Hollywood Has Been Shortchanging Its Stunt Actors For, Oh, About A Century

On-screen, during an early scene in The Fall Guy, the stunt driver Logan Holladay pulls off a move that looks utterly chaotic. He steers an SUV that soars across a beach, parts of it breaking off as it tumbles over and over until landing upside down, in a mess of smoke and debris.

But Holladay could feel, even before he was told, that he’d completed the stunt as planned. He’d spent months helping design and rehearse the sequence—called a “cannon roll”—in which he hits a high speed, deliberately triggering a device underneath the car that propels it into the air. During one attempt, he’d sent the car flying too high; during another, the car over-rotated and rolled vertically, end over end. This time, everything felt right. “I 100 percent will not throw myself into a situation that I don’t know every detail about,” Holladay told me. “I’m not going to just go for it and see what happens.”

The Fall Guy, which is now in theaters, is about that careful work. The film, loosely based on the campy 1980s television series about a stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, is an action comedy with an endearing love story at its center—but it’s also a not-so-stealthy celebration of the stunt community. Directed by David Leitch, a former stunt performer himself, the film takes place on the set of a big-budget production, underlining just how much these professionals contribute to action filmmaking beyond their physical exploits.

Stunt performers exist in a uniquely tough position in today’s franchise-heavy Hollywood: They’re not household names, but the stunts they do have become a primary selling point for many action-thriller sequels. Their work is often flashy, which has contributed over time to the misconception of them as daredevils, making it hard for them to be taken seriously. And they’re often in the spotlight only when something goes wrong. They’re otherwise supposed to remain invisible—a goal seemingly at odds with long-running efforts to seek industry recognition at the Oscars, which doesn’t have a category awarding stunt work. “It’s our job as stunt performers to be in the shadows, and it’s our job to uphold the illusion of one character … I think we all want to keep that illusion alive for the audience,” Leitch told me. “We’re supposed to be hidden, so how do we celebrate?”

Making that campaign part of a mainstream, feel-good summer movie is one way. The Fall Guy, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, is the most visible and notable push in the stunt community’s decades-long effort to be included at the Academy Awards. In February, the Academy announced that casting directors would be honored starting in 2026, the first time a new category has been added since 2001. In March, the ceremony itself aired a montage about stunt work. To many stunt performers I spoke with over the past month, these moves hinted at a turning point and provided far more encouragement than many of them have been used to.

Jack Gill, who has worked in stunts since the 1970s and was the coordinator behind several Fast and Furious films, began the campaign for Oscar inclusion in 1991. Since then, he told me, he’s been given a litany of reasons stunts can’t be a part of the show: the ceremony is already too long, an award might pressure stunt performers to strive for extra-dangerous acts, and, most of all, stunt work isn’t a creative endeavor. “Just trying to get even one award has been daunting,” he said, adding that when he began his campaign, he was told the process would take five years at most to complete. “I fought three to five years thinking, This is going to happen. And here we are, 30 years later.”

When the stunt coordinator Chris O’Hara tells people what he does for a living, he’s usually asked one of three questions: Have you ever been hurt? What movies have you been in? What’s the biggest stunt you’ve ever done?

They’re harmless questions, and O’Hara has answered them plenty of times, but they also convey a narrow understanding of what he does. His work isn’t really about getting hurt, or about being in movies, or about taking part in the biggest set pieces possible. The job is, he told me, “to create the illusion of danger by minimizing the risks.” In other words, his work requires intense, careful planning and rehearsing to get right.

The Fall Guy shows off the labor that goes into building a stunt by staging several giddy, over-the-top sequences that, one of the film’s producers, Kelly McCormick, told me, “were making dreams come true” for the team. The stunt performers broke personal and world records; Holladay told me that his eight and a half cannon rolls, which set a Guinness World Record, “still doesn’t even feel like it’s a real thing.” But their scenes dazzled not only because of, say, the height of a free fall or the length of a car jump; they also displayed how even minor adjustments to a stunt can deepen the story being told, making them an essential—and, yes, creative—part of the process.

Consider a climactic chase scene in The Fall Guy, when Gosling’s protagonist, Colt Seavers, executes a boat jump that ends in an explosion. The stunt involves steering a boat fast enough onto a ramp so that it’ll soar in midair before landing back in the water. In Colt’s case, however, he directs his boat toward explosives so he can attempt an escape. Shortly before filming the scene, Gosling received a vintage jacket promoting the Miami Vice live-stunt show—an actual tourist attraction, involving stunt performances inspired by the series, that ran in the 1980s and ’90s at the Universal Studios theme park.

The gift gave him the idea to incorporate one of the show’s tricks into his character’s extensive résumé. Gosling suggested that Colt steer the boat while facing backwards, with his hands tied behind his back, barely maneuvering the wheel. Leitch liked the idea; Colt’s narrative arc explores how, in his quest to impress his ex (Blunt) and prove his worth, he regains the self-confidence he lost after an on-set injury. Making the stunt appear just a little harder—a hidden stunt driver inside the boat meant Gosling’s double wasn’t actually driving it blind—fulfilled the actor’s creative inclinations and underscored the film’s themes. “It could have just been a boat jump, but now we’re defining this character moment for Colt,” Leitch explained.

A good stunt doesn’t have to be elaborate. Wade Eastwood, the stunt coordinator for several Mission: Impossible films, told me that work can start years before a film goes into production, and involve simply noting throughout a script where action might be required. If a story, he explained, has an ensemble traveling from one continent to another but little detail about how, he’ll design and pitch sequences to keep the audience’s adrenaline pumping. For instance, if the characters are in Buenos Aires but head to London, he said, “I will then write how they get to London. That’s a car chase into a motorbike chase into a skydive sequence into an aerial sequence … All that creativity is not the writer or the director. That’s actually the stunt coordinator.”

For all of the stunt performers I spoke with, the work has been rewarding, even if Oscar trophies haven’t come along yet. Eastwood in particular emphasized how much he’d rather do his job than attend a single award show. He said he’s been told that he deserves an Oscar for what he’s done for the Mission: Impossible franchise, but he bristles at the idea. “I’m not thinking about if I’m going to get an award for the last Mission,” he said. “I’m thinking, What the hell am I going to do for the next Mission?

Even so, stunt performers being overlooked by the most prestigious industry award has only gotten more baffling as their work has become more multifaceted, the sophistication of the action seen on-screen proving the complexity of their jobs. “Back in the day, it was a bit of a live rodeo … You would just show up and have your bag of pads and athletic ability and willingness to do whatever it is that was asked of you,” said Melissa Stubbs, a stunt coordinator who has doubled for actors such as Margot Robbie and Angelina Jolie, referring to when her career began in the 1980s. “Now we are action designers.” An Oscar category honoring the head of a stunt department would signal that the craft is seen as equal in importance to every other creative element of production. “It’s not to say that our egos need to be stroked,” Jack Gill said. “It’s just that, around your peers, you’d like to be able to say, ‘I did something special.’”

After all, stunt performers typically downplay their work on set. Throughout The Fall Guy, Colt gives a thumbs-up at the end of his stunts, a gesture often used to underline how such performers are “stoics,” as McCormick put it: “They give the thumbs-up because a lot of times they can’t speak, let alone barely breathe, but they don’t want to stop production, because they know they’ll eventually be okay.”

Perhaps The Fall Guy will too. The film’s earnings underperformed at the box office compared with its reported $130 million budget, marking a muted start to the summer movie season, but its release has been meaningful for the stunt community. At the Los Angeles premiere of The Fall Guy, Stubbs, who had been invited to see the film along with many other members of the tight-knit stunt community, saw a colleague cry as the film played. Stunt workers are as emotionally invested in a movie as anyone else who made it. “Hopefully,” O’Hara said, “people will see us as more than those three questions.”

Shirley Li is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
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