The world woke up on the 14th August to news breaking across the globe of what appears to have been a stunt gone tragically wrong. The stuntwoman identified as Joi ‘SJ’ Harris, who was said to have been a pioneering race car driver and was the first African-American woman licensed to race in the US, sadly passed away after attempting to perform a high speed and intense stunt on the set of Deadpool 2.
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) August 14, 2017
The report comes just 24 hours after videos surfaced on TMZ of Tom Cruise injuring himself after attempting his own stunts on the set of Mission Impossible 6. This is yet another example of stunt performers only getting the coverage or credit they deserve when they are pushed over their limits and something goes wrong. Even as we sit back in our big comfy chairs, or an atmospheric cinema and we watch all the dramatic action on screen, how these stunts are performed rarely crosses our minds. How can actors leap from building to building or flip a car over? Who choreographs them? How do they execute these tricks perfectly without injury? While these scenes may captivate an audience and bring in revenue and profit for the major film makers, sometimes these shots can go wrong, as proven this week, resulting in serious injury or even death. The job may seem riveting and exciting when on screen but behind the cameras it’s not all as easy as it seems.
Being a stunt artist is one of the most dangerous jobs in both the US and the UK: the fatality rate is 2.5 per 1000 workers (ehstoday.com). As a result, successful stunt artists must be athletic, scrupulous and systematic while working in meticulously choreographed and scripted scenes as they double for actors. If stunt performers get injured they are replaced and lose work, so they are under huge pressure to do their jobs with the utmost precision to ensure the successful and safe execution of each stunt. In spite of this fastidious focus and work ethic, stunt work incorporates an incredibly high risk of injury.
Other battles stunt artists face are the long hours and strenuous working days. Like actors, they must always be available to travel to a new shooting location, yet they receive a mere fraction of the salary. For example, Jennifer Lawrence received a whopping £7 million for her performance as Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire, whereas the average stunt double makes an average salary of £55,000 per year.
However, not all actors choose to have stunt artists replace them in scenes. In fact, one of the most notable actors for performing his own stunts is the infamous Jackie Chan. He has suffered intense injuries from nearly losing his eye and severe neck injuries to a near death incident from a cracked skull. This incident occurred in his movie Armour of God, when he jumped from a wall to a tree. During filming, a branch broke and sent him falling 40 feet onto a bed of rocks. He was immediately rushed to the hospital for brain surgery. Despite many other serious injuries, Jackie has been able to complete his movies and remain a greatly admired and highly skilled actor. Chan decides his own stunts, and only performs them if he feels he can do so successfully. If you have ever seen a Jackie Chan movie, you will recognise the seemingly limitless capabilities of Chan and his reputation of performing what appears to be the wildest of death-defying stunts.
Unfortunately, not all stunt performers are so lucky. David Holmes had been Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double since the first Harry Potter movie premiered in 2001. While shooting an explosion scene for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Holmes was forced backwards by a strength wire and was thrown sharply into a wall. He broke his neck, leaving him paralysed at the age of just 25. He is paralysed from the chest down and will require a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
It goes undisputed that stunt artists have one of the most dangerous jobs in the industry, yet they are barely recognised for their truly heroic and brave acts with the media focussing mainly on the negative consequences of the job. Stunt performers are at the core of the most spectacular action in films and are an important part of what makes action blockbusters so popular. To put everything into perspective: without an audience, action movies, including superhero films, would make no money, but without stunt artists there would be no action movies.
(Image courtesy of respective film studios via illusion.scene360.com)