Traditionally, many stunt people have come from circus backgrounds. There are also many stunt people who have elite gymnastics backgrounds, since gymnastics gives stunt performers the air sense that is so often critical in performing difficult stunts. At the same time, there are many stunt performers who do not have circus or gymnastics backgrounds at all, but instead get into stunts after excelling in martial arts, motocross, rodeo, football, skateboarding, etc. Some stunt skills can be acquired on the job, but typically a stunt coordinator wants to know the person they are hiring for a stunt is properly trained before that stunt person walks on the set.
A stunt person is an on-camera performer, and acting ability is often an important part of what stunt people do. When doubling an actor, you will need to become the character they are playing, just as the actor did, moving and reacting in the same way. Stunt people are also often cast in parts, such as those of cops, gang members, or a regular person on the street, and need to be able to act convincingly with the pressure of being on a chaotic set with a lot going on around them. When doing stunt work such as a fight scene, squib hits, a ratchet, etc. the stunt performer’s reactions are what sells the shot and creates the illusion that what is happening is real. Without proper reactions by the stunt performer, the shot will not work on film.
Like actors, film and TV stunt people are members of the merged unions Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Getting into the union can be accomplished by being “Taft Hartleyed” by a director or stunt coordinator when a union member is not available for a part with dialogue or stunts.
Currently union stunt people make $906 a day on a scale union production, and are paid a “stunt adjustment” based on the difficulty of the stunt they perform, which can range from $100 for a pratfall to $5,000 for a car cannon roll, typically paid every time the stunt is performed. Performers also earn money for overtime, penalties for meals being served late, etc. Stunt performers also earn residuals when a show or commercial is aired on TV or rented for home viewing. On the other end of the pay scale, stunt performers for live shows such as those at Universal and Disney make about $12 per hour, but are able to gain valuable experience
Reckless crazy people make terrible stunt people. Being a professional stunt person takes a lot of discipline and focus. You need to show yourself to be a true professional on the set and off. Reckless people are a danger to themselves and others and are a liability on a set where many things can go wrong. Reckless people will not make it as professional stunt performers, because the goal of a stunt person is to do the job well, not get hurt, and come back to work the next day.
The logical next career step for a stunt person is to become a stunt coordinator, with some going on to become second unit directors, responsible for directing during the shooting of action sequences. Being a fully qualified stunt coordinator requires expert knowledge of a complete range of stunts and their preparation, etc. Acquiring this knowledge takes years of on-the-job experience, and working as an assistant stunt coordinator can be an excellent stepping stone. Stunt coordinators are often hired for the full run of a production, especially when the film or TV show contains a lot of action. Over the last several years, more and more women have become stunt coordinators