Entertainment

THEY GIVE SHOWS THEIR KICK

Canada’s stunt artists are worse for wear—and smiling all the way to the bank

JOHN INTINI August 11 2003
Entertainment

THEY GIVE SHOWS THEIR KICK

Canada’s stunt artists are worse for wear—and smiling all the way to the bank

JOHN INTINI August 11 2003

THEY GIVE SHOWS THEIR KICK

Entertainment

Canada’s stunt artists are worse for wear—and smiling all the way to the bank

JOHN INTINI

EVEN IF YOU’RE a diehard moviegoer who hangs around for the closing credits, you probably won’t recognize a single name in this story. Often sandwiched somewhere between the production assistants and the grips are stunt performers—a tightly knit group of men and women who take a beating every day to save the pretty faces of our favourite movie stars. Sounds like a thankless job, but you won’t find many stunt performers complaining. And while the loonie’s recent ascent may have made a few producers think twice about heading north, Canada remains a hot spot for shooting

American films and TV. Which has left Canadian stunt artists a little the worse for wear, but still smiling—all the way to the bank.

With the explosive growth of Hollywood North in the past two decades, more and more Canadians have tried to get a piece of an industry that generates $5 billion annually. About 600 Canadians now list themselves as stunt performers. But according to industry veteran Marco Bianco, only a core group in the major centres—Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary—get most of the work. “When you are dealing with life and death, you like to work with people you

know and trust won’t do something stupid,” says the 46-year-old, whose big break came landing a spot as a double in Police Academy in 1984. “Guys with good connections do most of the work. A lot of us got started when we were in our 20s and did all we could to keep new guys out. Now that we’re older and can’t do things like we used to, some younger guys are getting in. Of course, part of it is greed. Why share the wealth?”

In some ways, female stunt performers have it the toughest. “Women rarely get the nondescript jobs,” says Leigh Bianco, 33, Marco’s wife and a stunt performer since

the mid-’90s. “We’re never the thugs. We’re never used in car chases. We aren’t gunned down or hit by cars on prime-time TV. There are fewer jobs.” But a lack of gigs isn’t the only challenge. “Actresses often wear pretty revealing clothes, which leave little room for elbow and knee pads, which really help with stair falls,” laughs Leigh, who lives with her husband in the town of Unionville, a half-hour north of Toronto. “And four-inch stilettos don’t make life any easier.”

The job can be quite lucrative, however, for those who find steady work. Sure, the 14hour days can be tedious, but with a daily rate of more than $500 significantly bolstered by an additional fee based partly on the prospective audience size, there’s some big money to be made. While a CBC television program may fetch a 25-per-cent increase above the day rate, big-budget movies

can yield extra fees as high as 130 per cent— making it possible for some performers to earn more than $200,000 a year.

With the financial rewards come some major risks. “Over the years,” says Vancouver stuntman Ernest Jackson, “I’ve seen quadriceps getting torn, fingers being ripped off, and some really bad back injuries. It’s just part of the business.” Jackson himself is legally blind in his right eye because of a 1995 accident on the set of TV’s Poltergeist. The 41-year-old, who was Canada’s toprated kick-boxer for four years during the 1980s, suffered an optic-nerve rupture when he was punched during rehearsal. “Nerve endings don’t grow well on scar tissue, but it’s amazing how quickly the body adapts,” says Jackson, who still performs—and whose 11-year-old son, Coulton, recently appeared in Dark Angel and X-Men 2.

While they hate to think about it, death is always in the back of stunt performers’ minds. The last Canadian stuntman killed on set was Chris Lamon, who died at 35 during the 2000 filming of Steven Seagal’s Exit Wounds. Lamon miscalculated a jump from a moving vehicle and hit the road, fracturing his skull. (All stunt performers are insured in case of death or injury through membership with ACTRA or the Union of B.C. Performers.) Marco Bianco was there the day of the accident, and says tragedies like that have a dual effect. “It certainly brings the community closer together,” he notes, “but also leads to a lot of people pointing blame at one another.”

Many stunt performers were risk-takers— or, at least, top athletes—before they got into the business. There are no official stunt schools in Canada, or even minimum re-

quirements to do the work, hence the industry is filled with a mixed bag of martial arts specialists, race car drivers and former pro athletes. “Some out-of-shape guys specialize in doubling as out-of-shape actors, but most of us are athletes,” says Vancouver stuntman Ken Kirzinger, 43, a six-foot, fiveinch 235-pounder who, after 21 years of steady work as a performer, now works primarily as a stunt coordinator. “I’m still in good shape, but it’s a natural progression,” he says. “Eventually you want to wean yourself off hitting the ground and tell other people to hit the ground instead.”

One stuntman who’s showing no sign of slowing down is industry legend Alex Green, at 62 one of the oldest in his trade in Canada. Ever since his first stunt, doubling Oliver Reed on the set of The Trap in 1965, the Vancouverite has been throwing himself down stairs and out of buildings. In 1968 Green founded Stunts Canada, now 52 members strong and the second largest stunt group in the world. When preparing to double Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Mask of Zorro (1998), Green spent about 100 hours reviewing Hopkins’ films to memorize every movement. “I watched them without the sound,” says Green, “and fast-forwarded through the other characters. I have the timing down so well that I’m his perfect double.” Green recently worked on ScoobyDoo 2 and plans to train Halle Berry this fall for Catwoman. “Halle has to learn how to use an eight-foot bullwhip. When a whip cracks, it goes 1,500 km/h and the tail is moving at 425 m per second. If you’re on the other end it’ll slice you like a razor blade, so it’s pretty important she does it right.” The industry has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Not only is there a

larger number of shows to work on in Canada, but the definition of stunt performer has also been transformed. “When I first started, stuntmen were all cowboys,” says Bianco. “You had to ride a horse or you weren’t considered a stuntman. Then everyone was into car chases, followed by full bums, followed by the glory days of high falls. Now martial arts and wire work are huge. If you can’t throw a kick and spin off a wire you aren’t going to be working very much.” Computer-generated imaging, used extensively in both Matrix movies, has also played a key role in the profession’s evolution. While the machines have made stunts more spectacular and safer, they have also increased expectations. “Computers have taken away any limits,” says Kirzinger. “We used to use a lot of camera tricks to sell a stunt. CGI allows us to do really wide shots and was what made the opening battle scene in The Lord of the Rings so spectacular.”

The public perception of stunt perform-

ers as glorified daredevils really irks those in the industry. “We aren’t out doing goofy extreme stunts,” says Leigh Bianco, who had just started police training when she decided to work in film and television. “You need to understand the shot and know what the director wants to see. It’s an art.” She also shakes her head whenever she hears an actor claiming to do his or her own stunt work. “A director would never let the star risk getting hurt,” she says, adding that not being listed in film credits—as was the case in Sylvester Stallone’s box-office bomb Driven— is another touchy issue. “We’re the ones who are expendable.”

So with all the risks and little credit—the prospect of a fat paycheque notwithstanding— what makes stunt work so appealing? “Sometimes you get to do a really amazing stunt that just makes you stop and say, ‘Wow!’ ” observes Leigh. “That’s when being thrown to the concrete or getting whacked on the head over and over again is worth it.”