A Broomstick Flying, Flesh Easting Oompah Loompah
Have you ever wondered who the crazy people are behind those incredible action scenes?
Well, I can tell you from experience as an award winning, international stuntman, that no two days are the same. You never know just where the thrill ride of making motion pictures might take you. Life as a stunt performer has allowed me to travel to some of the most remote and exotic locations in the world, as well as the more mystical and elusive recesses in the land of make believe.
I’ve been a quaffle chasing Griffindor quidditch player at Hogwarts, an acrobatic Oompah Loomah in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and even a naked flesh-eating crawler in the movie ‘Descent’. You have to be prepared for anything in this business and at a moments notice.
Behind the scenes, the life of a stunt performer is a never-ending training regime to remain at peak fitness whilst maintaining a diverse skillset repertoire to a high standard.
It’s a dangerous game and your life is literally on the line at times, so you don’t want to leave anything to chance. Even the simplest stunt can go wrong and so it’s imperative that you can eliminate as much of the risk as possible and remaining in top physical condition is an essential prerequisite for any stunt assignment.
So there I was minding my own business in the lair of the white worm, ‘Proxima’, on the set of ‘Solo – A Star Wars Story’, when I got an urgent call from a stunt coordinator, Jamie Edgell, asking if I was available the following day to perform a high fall with a multi-somersault element, stunt-doubling a Hollywood A-lister. In my imagination I immediately saw myself flying through the air as the doppleganger for the likes of Martin Freeman, or Cillian Murphy and a host of other heavy hitting headliners who share my height and vital statistics. So when the name Ruth Wilson came out of his mouth I was even more intrigued.
It turned out that the stunt double for Ruth had dislocated her arm whilst rehearsing the stunt, and as a result rendered herself unfit for the shoot day. In the stunt world, it is certainly not deemed politically correct for a man to double a woman, if there is a performer of the same sex who is capable of taking on the role. Therefore, I knew from experience that the coordinator obviously hadn’t been able find a female stunt performer either available or prepared to take on the stunt at such short notice without a rehearsal.
Man! I Feel Like A Woman
The next day I was on set dressed in a loose fitting nightgown that hid the butt padding sown into a spanx undergarment, and a padded bra to help achieve a more feminine figure. Then it was off to hair and make-up to attach a wig and add the final touches to my transformation.
As the stunt was only one of a few scenes left to shoot on the final day of filming, the schedule moved rapidly, and as soon as I was out of ‘the works’, I stepped on to the set to meet the director Lenny Abrahamson. Before, I did anything else, I checked over the box-rig that was essentially saving me from potential fatal injury, to make sure that it was assembled correctly and to my personal liking. As a stunt performer it is imperative that you take responsibility for your own safety and not just rely on other people to have your back. If you’re not happy with a set-up or the safety precautions put in place, then you must voice your concerns. You might think cardboard boxes wouldn’t be sufficient to effectively break your fall from such a height, but boxes have been used by stunt performers in the film industry for years. They are a fantastic alternative to using an airbag which with limited studio spaces also makes them a little more versatile.
Then it was time to catch a scissor-lift up to the balcony built against a blue-screen 35ft above the studio floor. Once I was settled and in place, silence fell over the cast and crew and the 3-2-1, ‘action’ countdown started. At this point you can really feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins. However, what separates a stunt performer from the crowd is the ability to focus and channel that energy in a ‘mind over matter’ process allowing you to skillfully throw yourself off in to mid air and perform a complex aerial manoeuvre whilst maintaining control to fall safely on to the boxes below.
The stunt went exceptionally well, and after three takes offering a little variation for the director, it was a wrap and the end to another successful filming day.
The Queen of England
One of my most memorable moments as a stunt performer was the opportunity to stunt double Queen Elizabeth II of England in a spoof commercial for one of the UK’s leading insurance companies created by famous satirist Alison Jackson.
It was certainly a one-of-a-kind experience in a lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games that the UK was hosting. Dressed as the Queen, I had to take on England’s finest athletes at their own sport in full regal regalia. I had to run the 100m in high heels against hurricane Harry ; take on the 400m hurdles alongside Perry Shaked-Drayton and compete against British Champion Chris Tomlinson in the long jump wearing royal gown.
Being an former GB gymnast myself it was an incredible experience get back to sport at its highest level and work along Britain’s finest, even if it was in a diamond encrusted tiara.
Head Over High Heels
I’ve performed many high falls over the years but the most dangerous stunts I’ve ever attempted, was also doubling a woman. When Detective Seargent Mel Silver dramatically exited BBC TV series Waking the Dead, it was not actress Claire Goose taking the 80ft nosedive from the top of a block of flats. It was in fact me - completing the fall with a one and three-quarter somersault into an airbag. It was a particularly technical gymnastic manoeuvre so my highly developed aerial awareness certainly came in handy.
The night before the stunt I couldn’t sleep as I played scenarios of horrific accidents over and over in my mind. Many stuntmen have died in the past on high fall jobs where an airbag was used.
On the day of the shoot I made my way up on to the roof to look at the platform on the balcony that the props men had built for me to jump from. My heart started pounding madly. As I stood looking out over the precipice in a silent panic the sun started to break through and I felt a slight easing of the tension. But my relief was only momentary - on the pavement directly below me the crew were busy filming a shot of the real Claire Goose, post-fall, lying on the ground in a pool of very authentic-looking blood. Watching this from the roof, I could only think that if I missed the air bag that could be an exact replica of me.
After what seemed like the longest wait of my life and dressed in full drag standing on the edge of a 7 storey I had reached the point of no return. In my head I began psyching myself up to the final moment, when suddenly I heard the first assistant director shout out with a tinge of panic in his voice ‘Go back, go back!’ I assumed that he was talking to me and stepped back off the ledge, but in actual fact he was talking to a man who had come out on to his balcony below me to watch. The situation righted itself in a few seconds but I then had to get back into the zone as the 1st started in again with ‘Turning over’ and then Andy shouted up ‘Ready, Nicholas?’ then ‘3, 2, 1 action-’
My legs felt like jelly underneath me, but I went into automatic mode and, when I was ready, I pushed off from the building. As I left the safety of the ledge the air bag looked like a tiny postage stamp on the ground below. I tried not to rush into the first somersault whilst remembering to wave my arms and legs frantically around as I fell, but I could feel myself entering into the initial phase much earlier than I had in training, which for a split second didn’t feel too good. But then I came over the top of the first rotation and saw the bag again. I was totally aware of my body in space and time. I was in control. I began to relax. I kept my body position open, holding back a little and then, just before hitting the bag, I turned the second somersault on to my back. As I fell the last few feet on to the bag I knew I had made it. I was safe and I’d done it. I let out a little cheer inside.
Coordinator Andy Bradford rushed over, threw his arms around me and congratulated me. Then the director came over, followed by the others who each hugged me in turn, everybody celebrating. The director rushed me over to the monitor see the playback. Watching my own stunt from the camera’s perspective, I could feel myself welling up. It was such an enormous emotional relief for it all to be over, and for it to be such a success. It had two long weeks of worry and anxiety and suddenly it was over, all done and dusted, just like that.