The real actions stars
Behind the scenes of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, there are the stunt performers who spend long, hard hours on set, ready to execute fantastic feats of physical power at a moment’s notice.
They are chameleons of fitness, capable of making the impossible possible. But as each performer reveals, there’s no magic involved in how they stay in shape.
The secret is finding what works best for you.
- Name: ALICIA VELA-BAILEY
- Age: 34
- Height: 1.75m
- Weight: 54kg
- Next: Doubling for Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman
When Wonder Woman finally appears at the end of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, she manages to steal the scene from two of the greatest superheroes of all time. In short, she’s a badass demigoddess with enough fierceness to upstage the boys, who have spent the past two and a half hours doing a lot of moping and not a lot of fighting or life saving.
But not only is Wonder Woman strong and fierce, she’s also extremely lithe and graceful, just like Alicia Vela-Bailey, the woman performing her stunts. While Vela-Bailey attributes her strength to her gymnastics background, she says her grace comes from years of training as a dancer.
“I never did martial arts while growing up,” she says, “but the dancing helped me to pick up fight choreography really fast.” She endorses taking any basic dance class – from hip-hop and jazz to ballet and ballroom – as a great way to improve your fighting stance and rhythm.
Vela-Bailey doesn’t train with weights to achieve her strong but lean look; instead, she uses her own body weight, doing pull-ups, push-ups and v-ups. And like many of her fellow stunt performers, she incorporates stretching into her workouts. “I hate the pike stretch, but I make myself do it for at least 30 seconds to a minute. Otherwise, you’re not getting the full benefit of the stretch.”
She also has a workout partner close at hand: her husband and fellow stunt performer Matt Mullins, whom she first met on the set of Divergent, where the two were working on fight scenes. “We love to help motivate each other. If someone is having a sluggish day, it’s like, ‘Oh, come on! You can do it!’ It gives you that extra push, and you want to do your best.”
And at the end of a long day on set or at the gym, Vela-Bailey makes a point of relaxing by taking a bath with Epsom salts, or getting a massage, even if it’s just at the local shopping mall. “When it’s time to relax,” she says, “just take it easy and take care of yourself.”
- Name: Matt Mullins
- Age: 36
- Height: 1.85m
- Weight: 91kg
- Next: Stunt co-ordinator for Netflix’s The Defenders
When video games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat made their debut almost 30 years ago, they served as inspiration for the emergence of an extreme style of martial arts, one that incorporated extraordinary acrobatics and a healthy dose of showmanship.
One of the leaders in the development of this style is Matt Mullins, a champion martial artist, stunt performer and fight choreographer who is currently creating all the action sequences for Netflix series The Defenders. “Those moves you see in video games?” he says. “They didn’t exist back then. So we were like, ‘Why can’t we just do those on our own?’ ”
Today, the fingerprints of extreme martial arts are all over Hollywood blockbusters. “I like to think that the moves we perform are like what you see in a Jackie Chan movie – but without all the wires,” says Mullins. “We’re able to do moves that don’t require visual effects.”
Although it can take years of training to get to his advanced level, Mullins says there’s a style out there for everyone.
“It’s important to try different styles to see what works for you, and find what inspires you to go to the gym,” he advises. “Maybe it’s learning basic kicks and punches in karate, or something more relaxing like tai chi.”
Beyond maintaining his martial arts skills and picking up new ones, Mullins likes to stay fit by creating ‘supersets’, supplementing weights exercises with others that utilise his entire body.
“If I’m doing lat pull-downs, I’ll supplement them with pull-ups and burpees, because I want to challenge my core and do those movements to failure,” he says. “That’s how I get stronger.”
In the Marvel film franchise, Black Widow can climb her opponent like a spider monkey, wrap her thighs round his neck and bring him down with a thud in a matter of seconds. These fighting skills are brought to life thanks to veteran stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker.
The former gymnastics champion has been a fitness nut her entire life, but to become a stunt performer she had to develop the strength, agility and endurance to perform challenging fight scenes for eight to 10 hours straight.
“There are times when it’s all you, all day long, and it’s exhausting,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve had to figure out the right way to train myself and be prepared for almost anything.”
One of the first things a stunt performer has to learn, Moneymaker says, is how to fall. “For that, take judo classes,” she recommends. “Your body starts to get used to hitting the ground. It kind of hurts at first, but as you do it more often, you get numb to the shock of it.”
For building strength, Moneymaker believes in adding plyometrics – explosive exercises such as box jumps, lunge jumps, high knees, burpees and power jacks (“like a jumping jack with a little bit of pepper”) – to her cardio routines. “Adding a plyometrics portion to your workout can improve your reaction time,” she says. “You become more consciously aware of your body, so you can make your muscles fire when you want them to.”
Recently, Moneymaker decided to use the training techniques she’s developed over the course of her career to create her own fitness programme, Fierce Lotus. The workout routines combine high-energy plyometrics with fight choreography where participants punch and kick imaginary opponents.
“We’re creating a fantasy that’s not unlike the fantasy you feel when you go to see an action movie,” she says. “But now, instead of sitting in your chair, eating popcorn and watching somebody else do it, you become the superhero.”
Early in the first season of Daredevil, the eponymous hero takes on almost a dozen men with a combination of boxing and martial arts, with some tricking and parkour thrown in for good measure.
These impressive, acrobatic twists are a trademark of stunt performer Chris Brewster, a former martial arts competitor with black belts in karate, taekwondo and kong soo do.
Although Brewster is a martial arts master, he admits there’s no way he could ever be an expert in everything. “The only way you can look like an expert at everything,” he says, “is to be very fit, mentally aware, and ready to learn something at the drop of a hat. And then be able to perform and look like you’ve mastered it for several years.”
To maintain peak fitness, Brewster practises two forms of endurance training: short-term anaerobic and long-term aerobic. To build his explosive, short-term energy, he turns to CrossFit workouts such as the ‘Murph’, which involves completing the following in the fastest possible time: a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, then another one-mile run.
For his aerobic training, Brewster goes on a long run (five to 12 miles) three times a week. He also weight-trains five days a week, on top of any specific preparation he might be doing for work. “I look at stunts as a full-time job,” he says.
At the end of the day, perhaps the most important part of his training is the time he spends on his mobility. “I don’t go a single day without spending half an hour on a foam roller and stretching,” he says. “I’ve always been extremely quick to heal, and that’s helped me a lot in my career.“
Stuntmen are generally not supposed to be noticeable, especially when they’re doubling an actor. But directors looking for large, imposing, evil-henchman types call on guys like Cale Schultz.
Stunt veteran Schultz is director of operations at 87eleven Action Design, a team of stunt performers – including Heidi Moneymaker – who create blockbuster fight choreography from the ground up, and that includes whipping idle actors and actresses into superhero shape.
Schultz focuses on strength and endurance training, teaching them the same exercises he uses to stay fit.
“I keep it very basic,” he says. “I have them do heavier compound movements that focus on core stability and loading the spine. That means a lot of deadlifts, overhead presses and heavy squats – with some biceps curls and triceps extensions thrown in to build up a physique that looks good on camera.”
Schultz is also a fan of the weight sled, which is, he says, “great for building muscular endurance and explosive power”.
The track at 87eleven is about 30m long, and he gets trainees to push a sled loaded up with half their bodyweight, down and back as hard and as fast as they can. They then repeat the exercise five more times in two-minute intervals. The whole exercise only takes around 12 minutes.
“But in that time,” Schultz jokes, “you are trying not to die. You think it’s not that big of a deal until you start pushing that damn thing as hard as you can.”