes a course like this deserves some form of certificate (I'm certified with the SAFD), but chances are this may not help you at all when it comes to finding work in Hollywood. In reality, it can even work against you.
If this was Europe, you would be required to pass a certain number of skills before being able to work in the industry. In Hollywood, however, it seems that no one checks references or is interested in certification of any kind.
All of this depends on who the coordinator is. I have coordinated a few films and been involved in auditions where I could tell the director to consider someone who has certification listed on their resume.
However, there are some coordinators that hold such contempt for certification or certain instructors that they will go out of their way to make sure you don't get the job. My advice is that training is training, and if someone doesn't want to give you a job because you have certification or someone else's name on your resume, then they aren't worth working for anyway.
Your best marketing tool as a stuntman in LA is your resume and headshot (which can also be a composite of action shots).
Your standard headshot is an 8x10 black and white photo which you can pay several hundred dollars for, but I've know plenty of people (especially beginning stunt people) who just find someone with a good digital camera. You can get reprints of these at several locations throughout LA. You're gonna need a lot of them.
Your resume lists your experience, skills, and basic stats - height, weight, hair and eye color, union and agency affiliation (if any), and contact info. You can find plenty of examples online. Here's mine. Again, don't lie. Most folks in this town know who worked on what, and lying can get you into more trouble than you think.
Have a business card with you at all times!
A demo reel is also nice to have, but not as important as you may think. Again, it's mostly who you know and being in the right place at the right time. It's easy to hand off a picture and resume, but most stunt coordinators are not going to watch your tape or DVD while they're on set.
And in keeping with the times, you might want to consider having an online presence - such as your own website with photos, your resume, and perhaps even your demo reel. Many sites (such as yahoo) offer free webhosting and tools to put together your own website. Also check out Godaddy for great deals on a custom URL and hosting site.
There are also several online stunt listings such as Stunt Player's Directory, Stunt Phone, and iStunt, which will add you to a searchable database for a nominal fee (if you are SAG), and online casting agencies such as Actors Access and LA Casting.
Make Your Own Work:
When I first came to LA, I realized that the chances of getting cast as a star in an action film were pretty slim. Instead of waiting around for this blessed event to happen, I wrote a script and got extremely lucky. We shot a trailer, put together a cast and crew and pitched the film to every indie production house out there.
Ring of Steel was was eventually picked up by Shapiro / Glickenhouse and produced by MCA / Universal for 1.5 million dollars and I got to star in my first feature film. What's more, I got to hire a bunch of my friends and bring them along for the ride. So instead of waiting around for a job and slowly getting bitter while sucking up to casting directors and coordinators, suddenly they were all working for me - it's a much better position to be in.
To this day, I'm still creating projects. My latest venture, "The Hunted" (www.thehunted.tv), is an action / comedy web series (and now a feature film) that features user content, which means virtually anyone anywhere can create an episode. After I had convinced one stuntman in LA to shoot an episode, he was suddenly overwhelmed by other stuntmen who wanted to be part of his project. Within weeks he had 30 stuntmen working for him for free, 3 of which were stunt coordinators. During that shoot, he proved himself to be an excellent director and stunt coordinator, and he has now transitioned to coordinating feature films.
I've noticed that the folks who work consistently in LA, whether you're an actor or stuntman, are constantly hustling - either to visit every set and get to know every stunt coordinator in town, or to create your own projects. Don't just wait for the work to come to you.