From Parkour to Stunts: How I Turned a Passion into a Living

Written By: Cody Robinson

As I sit here in the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, waiting on a flight to Los Angeles, I laugh a little inside. Not the laugh of someone watching a funny video, not the kind of laugh that you have when you are laughing at yourself, and definitely not the laugh that you might have when telling someone “I told you so!” No, the laugh I’m having is the laugh you had as a kid when you can’t believe that Santa showed up on Christmas AGAIN (I mean, this is even a thing?!) I found myself having a lot of these moments over the past two years. It’s still pretty surreal that I get paid to do my absolute favorite thing in life. I’m a stuntman.

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For me, it all started in 2006 at Auburn University in Alabama. I saw Oleg Vorslav’s “Russian Climbing” on Yahoo Video, and convinced my roommates, Alex and Michael, to go try this Parkour thing. So off we went, at night so no one would see us, to the university to try it out. One year passed and we were training in public in the middle of the day. By 2008, I was running an unofficial club on campus and recruiting new members.

My friend through Parkour, Max, had made a visit to Auburn and talked to me about how he was trying his hand at stunt work. It was honestly unbelievable to me, and not in a good way. You see, I had been raised to believe that the movie business was lucrative but impossible to get into. You had to be talented, and more than that, extremely lucky. My then-fiancée turned to me that day right after Max left, and asked me not to chase that dream. She asked me to get a stable job and to please not be a starving actor. I was the guy that took care of his family, the guy that didn’t take chances in life.

During that same year, I married the love of my life and put my education on the slow-track. I had to get a job to support a family, so I applied to the Police Department. I wanted to help people, but what I really wanted was to live a life of action. Four years and two kids later, I was struggling financially and I had minimal free time. I wasn’t struggling in the sense of being without a home or food, I had a 3-bedroom house in a new neighborhood, my wife and I had paid-off vehicles, and we never went hungry. Some people would consider us “set.” But I knew that if I stayed at the Police Department I would never have enough money to do all of things I wanted in my life. I wanted to travel, to not have to constantly pinch pennies, and to be able to afford things for my kids. I was also spending most of the major holidays at work. I missed a few Christmases and Thanksgivings in a row. Something had to change.

Over the next two years I trained super hard. I was working at the Police Department and training Parkour every second I had free time. I remember literally getting withdrawals if I had not trained in a day. Looking back, I now realize that I was growing as a person and as a Traceur. Policing was mentally and physically challenging, but Parkour provided me the outlet to start fresh every day. Some days I would get into foot chases and fights with criminals cursing and threatening me, then drive straight to campus to meet with Auburn Parkour. I looked forward to putting on the same pair of black APK sweats and banging out countless runs at my favorite spots. Every day I would hear the same thing from coworkers, family, and people walking by: “What are you doing? What are you training for?” I couldn’t clearly answer that… though now I can see exactly what it was.

In 2012, my friend Max called me and said that a stunt coordinator needed a guy over 6’1’’ that could flip around. I went to the audition and got the part doubling Curly (Will Sasso) on the remake movie of the Three Stooges. I did the job and got paid a couple weeks later. I did NOT realize what stunt performers were paid. I had NO IDEA. At the time, Union stunt performers were making around $825 for an 8 hour day. I was being paid under 13 dollars an hour at the Police Department. Do the math. That’s a huge difference. I was finally realizing that if I could find the jobs, I could do this for a living. But first, I would have to find the jobs. Also during this time, I was noticed by Mark Toorock at American Parkour and I was asked to join The Tribe. I did a few jobs with The Tribe, and working with them absolutely solidified the idea that I could do what I love for a living, and Mark was supportive 100% along the way.

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But there was a problem. Atlanta was still pretty sparse with stunt work, and I didn’t live close enough to go there every day. I didn’t have a dime to spare to take this risk. Then there was also the problem of convincing my family to support me in this seemingly fruitless dream. No one in my circle of friends and family had ever known someone in the movie business. So I continued with my daily job with the idea that I would take jobs when they fell into my lap. That never happened. I was expecting my second kid, and in 2013 I moved to a different Police Department for purely financial reasons.

Not even a year into my job, I felt misplaced. It wasn’t the job itself: the department I worked at was great, my supervisors were respectful and knowledgable, and I was making a little bit more money and it was a bit safer than my previous city. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing the job that I was made for.

I started heavily researching the stunt career and contacting random people asking about the film industry. Soon, I was doing low-paying work as an extra to get to know the industry when I had off days. I hated extras work, I wanted to be part of the action. I hated standing around for 12 hours for 100 bucks and a granola bar. I was, no joke, driving to Atlanta on my off days and sleeping in my car most of the time between shoot days. However, I was gaining valuable insight and info on the industry and I was definitely discovering what I didn’t want to do.

Through one of those extras job, I met some producers and directors of independent films that ended up using me as a stunt performer in an advertisement for the City of Atlanta. It was the turning point in my career. My family started taking this seriously. One of the directors put me in contact with a SAG stunt coordinator in the area. SAG stands for Screen Actors Guild, the Union that makes sure that its members get paid a sustainable amount for their work. After speaking with that coordinator on the phone for a few hours one slow Sunday afternoon, I decided to pull the trigger. I can’t believe that this coordinator took the time to listen to my situation, fears, and answer my questions.

So I did my first hustle. Whats a hustle you ask? A hustle is where you find and meet with a coordinator to give him your headshots and resume. You basically talk to the coordinator and sell yourself. I met with the same coordinator I had been speaking with to help move a trampoline while we talked. He told me that he wanted to use me in an upcoming show if I was available. I left with the assurance of a vague promise, but that was enough. I was quitting my job.

I have to admit I was scared. I would be leaving every type of comfort behind. I had a mortgage to pay off. I had a family to feed. Nothing about this decision was easy. So I asked myself: in 30 years where did I see myself if I stayed at my current job? Was I truly ready to embark upon this highly specialized job?

Over the next few weeks, I didn’t sleep very well. Every one of my off days was spent traveling to Atlanta, an hour and a half away, training and networking before going to sleep in my car. It was hot that summer and my car didn’t have air conditioning, but I couldn’t afford to fix it on my current salary.

Then the day came. Quitting day. I left my department in good graces with the assurance that I had made a good impression. It turned out that my past job with the Three Stooges had made me eligible to be in the Screen Actors Guild. However, I needed to pay almost $2000 to join the guild. I bit the bullet, paid the money, and three days later was working on the set of a hit CW spinoff called The Originals. My first stunt was a kong over the top of a pickup truck. The ground and truck had been sprayed down with water, and the truck’s shocks were worn out. I had to do the stunt over 15 times. At the end of the day, I was beat up from working through those problems, but I was stoked that I was living my dream!

Almost 3 years later, business is going strong. I’ve participated in almost 50 shows and films. All while doing the most important thing — supporting my family.

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I’ve learned a lot over the past three years about how to make this job work and I want to share some of what I’ve picked up:

  1. Make use of every hour to push, don’t get comfortable.
  2. Take note of your height and weight. That’s important in the stunt world.
  3. Don’t try to alter your body to the point of unhealthiness to look a certain way. You’ll get injured.
  4. Train hard, but train smart. If you have a job coming up, don’t do super dangerous stuff.
  5. Your on-set work days can actually be pretty low-level as far as a exertion goes. Make sure to work out after a day on the job or you’ll end up getting out of shape.
  6. Be prepared to HIT THE GROUND…A LOT.
  7. No seriously, that’s 90% of your job. Especially when you first start.
  8. You WILL NOT make it as a stuntman if you only do Parkour. Keep your Parkour strong, but branch out into martial arts, driving, and other specialty skills.
  9. Show respect to those who have been in the business longer than you. A good portion of this job is your ability to work with others.
  10. Lastly, but most importantly, be honest with your boss about what you can and can’t do. If you lie, it could mean the end of your career.

Most importantly, go for the things you want to do in life, but be smart about it! If you know what you want to do in life, plan for it. Do whatever it is you have to do in order to further your dream, but don’t be so proud as to not have something that pays the bills. A man I respect once told me: “You’ll be more successful doing something you love than you will ever be doing something that you don’t.” Passion eventually equals success. Find your passion.

Written by

Adrienne Toumayan

Adrienne is currently working as an events manager in Los Angeles where she uses parkour to explore the city. Adrienne is an APK Certified Instructor and she loves to write and travel. She has a degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and dreams of starting her own nonprofit focused on using sport, specifically parkour, as a tool for peace and development. Blog: http://ninjagirlintraining.wordpress.com/