It wasn't long after watching a 1978 action film starring Burt Reynolds that a young Matt Philliben saw his future.
Hooper starred Reynolds as Sonny Hooper, known in the film as "The Greatest Stuntman Alive." The film followed an aging Hooper and his antics as he prepared for the mega stunt that would cap off his career.Hooper became a cult hit and serves as a tribute to stuntmen and stuntwomen and their dangerous profession.
Philliben, now an Atlanta-based actor and stuntman, said it served as an inspiration to him and a generation of stunt workers, many working the film industry throughout Georgia. "I wanted to be a stuntman since I was about four years old," admitted Philliben. "I watched Hooper when I was young, and I thought, man that was cool. Then Point Break (1991) with Keanu Reeves came along."
Philliben was hooked.
"Even though I saw these movies when I was young, I knew this is what I wanted to do."
Fast forward to today, and Philliben has been an actor and a stuntman in film and television for almost 13 years. He's chalked up over 60 film and television credits, playing Yuri Bakonov in the popular CW show, Black Lightning, filmed in Atlanta. When it comes to motion pictures, Philliben had the pleasure of working for three months alongside Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3. All this recent work was in addition to his stunt work, including serving as a stunt double for Eminem and Mark Wahlberg.
"Everyone has a path in life," explained Philliben, a Detroit native. "I just knew from an early age; I was going to work in the entertainment industry."
Hard work and perseverance are paying off for Philliben. Doors are opening, but like anyone on a "career path," he paid his dues. "I've worked for free and worked intern shifts, independent movies and security for celebrities. With this line of work, you can't open a book, and it tells you what to do."
Philliben studied film and theatre in college at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, but he is the first to admit that was just the start of his training for stunt work. "There isn't a degree for being a stuntman. You have to have something that sets you apart: racing cars, martial arts, gymnastics or a skill that helps you find your way in."
Even though Philliben has extensive training in martial arts and hand-to hand combat, he said it helped that he possessed that much desired daredevil personality. "I was that daredevil kid growing up. I built my own ramps on the street and climbed trees that were way too high. I was on the roof of my house. Sure, I'd fall from doing something stupid, but I was always able to bounce back."
Another requirement of the job is not being starstruck by who you might see or working with on set. George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Hugh Jackman, to name a few, just happen to be some of Philliben's co-workers. "I don't get nervous around celebrities. When you work so many years, they are just your co-workers, and it’s part of the job. I even forget who they are sometimes, but some people lose it."
Although not a Georgia native, Philliben has taken to the state, the city of Atlanta, and says the area's reputation in the industry is a driving force. "I liked the fact that Atlanta and Georgia were established. I was able to work here before I moved, and the buzz about Atlanta was that it was a hidden gem in terms of filmmaking. This was many years ago, and of course, it's really blown up now in the last three to four years. I remember 10 years ago; it had a buzz, and it was on the rise."
Philliben says the ripple effect works both ways as new productions come to Atlanta and as more talent moves to the area. "I heard from a lot of people that Atlanta would be the new film capital, and more productions were coming. We should all thank Tyler Perry! The weather is good, (there) is no snow, no horrible winters, and the people are friendly. I know I don't plan on leaving, and Atlanta always has that positive vibe."
Philliben's first paying job on a set was Real Steel with Hugh Jackman back in 2010-11. This film spent many years in development and filming took place primarily in Michigan. The technology of the time allowed for animatronic robots to be built for the film, and motion capture technology helped depict the brawling of computer-generated robots and the animatronics.
Philliben says that technology used in stunt work and production of stunts has improved just as quickly as the editing and camera technology that is used in today's productions. "The changes are for the better," explains Philliben. "Big improvements have been made in terms of ‘wire work.’ For stunt people, this is their lifeline, literally. Cables and lines are attached to a ratchet. Ratchets consist of a bar or wheel with a set of angled teeth in which a cog or tooth engages and allows motion.” He adds that, “the cables and lines are now called, ‘tech lines’ with a softer and stronger rope used for added safety.” What stunt performers wear for protection has also been improved. "Padding has improved," states Philliben. "It's important since they are the line of protection for our body parts. The newer harnesses are a lot different as they have become stronger." All good news for those ultra-dangerous stunts that might even make an established veteran like Philliben nervous.
"I can get nervous when we are doing something dangerous, but I know how to handle it. If you are too nervous or scared, it can cause problems with your performance. As a stunt performer, safety is always the top concern and priority. Everything is so rehearsed, planned out and precise, the newer technology really helps." Philliben stresses that everything is monitored and rehearsed sufficiently, and safety is always a top priority. He said that as a stunt performer, everyone knows what he or she is signing up for in terms of danger.
"There is no degree for being a stuntman.”
Stunts can range from easy to what Philliben and other stunt people call “more challenging.” “I wouldn’t say there’s such a thing as an ‘easy stunt.’ Everything is challenging in its own way. For me an easy stunt can include falling from a window in the Eminem music video and surprisingly, usually anything fire-related. Anything with fire is really easy,” explains Philliben from his experiences. “You have fire retardant clothing on underneath your wardrobe called Nomex, along with fire safety gel. It’s put all over your skin and clothing, so the performer is perfectly safe and monitored by a team of fire safety experts with fire extinguishers. Fire burns are the least challenging to perform because all you have to do is fling your arms around and run or walk around like you’re on fire, but it only lasts for a couple minutes until they’re extinguished.”
Anything with an explosion can be classified as a more challenging stunt. Philliben recounts an explosion simulation where he was yanked on a line and flung through the air to simulate getting blown up. The line that was attached ran to a ratchet with a small machine that has compressed air tanks attached. The force and how fast the line pulls is based on the amount of psi (pressure) you let out of the air tanks. The machine also has a firing system and button to press when the actual stunt takes place. The other end of the line is attached to vest via a safety harness that is strapped on him or under his wardrobe.
Philliben says that sometimes a challenging stunt won’t even see the light of day. “In Batman v Superman, at the end of the movie during the final warehouse fight, Batman slams one of the other gangsters in the warehouse. That gangster had a grenade, and said grenade blew me and him up. The scene ultimately got cut, but I was engulfed in fire and had to dive backward and slam to the ground when the explosion happened.”
When not performing or on set, Philliben makes it a point to get out and give back to the community and cities surrounding Atlanta. "I do a lot of things with kids; The Children's Hospital and the Youth Mentor Program they have. I feel it's important to seek out sick or underprivileged kids. I've learned this is an important charity to be involved in because they are the future. Any chance I can get to help kids, I'm all about that!"
"The power of the mind is an amazing thing.”
Sometimes helping kids means offering up encouragement and advice. Philliben said he loves giving talks in classroom settings. "My number one piece of advice is to work hard at something. For those interested in being a stunt performer or actor, try martial arts, gymnastics and don't stop! Never stop believing in your dream. The power of the mind is an amazing thing."
Now settled in Atlanta and getting more film work, Philliben isn't one to rest on his laurels when it comes to stunt work or new roles. "The future is bright. If I can get a role, I'm all about it. And for stunts, I'll do that as well. I kind of like doing both. With the entertainment industry, you never know when you are going to get that next job. It's a constant grind and a constant hustle. I'll probably look more at stunt work. Stunts are my first love."
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, received a seven-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film, released this summer, stars two of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Set in Los Angeles in the late 60s, DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed-up television actor, and Pitt play’s his best friend, Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double. In the film, Pitt is punched, thrown and kicked by an actor playing Bruce Lee. How many stunt doubles did he have? The list in the credits is long.
Perhaps, just like Burt Reynold’s portrayal as a stuntman in Hooper that inspired Matt Philliben, Brad Pitt’s portrayal of a stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will inspire people to have the guts and the glory too.