How to Use Martial Arts to Break Into Movie Stunt Work

Jessie Graff

Gene LeBell, Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders and Jessie Graff talk about the martial arts connection to the stunt business and offer valuable advice for those looking to make the leap.

As the theme song to the 1978 Burt Reynolds movie Hooper noted, “There ain’t nothing like the life of a Hollywood stuntman.” A lot of martial artists take those words to heart. There’s an army of skilled — and not-so-skilled — practitioners of karate, taekwondo,kung fu and other martial arts trying to break into the motion-picture industry by making use of their ability to kick and punch, but how realistic is this? What do martial artists interested in stunt work need to know? “Learn to wait tables, clean bathrooms and walk the neighbor’s dog,” offered “Judo” Gene LeBell, one of only two people (the other is Jackie Chan) to be inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame. LeBell doesn’t mince words about the difficulties of doing fights and falls in films. He says with all the would-be stunt people out there, breaking into the field can be next to impossible. “When I started in the business, there were about 40 stuntmen in Hollywood,” Gene LeBell said. “Now there’s over 10,000. I highly recommend getting a second job with a future and a retirement.” But he adds that if you possess exceptional athletic ability and a burning desire to work in stunts no matter how difficult the path, you just might pull it off.

Female Perspective

Jessie Graff is a prime example of Gene LeBell’s guarded optimism. A skilled gymnast and track athlete, she knew from the time she was in college that she wanted to get into stunts. “It takes a lot of effort, but for me, it never felt like work because I loved it,” she said. Graff began training in martial arts at the same time she moved to Hollywood to break into the stunt biz. She signed up at various gyms to learn anything that might help her, including taekwondo, northern eagle-claw kung fu and boxing. She says having a diverse martial arts background is essential because you could be called on to do virtually anything in a film fight. Former kickboxing champ and stunt pro Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders believes martial arts provide perhaps the best background for movie work. “Anything that’s an intense physical sport like gymnastics is good, but I think martial arts, with its emphasis on physical and mental toughness, lends itself in the best way,” she said. Although she doesn’t believe the particular martial art you practice makes a great difference, she said you should be able to execute flashy moves like high kicks. She noted, however, that being able to perform such techniques in class or at a tournament doesn’t necessarily mean you can translate your skills to the screen. Jessie Graff agreed. You often have to perform for the camera in ways that are the opposite of how you’d execute techniques in self-defense, she said. “In a real fight, you try to hide your motions and not telegraph them, but on camera, you’re trying to tell a story the audience can follow, so you specifically exaggerate your movements. For example, you’re taught to throw a hook punch as a short, tight technique. But on camera, you’d make it a very wide punch for everyone to see.” Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders added that stunt performers must always be aware of the camera placement when doing action scenes. That enables them to keep their face hidden so the audience won’t know the star isn’t doing the fighting.

Reality Check

So if you have the “cinema fu” skills and heed all the advice listed above, will you have a decent shot at earning a living from stunts? Not necessarily, Gene LeBell said. “I know great martial arts champions who only occasionally get stunt work because they don’t have any other skills. “Martial arts is one of just many skills you need if you want to make it in this business. Don’t think about getting into stunt work unless you can drive cars — and by that I mean turn them over safely — as well as drive motorcycles; do rappelling, scuba diving and high falls; deal with fire; and a bunch of other stuff.” While that may sound daunting, it’s not impossible to pick up skills along the way, Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders said. She entered the stunt world almost by accident when she got a role in a film and the stunt people, impressed with her martial arts ability, encouraged her to pursue their line of work. “I shouldn’t say this, but when I started out, we’d rent cars and take them out to an empty parking lot, set up cones and just practice our stunt driving,” she admitted. “But now there are a lot of great stunt schools that teach every aspect of the business that I highly recommend.” Gene LeBell, too, advocates attending a reputable school to pick up relevant skills. As proof of the payoff, he said he’s received much more money for doing high falls and motorcycle crashes than for fight scenes.

Action Item

Once you have all the skills in place, you’ll need to develop contacts in the industry and gain experience. Jessie Graff suggested training at any gym where stunt people regularly work out so you can make acquaintances. She said she got her first professional stunt experience not in front of the camera but performing live-action shows at the Six Flags and Disneyland amusement parks, which she recommends as a first step. Having a professional-looking video highlight reel on a flash drive you can give to stunt coordinators is also useful, Graff said. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while jumping through all these hoops is your attitude, Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders said. “Nowadays, a lot of martial artists doing stunt work want to be the star. But you have to remember it’s not about you; it’s about taking care of the actor you double and the other people you work with. To make it in stunts, you need to be a team player and put your ego aside at the door.” Story by Mark Jacobs

Essential Advice From the Man in the Pink Gi

Still interested in giving stunt work a try? Gene LeBell recommends signing up with a company like Missy’s Action Service. These businesses operate as clearinghouses for information and contacts in the stunt world. They can recommend stunt schools where martial artists can acquire the skills they need to have a shot at making it in the business.

Must-Learn Skills

The art you learn to bolster your ability to do the flashy moves the camera loves may not be overly important. However, Gene LeBell advises all aspiring stunt performers to augment their resume with judo or wrestling. Why? Because falling is one of the most common tasks you’ll be asked to do, and those arts make it easy and safe.
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