Performing Stunt Work with Gary Arthurs

Gary Arthurs on what it takes to be a stunt performer, and where stunt work fits into the industry

On set, I’ve often thought about what I might have done, career wise, if I had not become a member of the Equity Stunt Register back in 1995. But I’m glad to say I followed my dreams. Today I find myself working within a global business, as a stunt co-ordinator and performer, having doubled some of the biggest names in the business.

I started training to join the Equity Stunt Register back in the early 90s, before the internet took hold, so a trip to the reference library was called for to find out what was required. There was very little in the way of information in the reference library at that time, but I did find a copy of the Spotlight Stunt Register, which was the holy grail of stunt co-ordinators and performers.

Armed with this information, I started my training. Some four years later, I was ready to apply to join the Equity Stunt register, as a stunt performer. Here are the things you should know about this line of work:

You’re an essential part of the team

Since then I have travelled to many parts of the world, and worked with many talented people, on many different projects. I believe many of us have the same goals and passions, that have brought us together as filmmakers. This said, the stunt department is just one gear within the box, which moves the project forward. Without all these gears meshing together correctly, budgets can escalate, and projects can fail. But with an experienced crew, this does not happen too often.

Safety is vital – and that means planning!

What many people see on the big screen can take many months of planning, and really impact on the creative process. As a stunt co-ordinator you’re right in the mix, keeping things safe for cast and crew. Many hours can be spent rehearsing and testing, till you get the action just right. This can often include the actors who need to get up to speed, so as to sell their part of the action. Many actors like to do as much as they can, but as a stunt co-ordinator you often have to draw the line, and bring on the double to perform certain stunts. This is where all those years of experience count, when monitoring the action and keeping it safe.

You don’t always get the applause

It’s a great pleasure to see the end result of many months work on the big screen, with all departments playing their part. But it is a shame how little recognition stunt co-ordinators and performers often receive, for their blood, sweat and tears. Many of us have won awards, but it would be a great to see the Academy Awards and BAFTA taking the time to recognise the creative side of stunts. We as stunt professionals have been a creative body for decades now, and would love this to be recognised! 

It takes determination!

Many people have said to me over the years that I’m very lucky to do what I do, but when you tell them what’s involved, and how many years of training it takes to become a stunt professional, they often change their mind! I believe if you truly want something, you have to work at it to succeed. You may stumble and fall, but if you’re strong of character, you will reach your goal. My dream many years ago was to work in the film business, even though at school I was advised against it. I stuck to my goal, and given time - with multiple falls! - I got there. So if you have a dream, go for it! With any luck and a lot of talent, you might just get there.

And now for some tips:

1. Train hard in an associated skill

It’s not the sort of job you find down the job centre. Some people come into stunts through being actors, dancers, or circus performers first, and then decide to train for stunt work. Many others come from a more athletic/sporting background. Whatever your route, becoming a stunt performer takes many years of hard work to get you to the top of your game. So: train hard and stay focused.

2. Get general performing experience

If you have never done any background work or supporting artist work, then sign up and go do some. This will give you an idea if working in the film business is for you. You might even meet a few stunt people along the way, which will give you more insight into the business.

3. Determine your key strengths

One thing I often ask new performers is what sets them apart from everybody else. Many look and have no idea! So really focus on a strength and make that shine. You need to be noticed by the stunt co-ordinator, so find a positive and drive that forward. 

4. Be professional

If you get to the stage of working as a stunt performer (or performer of any kind!), always be on time, enthusiastic, and be a team player. Stunt work is often about having a great core team working with the stunt co-ordinator to produce what is on the written page. So, don’t be caught napping in between takes!

5. Don’t forget to act!

As well as doing all these great stunts, you have to be able to act. Unless you have a natural talent, ability in this regard is really apparent in performers who come from an acting, dancing or circus background. I’ve done many a course over the years to help, but I found doing improv classes some of the best. Spotlight have lots of advice on training available online.

Good luck, and keep training!

Gary Arthurs has been working within the stunt business as a performer for over 20 years, and as a co-ordinator since 2007. He has co-ordinated stunts for recent productions such as Taboo, Trust, and 47 Meters Down. He has also performed on productions such as The Crown, Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, Skyfall, Gravity, and doubled for actors such as George Clooney, Tommy Lee Jones, and Martin Shaw.