Q&A with professional Stuntman Justin – a Fiery addition to The Sharp Project
Justin Pearson, a professional stunt coordinator with 20 year’s experience, recently moved into The Sharp Project. I interviewed him about how he became a stuntman, his career to date and going from working on live horse stunt shows to internationally acclaimed films and TV series.
How did you become a stuntman?
When I left school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I looked at being a horse jockey – my background is horses. I did an accounting course, I wasn’t really into that, and then I auditioned for a horse stunt show which was just about to embark on a world tour. I got the job and two weeks later we were travelling to Russia, Asia, all over the world. It wasn’t great money, but we were performing in front of a crowd and you learn to fight and fall, take direction and act and think on the cusp a little bit so that’s how I got into the industry.
It was great fun, I did that for a few years and then some of the older guys decided to go into the business professionally. They said they were training to be stuntmen and told me about the money and I thought, I’m falling off horses for £80 a week, so I followed in behind them. I’m from Shropshire and there weren’t really the facilities there that you need to do all your training to join the stunt register, so in a roundabout way I’m back in Manchester again, because back then I did all my training here, so I know the city quite well.
So now you’re on the British Stunt Register. What did you have to do to get onto that?
The process does change but you generally need six sports to a leadership standard. One of those sports is a martial art where you need a brown belt. You also need an agility-type sport, so gymnastics, trampolining or high diving and a water-based sport, which could be scuba diving or swimming. The stunt register do their own tests in horses, gymnastics and trampolining. It’s difficult, you need those six different sports, but you need x amount of days as an extra as well, and I think they’re now looking into bringing in live show contracts that you need. It’s not particularly easy to qualify.
Once you’re accepted, you’ve just got to the start line. That’s where your career begins, but it might not start straight away for you because it’s an elitist industry. It’s been good the past 5-10 years because of the UK tax breaks, there’s been a lot of productions being made; you’ve got Amazon and Netflix now. It’s been great for the British filmmaking industry in the last 10 years.
Are there different levels within the stunt register?
There are, once you first qualify you become a probationary, which means that you can perform stunts when there’s a stunt coordinator present – that’s the third level which is stunt coordinator, which I am. Then you’ve got the middle level as well, which is intermediate. It means you can perform stunts on your own without a coordinator but you can’t coordinate other people or actors, so it’s a structured system.
What’s been your most serious injury to date?
I’ve performed fire burns 25 times, fallen off horses about 900 times, I’ve been quite lucky really, I’ve been burned a couple of times. I generally think that if you’re being injured all the time, you’re not a very good stunt performer. It’s a dangerous game that we’re in, but it’s about working for a stunt coordinator that’s got a good safety record and puts a lot of time into making sure that everyone can walk home at the end of the day.
What’s the average career length of a stuntman? Does everybody go on to become a stunt coordinator?
The setup’s the same, but TV’s a lot faster moving. You can travel there, have a quick rehearsal, do it and go home, whereas with films you get a lot more rehearsal time. It’s 98% waiting around, 2% adrenalin on film. I like TV, that’s why I’m based here now because the whole North West area is great for TV series. There are some great production companies here and the idea is to supply stunts services directly to the TV industry.
Is that why you’re now based here at The Sharp Project?
Yes definitely, to have a local company to supply those stunt services, stunt doubles, a stunt coordinator, equipment, that type of thing and just to be in amongst it, hands on.
How much health and safety is involved?
Tonnes. I’ve just done an ITV production health and safety course. Obviously seeing it from their point of view, they have to do all their risk assessments. Plus being a stunt coordinator we have to do our own risk assessments as a specialist like the special effects guys.
What did you win your Screen Actors Guilds Awards for?
They are for stunt ensemble, so part of the stunt team on Wonder Woman, being shot in Skyfall, blowing up in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. It’s recognising the stunt department within those movies because there isn’t actually Oscars for what we do. We’ve got our own stunt awards, the Taurus World Stunt Awards, which goes through different categories within the stunt department – height work, vehicle work, animal work etc.