How Does it Feel to be a Stunt Performer?

Written by: Violet Myers

Stunt work: the art of falling down, crashing cars and setting yourself on fire in cinematic style. Now we don’t like to brag, but it seems we’ve been doing the work of North London raised stuntman Jonathon Cohen for years now. If only someone had been filming the time we crashed aunt Mabel’s Reliant Robin into the chip shop, we’d have been rolling in cash rather than curry sauce.

We spoke to Jonathon to find out what life as a stunt performer is really like and why he’s moving on to pursue a career in music.

“I was literally born into the industry, it was all I ever knew. My dad was a successful film director and, along with other films, he directed the original Dad’s Army feature film. When I was a kid being picked up at school I was always picked up in a taxi and taken to the studios, my mum and dad were divorced but I lived with my dad, so we used to go to the studios where he’d be working, Pinewood, Elstree or wherever.

It was ironic really that I got into stunt work,because my dad was very protective, mainly because he was a single parent. The thought of me doing anything dangerous was just a big no. I remember once telling him I wanted a motorbike he just said no, it’s not going to happen.”

I guess in a sense when he died young it was my way of rebelling a bit.

“I was 17 when he died. When you lose someone so young you have to deal with it in your own way, push yourself in different directions.

I started out as an actor. I did a two-year drama college course and started getting some small roles. I even got a part in a Catatonia music video, playing Agent Mulder from the X files, from there I moved into stunt work. The basics of becoming a stunt performer are that everyone has to have six sports. You can choose six out of a list of about thirty. Mine are horse riding, fencing, scuba diving, martial arts and trampolining. You reach a certain level in each one and it’s not even about the success of the sport, but rather that it’s a way of showing how much you’ve dedicated yourself to it. It takes about two years to get on the stunt register, but it depends on how hard and how much you are working.

People always associate stunt work with a big fall, a spectacular car crash or big fights, but we’re also doing smaller things like bar fights, falling over – everyday stuff. Last week I just had to run out of a police station and get shot in the back, it’s not the biggest stunt in the world, but it looks good.”

There is a technique to dying on screen, but it definitely depends on how you die.

“I’m a proud member of an EMMY winning stunt ensemble, we won for our involvement in last season’s Game of Thrones and it’s such a huge achievement. But what really annoys me is how the Academy refuses to recognise stunt performances at the Oscars. It’s an important department, so we’re all trying to get behind that at the moment – we’ve even got Harrison Ford and Keanu Reeves campaigning for it. It’s great to have their support but totally nuts that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a massive oversight in the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got some great friends who are stunt people. I’ve had some of the most exciting moments of my life doing stunts and I’ve come away feeling fulfilled, but I’m starting to move away from stunt work and concentrate more on my music, Johnny Wore Black. I’ve always written songs, it’s been my way to express myself. Without wanting to sound cheesy; it’s my yin and yang.”

I protected my own vulnerability by doing physical things like stunt work, it’s my suit of armour.

“I think that anything that you feel like you’re discovering yourself is awesome. With stunts it’s different, every time you walk onto a set you’re someone else, you’re not there to be yourself. But when you’re doing music you can just be who you really are.

I suppose my challenge with stunt work has been that is limited in its creativity. I suppose you could argue it is creative, say you’ve got to skid a car in a circle, but what can you do? I mean you can be creative about maybe the angle you use or the speed. But it doesn’t allow for you to bring your own ideas, again you’re playing someone else, it’s a different journey.

Right now I’m planning to tour my music around London and do some festivals. I’ve been directing some music videos to go along with the new album and, although they are not at all stunt driven, I did manage to set my hand on fire. It’s weird actually, directing in a funny way made me feel closer to my dad. I started to see how he might look at things, it was weird, but nice.”

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