The Many Lives Of a Hollywood Stunt Performer: A Conversation With Oliver Keller
Oliver Keller grew up in a small town in Switzerland dreaming of becoming a stuntman in Hollywood. His appetite for excitement led him to Super G Downhill skiing and an eventual apprenticeship with a German stunt professional, but he had his sights set on bigger things.
Today, Oliver is a rising star in Hollywood’s stunt community, and has worked on mega-blockbusters from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to Master & Commander, and not one but two of Sacha Baron Cohen films (Brüno and The Dictator) and the largest Bollywood film ever made (Dhoom 3).
We talked to Oliver about falling out of buildings, third degree burns, designing a canon to help blow cars into the sky (while he’s inside them), and how he got down to 7% body fat while working as Henry Cavill’s stunt double on Immortals.
The Credits: So tell us about this film you were just working on, Dhoom 3?
OLIVER KELLER: Dhoom 3 is the biggest budget Bollywood movie ever made. We were filming in Chicago. We flipped five cars, dropped a guy 300-feet from the top of city hall, and shot a chase scene on the Chicago river with jet skis and boats while motorcycles raced on the river walk. We had more than 100 stunt performers involved.
Sounds like a fun job. When did you know you wanted to be a stunt performer?
I was born and raised in Switzerland. I competed in downhill Super G skiing as a teenager and raced BMX bikes in the summer. When I was 7 years old, I saw a TV show called The Fall Guy, where Lee Majors played a stunt man. I thought that’s what I want to do one day. I never lost that. Living in a small town in Switzerland, with about 200 people, everybody’s kind of laughing at you, but my family supported me, and when I was 15 or 16 I went to Germany to a stunt school, and a stunt coordinator put me under his wing, and gave me some opportunities. I eventually moved to LA.
What’s the worst injury you’ve sustained while doing a stunt?
About 13-years ago, on a TV show in Germany, it was one of those 3-2-1 countdown action shots, only the explosion when off at 2. I wasn’t anywhere near my safety area, and it was a naphthalene gasoline explosion [this sticky compound is often used in pyrotechnic special effects for simulated explosions], so the fuel stuck to my wardrobe. I tried to move away from the flames, and the safety guys were on quick, but I got burned pretty badly. They had to take a skin sponge and grind down the burned layers of skin and remove all the burnt layers. They didn’t have to do a skin graft, but I ended up with 2nd and 3rd degree burns (my nose was 3rd degree, it was really bad). But I was really lucky. I’ve never been macho about this job, but I also believe if you can still work, you continue, so, three hours after they took me to the hospital, I came back to the set and crashed a car (on purpose, it was his remaining stunt.) After that, my day was over.
Can you tell us about some of the actors who are the bravest when it comes to stunts?
Joe Manganiello comes to mind immediately [he plays the werewolf Alcide in HBO’s True Blood], I doubled him on the first Spider-Man, he’s a very, very good athlete. He has a football background and he’s game for anything. He’s in very good shape and he gets fight choreography done very quickly. If you can use the actor, then you say, okay, let’s do it. It will look a little more authentic. I’ve also been the stunt double for Ashton Kutcher a lot [in 2006’s The Guardian, 2010’s Killers, and 2011’s No Strings Attached], and I know his limits. But he’s very much game for lots of it, he loves to fight. He does a very good fight in Killers.
Tell us what it’s like to work on a gigantic, big-budget films where there’s hundreds of people involved and massive stunts?
One of the highlights in my career was working on Master & Commander. I was on the French crew, on the French boat, and the set was down in Mexico, at the Baja Studios, which they built for James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s got all these stages and pools the size of four or five football fields. Also, it’s on the coast and they have an infinity pool so it looks like it blends into the ocean. We had 80 stunt performers on that shoot, including 100 crew, 150-200 extras, live animals—cows, chickens, goats. I died like fifteen times on that movie. I was blown up, thrown off the ship, drowned, you name it. One day you wear a red hat and fight for the British, the other day you wear a green hat and a mustache and fight for another country. And Russell Crowe, he’s into doing a lot of action, he’s so active, he’s in great shape.
What did you do on Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator?
A lot of slapstick stuff, really. I rode a horse in the sand dunes in Spain. I fell off the UN Stage. In [Sacha’s] movies, the challenge isn’t the stunt so much but the wardrobe. We’d rehearse a specific stunt, like climbing over a fence, jumping across a rooftop, and you’re doing it in your hiking gear, solid boots, and it goes great. But during in the shoot? Now you’re wearing an Arab jellabiya [a traditional garmet, like a robe] and loafers with fur on them. And in that outfit I had to run down an alley outside of a hotel, cut into a mass of people, step on one guy’s thigh, leap over his body, use another guy’s shoulder for leverage, and then football tackle a girl onto a table. The girl? A tiny little Asian lady I had to take on. Typically your stepping stone is an apple box, but doing it on a human, they all have a risk of failure, if one element doesn’t fit with the other, the whole gag doesn’t work.
When did you realize you had made it as a stunt performer?
On Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. I worked on Pirates for a week, we shot on the back lot on Universal Studios, on European Street—where we filmed Port Royal being attacked by the Black Pearl. I had to run for my life, dodge exploding glass, running like crazy through the town. I was just in LA for two years at that time, and to come from a small little country like Switzerland to LA to work on a movie like that, a movie that has an open checkbook, I don’t know how many millions they had, but it was shocking. We blew that town to pieces that one night. Chimneys falling off, raging fires, huge explosions, the whole town was just destroyed, and we wrapped at like 6 am, with our call time to return at 4pm. When we got back at 4pm, everything was put back in place, totally cleaned up. I just realized, well, nothing’s impossible. This is a Bruckheimer production, so whatever has to get done gets done.
How do you stay in shape?
On Immortals, I doubled the lead [Henry Cavill, who played Theseus], and we shot the film in Montreal, and Henry and I had to go up eight weeks before filming and train. We both had the same personal trainer and for those eight weeks we trained six-to-eight hours a day, with the goal to get down to 7% body fat. We did a combo of weights, yoga, and CrossFit. It’s a workout where you use a lot of your own body weight, and as you workout you keep you heart rate in a constant fat burning zone. We did hours of weights, hours of cardio, it was hard as hell.
When I’m idle (not on a job) I do cardio, everything from a StairMaster to running stairs, sprinting and jogging. The more you change your routines, the harder your body has to work and figure out what it has to do to keep up, and you get more efficient results. If you do the same workout all the time, eventually it doesn’t as well anymore.
(In the below clip, Oliver performs as Cavill's stunt double.)
Tell us about this ‘cannon’ you built to flip cars.
There’s several ways to flip car, including many different types of ramps. I developed a system that’s basically a steel pipe, around 3.5 foot long, 8-12-inch in diameter, with a wall thickness of about an inch, or ¾ inch, and then on one side it’s capped. It’s designed as an actual canon. Nitrogen gets fed into the cannon via a dive tank, and you control the release of the nitrogen from a button taped to your hand or next to steering wheel. The thing is, we are really restrained in the car, neck restraints, hand restraints, this is all to keep your limbs from being torn off while you’re flipping, so we’re really limited on movement inside the vehicle. So you set up the nitrogen ignition button in the car near your finger, and when you push the button the compressed nitrogen goes from the dive tank through the tube into the steel pipe, or canon. The cannon is poking through a hole facing the ground below the car, so when you push that button all that nitrogen goes from the holding tank into the cannon, and the piston shoots out and goes straight down with so much force that it flips the car. This allows you to avoid having a ramp in the shot. So you drive down the road, you go 50 or 60 mph, you pull your steering wheel left or right, hit the button and the cannon goes off. You’re airborne.
What’s the highest you’ve ever had to fall for a stunt?
Falling has changed now with our technology. The old fashioned way, and still a very efficient method, is to fall into cardboard boxes, with the sizes of the boxes varying depending upon the height you’re falling from. Of course there’s also the airbag, just a big air-filled cushion, but these days, because we have so much help with computers, we use these massive cranes with wires that allow you to hook a stunt man up and drop him on a computerized winch. There's not that many stunt people who can do 60-feet and above free falls, so there’s a lot of wire help now. You can drop a stunt person 200 feet and the computer tells the high-speed winch exactly how fast to fall, and as he starts to descend and gets closer to the ground, the computer slows the winch until he can land softly on the ground on his feet. As for my highest free fall, well, it was 94-feet into airbag for a TV show in Switzerland. Out of gondola, no less. The big airbag we used? It looked like a postage stamp from up there.
Featured image is of Oliver hanging out of a helicopter, prepared to jump on the moving truck. Courtesy Oliver Keller