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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Interview with Actor James Wallis (Shakespeare BASH’d)

I first met James Wallis 5 years ago when he performed at one of our Screenplay Festival events when we were working at the National Film Board of Canada. Right away you could tell he was an actor on the rise as he always served the story he was performing in while also bringing an original and unique take. That is something that is very rare to see in an actor.

I was happy to sit down with James as he’s preparing to play Hamlet at the Monarch Tavern in downtown Toronto, Canada from February 2-7 2016. Go to http://www.shakespearebashd.com/hamlet.html for more information.

James also serves as the Artistic Director for the successful theatre company Shakespeare BASH’d.

shakespeare_basdh Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you and your team to start the Shakespeare BASH’d company?

James Wallis: For me I was interested in doing Shakespeare’s plays very simply, with a bare bones approach to the work and making sure that the plays are accessible, fun, and clear. I also felt that I knew a ton of great actors who were not getting the opportunity to do great work with Shakespeare and I wanted to give them that chance.

It’s grown over the years, of course, but it’s always been about the work. The plays and the text and the actor. It’s a simple relationship that the stage highlights very well.

Matthew: You’re set to play HAMLET in your upcoming production. The who’s who of actors have performed the role. The list is too long to name. What makes you want to tackle this iconic role?

James: It’s a great chance, especially with the company that I have with me on this Hamlet. It’s a generous part, by that I mean it gives you a lot of text to experience and play with. He’s a hard character, of course, because of the depth of his emotional life but also because Shakespeare has made the character very ambiguous. He doesn’t give you a clear answer to any question, which is lovely and an amazing opportunity for any actor.

Matthew: How do you make your performance of HAMLET unique?

James: I’m striving for clarity. What is Hamlet saying? And what is he trying to do to the other characters in the play and/or the audience?

Also I don’t think that many short, stout, funny men have played Hamlet and I wonder why. At times, he’s very funny and at times he’s very emotional. Regardless, he’s working through everything. Trying to decide what to do. I don’t think he wants to hurt anyone but circumstances don’t allow him to be passive.

Matthew: What actor(s) would you love to perform with as you move forward in your career?

I would love to work with Graham Abbey or Jonathan Goad. I have admired their work for many years. They are fantastic Shakespeare actors. Also, I would love to work with Maev Beatty again, she’s amazing.

In a dream world, probably somebody like Gary Oldman or Ian McKellen.

Matthew: You’ve performed at our screenplay festival a few times and there was an exchange between the two of us way back in 2011 that I’ll always remember. You performed in a supporting role in a TV Pilot reading and the actor assigned to the lead role had a lot of trouble. It was a tough role and I was chatting with you, your agent, and the rest of the cast afterwards about it. I was in mid-sentence and all of a sudden you interrupted me and stated “I would of nailed that role without an issue!” I was taken aback because you weren’t arrogant or cocky about it, but just confident and so assured of your ability. I believed you right away. I told myself that I should keep an eye on this guy James Wallis. Do you remember this exchange? And as an actor what’s the difference between confidence and arrogance?

James: I don’t remember that specifically, but I wouldn’t put that past me ever to do that. I always say that as artists (whatever your discipline) you need a thick skin. As an actor, you are constantly rejected and that’s part of the business. You need that thick skin to know that you have the ability to do whatever is asked of you. That’s very important, emotionally, it will keep you rolling.

To me, confidence is knowing that you can do it. Arrogance is thinking you’re entitled to it. There’s a difference and it’s about what you bring to the table. You can be confident and collaborative. Arrogance is something about you and only you.

Matthew: What movie have you seen the most in your life?

James: That’s a tough one. Shawshank Redemption probably. Or Father of the Bride, the Steve Martin version. I love that freakin’ movie.

Matthew: What’s the key difference between working on stage to working on film/TV?

James: Theatre is more about the rehearsal period. Your building something very specific that needs to be alive every night. Film is more immediate and you need to be ready to go at the drop of a hat. Film is also more technical. Eye line, movement of head and such.

Of course, film is much smaller but with that comes a determined specificity.

Both are fun. I’ve done more theatre but film is always a treat.

Matthew: Do you have an acting mentor?

James: I love working with Ian Watson, he’s a Shakespeare teacher. He’s taught me a lot about everything to do with Shakespeare.

Matthew: Where did you grow up and why did you decide to become an actor?

James: I grew up in Newmarket. It started simply: I liked this girl who was in the musical, so I decided to join up to spend more time with her. From there I just fell in love with the theatre. I liked the people, I liked how hard the work was and I liked what theatre could accomplish.

Matthew: Besides acting, what else are you passionate about?

James: Theatre in general. I also am very interested in reading and non fiction books. Plus documentaries. I would love to do one one day. I also love and am very passionate about beer.

Matthew: What is the next Shakespeare role/play that you will tackle?

James: I’m going to be assistant directing Macbeth at the Stratford Festival this coming season, so that’s where I’m off to after Hamlet. Shakespeare BASH’d is also beginning our next season with our final production at the Toronto Fringe Festival at the Victory Café. We are doing The Comedy of Errors, which will be in July. I will have a small role in that but from there we have a lot of thoughts about what is next. I would say that I want to play Richard III at some point.

Matthew: What have you learned the most being an Artistic Director for your Theatre company?

James: It takes hard work and endless patience. You need to love what you do and know why you are doing it. Plus, you need people who will work hard with you. I have an amazing group of people who help me, especially my wife Julia, who works harder than I do.

Matthew: Where do you see your company growing in the next 5 years?

James: I hope to start doing plays from Shakespeare’s contemporaries. I would love to do repertory, with two plays by Shakespeare at once. I would also like to be doing Shakespeare in schools, teaching kids the possibilities of Shakespeare on stage..

Matthew Toffolo: What motivated you and your team to start the Shakespeare BASH’d company?

James Wallis: For me I was interested in doing Shakespeare’s plays very simply, with a bare bones approach to the work and making sure that the plays are accessible, fun, and clear. I also felt that I knew a ton of great actors who were not getting the opportunity to do great work with Shakespeare and I wanted to give them that chance.

It’s grown over the years, of course, but it’s always been about the work. The plays and the text and the actor. It’s a simple relationship that the stage highlights very well.

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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.

Directing Actors. And Actors working with Directors. TIPS

DIRECTING ACTORS
FILMMAKING NOTES

Film Directing and being a Film Director

What Is A Film Director? How do you run an independent film casting call? How do you get the best out of the actors you’ve chosen to bring your film to life?

Whether you’re running your first independent film casting call or into your millionth day of shooting, you may find some useful ideas here. Below, we investigate some of the techniques you can use and pitfalls you may face in casting and directing actors. A good resource for actors as well as directors!

We’ll be posting more articles all the time, so make sure you come back and check every now and then.

What is a film director? More than anything, the person responsible for bringing together the technical aspects of capturing performances with the actors who will bring a story to life. One of the most important aspects of a director’s job is to have a rapport with the actors, and it’s not any easy thing.

INSECURITY is the evil heart of a bad performance.

You need the actor to feel SAFE and COMFORTABLE in the creative process. They need to be relaxed.

Ask the actors to do something, not be something.

The presence of a camera should never change people, it only changes the aspect or degree of a person’s response.

The main job is to prepare the ground for inspiration. You can’t decide to be inspired. If you try it, it only creates tension, taking you farther and farther away.

The DIRECTOR is the viewer and the ACTOR is the viewed.

Let the actors help out with blocking. It solves all kinds of problems.

Actor and Director must respect each others creative territory.

Adjusts your beliefs about a character if the actor sees something different.

WHAT DO ACTORS WANT FROM DIRECTORS?
– Not to give up until you get the performance
– To make sure it’s the best take before moving on
– Must have confidence that you understand the script
– Need clear, brief, playable direction
– They want to be pushed to grow and learn
DON’T TELL ACTORS TWO DIRECTIONS THEY CAN’T PLAY TWO THINGS AT ONCE.

LISTEN to the actors and hear what they have to say.

Actors need insight, in language that is experiential, not descriptive. Adjectives are generalizations. USE VERBS Actions speak louder than words.

Verbs describe what someone is doing. They describe experiences rather a conclusion about experience.

USE THESE PHRASES
To believe
To fear
To accuse
To confront
To convince
To beg
To complain
To punish
To tease
To soothe

VERBS are also important to the basic understanding of a character

Acting should be a performance of the simple physical actions that tell the story.

Movies are made out of very simple ideas – A good actor will perform each small piece as completely and as efficiently as possible.

All good work requires self-revelation. The talent of acting is one in which the actors thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. The instrument the actor is using is himself.

DON’T REPRODUCE LIFE CREATE IT

CONFIDENCE is an important element in an actor’s performance

LEARN FROM ACTORS SEE:
-What stimulates them?
-What triggers their emotion?
-What annoys them?
-How’s their concentration?
-Do they have a technique?
-What method of acting do they use?

An actor’s personality always comes out in their performance.

Tell them to go as far as they feel. Never be negative.

MOVMENT OF THE ACTOR You can always tell if an actor is truly in character by looking at his or her feet.

Actors need to have a GOOD EAR

Sometimes they need to just speak and try not to hit the furniture.

They need to trust the script, and you have to guide them if they want to stray from it. Unless they have an absolutely brilliant idea that serves the story BETTER than the original script, they should stick with the words as written. It’s tempting for actors to add or subtract words. That’s seldom a good idea.

Most actors need to know the technology that is around them.
-Where is the camera?
How are they being framed – close up, mid-shot, long shot?

NEVER JUDGE A CHARACTER

Acting is not pretending, is not faking something. It’s honesty. A director’s job is to recognize that and facillitate it.

For an artist there are two worlds the social realm, where we live and work day to day and the creative realm.

To enter the creative realm one must be free of the social realm, uncensored in the moment, away from concerns with result, following impulses, obeying only the deepest and most private truths.

An actor can’t lose trust in the process. As an actor, you need to:
1) Stay in the moment
2) Feel your feelings
3) Don’t move or speak unless you feel like it
4) Forgive yourself for your mistakes
5) Connect to the deepest and freshest meaning of the script
6) Turning themselves on and capturing their imagination
7) Connect with emotional honesty and get to the places they need to go

The best moments usually come from mistakes!

The scene is the event the words are the clues

Eye contact is very helpful to listening

ACTOR CHOICES
Choices create behavior. The behavior dictates the way the lines are said

THE SPINE IS WHO THE CHARACTER IS
Discover what is person’s great need in life.
Michael Corlene To please his father
Andrew Dufrane To get out of prison
Every choice actors make about their character relates to their spine

AN ACTOR HAS TO THINK
How does my character see the world?

WHAT DOES A DIRECTOR WANT IN AN ACTOR?

MEMORY (Personal Experience)
– Each individual is essentially unknown to all others
– Actors allowing their memory to occur physically 5 senses rather than intellectually

OBSERVATION

RESEARCH
– Know the character
– Know their history and back story
– Know their habits and mannerisms, physical and spoken

IMAGINATION

IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE
– Energy and confidence to pull off a performance and scene

SENSORY LIFE
– What they observe through their senses

CONCENTRATION
– Performances are usually more successful when actors play against whatever feeling they have

PROFESSIONALISM
– Camera technique
– hitting marks
– not blinking
– ability to repeat successful performances and built on successes
– able to alter what’s not working
SCRIPT ANALYSIS
– Finding the subworld of behavior and feeling in the script
– Understanding the whole arc of the story to know how to play the scene

As a DIRECTOR you must stop JUDGING and begin to engage

Actors should remember that characters are real people. They don’t always tell the truth. They don’t always know the truth.

Certain questions an actor should ask about every character?
1) What is this person smart about?
2) What does this character find funny?
3) Where is his pain?
4) How does he play?
5) In what way is he an artist?
6) What does he most fear?
7) What profession has he chosen or does he aspire to?
8) What does he look up to?
9) Whom does he look up to?
10) What is the biggest thing that has ever happened to him?
11) How does this character differ at the end of the story from the beginning?

WHAT IS THE CHARACTER NOT SAYING?

FOUR AREAS OF IMPORTANCE IN CASTING
1) Actor’s ability
2) Whether he/she is right for the part
3) Whether you can work well together
4) Casting the relationship as well as the roles

AREAS OF A REHEARSAL PLAN
1) Ideas of what the film is about, what it means to you personally
2) Spines and transformations of all the characters
3) For each particular scene, its facts, its images, the question is raises
4) What the scene is about, its emotional event and how the scene fits in the arc of the script
5) Candidates for each character’s objective
6) The beats of the scenes, how you might work each beat
7) The scene’s physical life and its domestic event
8) Research you have done and research you have left to do
9) Your plan of attack
10) Blocking diagram

No matter how small the role is, the actor should read the entire script several times. They need to be aware of the function the author intends for the character in terms of overall storyline.

REMEMBER: The actor is playing someone with a HISTORY, not a FUTURE

FILM ACTING IS BROKEN DOWN INTO FOUR CATEGORIES
1) Extras
2) Non-professional performers
3) Trained Professionals
4) Stars

Know the skills and potentials of the actors you’re working with, and frame your suggestions according to their level of experience. What is a film director? Someone with the ability to help all actors grow. A good film director is someone who knows the power they have on set and uses it to guide a film to the best possible completion.

THINGS THAT MATTHEW TOFFOLO LOVES AN ACTOR TO DO

Matthew Toffolo loves actors to:
1) Arrive on set with their business planned and rehearsed and knowing their lines
2) Add extra ideas and business to the shoot, understanding what is possible and not
3) Do the same business on the same syllable of a speech in every take
4) Automatically ease themselves into the right position so that they fill the screen. Their two-shot is maintained or they come to a perfect three-shot
5) Understand the craft of screen acting and make additions and suggestions within the framework or what is possibly both technically and in the time available

AND… MAKE THE CHARACTER THEIR OWN

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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.

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