By: Jason Lewis
When the film industry needs somebody to jump out of a building, be thrown through a window, run across the top of a moving train, or perform countless other extreme maneuvers that are on display in blockbuster action films, it’s not the movie stars they call on. No, they call on elite athletes to step in.
Elite athletes in big-time Hollywood productions go nearly unnoticed because that’s exactly what they are supposed to do. Go unnoticed. Although some actors and actresses do some of their own stunts, many are far too dangerous. Tom Cruise is known to perform a lot of the action in his movies, but when it’s time for an extreme stunt, an elite athlete is called in to take the pounding or perform a maneuver that Cruise can’t do or is far too risky to do himself.
“You have stuntmen who come from Cirque Du Soleil, who are acrobats, they’re professional fighters, they’re Olympic athletes,” said Dr. T.J. White, who has worked in the industry for over 20 years. “These people are at such a high level of training. Some of them are mixed martial artists or wrestlers in college.”
White is a chiropractor, and at T-Minus Productions he is a stunt coordinator and second unit director. Throughout his career, he’s seen athletes from just about every sport perform insane stunts that a typical person wouldn’t think of trying. He considers stuntmen elite athletes because their workout regimen is on par with any NFL football player, NBA basketball player or Olympian. Stuntmen need to be able to be able to move their body to a higher degree than most competitive athletes, because a misstep could lead to them being hit by a moving truck.
Stuntmen are in the gym several times a week, and White said that stuntwomen are in the gym even more than that, performing intense workout programs to get their bodies in condition to take on an extreme workload.
For stunt doubles, they have to be on the same workout regimen as the star that they are stepping in for. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bulks up, Tanoai Reed, Johnson’s stunt double, is right there in the weight room with him and is on the same diet so that he can match Johnson’s big and chiseled frame.
Reed needs to be big to double for Johnson, but White points out that most stuntmen’s diet and exercise regimens are not about being big and bulky.
“For somebody that wants to get into the movie industry and they bulk up and get rigid and muscular, that is not the physique that we look for in stuntmen,” White said. “Very few stuntmen who have that physique are able to work regularly because they don’t have the flexibility to do certain stunts.”
Strength is of great importance, but muscle flexibility is the key as stuntmen have to be able to position their bodies just right to hit their mark. They hit the weights hard, but they also perform active isolated stretching, yoga, band workouts, a lot of cardio such as running and hiking, and they have taken up parkour, which helps them jump and tumble over and through various objects. Another workout that stuntmen have taken up is paddle boarding, a sport requiring athletes to stand on a huge surf board using a paddle to move themselves through the water.
“It helps with core strength,” White said. “The guys know that the core is so important for throwing your body on the ground, throwing it over a car, and for the more athletic stunts. The core with paddle boarding is amazing because you have to balance yourself on top of the board with your feet, and then you have to pull yourself with the paddle.”
As important as it is for a stuntman to move his body, it is just as important to stay healthy.
“It all centers around injury prevention,” White said. “When you’re doing stunts, a lot of it is about the trauma that the body is put through.”
“At one time I treated about 80 percent of the stunt community, so I’ve seen every injury imaginable,” White said. “Some chiropractors couldn’t believe that I would treat the patients because one day they would come in with a sore neck, but then they would come back the next day because they did a car hit. Through chiropractic care I was able to get the flexibility to get the nerves to flow properly to let their bodies heal optimally.”
Staying healthy and in great shape also means having a healthy diet.
“They have to have a clean diet, because it is all about inflammation in the tissues and in the muscles,” White said. “If they are not eating clean, the body’s ability to heal itself becomes extended.”
Stuntmen train their bodies year-round for their profession, just like any elite athlete, because their bodies are their livelihoods. Their athletic abilities may not be noticed by most movie-goers, but the athletics that they can perform are on par with any athlete.