Posts Tagged ‘actor’

The Stunt Life

December 31, 2015

I miss morphine.
I didn’t say that to get your attention, but I do get it. I Understand now why people seek that one of many conduits, one that allows them to become comfortably numb.
I probably should have worded that first sentence differently. I should have said something along the lines of “I miss the paliative effect certain treatments can have on a chronic pain patient’s body.”
When I say I miss morphine that’s not the truth. The reality is I’ve been a chronic pain patient for over two decades. One of the side effects of my car accident, the initiation of this enduring Understanding, was a migraine that lasted 4 months. I was seeing a team of doctors at the time and one of them, a neurologist, prescribed some heavy duty narcotics. I realized, after a couple of days of being swallowed by the couch, staring at the stucco pattern on the ceiling and the television, that it wasn’t for me. I also came to the realization I’d no longer be able to return to my former career in the financial industry.

I worked hard in incremental steps to bump up my threshold and tolerance for pain. Becoming a stuntman served many purposes: learning stunts taught me to regain my motor skills, severely affected as a result of the accident; it taught me confidence; it provided for me clear direction where one was lacking; it taught me to work through pain. Most important, though not clear at the time, it became my true and rightful career. And pain has been my constant companion.

A note about pain and professional stunt performers: if stunt guys and gals went to the doctor or reached for narcotics every time they’d tweaked this or torsioned that, there’d be no one to perform those awesome action sequences that drive people to see blockbuster films movie in the first place. And your choices would be Fried Green Tomatoes or Driving Miss Daisy (not that I didn’t enjoy Both). The truth is stunt performers work through strains, sprains, and tears. Maybe they’ll reach for Naproxyn. I once tore my medial meniscus doing a stunt and ignored the pop until a month later, when the pain refused to subside. That’s when I’d learned there was something amiss with my knee.

As masochistic as it seems I feel the awareness and experience associated with pain is a gift. Plenty of times when we’re experiencing joy and happiness we fail to register and taste every moment. But when you’re in pain? The seconds seem to divide themselves, a kind of mitosis dedicated to letting you know it’s not going away just yet. A minute becomes an hour and an hour becomes a day. A day is an eternity that brings respite only with the possibility of sleep.

A part of me says sure, I could have picked another career. But it was the accident and subsequent career that picked me. It’s a career that continues to give me great opportunities and experiences, including the chance to travel the world and work with some great performers of stage and screen.
A career that’s had me hitting the ground, fall pads, water, and everything in between. I’ve jumped and two-wheeled (or high sided) vehicles for years. Going up is fine. Coming down is more often than not physically jarring. I’ve described the sensation to those not in the know as feeling like someone has slammed your tailbone, full force, with a mildly padded cricket paddle.

Every time we break or twist something we wonder how long to heal. And, amidst all of the other thoughts, that this could be a career ending injury. This reminds me of a comment a fellow stunt man made years ago. He said we are intentionally doing things that could potentially break us and usually with the bare minimum of safety equipment.
So it’s reasonable to believe if I’m beating my body up, then I deserve the beating I get in return.
That’s the thing that causes me some days to feel much older than I really am.

Which brings me to my newest badge of honor. An impinged disc is a literal eye opening experience.
The pain associated with neuropathy? That’s a whole new level. I know plenty of individuals who believed if you can’t see the source of the pain then you’re just making it up. I’ve always wondered about things like sciatica, constant tingling in the extremities, pain that manifest itself in ways that create new benchmarks for personal pain comparisons. But then impinged discs step in to give you the kind of experience that makes a first person narrative too dramatic for words. Suddenly, trying to find a way to get from point A to point B with the barest minimum of debilitating discomfort and – this is almost just as important – not demonstrating to the rest of the world what’s happening. It’s like being a poker player in the game of life where you don’t want to tip the rest of the table to your tell. Dealing with the pain, you start thinking, “what could I have done differently? Maybe I should have spent more time warming up and stretching as well as warming down and stretching.” I know it’s not the latter.
An old friend of mine once gave me a hard time about being so careful with my pickup truck. It was a good natured ribbing about me not wanting to get my truck dirty or scratched. He said a truck needs to be rode hard, that was the thing that gave a truck character and told you it would be reliable.
I guess the human body is the same way. If I were to use my friend’s assessment of trucks as a model of comparison, I’d have to say my body is full of character.
Because let’s face it, nobody ever thinks about stretching after a physical activity. And when I say nobody, what I mean is most every individual I have ever worked with or talk to. The reality is any time we do anything physical we should warm our bodies up for the process. And we should stretch and cool down after. Being aware of this is useful but does little to distract me from the realities of the pain.

And that’s something else to think of. If you know somebody who complains of these issues? try to be a lot more sympathetic and empathetic then you might be.

Early in my Film and TV career I was at a social event bragging about being a stunt man. This old timer, Glen Wilder ( one of the truly finest and venerated individuals in the entire industry), overheard me and leaned in.
“you’re a stuntman,” he asked?
I said, “yes sir.”
He said “you’re not a stuntman till you broke something.”

I’ve been a stuntman for a long time. Like every other stunt man and woman in the business, I can walk you through a connect-the-dot diagram of every injury sustained and tell you where, when and how it happened.

It has been an incredible journey, getting to where I am. I’ve traveled the world, lived in several countries, and made lifelong friends. Two plus decades of defying death in the name of art has been a life alive with charm. It’s never the gravity, or the fall, but the sudden stop at the end.

Now then, where is that ibuprofen?

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Stephen Jenn – A Prince For All Seasons

April 2, 2012

The world is a little quieter today.
I remember when I first met Stephen Jenn.  The university where I studied had this gem within the theatre department called The Eminent Scholar program.  For one or two semesters visiting members of the entertainment community came to spend an allotted time as instructors.  Zoe Caldwell, Robert Whitehead, Edward Albee, and Olympia Dukakis were a few of the notable people to teach and share their experiences.  Stephen Jenn, Royal Shakespeare Company, Old Vic Theatre, arrived one semester as the resident expert on all things Shakespeare.  As regards the Bard, who better, right?

My first experience with Shakespeare was under his tutelage.
My main stage debut was in the Tempest, notable in that Stephen approached me after the audition process and said, “You have the role if you want it.  take the weekend to decide.”
The role was the boatswain.  Probably not a big deal to veteran theatre types.  But a big deal made even bigger by the fact I wasn’t a theatre major (I had been preparing for law school by studying Poli Sci) and had beaten several other theatre majors for right of first refusal of the part.
Not only would I be studying Shakespeare, but I would be directed by no less than a member of one of the oldest Shakespeare troupes in existence.
I said yes with the table reading the following week.
We were gathered around a long table and wasted no time as we cracked our books. I began reading my lines and had made it almost completely through the first sentence when he slammed his script on the table.
“You’re screwing up the verse.  Don’t do it again.”
Except screwing wasn’t the word he used.  Stephen had chosen a stronger word to express his displeasure.
That day I quickly learned the difference between Verse and Prose.
I signed up for every class he was teaching, including a graduate class he permitted me to attend. I had become enthralled with Shakespeare.
Somewhere along the line our path shifted.  It happened while we were studying the sonnets. We became friends.  Every day I saw him I had a new sonnet, written in the proper format, and he marveled at the ease by which it came to me, indicating the stressed-unstressed nature of iambic pentameter was easily lost to many native Brits.  I’m certain he was telling me this simply as an attaboy, yet it encouraged me to persevere.
I auditioned for the theatre program but never made it.  I was told by the committee to keep working at it, so I did.
Two weeks later I auditioned for the Palm Beach Shakespeare’s production of Richard III.  I was cast as the Marquis of Dorset.  My first professional production.  Stephen was highly supportive of this even as I was admonished by one of the department instructors for taking theatrical work outside of the college.  

Stephen left to go back home to London and we spoke on a regular basis.  He’d always inform me whenever he’d be stateside for a similar program.  He was highly sought after and taught at many highly lauded schools with exceptional theatre departments.

But I never truly made the time to see him until my career began to take off and I had the opportunity to travel overseas.  We met for tea and talked, catching up as old friends do.

Our relationship continued to thrive when I returned back to Florida.  The chance presented itself to audition for Hamlet, and like much I have done in this industry, I pursued it because I didn’t know enough to give up or believe the role was beyond my reach.  I’ve often said I’ve succeeded only because I didn’t know enough what the word “no” meant.

I loved him with a fondness reserved for so very few. When I landed the lead role Stephen was the first person I called.  He sensed my nerves and knew just what to say, offering great wisdom and tutelage despite being “on the other side of the pond,” as he, being the proper British gentleman, liked to say.  He shared with me his own experience portraying the prince and understood how daunting the effort would be.  Stephen became an entirely accessible open book during the rehearsal process, and I am fairly certain I would never have made the performances ring true if not for him. It meant a great deal to receive his approval and insight into Shakespeare, and indeed life itself.
Every casting, every life event, anything, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, was a reason to call Stephen.  He was enthusiastic about every call, and would in turn share news on his latest film or theatre project, sometimes offering details of his on-set experiences while never drifting towards the salacious.
The last time I visited him the picture of myself as Hamlet I sent sat framed on a buffet table.  I understood then the value of our friendship.

Stephen had battled a bastard of a brain tumor for nearly 3 decades.  In the end the tumor began to win.

Yesterday would have been his 62nd birthday.

I bought two Mickey Mouse pocket watches over twenty years ago during one of my weekend jaunts to Central Florida and the Magic kingdom.
I presented one to Stephen before he left at the conclusion of his semester.
He was more touched by the gesture than I expected him to be. I guess, without realizing it at the time, I recognized this one thing: the appropriate accoutrement for any British gentleman had to be a pocket watch. 

Last night I took my Mickey Mouse pocket watch out of the case. It ran just as well as it did when I first got it all those years ago.  Holding it took me back to the day I gave my friend the other one. I wound it, but not too tightly, and set it back on its hook. 
To anyone who knew him, Stephen was a man of all seasons, a prince of great nobility, and an honorable gentleman of the very first class. 

And these words, I never understood their full meaning and mettle until just tonight.
To die: to sleep; 
No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; 
To sleep, perchance to dream, ay, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil – 
Must give us pause.

A toast, then, to a man who was my friend, mentor, and professor.
Thank you, Stephen, for showing me the beauty of a world where language was still an art form and words, artfully crafted, form magic.