Risk and reward: life as a stunt double

<span>‘I drove a snow-covered car down the toboggan track at St Moritz. It just wouldn’t happen now’: Rocky Taylor.</span><span>Photograph: Kiran Master/The Observer</span>
‘I drove a snow-covered car down the toboggan track at St Moritz. It just wouldn’t happen now’: Rocky Taylor.Photograph: Kiran Master/The Observer

Rocky Taylor, 80, Surrey: ‘My worst accident came in 1985 while filming Death Wish 3’

I’ve been in the game since 1960. My first film was The Young Ones, starring Cliff Richard. I can’t have been more than 17, and was only paid a few bob. Already a black belt in judo, I went down and taught him some basics: mostly showing how to do some throws on the mats.

My father, Larry, was an actor – he often played supporting-role villains in British films. He’d tried his hand at stunts, but wasn’t much good. Dad took me down to sets regularly as a kid. I got a taste for it immediately.

Early on, I did a bunch of Bond films, smaller stunt roles: Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger. My big break came on The Avengers, the 1960s British TV series, then another, The Champions. Next was six months on Monte Carlo or Bust – that was a good one: I drove a snow-covered car down the icy tracks of the skeleton toboggan racing track in St Moritz, Switzerland. It was the six blokes filming from the wooden toboggan ahead of me who I was most worried about – it just wouldn’t happen now.

I’ll never forget, on Live and Let Die, driving Bond’s Mini Moke – a tiny car – off a dock into the water

There have been so many credits, I can barely remember most of them. There was Cromwell with Richard Harris shot in Spain in 1970 – lots of getting thwacked on horseback and falling off its arse as you’re riding. Then came Villain, doing car chases with Richard Burton. It was wonderful. I’ve done Indiana Jones, Titanic, Harry Potter, Batman, maybe 10 James Bond films. Sometimes, just a day fighting on set. Others, for months, doubling for Roger Moore or Sean Connery. I’ll never forget, on Live and Let Die, driving Bond’s Mini Moke – a tiny car – off a dock into the water.

My worst accident came in 1985, while filming Death Wish 3. Michael Winner was the director. I was supposed to jump from the roof of a 40ft-high building in Lambeth, set on fire around the edges. There was a hole filled with boxes on the ground; a car was placed in front of it to keep it hidden from the camera. I put my fire suit on and made the jump, while alight. Then we filmed another take. This time, the building blew up before I’d had time to fling myself off it. I had to jump for my life, which I did, but I missed the landing bed and hit the concrete instead: I broke my hip, pelvis and vertebrae. I was out for a while. In 2011, for a TV show, I recreated that jump from Battersea power station. Aged 64, I landed it perfectly. I needed to prove I could; to get it out of my system.

Some 60 years after I started out, the industry is unrecognisable. It was a wild west then, no health and safety and few rehearsals. It was a matter of showing up and doing the best job you could. It meant we’d get a lot of idiots turning up, saying they could do things they couldn’t. It was embarrassing and downright dangerous. In the 1970s, we started a register to ensure people could walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It’s not the only change for the better. We get more money now as well. It was £15 a day a few decades back. Now it can be £500 or more.

I’m not quite retired yet, but I’m 80 now. Old age comes along and stops you. I use my knowledge and experience as a stunt coordinator. I get sent a script and break it down, setting out how many stunt performers the production will need and who’ll be best. Really, though, I miss the buzz of being at the heart of it all. That adrenaline hit. The thrill of pulling off the impossible.

Dayna Grant, 47, Auckland: ‘I was 18 when I landed my first stunt role, by total chance’

When my first child was one-month-old, in September 2011, I was filming a commercial. I had to ice skate straight into a wall and fly over it. I wasn’t able to skate fast enough, so a professional speed-skater propelled me forward from behind. I went flying, snapping my wrist, before falling face-first into the solid ice. All I could say, in a pool of blood, was “Keep my baby warm”. Then I was out cold. Thirty stitches in my face. I didn’t wake up until I was in hospital.

That night, when I couldn’t pick up or kiss my baby, failing to feed him, I faced some existential questions. For a few days I struggled and wondered if I should call time on my career. Within weeks, I was back at it. I couldn’t keep myself away.

I was out cold. Thirty stitches in my face. I didn’t wake up until I was in hospital

Since then I’ve shot Avatar here in New Zealand, Wonder Woman 1984 in Europe, Mad Max in Namibia… and so many more. I’ve doubled for Gwyneth Paltrow, Tilda Swinton and Charlize Theron, and have the scars to prove it.

I was 18 years old when I landed my first stunt role, by total chance. I was at the gym when some friends mentioned auditions for Xena: Warrior Princess, a major 1990s US series. New Zealand is a hub of filmmaking now, but it wasn’t then – the timing for me was perfect. I looked at what was required and I was a perfect fit. Unbeknown to me, I’d been training my entire life for a job I didn’t know existed. Mum ran a gymnastics club, so I was a solid acrobat. I’d trained through my teens as a dancer: choreo and movement mimicking came naturally. And, growing up on an vast rented 8,500 acre farm, I could ride horses before I could work – Dad tied me to his saddles from the age of six months, as soon as I could sit up.

All this gave me an ideal grounding. My ADHD was undiagnosed back then. I was that kid who would leap off cliffs, swim too far, hang on to horses. I was kicked out of school, unable to engage. I was told I’d be a nobody destined for a life of nothingness. I had no idea what I might do and our family was poor. When I got that part in Xena, right away, I knew it was my future. I felt I’d won the lottery.

A few years ago, I had my biggest accident. For legal reasons, I can’t go into specifics. I went headfirst into a concrete wall. It was pretty horrific. Afterwards, at night-time, I’d go numb, unable to feel my arms. It was starting to happen during the day as well. I had brain surgery two years ago, and neck surgery eight months ago.

I’ve got three kids now, one teenager and two in their 20s. I’m still performing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. The day I was being wheeled into brain surgery, I thought to myself: if I could turn back time, would I still have done all of this, knowing it might kill me? Honestly, yes. I love what I do – it’s addictive. You just can’t think about it all too much.

Maria Hippolyte, Hackney, London: ‘I wanted to land roles because of my skill, not the colour of my skin’

There was only one black woman on the British Stunt Register when I started out. It wasn’t my first encounter with a glaring lack of diversity. As a circus performer, my previous career, I’d found the exact same problem. After performing three shows a day in the acrobatics show at the Millennium Dome, in the early 2000s I travelled the world with my own circus show, proving there was space for black women in this corner for performance. Later, while I was touring as an acrobat with the Batman Live show, a friend encouraged me to train for the British Stunt Register – our professional body. I was in my 30s: it was then or never.

Getting called out to the USA to film Black Panther was a special experience: my first taste of Hollywood

Maria Hippolyte

Being the second black stunt woman working in the UK, word got around pretty quickly. But I wanted to land jobs because of my skill, not simply the colour of my skin. I did. Soon I was doubling for Teyonah Parris; firing arrows and being hit with a shield by Gal Gadot.

Getting called out to the USA to film Black Panther was a special experience; my first taste of Hollywood. It was incredible. I went from being the only black woman in a stunt team to being surrounded by the most talented group of people who looked like me. I doubled for Lupita Nyong’o. It was a magical time. Days were long; sometimes 12 hours. From dawn into the night, we’d be running across beaches, or kicking, punching and falling. I loved every minute.

And the impact of this movie is still being felt. Black women saw they, too, could lead in an action-packed blockbuster. Now it feels like a time of transition. Today, there are three black women on the UK register. That’s some progress. But there is an influx of others in training now, who’ll hopefully qualify soon. I couldn’t be prouder.

Bobby Holland Hanton, 39, Surrey: ‘I climbed 200ft up the Manhattan Bridge at sunset in a bat suit’

There have been a lot of standout shoots in my career. The Dark Knight Rises one is right up there, a 100ft descender fall on a wire while doubling for Christian Bale as Batman. I then climbed 200ft up the Manhattan Bridge and stood atop it at sunset, in a bat suit, Nolan filming me from a helicopter. That was epic.

My first ever job was pretty special, too. I doubled for Daniel Craig as Bond on Quantum of Solace, aged 23. I made a 7.5m jump, from one balcony to another, in the middle of the night, with no cables, boxes, or safety mats underneath: the shot didn’t allow it.

I made a 7.5m jump, from one balcony to another, in the middle of the night, with no cables, boxes, or safety mats

Bobby Holland Hanton

In 2012, I started to work on Thor. I was down to double Tom Hiddleston originally, but I really wanted to double Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth. After eight weeks in the gym, I turned up to work a lot bigger than I’d been previously and landed the part.

Chris and I got on straight away: same age, similar sense of humour. He asked if I’d come with him to his next project. And the one after. More than 13 years later, we’ve now done 15 films together. It’s in his contract that I’m his stunt double. I’m there to keep him safe with help from the rest of the stunt team. You develop a deep relationship. He has to trust me.

Weeks before a movie kicks off, the stunt team starts rehearsals and development. Once we’re happy with a scene’s choreography and coordination, I’ll work through it with Chris, working out what he can do, what I’ll do, and how it all fits together. It’s my job to make sure that his performance – our performance – is the best it can be.

I come from a small town on the south coast, and my mum made huge sacrifices to get me involved in gymnastics. Now I’m working on some of the biggest movies of our time and travelling the world while doing it. Whether it’s training hard, honing your skills or pulling off a gag (what we call stunts) it all takes huge amounts of work, massive risks and tests your limits.

Stunt performers are becoming better acknowledged for their contribution to the industry, which is only right. We put our lives at risk for the magic of the cinema.

Nikita Mitchell, 35, Buckinghamshire: ‘The big Ken-on-Ken beach fight scene was nuts and so much fun’

I’m a good size and shape to double – it’s been my bread and butter. Big battles and fight scenes are predominantly men on screen, but times are changing. Should there be more women in those big combat scenes? More swords and shields? Yes please.

Recently, I doubled for Margot Robbie on the Barbie movie. Prep for the movie started in January 2022. As a team we were responsible for testing stunts, sets, scenes and safety for the actors.

Should there be more women in big combat scenes? More swords and shields? Yes please

Nikita Mitchell

As Margot’s double I tested everything that she would film on to ensure it was safe for her – the iconic float down from the top of her lifesize 30ft Barbie house into her baby blue Barbie car included.

During prep we often shoot pre-vis: we shoot a scene in full, action and fights, using stunt performers instead of lead actors to help the director’s vision come to life. On Barbie we helped choreograph the big Ken-on-Ken – Gosling v Simu Liu – beach fight scene. It was nuts and so much fun.

My journey into stunts began eight years ago. I was training at east London gymnastics, where I met some stunt performers. I immediately realised it was for me: who wouldn’t want to jump off burning buildings and get paid for it?

I decided to train to join the British Stunt Register, which takes years of hard work and dedication. It took me two and a half years in total to complete my training – and that’s considered speedy.

I started out as a professional dancer. It was less of a change than you might imagine. We think of dancers as pretty and delicate, but it’s gruelling, physical work that takes precision and endurance. In many ways, the exact same grit and determination is required in stunt work – just with a few more heights, fights and open fires.