Athletes find second careers as stunt performers

LOS ANGELES – Hollywood is full of professional athletes these days. Dwayne Johnson turned a college football career and pro wrestling fame into a career as one of the film industry’s leading men, while even LeBron James fancies himself as an entertainment icon of the future.

And any time you see an exhilarating action scene, be it a car or motorcycle chase, an explosive fight or an acrobatic leap from a building, there is a fair chance that a former athlete has been involved in the stunt work.

“Before a fight I used to tell myself to relax, breathe, stay warm and loose,” former Ultimate Fighting Championship combatant and current actor and stuntman Jay Hieron told USA TODAY Sports. “When I am getting ready to do a big scene, I do exactly the same. You have to be ready to turn all your preparation into performance. That’s why there are so many athletes in the stunt world.”

Jay Hieron

Hieron is one of dozens of retired mixed martial artists, boxers, gymnasts, car racers and motor-cross riders who have found a home in the film industry. Yet there is no championship, gold medal or title for which they can aspire.

Sunday’s 89th Academy Awards will take place at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, with La La Land tipped to win Best Picture, its star Emma Stone favored to claim best actress, and Casey Affleck a popular pick for Best Actor in Manchester By The Sea.

However, there are also categories for some of the lower profile yet crucial elements to making a movie, such as Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing and Best Costume Design.

“But nothing for stuntmen and stuntwomen, nothing for the stunt co-coordinators who make the scenes spectacular yet safe,” former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Matt Leonard said.

Stunt Gear

After injury curtailed his NFL career in 2005, Leonard, who studied economics at Stanford and interned at Morgan Stanley, considered becoming a stockbroker. However, stunt work ran in the family – his father Terry is a famed stuntman and his brother Malosi also worked in the business. The appeal was too strong and he loves his work, but wishes there was official recognition.

“It’s so sad,” Leonard added. “The Oscars are celebrated worldwide. Anyone who has worked on a movie understands that stunts are an integral part of the process. There is an art to it. You tell a story with a fight or a car crash. It should be rewarded.”

The Academy has been lobbied to include a stunt category every year since 1991, the fight long led by renowned stuntman Jack Gill. However, Oscars chiefs have refused to budge and the Academy did not immediately respond to request for comment from USA TODAY Sports on Monday.

According to the former athletes, wildly successful movies such as the Fast and Furious franchise, Transformers and the Marvel films rely upon the work of the professionals who lay their bodies on the line in the name of creating an epic scene.

“Take the action out of some of the big-summer blockbusters and you would lose the things that the audiences love,” said Frank Trigg, who fought twice for the UFC welterweight title and has worked extensively across film and television. “I have huge respect for every part of filmmaking. There should be recognition of our group and their talent. We are always pushing our limits and trying to make these movies even more spectacular.”

Leonard says he believes that part of the Academy’s reticence stems from outdated theories about the “believability” of movies.

“I could understand it 50 years ago,” Leonard added. “They wanted everyone to believe it was really John Wayne doing those moves. They might have felt acknowledging a stuntman took something away from that. But the audience is more aware and educated now. It’s not an excuse any longer.”

Stunt performers have to keep themselves in the same kind of shape as during their athletic careers, with action scenes involving such daredevil moves as leaping from buildings, grueling fight segments and high-octane chases.

Hieron competed against UFC legend Georges St-Pierre and current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in a 20-year fight career (with a 23-7 record), and was recently set on fire while filming a pilot. “Real fire,” he said, “not computer generated imagery.” He lists Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Amazing Spider Man 2 and The Avengers among his credits.

The IMDb database credits Leonard with 104 stunt appearances, while Trigg has also found success on the big screen and in television hits Hawaii Five-O and Lethal Weapon.

Trigg described stunt work as a “magical” way to make a living, yet says he believes that getting the nod from the Academy is both warranted and long overdue.

The movement to pay tribute to stunt actors may be growing. Gill has gained the support of legendary directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, while a peaceful protest is planned outside Academy headquarters this week.

“Athletes are used to playing in front of tens of thousand of people and being watching by millions,” said Pete Antico, a veteran award-winning stunt coordinator. Antico is running for the presidency of screen actors union SAG-AFTRA to try to improve the rights of stunt workers.

“The athletes have been amazing because there is no shyness or fear of the camera,” he added. “They know how to think on their feet and perform under pressure. Combine that with their physical ability and it is a perfect mix. It is time to get them, and all the stunt workers, proper recognition.”