How to be a ‘Fall Guy’: Stunt performers on their rough-and-tumble life

Since the early days of Hollywood, stunt performers have fueled the mayhem of movies, playing a vital role in sustaining the illusion of countless car chases, bar fights and rooftop leaps

Ryan Gosling attends the premiere of the movie 'The Fall Guy' at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, April 30, 2024.
Ryan Gosling attends the premiere of the movie 'The Fall Guy' at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, April 30, 2024.CAROLINE BREHMAN (EFE)

There are two things to keep in mind while being burned alive for a movie scene. The first, says stunt performer Ben Jenkin, is not to breathe in a flame. That would be bad. Jenkin was reminded of that over and over before doing his first fire burn (and then seven more) in David Leitch’s The Fall Guy, an action extravaganza that affectionately celebrates the rough-and-tumble lives of stunt performers.

The other thing: Keep moving. “Moving forward and keeping the fire behind you allows you to breathe and to control the fire,” Jenkin says. “Movement is your friend.”

That would make a decent slogan for stunt performers who have, since the early days of Hollywood, fueled the mayhem of movies. Since at least when the facade of a house fell around Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (stillness can also be your friend when it comes to stunts), stunt performers have played a vital role in sustaining the illusion of countless car chases, bar fights, rooftop leaps and, yes, guys on fire.

By its nature, it’s nearly anonymous work, with stunt performers doubling for daintier stars. But Leitch, a longtime stuntman before he became a director, and The Fall Guy, which opens in theaters Friday, hope to redefine the role of stunt work in Hollywood. The Fall Guy, which features nearly every kind of stunt imaginable, arrives as a growing chorus is calling for a new Oscar category for stunt performance.

“It was never really about: The individual stunt performer needs to be recognized,” says Leitch, who spent years as Brad Pitt’s double before transitioning to directing with John Wick. “It was more about the contribution of the department. We create these sequences, whether it’s for Paul Thomas Anderson or Adam Sandler or James Cameron.”

The most eye-catching stunts come in big-budget action movies like The Fall Guy, but nearly every studio movie involves some stunt work. Take Chris O’Hara, head of Stunts Unlimited and the stunt designer on The Fall Guy. He’s not only a veteran of innovative, stunt-heavy films like The Matrix and the Jason Bourne series but he was also the guy who caught Saoirse Ronan when she leapt out of a (seemingly) moving car in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

With The Fall Guy, O’Hara is the first person to be credited as a “stunt designer,” a designation that’s been approved by SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild. To O’Hara, that credit better represents what’s usually called stunt coordination. Conceptualizing and crafting elaborate sequences requires more than making sure everyone stays safe.

“To be seen by the film community as stunt designers hopefully brings more light to what we really do,” says O’Hara. “Back in the day, stunt guys were the cowboys. Now we are creative. We create amazing things, just like a production designer does or a costume designer does.”

The falls leading to Fall Guy

When they were starting out in Los Angeles, Leitch and O’Hara lived together. Their garage was stuffed with mats and airbags. They dug a hole in the backyard and put a trampoline in it. “The landlord never caught us,” says Leitch, grinning. They, along with four other stuntmen including Chad Stahelski, set out with big ambitions to make their mark on Hollywood. While cutting their teeth on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they trained. Some were gymnasts, some drivers, some martial arts experts.

“It was a nonstop circus of skills you need but it’s fun to learn them,” says Leitch. “Hard on your body, but fun.”

They became masters of their craft — or at least mostly. Leitch never got driving down. On The Mexican, he crashed an El Camino into its only back-up, another El Camino.

But eventually, filmmaking seemed like one more skill to hone. Leitch had become adept at pre-visualizing sequences as a moving storyboard to show directors how an action scene would move and fit together. Plus, he was accustomed to keeping a cool head in extreme circumstances. How scary could directing be compared to standing on a ledge as a production raced to get a high fall in before the day’s light went?

“When you’ve had life and death stakes, what’s the worst that can happen in a scene?” says Leitch. “I have to cut it differently?”

Leitch has since become a sought-after action director, helming films like Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Bullet Train, in which Pitt starred. That was a full circle moment for the former star-stuntman tandem but The Fall Guy might be more so. Based on the 1980s Lee Majors TV series, it’s a comic, behind-the-scenes ode to the nature of stunt work and on-set life.

Ryan Gosling stars as Colt Seavers, a veteran stuntman and double for star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) whose romance with a fellow crew member, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), is severed after an accident on set only to fitfully resume years later. By then, Jody is directing her first feature and Colt is brought in as a stuntman, including for that fire-burn scene.

For Leitch and Kelly McCormick, his wife and production partner, both the stunts and the love story of The Fall Guy have a touch of autobiography. After a years-long working relationship, McCormick and Leitch were married in 2014 and together run their production company 87North.

“Maybe I am a little bit like Jody,” says McCormick. “I’m definitely the one that would set you on fire eight times.”

“Would you?” replies Leitch.

“Only if it was safe,” says McCormick, laughing.

‘I did almost none of my stunts in this movie’

At the SXSW premiere of The Fall Guy, Gosling proudly announced what few actors do: He did not do his own stunts. The movie required five stuntmen to double as Gosling, including Jenkin and Logan Holladay. In the film, Holladay sets a new record for cannon rolls of a vehicle, rolling a Jeep Grand Cherokee eight and a half times down a Australian beach. In one of the movie’s many ironic moments, you can see Holladay strapping Gosling into the car just before the scene.

Before working in film, Jenkin was accomplished in parkour. “I feel right into stunts,” he puns. His gift for contorting himself through the air and landing on the designated spot has made him one of the most sought-after stuntmen. Still, The Fall Guy was the busiest he’s ever been on a movie. “I can’t remember how many times I went through a pane of glass,” says Jenkin.

Some moves were new for Jenkin, like getting hit by a car. “Hips over hood,” Leitch advised him.

“When you’re a kid and you watch Jackie Chan running down the street and he’s chasing a bus and then he hooks onto the bus with an umbrella, you’re like, ‘That’s so cool,’” Jenkin says. “Now we get to live that. Me and Ryan were surfing a door across the Harbour Bridge, holding onto the back of a bin truck with a shovel. When do you get to do things like that?”

An Oscar for stunts?

Though the campaign has been ongoing for years, it will take time for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to embrace a new category (though it did so recently by adding an award for casting directors). They have some strength in numbers; stunt professionals make up the largest group of members in the academy’s Production and Technology branch.

“It’s not that they want more recognition than any other sort of department. These days, they’re in almost every film,” says McCormick. “They are front and center working with all the other departments — including, by the way, they go to post. A lot of times they are helping the editor find the way through a sequence. I haven’t had a hair person come to post ever.”

For some stunt performers, it’s the family business. Troy Brown’s first stunt was the 2005 Vin Diesel comedy The Pacifier, for which his father, Bob Brown, was stunt coordinator. Troy jumped out of a helicopter into the ocean. He was 5.

“Stunts was just everything I knew,” says Troy Brown. “It started out with my dad in the front yard jumping off of stuff into a port-a-pit. I just thought was super fun so I’d do it every day.”

In The Fall Guy, Brown makes the biggest jump of his career, falling 150 feet from a helicopter and landing on an air bag used by his father. During it, his dad was standing next to the bag, talking his son through the jump.

“I’m going out of this helicopter backwards and I’m lining it up as best I can,” says Brown. “When I get out there and I’m about go backwards off of this thing, I have my dad on the radio giving me the green light for the bag: ‘You can go whenever you want. We’re good, we’re good, we’re good.’”

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