My stunt story for Variety, Jan 2009

SAG honors stunt ensembles

Award showcases the art of physical acting

For stunt professionals, diving off skyscrapers and KO'ing baddies is one thing -- but can they do it with emotion?

"Truth is, when you're performing in a scene, if you're not emotionalizing what you're doing, you're just doing moves," says Paul Jennings, stunt coordinator on "The Dark Knight."

Jennings, along with nine others, has been nominated in SAG's newest award category, which recognizes stunt ensembles in motion pictures and primetime television.

The very existence of the award, now in its second year, raises the question: To be a true stunt superstar, should one know one's Stanislavski as well as kung fu? Or should "emotional recall" be the last thing on a stunt actor's mind as he or she tumbles out of a helicopter?

Jennings believes the best stunt people possess, at the very least, a gift for physical acting.

"An angry man will fight very differently than a sly man, for example, and you have to be able to convey that," he says. "If you're doubling a character, you have to get to a point where you understand their emotions so your physical actions can reflect what they feel. It's not always just about jumping out of cars."

Jennings, who is British, started out as an acrobat -- he had a juggling and fire-eating stage act from the age of 13, and performed at medieval-themed banquets and jousting tournaments in the U.K. He became accepted in the Equity Stunt Register in 1989 after completing his training and has since stunt-coordinated a number of pictures including "The Golden Compass," "Blood Diamond" and "Munich."

For "The Dark Knight," director Christopher Nolan avoided CGI wherever possible, preferring stunts and staged combat to be carried out in the flesh.

"Chris feels CGI takes away from the story because the audience can sense that it's not for real," Jennings says. "He pushed us really hard to do things for real." Like flipping a 16-wheeler truck, for instance? "Yes -- even if there existed an easier option -- he just feels there's a lot of weight and energy behind what's real."

In contrast, Timur Bekmambetov's high-octane action adventure "Wanted" stands out for its use of cutting-edge CGI and visual effects technology. For instance, lead actors were scanned and 3-D molds of their bodies were generated, creating the basis for digital stunt doubles. But according to the film's stunt coordinator and SAG award nominee Nick Gillard, tech wizardry will never preclude the need for expert mimicry. "You have to hang out with the actors as much as possible," says Gillard ("Star Wars" Episodes 1, 2 and 3 and "Sleepy Hollow"). "You have to know how they are going to react when they are in dangerous situations. You watch them and see how they walk and how they run. You mimic their posture. It's all in the details."

For "Wanted," Gillard developed a common fighting style for the actors, in concert with the notion that the film's band of assassins had been in existence for many hundreds of years. "All the characters fight a little differently, but we made sure there was a common thread -- like the way they punch."

When it comes to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences not recognizing stunt performers, Gillard is pragmatic, if not self-effacing. "If there were Oscars, suddenly you'd have all these famous stunt coordinators running around when really it shouldn't be about us -- it should be about the actor. I wouldn't want to belittle the actor."

While actors sometimes request guidance on how to stay in character while performing more grueling stunts, "Wanted" star Angelina Jolie needed no instruction on how to stay "sexy" during her myriad hair-raising turns. "You don't need to show Angelina how to be sexy -- she's the grand master," Gillard says.

TV football drama "Friday Night Lights," also nominated for a stunt SAG Award, is at the opposite end of the action spectrum. Because the series is shot in a semi-improvised, pseudo-documentary style, emotional authenticity in stunts is key, precisely because "it's not your traditional action show with explosions and people jumping out of cars," stunt coordinator Justin Riemer says. "We actually try to dumb down the action a little bit so it feels more real. It's never just about the stunt person stepping in and being the big guy."

Off the football field, the actors generally carry out all their own stunts. On the football field, each character has his own football double, and the actors study the nuances of their doubles' movements as much as the doubles study the actors'. "It's a two-way creative exchange -- you'd be surprised how much the actors will take from the doubles," Riemer says.

"Friday Night Lights" is taped at breakneck speed (one hourlong episode per six days of shooting) with little or no rehearsal. There are no set camera positions (camera operators follow the actors around) and no marks for actors. Long stretches of dialogue will develop into action scenes with no cuts in between, none of which makes life especially easy for Riemer.

"Making sure everyone is in a safe place and able to perform the emotional as well as the physical without cutting is sometimes a very hard job," he admits. "But the key for us is knowing how much is too much, and how much is not enough. When all's said and done, I think we've struck a good balance."