Tim Rigby is one of the leading stuntmen in Hollywood. He gets blown up, drives off bridges, and endures myriad other perils for a living — and he wouldn't dream of doing anything else. "If I had a regular job, I would be skydiving, riding motorcycles, working out, and doing martial arts anyway," Rigby told me over email, adding, "I just wouldn't be getting paid for it!"
After getting his start clearing mines in the Royal Navy, Rigby took to Hollywood in the classic tradition — he got off a plane with nothing but a backpack, some money in his pocket, and the ambition to become a stuntman. He landed his first break at Universal Studios, where he played a smuggler in their Miami Vice-themed stunt show. Now, 20 years later, Tim took to that same Universal lot to film a vignette for Wild Turkey's #nevertamed campaign, "just a few hundred yards away from where the Miami Vice show used to be."
This is a long one, but trust me, it's worth it. Don't you want to know how to survive almost getting your head sliced off while hanging out the sunroof of a car going 80 miles per hour? While shooting a gun? Yeah. Buckle up.
Q: You started your career in the U.K.'s Royal Navy as a mine clearance diver. How did you make the transition to being a stuntman?
TR: During my time in the Navy, I did a lot of interesting and challenging things, but ultimately decided that the military was not what I wanted to do long term. I had always been drawn to adventurous pursuits, so when I left the Navy, I worked as a windsurfing instructor in the south of France for a while. Then I bought a round-the-world plane ticket and took off for Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, then mainland US. I worked various jobs along the way. During this time I had thought more and more about trying to pursue stunts. The problem was, I knew nothing about how to go about it, nor did I really even know exactly what being a stuntman entailed. I was 25 years old, and wasn't qualified for much except commercial diving.
The last part of my trip led me to Los Angeles. I got off the plane with my backpack and $1,000 (saved from pearl diving). I didn't know anyone in the U.S., so I got a taxi to a hostel in Venice Beach, where I was to live for the next six months. My plan was to visit Universal Studios and watch the stunt shows. I had heard that the performers would come out after the show to sign autographs. I went to Universal, watched the Miami Vice stunt show, and waited outside. When I saw an opportunity, I approached one of the guys, and asked him, "How can I become a stuntman?"
The guys name was Nick, and he had a sort-of stunt training facility. I say "sort-of" because it wasn't very organized! It was a small warehouse with a trampoline, some mats and some swords. I persuaded Nick to train me. I had planned to use the $1,000 to buy a car, but instead spent it all on stunt training and bought a bicycle instead. The problem was, Venice Beach was about 20 miles from Nick's place! I rode my bike and trained with him about three times per week for six months and worked in a restaurant in the evenings to continue to fund my training.
After six months, I returned to the UK (I had now been away 18 months) and told my parents I was moving back to the US permanently to be a Hollywood stuntman. I was very lucky to have supportive, understanding parents!
My first break came when Nick contacted me and said they were having auditions for the Miami Vice stunt show. I wasn't sure if I was ready yet, but he persuaded me to try out. Nick was one of the Universal staff heading up the auditions, so all of the tests he set up were exactly what I had been doing with him three times a week for those six months.
I got hired on as a "smuggler." It was my first stunt job. I was the 11th alternate — that meant 10 people had to turn down a show before I would get the call. I didn't care. I was beyond excited. I continued diving to pay the bills, and started to pick up occasional stunt work. It was a few years before I was making a living exclusively doing stunts.
Q: What was the biggest difference between your job as a mine clearance diver and your new role in Hollywood?
TR: There are probably more similarities than differences. Both require careful planning, preparation and an ability to keep your head under pressure. Both can also be unforgiving of mistakes. I'm proud to be a part of both groups. I would say the biggest differences would really just be the lack of security for employment, and the uncertainty of movie work. Also if you're fortunate enough to make it stunt work pays better than the military!
Q: What's was the first big stunt you ever performed? Were you nervous?
TR: It was on a movie called George of the Jungle I was doubling the actor Thomas Haden Church. My job, (which I did along with my friend Nancy who was doubling Leslie Mann), was to swim down the rapids on the American River, which was a class 5 [the second-highest classification of rapids]. When I say "swim" I really mean "survive." We jumped in upriver of the rapids and were carried down stream. We had safety kayakers who would help extract us when we surfaced. As far as being nervous the answer is yes.
I have always been very comfortable in the water, but standing by the river and hearing its deafening roar gave me pause.I knew that I was on my own, and that the safety kayakers were really a token gesture — they were powerless until we surfaced. I had a moment of self-reflection and realized that this is what I signed up for. Apparently this was [the kind of thing] stuntmen are asked to do. I got what I asked for, but now it was time to deliver.
Q: Have you ever ended up in a really difficult situation mid-stunt? How did you get out of it?
TR: Yes. There have been a few. On The Matrix Reloaded I was doubling for one of the albino twins and was hanging out of the sunroof of an SUV firing an automatic weapon in the midst of a car chase. My friend (also named Tim) was driving our SUV and doubling the other twin. Tim was aggressively weaving in and out of traffic (driven by other stunt drivers) at speeds of up to 80 MPH. It was hard for me to hold on and fire my weapon, so I had tied myself into the car. Usually tying in is a bad idea — in the event the car turned over I wouldn't be able to duck — but I had no choice. Tim was (and still is) one of the best drivers in the business so I made my peace with it.
One part of the chase involved us chasing the lead stunt car (driven by my friend Debbie) across a parking lot, through a fence, jumping down a freeway embankment, and turning into a tunnel. After talking it over with Tim and the other stunt guys, we decided that if ever there was a chance the car would turn over, this was it. So I just tied myself in on one side (to the right which was the direction of the turn). This would at least give me some chance to duck if the car flipped. (Probably not, but it made us feel better!)
They called "action," and Debbie took off fast with us following about one car length behind her, and me hanging out of the sunroof, shooting. As Debbie crashed through the fence, everything went into slow motion. I noticed that her car had burst through the bottom part of the chain link fence, but the wire at the top had not broken. At the last millisecond I ducked down into the car, but the gun didn't fit through the sunroof and was ripped out of my hands.
The aftermath was sobering. There had been a third car in the chase behind us. It was a police car driven by my friend Johnny. The unbroken wire had dragged across Debbie's car, then across our car, then across Johnny's car and ripped the police light bar off his roof. Why the breakaway wire didn't break nobody knew. My fingernails were all blackened from having the gun ripped from my grip, but I was otherwise OK. All three cars had scrape marks where the wire had dragged across them.
The only reason I had decided to not fully tie in was because we were concerned that the car may flip — it wasn't because of the fence. In fact, we had crashed through a fence the previous day, over relatively flat ground, and I had been fully tied in, and would have been unable to duck down. The wire had ripped the metal light bar of the car that was behind me, so I can only imagine what it would have done to me if I hadn't have ducked.
Q: How do you psych yourself up before a big stunt?
TR: One of the advantages of doing stunts on someone else's timetable is that it takes the decision of when you go out of the equation. When they call "action," you go. That's it. Once I got used to that, it helped alleviate excessive stress. Obviously the stunt has to be prepared and the stuntman has to be capable, but there is no waiting around deciding whether you have the courage to go or not.
Q: What's the biggest stunt you've performed thus far?
TR: While doubling Vin Diesel for the movie xXx, I rode a Corvette off a 700-foot bridge in northern California, I had to act like I was surfing it and then parachute out.
Q: How are the stunts planned? Do you work with the film's director to plan them?
TR: It depends on the stunt, but it always involves some sort of rehearsal for timing, camera etc. If it's a fight, we will choreograph all of the punches, kicks etc, then go through it at quarter speed, then half speed, then full speed, until it is a fluid dance.
With a car chase, we will start with toy cars and chalk on the sidewalk, then we might all walk down the road like soldiers marching to get our relative spacing, then we'll get in the cars and drive the route slowly (maybe 10 MPH) until we have all of the timing down. Only then will we go full speed. This is very important, not just for safety, but to make sure that the planned wrecks happen at the correct time in the correct place. There's no point doing a spectacular car wreck if it's not captured on film.
A lot of these wrecks are one-take only, because the car may be destroyed. Also, any cars that are going to be flipped, crashed or jumped need to be prepped ahead of time with roll cages, fuel cells, etc.
Q: Your insurance must be crazy! What kind of safety precautions do you have to take?
TR: The best insurance is to save your money when work is good, so if you get injured, you can still pay your bills!
As far as safety precautions, every stuntman/woman has their stunt bag. That usually consists of various pads that come from other sports like skateboarding, hockey, football, and motorcycle racing. You have to get creative though, because they need to be adequately hidden under your wardrobe. You can't walk onto set looking like the Michelin man! For car work, we use helmets, roll cages, five-point seat belts, neck and wrist restraints etc. I have several bags depending on what I'm doing. I have a general stunt bag, a car bag, a scuba bag, a fire bag, a skydiving bag and a motorcycle bag.
Q: Is there a never-been-done-before stunt that you'd like to try?
TR: This is sort of getting into the daredevil realm, which is different from what we do. A stunt in a movie needs to have context. It may be something spectacular, but it can't be about the stunt itself. It has to fit with the story of the movie. However, if I did have an idea of a stunt that had never been done before, it probably wouldn't be wise to announce it publicly, in case someone beat me to it!
Q: If you weren't a stuntman, what would you be?
TR: I joined the Royal Navy with the intention of becoming a diver. When I was still in basic training, I was asked what my second choice was if I didn't make it as a diver. I refused to give one. It's wasn't that I thought I was so tough that I was guaranteed to make it — far from it. In fact, I didn't want the temptation of the safety net of having a second choice.
I felt the same way about being a stuntman. I had no plan "B." That cleared my mind to accept that I have to make this work. It seems easy to say that now looking back, because I've had a very fortunate career, but there were certainly times early on when I wondered if I was ever going to make it.
I worked really hard to get where I am, but I have to acknowledge that I had some help and some luck. The help came from people who encouraged me and supported me. The luck was realizing exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
Maud Deitch is a Senior Content Producer at Studio@Gawker. She has written in SPIN, The FADER, MTV.com and other publications.