When I was a little girl, I was given roller blades from my dad. I could make it up and down our road and not fall over. I thought that was pretty cool. But talking to Andy Bennett, a stunt coordinator in the film and television industry, I realised it’s Andy who can do anything; or rather, he tries to make a lot of things possible.
Working in stunts might sound like a glamorous job. But Andy’s obviously worked incredibly hard to get to where he is. He tells me, when we first speak, that he had a job as a clown for a few years just so he could get his Equity card. And now, as a stunt coordinator, it’s safety that’s of the utmost importance to him. His main priority is for everyone to go home in one piece.
Andy worked on the recent BBC drama Bodyguard, created by the brilliant Jed Mercurio. It’s the show that’s taken everyone by storm. I religiously text my dad about it – closely dissecting each and every part with a ‘Did that just happen?!’ here and an ‘I can’t believe it…’ there. And this is largely due to the action scenes. But really, this work is just the tip of the iceberg for Andy (quite literally) because his CV boasts other incredible productions like Titanic and more.
When I contacted Andy to speak to him, I was surprised by how quickly he responded. I imagined he would be too busy filming on the edges of the earth somewhere – which he was – but he very kindly took the time out of his schedule to answer my questions. The best part for me? It was clear how much Andy loves his work. Because as Ryan Gosling’s character so aptly puts it in the film La La Land, ‘people love what other people are passionate about‘.
How did you get into working in stunts?
I wanted to be a stuntman since I was about six years old, having grown up on all the James Bond and Burt Reynolds films. When I was 15, I contacted Equity to find out how to become a stunt performer. At that time, it was a very closed shop and they said that to become a member of Equity, you had to be an actor. I ended up joining the army when I was 21 and had skydiving as a qualification. I met somebody who was training to become a stuntman at one of the drop zones and he said you should contact Equity again.
There is something called the British Stunt Register. If you meet their criteria, they will accept you onto the Stunt Register as a probationary member. It means that you are open to getting work from senior performers or stunt coordinators. And then you progress to intermediate, which is someone who can work for themselves. And then up to a coordinator; someone who supervises the stunts. And that’s how we do it.
What would you say are the main skills needed to work in stunts?
Being a good listener. You’ve got to have patience. And you’ve got to want to do the job. You have to understand that our job isn’t about getting hurt, it’s about accepting that there is a risk and you should want to give the best performance you possibly can to add to the production. You don’t want to take anything away from it at all. You just need to have an open mind as well as talent and of course, luck. I was always told from an old stunt guy that if you have 90% talent and 10% luck, you’re stuffed. But if you’ve got 10% talent and 90% luck you’re on a winner!
How early on in the process of Bodyguard did you become involved?
Right from the offset. Jed (Mercurio) obviously had the scripts finalised but we needed to look at the practicalities of doing it. It’s very easy to write an action sequence but you need to consider the cost, the time and how risky the stunt is. As it turned out, a lot that he was writing was doable and we just wanted to make it look as realistic as we could and stay as true to the script as possible.
How many stunt performers did you have on call and was this big or small compared to other TV productions you have worked on?
It was relatively small. The biggest call we had was the explosion (in episode 3). We used fifteen stunt performers for that. The first two rows you can see in the auditorium were real stunt performers and we had the stunt doubles running in and a stunt performer on the rostrum. We had ideas of putting dummies in there but the production were brave enough to say no, we’ll put stunt performers in there, and I think the effect looks fantastic.
Do you often get one shot at certain scenes?
Yes and that’s where the pressure really starts to rack up! That’s when you need the production to allow you that preparation time. For example, during the lorry scene (in episode 2), if we’ve only got one truck and one car that we’re going to smash up, we wouldn’t be able to use it if we got it wrong. If we hadn’t got the crash absolutely right, then all of a sudden we’ve changed the narrative and that’s not really my job at all. My job is to get it absolutely bang on. But we had enough prep and enough time. A very important scene was the explosion afterwards which was a one shot wonder. Once that went off, there was nothing else we could do about it. So everybody had to be totally briefed on what was going on. Safety had to be in another league and everybody had to be on their mark at the same time. We dry rehearsed without the explosion; we must have spent an hour running through the rehearsal and the procedure, making sure all the cameras knew exactly what they were doing. And it pays off. That little bit of extra time and rehearsal gives you great results.
What was your most memorable scene to film on Bodyguard?
Some of the stuff I do like to get involved in is when you just have the two actors. It’s almost like the purest form of stunt coordinating because you don’t use the stunt doubles. We had a scene where Richard (Madden) was fighting Keeley (Hawes) in episode 3 and they are always tough because I know what a stunt performer is going to do and the level of pain that they will go through. But you have to assess with the actors what they’re happy to do. That scene involved quite a vicious strangle and a lot of energy. It was safe to manage because you show them techniques on how to do a strangle and then it’s down to them to give a performance. The control comes from me and it’s also down to the director asking what we can get away with. With that particular scene, we couldn’t get away with anything; it had to be Richard and Keeley.
As a stunt coordinator, you must be constantly juggling different balls?
Yes, the role of the coordinator is sometimes underestimated as you need to make sure you’re booking the right people to do the job. You listen to the director and give them the action they want and you have to make sure that safety is paramount. At the end of the day, it’s all an illusion. When we crash a car hard, there is safety within the car. There are roll cages, crash bars, harnesses, crash helmets and safety braces on the neck. The drivers are experienced drivers. When you’ve got all that in place, you can smash a car up at 50 mph and it looks amazing. If you do it for real, people would be going to hospital. So the whole thing is an illusion. And you want to make it as safe as you possibly can.
Do you sometimes double up as a stunt performer?
If there’s a particular motorbike that I want to ride, I’ll put a helmet on, and if there’s a fire job that’s going off and I can put a mask on and nobody knows it’s me, I might jump in! But the days of me falling over, getting punched in the face or falling out of windows are slightly behind me now and I’m quite happy with the young performers running around and doing the falls. We’re very lucky, we’ve got some very talented performers in the British Stunt Register.
As an actor, I’m interested to know if you think about the character arcs when coordinating a fight scene?
A very important part of a coordinator’s job is to follow the character. On Bodyguard, the character that Richard plays, David Budd, is a very professional, well-trained soldier and police bodyguard so he had to have that look, mannerism and style. Any fight he was going to do was always going to be on that kind of level. If we were to have a fight with Keeley’s character who was a politician, it would be different. So that’s the role of the coordinator and the doubles; to watch how the actor will move very carefully. If an actor walks naturally with a limp or they walk with limp as the character, the stunt double walks with a limp as the character. If the person is a kiss ass ninja, that’s how we’re going to have to play it! It’s very important to make sure that we don’t stand out. We want to blend in with the character.
Do you ever get actors pushing to do their own stunts?
You get some actors who point blank will say they won’t be doing their own stunts and I respect that because their role is to say words and not necessarily put themselves at risk. My job is to put ourselves at risk and not to say any words! But it does add to the action and to the believability when you see an actor doing some of the stunts. There is a reason why we have stunt doubles though and it’s not just because the stunt performers can perhaps do it better. It’s also because on a production, there are a lot of people working and if the number 1 on the call sheet ends up breaking a leg or smashing themselves up, then we’ve suddenly got three months off and people are not earning a living. At the end of the day, a stunt performer is paid to accept the risk and trained to minimise that risk.
I’ve also seen that you’ve worked on some brilliant films too. Is the process of working on a movie very different to that of a television show?
The process and principle are much the same. It’s all about delivering the scripted stunts, going through the prep, making sure the director’s happy with the action you’re suggesting and giving them the performance they want. So it’s similar, but the money is slightly different and the time is slightly more. On a television show, we might get a day to do a fight rehearsal and we shoot the fight the same day. Whereas on a film, we might have a couple of weeks to rehearse it and maybe have a day or a day and a half to shoot the fight.
What other production do you admire from a stunts perspective?
Game of Thrones, it goes without saying. The stunts and action are really brutal. That’s proper old school, brutal stunt work – smacking and cracking. They work extremely hard on that show. They throw themselves around and they’re taking massive knocks. It deserves the credit that it gets. I hope to one day get the opportunity to do an equivalent show.
Speaking of other brilliant productions, I saw that you worked in the stunt team on the film Titanic and that you also had a cameo role?
I was part of the stunt team, yes, and I was also a character on the poop deck during a scene where the Italian man screams ‘I need a knife’ and I turn round and scream ‘I need a knife, I need a knife!’. So that’s my starring bit. That was fun. I thoroughly enjoyed Titanic. It was an amazing experience to have been part of one of the biggest feature films at the time. Everything was enormous; the money, the sets, the costume, the cameras, the actors, the stunt team – everything. Even the catering department! You just knew that it was going to be successful.
You can catch up on Bodyguard on BBC iPlayer. And keep your eyes on future television shows and films for more of Andy Bennett’s wonderful work.