How to make a hero with Hollywood stuntman Bobby Holland Hanton
Stunt professional, Bobby Holland Hanton, talks to us about doubling for iconic heroes including Batman and Bond across nearly 50 feature films, a working relationship with Chris Hemsworth that spans the MCU and beyond, plus his thoughts on why major motion picture award bodies should finally acknowledge the risks they take with theirs.
By definition, the world of the Hollywood blockbuster is a world full of heroes.
While A-list stars are often willing to do as much of their own leaping as they can in order to sell themselves as the hero the audience is paying to see (which is why we regularly see Tom Cruise clinging to something very high up), it falls to a small army of professionals who put their bodies on the line to make the blockbuster fantasy as real as possible - making them the real heroes of Hollywood.
One such professional is Bobby Holland Hanton, hailing from just down the road in Portsmouth, who as a teenager trained as a gymnast and Olympic hopeful (training that brought him to our hometown of Basingstoke between the ages of 13 and 15). So what prompted the move from gymnastics to launch his stunt career just over 10 years ago?
"It was actually in the back of my mind for a longer time than that. I started gymnastics from the age of four and then I started competing for Great Britain when I was 17. I was training five to six days a week, three to four hours a session and then competitions wherever they would be around the country, if not the world.
When I got to 17, I had three problems all come at once. I had a Russian coach that left and went to America, so I had no coach. I had a crazy growth spurt in an 18-month period. which made it very difficult for me to compete without any difficulties as far as horizontal bar was concerned. Back then it was set at a height so I'd kick the floor on my long swing so I'd lose marks every time. It also put a lot of pressure on my lower back and gave me a bit of a back injury. So, I had three things quite big that made me give up and my dream of going to the Olympics was gone, but I didn't want all of that time spent dedicating my life to that one sport and that physicality to be just wasted."
Fueled by that desire to not see years of training wasted, Bobby followed his passion for football into playing semi-professional for Fareham Town on the south coast. All the while he kept one eye out for an opportunity better suited to his gymnastics background. Eventually the opportunity would arrive and very quickly lead him towards work in TV commercials.
"There was an ad in the paper to audition for an acrobatic high diving stunt show at Legoland, Windsor. I auditioned for that when I was 19 and got the job and did a couple of seasons there and then I did live shows all over the country and places around the world. Then I got into TV commercials doing some free running and parkour back when it was brand new. It was quite natural for me as it was like taking gymnastics from the gym to the outside but with a harder surface to land on! I did commercials for K-Swiss, Joop, and then I doubled David Beckham on Adidas commercials playing football and doing soccer tricks."
Swallowing my jealous outrage that not only is he a gifted gymnast and athlete but also a skilled footballer good enough to double for Beckham, we arrive at the point which would take Bobby and his career to even dizzier heights. As skilled as he was already, to go fully pro as a stuntman there was a lot more training and learning in store to get on the British Stunt Register.
"I followed the criteria on the British Stunt Register online. You had to be elite in at least six disciplines out of a possible 12, so I chose three of those straight off the bat; 10-meter high diving, gymnastics, and trampolining because that's my background. I just had to take the tests for those and I had three of my six skills straight away. It took a bit more time to get the next three, which was kickboxing (where you have to be a brown belt and have two fights that were filmed as proof that you've done it), swimming and scuba diving."
While still in training to get on the Stunt Register, Bobby secured his first movie stunt job on Quantum of Solace. I ask if he was given specifics about the job he'd be saying yes to, or if it was a case of the studio saying 'we need a double for Daniel Craig, are you free?'. It must have been mind-blowing for a 23 year old, because as far as action sequences go it doesn't get much bigger than Bond.
"Absolutely. I hit the ground running. At 23 I didn't know anyone in the stunt game. I was asked to audition because they needed a specialist person in their field. Back then it was a much bigger sequence that ended up being chopped right down, the art gallery sequence on the ropes. I was supposed to go in for five weeks and do that then the script changed, the scene got cut right down but I'd already rehearsed other things and ended up doubling the bad guy against Bond in the room. I was then asked to stay on and before I knew it I ended up doing the whole six months of Bond on the movie."
There are few times in life where 'learning the ropes' may actually mean learning the ropes, but referencing stunt work is definitely one of those times. Once experience follows talent and ability, I ask if stunt performers then have more say in the stunts they have been hired to performed, knowing what works better for them and their bodies and what might work best for the camera.
"Yes, everyone works together as a team, and that's the most important thing, making sure that we all work together. There's these set jobs that you're employed to do. For example, a stunt coordinator would employ an assistant stunt coordinator, and he would employ a fight choreographer, and he would employ a head rigger that would do all the wire work. Everyone's got their jobs to do.
I'm normally drafted in as a lead stunt double to shoot for the lead actors or an actor in the movie or the TV show. Then we get a script and as a stunt team we break down the action sequences, then the coordinator will add their experience and vision and what they want. We will then rehearse things and shoot previews of actions sequences and show them to the director and second unit director and they decide what they like, then we will go away and do what we've been asked to change or whatever it may be. It's a long process. To make sure it's really safe, it takes a lot of time in small increments to get to where we need to be. We're probably one of the first departments on the movie, and we're probably one of the last to finish as well.
So, we generally can have a hand in some of the action and ideas. It's very creative but depends on who you're working with. For example, I've worked with Chris Hemsworth as part of his contract for the last 7 or 8 years, so we've done 11 movies together. We talk about action sequences and what he wants to do and what he's thinking, and we work together in that way. We work with the same coordinator. It's a great little family, and it's a great little process of trying to come up with great, new and unique ideas."
The stunt side of stunt performing is understandably what people think about when they think about stunts, the high-flying feats of dexterity, strength, skill and bravery. Less thought about is the 'double' in stunt double. How much thought goes into mimicking the body movement of the actor they are doubling, or at least the movement the actor has given that character?
"That's definitely taken into consideration because that's the whole point of what we do. I study anyone that I've doubled in the past. I've studied the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they move, the way they run. We take that upon ourselves as the stunt double to know everything about your actor and move as much like them as possible.
We also have to take make sure we're learning what the story is about, and how you think you should move physically in that situation to match the actor and their character. It's about taking on those things and not being wooden and just go, "I'm just going to stand there and do the stunt and that's it." There's a lot more to it than that and a lot more that goes into achieving the final product.
I think that's why I've got such a good relationship with Chris now. He trusts me to keep him safe, and he also trusts that I'll move well for him, and I'll mimic and copy what he does. Lucky for me that he's such a good athlete anyway which makes it easier for me to do the job because he's more than capable of doing it himself.
Having said, Bobby points out that while Hemsworth's physical fitness it makes his job easier, it doesn't make it easy.
"I think, to be honest, Chris is very difficult to double just because of the sheer height and build and his athleticism, especially when we're doing Thor. I have to train twice a day, eat eight meals a day, 4,500 calories a day, and wear two and a half inch lifts in my boots, my costume shoes or boots to match him. All of that is almost a job in itself, let alone the stunts, rehearsals, and going through all the fights and all that type of physicality that we do as well. It's trying to get to as much shape and build as he is in the first place, which as I said, is very difficult because he's just in ridiculous shape. It doesn't make it very easy, but it's a challenge that I always take on."
Hemsworth, along with an ever-growing list of other A-list stars calling on the Academy to recognise the role of stuntmen and stuntwomen - including Dame Helen Mirren - is a huge advocate for this long-standing oversight to come to an end. Bobby agrees.
"Yes, certainly should. It should have been recognised a very long time ago.
People put their lives at risk to make a great action movie and it's not being recognised the way that it should. I think it's a real shame. It's just very disappointing that we get overlooked because I honestly believe you cannot make an action movie without stunting, you just can't. It's part and parcel of making an action movie.
Most actors that I work with, they're very supportive and they really look out for their stunt doubles. I've never spoken to an actor who doesn't agree with it. They totally agree with it as well. It's long overdue and maybe hopefully, it does change, but who knows, let's see what the future holds."
As mentioned at the top, Bobby's career now spans across almost 50 feature film and television credits - that's an awful lot of rough and tumble that has left with him some incredible memories as well as a few injuries (Bobby is actually recovering from some back surgery at the time of our talking). What are the standout pieces of work for him to date?
"I've been very fortunate. I'm very lucky to have done some big stunts in my 11-year career so far, with some standout things I'm very proud of for varying reasons.
Quantum of Solace was my first job at 23. I did the balcony jump at two o'clock in the morning, in the slums of Panama, from one balcony to another, three stories up, no safety cables, no wires, no safety mats. It was my first stunt I've ever done on film. That was pretty dangerous. full-on, and a lot of adrenaline was kicking in. This was my first one, so it stands out massively.
On Game of Thrones, I did my first ever full-body fire burn in Seville in Spain when Khaleesi's dragons torched the Sons of the Harpy. That's a stand out one for me, especially being the first time I've ever even done partial burn, let alone straight into a full fire burn like that. We were getting hit by flame throwers, which was pretty intense. That's stand out for me.
Also, stunt doubling for Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, standing on the Manhattan Bridge in the Batsuit, 250 feet up in the air with a helicopter shooting 360 around me as the sun was setting, and it's being the last time that Batsuit was worn.
It's on camera forever and you can look back at it proudly and show your friends and family and kids and grandkids. It's great being a part of history. I'm sure you know Avengers: Endgame, is now the biggest grossing movie of all time. I'm very proud to be a part of that. Three of the top five movies in the top five grossing movies of all time, I've worked on. It's great. Certain things that will stand out for us and I'm truly very proud of."
And finally, after a career like his, who better to offer insight to anyone out there thinking of embarking on their own career in stunts?
"First of all I'd say, it does really help if you have a background and a skill in something. If that would be a martial art or if you're a gymnast or trampolinist or high diver or you ride a bike or you're great in a car, that's always a great skill to have and especially skills having a base.
Then to really know what you want and to know that you want to be a stunt performer is very important because it's not for the fainthearted. It is very difficult, it's very intense. You pick up knocks along the way and you've got to try to shrug them off the best you can and come back. Just know that you want to do this and you're really focused on what you have to achieve.
Then I'd say just go and follow the British Stunt Register criteria online that you can find everything you need to know and start training and looking after yourself and your body and eating well. It's got to a level that stunt performers are athletes now. There's no doubt about that. You have to eat well, train once or twice a day at what your specialist skill is. We're athletes, so it's developed and moved on over the years and got to this stage and it continues to move forward.
As I said, that would be my advice to young stunt performers, really know that this is what you want to do and just give it your best shot and stay really focused on trying to achieve the best that you can."