Interview with Stunt Performer James Cox (Star Wars VII, The Dark Knight Rise)

A stunt performer, often referred to as a stuntman or daredevil, is someone who performs dangerous stunts for the Film and TV industry.

James Cox has worked on over 40 productions as a stunt performer in just the last 6 years of his young career. He’s been a part of the most popular and iconic films and TV shows too, including: Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Downton Abbey, Wrath of the Titans, The Impossible, Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, World War Z, Spectre and of course Star Wars: Episode VII.

I was thrilled to be able to ask him a few questions about his job and career.

Matthew Toffolo: First off, we need to talk about Star Wars as you were a part of what is going to be the most popular movie of all-time. What was your role in “The Force Awakens”? How many days did you work on set? Did you have to sign a confidentiality agreement after you left set? 

James Cox: I was fortunate enough to join the Star Wars stunt team after finishing work on Avengers: Age of Ultron in late 2014. Its well known that security on the set of The Force Awakens was unprecedented but rightly so, the film was so highly anticipated that any leak from the set would have undoubtably ruined elements of the story that the whole crew were working to keep top secret.

Matthew: Have you suffered a lot of injuries doing stunts? If so, what has been your worst injury?

James:  To date I’ve not had any serious accidents; thats not to say we all don’t get bashed up pretty regularly, in fact thats actually part of the fun.  You can’t really fall down stairs, jump through glass, get hit by cars or get set on fire without getting bruised, cut or a little bit burnt here and there.  I’ve had friends badly injured, one recently, that was involved in a very serious accident on set which was featured in a lot of media outlets, she ( Olivia Jackson) is now starting out on the long road to recovery [ There’s a fund currently running to help Olivia in her recovery. Go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49 ] As an industry we definitely need to learn the benefits of learning from failure.
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Matthew: How did you get into the stunt performer game? Was there extensive training involved? 

James: I was planning to go to university and it was while on a year out to work and earn some money that I decided to follow a childhood ambition and trying to become a stunt performer.  The JISC stunt register is the world most well established body of professional stunt performers and the training is definitely extensive, ranging from Marital arts, scuba diving, gymnastics, rock climbing, horse riding, rally driving to trampolining.  Needless to say I didn’t end up going to university and after training for 4 years in six different discipline I qualified and joined the elite ranks of the British Stunt Register.

Matthew: What type of skills do you have as a stunt performer? 

James: There are a number of sporting disciplines which you need to complete to qualify for the JISC Stunt Register but there are also number of elements which I believe are essential to become a solid stunt performer; including having a good sense of timing, a professional attitude, a commitment to working as a team player and the ability to learn and adapt quickly….even changing your physical performance from one take to the next.  The skills you learn to qualify for the Register don’t necessarily make you a good performer but they do give you the very best starting point.

James: Physically, working on Edge of Tomorrow (Which was named All You Need Is Kill during shooting) was very hard work.  For the main beach landing battle sequence we wore 40kg-50kg ‘exo suits’ which looked like mechanised exoskeleton suits, they were designed to look like they would assist the soldiers to run, jump and fight at superhuman ability, the reality was they were a combination of metal, plastic, nuts, bolts and cable ties which the stunt team had to make look like they were effortlessly wearing to fight the alien invaders. To make matters worse we were fighting on a bombed beach…imagine playing tag on sand dunes while giving someone a piggyback!

As for emotionally, I’m not too sure.  Each job has its own set of challenges and finding yourself in unnatural or uncomfortable situations without letting your natural instincts get in the way of your performance is definitely a challenge of the job. On Wrath of the Titans  (2011) a few of us were buried face down (in what was essentially a grave) with a small breathing tube which was removed a few minutes before “action” was called. We had to burst out from the ground and ambush an attacking army of monsters, those minutes lying there, sightless, soundless and unable to move would be a lot of peoples idea of a living hell.  I’ve definitely found myself in a number of situations where I’ve thought to myself “…well, this is pretty surreal”
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Matthew: I see that you worked on Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show and don’t remember many stunts. Can you tell us what you did on the show? 

James: haha yeah thats right, I was on an episode of Downton.  You’d be surprised at the number of stunt performers required for tv shows/films which you wouldn’t think of as having much action. Downton Abbey was actually one of my first jobs, I was used as a stunt double for the actor Thomas Howes, in the 2nd series his character had gone to fight in World War One and I doubled him for a sequence where he got blown up by a shell.  I also performed various stunts as British and Germany soldiers, getting shot and blown up.

Matthew: What do you look for in a solid stunt performer partner? 

James: Me personally, I definitely enjoy working with someone who I feel has good timing, without it, you could be the very best athlete in the world but if you can’t hit that mark, when your told too then you’re never going to get it right.  Often that means adapting to changing timings on the fly. For example: if an actor has totally changed the timing of a fight routine, because they feel it is right to take an ‘acting beat’ then its up to you to adapt to that and be there when they need you to be…not the other way round!  Of course it almost goes without saying that you definitely need to trust your fellow performer. One huge advantage to the training needed for the stunt register is that no matter your background, we can trust that newly qualified performers can work under pressure have a high level of physical ability.
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Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer mentor? 

James: Not a mentor as such, but there are definitely certain performers which I aspire to be like. Working as a stunt performers is an ever changing job so I most admire the stunt men and women that can learn and adapt to new skills quickly.

Matthew: How was working on The Dark Knight Rises? Another movie that was very “hush-hush” during filming?

James: It was another massive tick on my wish list for a number of reasons – while I only did a small amount of work on The Dark Knight it was amazing to see director Christopher Nolan at work, as well as the high calibre actors which appear in the Batman series.  The stunt coordinator and stunt team on the Dark Knight were also a collection of some of the worlds best stunt men and women so it was a huge opportunity for me to learn.
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Matthew: What movie, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life? 

James: As a kid I watched a re-watched Jurassic Park so many times that I would dream about being on the Island myself! I don’t get a lot of time to re-watch films but most recently I’ve seen Ex Machina a few times (I also read the original script which is very different from the final screenplay, but brilliant none the less!)

Matthew: Do you have a stunt performer or director that you’d love to work with? 

James: There are a couple of well known directors which I’d love to see working in person.  Tarantino and Spielberg are legends and it would be great to work for them, for obvious reasons.  Fortunatley I’m soon to begin to work on the new project of director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and with Brick being one of my favourite films I’m very excited to work with him. To date I’ve been luck enough to work under some incredible directors (Danny Boyle was definitely a highlight!) but I’m always interested to work for anyone, they can all have such different ways to go about achieving the same goals its always fascinating.
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Matthew: What is the main difference when working on a television show like Game of Thrones in comparison to a big studio film like Skyfall and Star Wars?

James: Normally the biggest two elements are budget and time. Films usually have a lot more of both, I say normally because your example of Game of Thrones is actually one of the exceptions to the rule, GoT actually operates a bit more like 3 films than a small tv series; shot simultaneously across multiples countries and with a huge budget its much more like a film than a tv series.

As a stunt performer there are a couple of differences but the standard of performer is the same – you’ll get the same stuntmen/stuntwomen working on a small tv show and the biggest film from one week to the next.
On films we often get more time to prep a stunt or stunt sequence and there might be more elements involved, fire explosions, pneumatic ratchets, air-rams etc where are with tv, you might (not always) only have that day to prepare for a stunt.

Often films employ a full time team of stunt performers to work on the full duration of the film whereas tv will normally employ performers specifically for one sequence where the work could be a few weeks, or even just one day.

Matthew: Where do you see the future of green-screen stunt performing in the motion pictures? 

James: Great question!  As a performer I can only give my personal opinion and perhaps coordinators would give you a different answer but I feel that while clearly there are huge advances being made in CGI there will still be a place for physical performers.  I feel that for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, people are experts at detecting unnatural movements from CGI characters – we spend our whole life observing other humans walking, running, maybe falling over, we know how our own bodies work in the real world and until CGI can get the very smallest nuances of human physical movement past the brains detection system I think people will always react badly to seeing ‘CGI stunt performers.’ (See the uncanny valley hypothesis)  Secondly, people like to know that someone really did do a stunt.  In fact, as you can see from some of the media coverage given to Mission Impossible and The Force Awakens a lot of attention was given to the fact that real people were standing on real sets and this extends to real stunts.  One of the selling points of the hugely successful Bond franchise is that the stunts are real and there is minimal CGI, the same goes for the recent Mad Max: Fury Road film which is currently nominated for a massive 10 Oscars….none for best stunt co-ordinator, but thats a discussion for another interview…!
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For fund raising efforts for the injured Stunt Performer Olivia Jackson, go to https://www.gofundme.com/UNITED49

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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