You may not know Vic Armstrong’s name, but you definitely know his work. Whether he’s jumping from a horse onto a moving tank in the Indiana Jones movies or rappelling into a villain’s lair in James Bond, he’s the guy whose job it is to make our on-screen heroes look awesome. After more than four decades in the industry, he’s finally gotten around to writing down his incredible story in an autobiography fittingly titled The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman.
Glen Ferris caught up with the man himself to talk about his career, what it takes to break into the industry and the stunt world’s equivalent of the Oscars…
Congratulations on the autobiography, how long have you been waiting to tell your story?
45 years! I’ll write another one in another 45 years. Funnily enough, I never wanted to write a book but some friends said I should. The reason I never wanted to do it was because I didn’t want to write a tabloid-style book, but then I met Robert Sellers, who has written a lot of film books, and I just liked his honest and ethical approach. He talked me into it.
Stuntmen by their very definition are there to make other people look good, is it nice to finally be getting the recognition you deserve?
I find it rather embarrassing because we are there to do a job. We’re not there as actors because we can’t act – well I can’t, I’m the worst actor in the world – but we are there to play a part. If you’re falling off a building, you try to do it in the style of the character and how it fits that moment in the script, whether you’ve been thrown off the building or if you’ve been shot or you’ve committed suicide.
Is it easier to get into the right frame of mind for a stunt if you do it in character?
Absolutely, you’re living the part and you’re playing the music in your head as you’re doing it. It’s very well planned though, you don’t just have to hold your breath and go ‘Oh shit, here we go’.
You’ve been quoted as saying the best days of your filming career were on the early Bond films [he worked on You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Live and Let Die], what actually was the best film you’ve ever done?
It’s all down to how you judge what was a great film to work on. For pure physical fun, one would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we were living in Switzerland, skiing to the location every day and living the life of riley. We had a ball working on Air America, we went out there and had a blast flying a Huey helicopter down to Chiang Mai to get steaks.
What’s the biggest preconception about being a stuntman? Is it that people think you have to be crazy to do it?
Unfortunately yes. A stunt is doing something when you don’t really want to do it on somebody else’s cue in the wrong conditions. It’s totally analytical, you have to work everything out and focus on it, so being crazy is the last thing you should be.
You’ve now got a hugely successful second career as a second-unit director, does life feel a lot safer now?
Yeah, but it's a double-edged sword because all my family are in the business and I’m the one getting them to do the stunts. I worked on The Green Hornet and my son Scott drove in one of the car crashes. He was doing 65mph in a pick-up that was on fire and he ran into a bus and somersaulted down the road. You have to remain professional and shout 'Action' but what you really want to say is ‘Oh God son, please don’t do this!’
You just finished work on The Amazing Spider-Man. Were there a lot of practical stunts going in or was it mostly CGI?
They wanted to go back to a more practical feel with Spidey and his swinging. So my brother Andy and I set up a training rehearsal workshop in L.A. and we worked very hard to design how Spider-Man does his swings. He doesn’t fly, he swings like Tarzan from vine to vine, so we worked on how he would do that transition with cables and we flew all the way from 12th Avenue in New York to 136th Street with all the cars underneath. It looks very good.
Do you think there’s still a calling for practical stunts these days?
Yes, I do think there’s room for it. I don’t particularly like films like Transformers because they look too much like videgames. Thankfully, there seems to be a trend with film-makers like the Spider-Man people to go back to more physical action. If you look at films like Ong-Bak, for example, where they didn’t have the budget for CG, the action is incredible, it’s well directed and choreographed and I think that's why films like that pop out, because people still love to see humans doing stunts.
A few years ago, you received a Lifetime Achievement gong at the Taurus World Stunt Awards, that must have been a special moment...
I did and it was. We got one the other weekend for Thor with one of our girls [New Zealand’s Ky Furneaux] who did a big jump, which was good. We didn’t get the overall co-ordinating one, Fast & Furious 5 got that, which is fair enough.
What do the Taurus World Stunt Awards mean to people in your industry?
It’s a wonderful awards system because we don’t get any other recognition in this industry. Amongst the stunt world, it’s absolutely our Oscars and it’s a tremendous thing to be given one – it’s a really impressive object they give you as well. I vote on all of the films because I’m on the committee. We’re a very, very critical panel the ten of us, we do ask a lot of questions about what actually is real in the stunt and what is computer generated - we can be fooled with CGI as well!. We talk to co-ordinators and we talk to performers to make sure they’re telling us the truth. Yeah, we’re pretty diligent to make sure they’re all worthy winners.
Finally, what would you say to anybody wanting to become a stunt person?
It would be one thing, whatever your speciality is work your backside off at that. When you start off as a stuntman, you’ll be employed because you’re better at that job than anybody else. Be it parkour, fencing, horse-riding, whatever, you have to become an expert at it. As long as you’re trustworthy and you’re not a daredevil you’ll get the work. The bread-and-butter stuff, like driving, you’ll be able to pick up as you go along.
The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman: My Life As Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman and other movie heroes by Vic Armstrong with Robert Sellers is published by Titan Books.