Meet Lem, he’s a real-life dragonslayer. Well maybe not real-life, but he’s as close as you’ll get. If you need someone to roll around on fire, get thrown out a building or violently fight- he’s your man.
Stunt performers put themselves in the most dangerous of positions, all so our belief remains suspended whilst watching action-packed films. I don’t know about you, but it totally ruins the film-watching-experience when you realise it’s a doll being thrown out of a window and not a real-life person. Arguably, Stunt Performers are the unsung heroes of the film industry. That’s why this week at NYFA, we chatted to the talented Lemuel Black who has stepped up to the challenge in Vikings (2013), Dawn of the Dragonslayer (2011) and The Professor and the Madman (2018).
Have you always wanted to be a stunt performer? No. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was at school and I didn’t really know what to do when I left. I was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship with a local aerospace company where to this day I believe I got my best acting lessons! I always had an interest in martial arts and spent two decades fighting with weapons at live historical displays. When I was about 19 I was given the opportunity to do my first fight on camera which introduced me to the three core elements for safe and believable choreography: timing, distance and reaction; all of which I have to constantly work on. What inspired you to pursue this career path? I kept hearing about other friends who were filming which gave me the ‘big green jealous eye!’. I caught the bug, I wanted to be in films so I had to start improving and showing that I was capable and professional How did it all start? I was invited to be what’s now called a ‘specialist extra’, sword fighting on a feature film shot in Wicklow, Ireland. A friend and I were watching the stunt performers and turned to each other and said ‘I could do that’. We looked up ‘How to become a stunt performer’ and at the time the UK stunt register had a set of 6 qualifications, that’s when the training started. I stumbled and failed many times and I had to change and try new things until I eventually qualified for the Irish Stunt Guild. Is there anything that you love in particular about your job? I love the variability of locations, the action and the people. I love dealing with complex timing in action sequences and reacting with my environment. I love the pressure of having to plan my movements and delivering realistic reactions with the cameras running. Could you tell us a bit about your job, what projects have you worked on? As a stunt performer you are expected to be attentive and proactive. Training forms the foundation of your fitness and skill set. You can be asked by a coordinator how do you feel about rolling down a set of stairs, being set on fire, doing an actor fight or water safety or camera safety. I have been very fortunate to have been on the crews of independent shoots right through internet adverts to TV and feature films and worked with some of the industry’s best coordinators. My IMDB page gives a few credits from films I have performed in. What does the day-to-day look like for a stunt performer? Off set days are filled with training — swimming, running, diving, climbing, horse riding, driving, strength and conditioning or learning new skills. If I know I have a specific job to do, I’ll rehearse that action. On set, it’s usually an early start; breakfast, then straight into wardrobe. First there’s the decision on what do I need to bring for the scenes, what will the conditions be, then into hair and makeup. Work begins with the coordinator and his/her assistants doing a briefing. After that is into the action —rehearsals, establishing shots or straight into stunt performance which can be in any combination of the groups of work below: • Fighting • Falling • Driving vehicles • Riding/working with animals • Water • Fire. You’ll look forward to a quick lunch then it’s straight back to the thick of it, then it’s the home run to wrap time where you have to maintain 100% concentration. On wrap it’s a trip to wardrobe to remove what’s left of costume and on the occasion when you’re not completely drenched you can get your make up removed! You can sometimes get a day (usually if you’re doubling an actor for a specific piece of action) when you get your own trailer, dedicated wardrobe, hair and makeup, fantastic food and, with a good performance, a satisfying clap of recognition from the crew and a rewarding thank you from the coordinator that put their trust in you to give a good account. What tips do you have for someone wanting to go into your career? Training and gaining qualifications are extremely important but don’t lose sight of being able to perform your skills in a believable manner — practice, practice, practice. Also if you don’t enjoy it change it. I’ve had to change the ways I’ve trained and performed; that’s what keeps it all fresh. If you could have told yourself one thing about your career when you were younger, what would it be? A stunt performer was never on the career list when I was in school so I’d probably say work hard and get paid to play. Do you have any general tips for the film industry? Always do the last thing your coordinator told you. Set etiquette is essential. Turn up on time. Understand the call sheet. Be prepared. Know ‘who is who’. Have your best listening ears and a zipped shut mouth. Stay close to the action. Know how to communicate on the radio — inevitably you’ll get handed one. Never sit idle on set. Let your team know where you are. Safety first and foremost Any interesting anecdotes? I was on set and my coordinator asked if I had done any wrestling. I replied that I had only ever done one type of wrestling – Glima. He said ‘That’s the one I’m looking for. Can you and another performer come up with a background fight to happen while two actors are doing dialogue?’ ‘Yes Sir’ I replied. Glima is all about getting your opponent to the floor. I was very much aware that my ‘opponent’ was the stronger of the two of us and has a championship in wrestling to boot, so we put together a fight where I get thrown about quite a bit and we got it signed off. On set we did a technical rehearsal and the director came over and said ‘I can’t tell the difference between the fighters and the crowd. Can you take your shirts off?’ That’s when all the choreographed hits and throws now became real – tops off and face off. My opponent said to me ‘Do you see that actor over there? He’s a multiple world champion wrestler – make this look good.’ ‘No pressure. 3,2,1 ACTION!’ Always be prepared for anything to happen and never say you can do something you can’t. I went on a course once and an ‘old school’ performer explained to me; “It’s all about the illusion of danger”. My company Black Art Stunts’ mission statement is: Fire, Fights, Falls, Fun.