Why Being A Stuntman Might Be The Best Job In the World - Men's Health Magazine Australia

Why Being A Stuntman Might Be The Best Job In the World

The stunt co-ordinators on new spy flick, The Gray Man, take us behind the scenes on perhaps the most thrilling action movie since John Wick.

How do you get into a career as a stuntman? You fall into it! At least that was the case for James Young, stunt co-ordinator and assistant director on new Netflix action thriller, The Gray Man, which stars a super-ripped Ryan Gosling, (yep, even more killer obliques and eye-popping traps than in Crazy Stupid Love) and Chris Evans, swapping his goody two-shoes Captain America schtick to play a wisecracking psychopath with a fiendishly camp ‘trash-stache’. 

“That’s the joke I usually say,” laughs Young, a 38-year-old Englishman and former in-house Marvel stunt co-ordinator, whose previous credits include Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers series. “But that’s literally it. I was in a martial arts school and one of my friends was a member of a stunt team and I went and trained. It was like, ‘This is cool’. I then started making videos on YouTube and it just snowballed from there. I grew up watching Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Van Damme, everything. Watched them, loved them, jumped around on the couch copying them. But never in a million years could I say to you, ‘One day I’ll be designing action sequences on some of the biggest movies in the world’. I was lucky enough to meet good people. I was very fortunate, but I was prepared and I was ready.” 

Fellow stunt co-ordinator on The Gray Man, Danny Hernandez, 44, followed a similar path into the industry, going from body-slamming his brothers to co-ordinating scenes like the jaw-dropping C130 fight sequence in this film, which features intense close-quarters combat at altitude in which Gosling rivals anything late-career Tom Cruise is doing. 

“I loved watching action movies as a kid,” says Hernandez, whose previous credits include 300 and John Wick. “And I was always trying to figure out, ‘Who are these guys that keep dying?’ And then realising, ‘That’s not the actor. Hold on, let me rewind that and see that again’. And then you find out it’s a stuntman. From there, I was just like, ‘This is what I want to do’.” 

With streaming platforms investing heavily in action movies, the field is potentially entering a golden era, allowing performers to graduate from straight stunts to co-ordinating scenes and directing sequences. Even, in the case of John Wick’s Chad Stahelski, becoming fully-fledged directors. I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of being paid to blow shit up? 

Yet as fun as it might appear, it’s a job that requires an elite fitness background, as well as superior mental tools. Here, Young and Hernandez reveal what it takes to work in a field where you get knocked down and then you get up again, for a living. 


Men’s Health: What would you say are the keys to being a good stuntman, physically and mentally? 

James Young: Physically, know your body. That’s the biggest, because not everyone’s body is built the same or can train the same. That’s the one thing I’ve learned. But it’s a discipline. And I think martial artists adhere to it because martial arts instil discipline in you. You have to be disciplined in your health and in your physical training and that leaks into the mental side of it as well. It’s the discipline of being attentive on set, being open, having no ego, just being willing to learn. Discipline in your nutrition. It really is a lifestyle. It’s a great, frenetic lifestyle, but you realise that it’s not just hitting that gag [stunt] and doing it once. It’s actually the training for that, doing all the fight previews, all of that. It’s a war of attrition.  

Daniel Hernandez: It’s like being a professional athlete or an engineer. You have to wake up early in the morning, you have to train and keep your body physically fit and push yourself. Push yourself to be mentally prepared because stunts are stunts. There’s always going to be that time where, if you’re not focused and you’re not ready, you get yourself in a hairy situation that you have to get yourself out of. You need to train to the point where you feel like you’re going to give up and you’re fighting yourself. You can’t just be a Joe Schmo and say, “Hey, check this out, I’m going to jump out a window”, and not properly understand the geometry that goes into that, the safety precautions. People say, “Oh, these guys are just crazy nut-bags. They’re adventure junkies”. No, a great stunt person has to have the smarts and you have to have the discipline. 

JY: And it’s got to be safe. A lot of the time you’d love to do a one and done, but sometimes you’ve got to go back and do it again. So that gag’s got to be designed in the safest way possible with the closest line of risk. It’s a fabulous art, it really is. The physics involved, it’s incredible. 

DH: Absolutely. And you’ve got to be physically ready to take pain. It’s people hitting the ground, falling on concrete. You’re doing it multiple times, 10 times and getting up. So, you have to prepare your body to withstand that pain because it still hurts. It’s still giving your body trauma and you’re going home with bruises. But I love it. This is the greatest job that you can have. You get to travel, you get to meet incredible people, you get to build bonds that are unbreakable. I’m relying on James, for instance, to hold my life is in his hands. It’s an incredible adventure. 

MH: In terms of body preparation, are you able to give us a couple of things that you do in your own personal conditioning that guys at home might incorporate in their routines? 

JY: Cross training really is the way. It’s a mix of functional bodybuilding, high-intensity interval training and martial arts. In terms of lifting, I always say you’ve got to work on your chest, back and legs. So, it’s bench press, back squat, dead lift. Those Olympic lifts are really going to help you create a good cage, a good core, to be able to repeatedly do these things and then you add boxing, kickboxing, onto that. That’s a really good start to cover your bases. 

MH: Have either of you used your training in real life to avoid an accident? 

JY: Yes. I’ve been hit by a car when I was on my bike. I ended up on the hood. I’ve been hit by a car while running as well. 

MH: And at that point, your reflexes and instincts helped reduce the impact? 

JY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, here’s the thing. As a stuntman, when you see that fall happening, you’re going to adjust your body correctly to avoid the most damage and come out as safely as possible. It’s definitely helped me catch myself or land properly and be okay.  

DH: About six years ago I was out hiking and my daughter slipped and I grabbed her and by doing so I slipped and I tumbled down the mountain. But the stunt training just kicks in. It’s instinctual, right? It’s just, boom, okay, head over, head over, head over, keeping everything in, tight as a ball. Make yourself a sphere and just tumble down. 

MH: These days guys like Chad Stahelski are going from being a stuntman to actually directing big-budget films. Is that a career path that’s becoming more common and something to which each of you might aspire? 

JY: I think so. I mean, the coolest thing with our industry now is all the streaming platforms. There are more chances to tell stories. So why not? What Chad and David Lea [Batman, Con Air] showed us is that if you’ve got a great story to tell, you can do it at a studio level. I think it’s an open avenue for people to tell their stories because at the end of the day, if you’re an action designer, you’re a director of action. So, it’s a question of putting all the pieces together. 

MH: Yes, it makes sense when a film has so much action. You need someone who understands, at a granular level, how these set pieces work, right?

 DH: Yeah, I think as a stunt coordinator, we’ve always been involved in terms of creating action. And I think Chad and Dave really took the skills they learned from their days as stuntmen, stunt coordinators and fight coordinators and applied it, proving to the world that stunt players are able to tell a story successfully. So, they pretty much opened the door for our department to come to fore and tell our stories and do it well.  

MH: The Gray Man is jam-packed with spectacular set pieces. What was the most challenging for each of you to execute? 

JY: For me, the C130 plane sequence. The confined space, the set limitations, the components of the effects we’re using, gimbals and other methods to make this sequence happen. It’s something that really took a lot of minds to come together and really attack that sequence. Not only that, but for Ryan as well, to be able to have him fighting on those sets and those platforms, it’s a challenge to keep him safe. But luckily Ryan’s so athletic and so good that it just worked out really well. 
DH: Another challenging one was the hospital fight. Just dealing with the actor-on-actor fighting. Not just one-on-one, but three together, which is a difficult thing to shoot. But James, filming the second unit, just made it work. 

MH: So, how were Ryan and Chris in terms of their preparedness for the physicality of these roles? 

JY: Ryan is an athlete. Even though he had not had any kind of action or martial arts training coming in, he has a dance background and dancers often make some of the best free fighters because they’ve got timing and rhythm. So, his capacity to learn and adapt was already very good. On the flip side of that, I’ve known Chris since Winter Soldier and I’ve actually fought Chris hand-to-hand. So, I know his capacity. Chris doesn’t need to come in and learn fights. He can literally look at a fight on the day and learn it in less than a minute, I’m not kidding. That’s like long beats of choreography with full performance, everything. Chris is a tap dancer, I believe, by training. So, he can literally look at a fight and say, “Can I change this and this”, and he’s good to go. 

The Gray Man is in cinemas from July 14 and premieres on Netflix on July 22 

By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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