Movie Stunts: Definition and Actors Who Perform Their Own Stunts

How Movie Stunts are Created and Performed

Harrison Ford performing a stunt in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
American actor Harrison Ford as the eponymous archaeologist in the tank chase scene from the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade', 1989.

Murray Close / Getty Images

Stunt work is the process in which daring, sometimes death-defying action sequences are created for television and movies, often utilizing trained stunt performers.

In the early days of cinema, filmmakers paid acrobats and daredevils to perform stunts in their movies. Though many silent movie actors like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd performed their own thrilling stunts, the role of the stuntman was developed by Hollywood studios so breathtaking sequences could be filmed without putting highly-paid box office draws (actors and actresses) in physical danger.

Did You Know?

The Taurus World Stunt Awards, which annually recognizes the greatest stunt work of the year, began in 2001. The inaugural "Best Stunt Coordination – Feature Film" was awarded to Mission: Impossible 2.

Early Stuntmen

Many early Hollywood stuntmen were recruited from the ranks of experienced cowboys and rodeo professionals who could authentically perform feats in Westerns. In fact, many of these early stuntmen were also experienced horsemen and could likewise teach horses how to perform stunts like falls. During this era, very few stuntmen gained recognition for their work, as they were typically hired by Hollywood studios on a per diem basis. One of the most famous stuntmen of this era was "Yakima" Canutt, a rodeo champion who used his experience to become one of the most in-demand stuntmen in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming one of the first stunt coordinators. This role allowed him to develop techniques to make stunts both more thrilling and safer for stuntmen (he was awarded an Academy Honorary Award in 1967 for these innovations). One of his crowning achievements was designing and directing the chariot race sequence in 1959's Ben-Hur.

Stunt performers have had a variety of roles in productions depending on the need of a particular stunt sequence. For example, some performers, known as stunt doubles, are specifically chosen for the sequence because of their resemblance to Hollywood stars. In some cases, the stunt double will stand in for the actor on a regular basis. For example, Dwayne Johnson's stunt double, Tanoai Reed, has acted as his double for nearly 20 years. Clint Eastwood's longtime stunt double, Buddy Van Horn, would go on to become stunt coordinator of most of Eastwood's movies and also directed three films starring Eastwood.

A few stunt performers have become so famous that they have transitioned into leading roles. One famous example is Zoë Bell, who worked as a stunt double on the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess and in Kill Bill. Director Quentin Tarantino was so impressed by her performance in Kill Bill that he has since cast her in key roles in his films Grindhouse (2007), Django Unchained (2012), and The Hateful Eight (2015). 

Since the early days of cinema, standards for stunt work have been adopted to ensure the performers are protected from injury. Many stunt performers are members of SAG-AFTRA (which has its own Standards and Practices for stunt work), while the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures is an honorary society for stunt performers. In recent years, there has even been considerable push for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create an Academy Award category for stunt work (in contrast, the Emmy Awards have categories awarding stunt coordinators for television).

Actors Who Perform Their Own Stunts

For insurance purposes, many actors are contractually not allowed to do any stunt work in films. After all, if a lead actor gets sidelined because of an on-set injury, production on the rest of the film could be delayed. However, there are a number of high-profile actors who have become famous for performing many of their own stunts.

Steve McQueen

Actor Steve McQueen on a motorcycle in The Great Escape
Steve McQueen (1930-1980), US actor, sitting astride a motorcycle in a publicity still issued for the film, 'The Great Escape', 1963. The prisoner of war drama, directed by John Sturges (1910-1992), starred McQueen as 'Captain Virgil 'The Cooler King' Hilts'. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

In his prime, racing enthusiast Steve McQueen made it seem like acting was just a hobby he did while racing cars and motorcycles. In his hit films The Great Escape (1963) and Bullitt (1968), McQueen drove in the high-speed chases whenever possible. For the 1973 film Papillon, McQueen performed a dangerous cliff-jumping scene himself.

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan fighting in Police Story
Jackie Chan in Ging chaat goo si (1985). Photo by IMDb

Hong Kong martial arts legend Jackie Chan's name is almost synonymous with stunt work, with Chan choreographing and performing his own stunts in the dozens of films he has appeared in with his team, Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Though Chan's acrobatic stunt work has become legendary, his stunts have occasionally resulted in serious injuries. The most serious injury Chan has sustained in filming was fracturing his skull during what was meant to be a simple jumping stunt while filming 1986's Armour of God. Infamously, outtake footage of stunt mistakes and mishaps have been shown in the credits of many of his films.

Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds in Deliverence
Burt Reynolds holding onto some rocks as he struggles in the water with his boat behind him in a publicity still issued for the film 'Deliverance' (1972). Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Burt Reynolds had a history of doing his own stunt work dating back to some of his earliest television roles in Westerns. In an effort to bring more visibility to stunt actors, Reynolds starred in Hooper (1978) playing an acclaimed stuntman (appropriately, the film was directed by noted stuntman and Reynolds' close friend Hal Needham). Infamously, Reynolds' penchant of doing his own stunts almost led to a fatal accident when he nearly drowned after breaking his tailbone while filming a scene in Deliverance (1972).

Tom Cruise

Mission Impossible
PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 10: Actor Tom Cruise performs a stunt on set for 'Mission:Impossible 6 Gemini' filming on April 10, 2017 in Paris, France. Pierre Suu / Getty Images

Tom Cruise has performed his own stunt work in many films, particularly in his long-running Mission: Impossible series. His stunts have included skydiving, scaling the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, high-speed car chases, rock climbing, and hanging on the side of a plane in flight. Like Chan, Cruise has sustained a variety of injuries during filming, including a leg injury that delayed production of Mission Impossible - Fallout (2018) for several weeks.

Angelina Jolie 

Actress Angelina Jolie riding a motorcycle in Salt
New York, NY, May 2, 2009. EXCLUSIVE. Actress Angelina Jolie rides a 'Triumph' bike for a chasing scene on the set of the movie 'Salt'. Philip Ramey/Corbis / Getty Images 

Though Academy Award-winning actress Angelina Jolie has moved into more dramatic and behind-the-camera roles in recent years, in her roles in films like Salt (2010), Jolie performed many of her own stunts. Jolie suffered a non-serious head injury while filming Salt.