When stunt performer David Holmes, who had doubled for Daniel Radcliffe on all eight of the Harry Potter movies, was seriously injured rehearsing a flying scene for the final chapter in 2009, his career as a stuntman came to a sudden end. Holmes broke his neck performing a jerk back stunt and was paralyzed from the chest down. He has spent the subsequent 11 years adjusting to life with limited mobility only in his arms and hands.
But his love for his profession hasn’t faltered, and he has now teamed up with his “acting double” Radcliffe for a new podcast, Cunning Stunts, in which the pair interview stunt performers from around the globe to shine a light on the people responsible for some of the most memorable sequences in film history.
“What I missed from my days at work, as much as doing the stunts and getting that buzz, was the conversations and stories that me and the stunt boys used to share,” Holmes says now. “You realize the whole community is built up of so many memories and so many characters.”
Radcliffe tagged along because he, too, enjoyed hearing the stories from the stunt department on the Harry Potter franchise. “I would say to anyone, if you’re going onto a film set, the stunt department is the department to hang out with, because those stories are amazing,” he says.
Holmes started on Potter at 17, and due to his small stature, was a perfect double for an 11-year-old Radcliffe. But stunt coordinator Greg Powell also charged Holmes with helping Radcliffe get in physical shape to handle the stunts that would put his face front and center. “We were at Alnwick Castle and there’s a scene where Harry has to hit a ball with a bat,” Holmes recalls. “As soon as me and Greg saw Dan swing the bat, he just looked at me and went, ‘We’re going to have to do a bit of work with him, you know?’ It was just the way Dan was moving, you could tell he’d not come from any sort of athletic background.”
“That’s a polite way of saying it,” laughs Radcliffe. “Imagine being an 11-year-old boy and being told, ‘You’re going to run around on crash mats and jump on trampolines.’ It was kind of heaven. I do feel any actor who has an interest in doing stunts and wants to be involved in that stuff as much as they can, you need to build up a relationship with your stunt double, or at least the stunt department. If you don’t, they’ll never know what you’re capable of.”
The pair collaborated intensely over the course of eight movies, and as Radcliffe’s training continued, he was able to take on bigger challenges. The fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, involves an enormous underwater sequence, which Holmes would map out and train Radcliffe to deliver. And a 35-foot drop onto one of the Hogwarts castle’s sloped roofs, which the stunt department felt Radcliffe was ready to tackle on his own.
“They talked me through it and said, ‘It’s 35 feet. Do you think you can do that?’” Radcliffe recalls. “At 14 or 15, you’re full of bravado in front of a bunch of stuntmen, so I was like, ‘Yeah, of course I can.’”
“Dan was on a wire above a sloped, tiled roof,” Holmes explains. “He’s dropped from a static wire onto the roof, and then he starts his slide. The risk is the initial fall, which we padded him up for, and then the speed you build up as you slide down. Not only that, but he slid off the roof and pulled a broomstick over his shoulder to get it into his lap, and then landed on a crash mat at the bottom. It was a lot of things to think about in four or five seconds. But he was pukka; really good.”
“In retrospect, I look back on it and think it was pretty crazy that I was allowed to do that,” Radcliffe laughs. “35 feet is a lot higher than you think once you get up there.”
Radcliffe’s relationship with Holmes endured just as intensely following Holmes’ accident, and this new podcast springs from a larger project the pair have been working on since 2016, which will tell Holmes’ story. “We thought we needed to find a way to use all these other amazing stories we were hearing,” Radcliffe says.
The podcast launched with an episode with Derek Lea, who has over 500 credits to his name, including Titanic, Saving Private Ryan and the Bond films. And the first season of episodes features Tina Maskell & David Forman, Paul Lowe, Jo McLaren, Rocky Taylor and the late Brian ‘Sonny’ Nickels.
The conversations are frank and funny, as well as honest about the risks inherent with the job, and the work stunt teams put in to mitigating that risk. “It’s always about minimizing risk,” Holmes insists. “But at the same time, you shouldn’t go to work unless you’re willing to expect that there is a chance it’s not going to go right, and you might not get a second take. I suffered the ultimate price for doing what I love, but I’ll always say, ‘I was a stuntman, I went to work, I took that risk, I took that money.’”
“I think there’s a myth around stuntmen that they are just superhuman in some way,” Radcliffe says. “When the public see something really painful or horrible, they think it was a visual effect or that there’s some clever, safe way of doing it. Often that’s not the case. There’s no way of faking, for example, falling down stairs. When you get hit by a car, you’re still getting hit by a car, even if it’s going slower than it would. They find the safest way of doing it, but it can still hurt.”
As Hollywood continues its thirst for bigger and better action with every passing blockbuster, Holmes and Radcliffe both feel it is past time the stunt community was recognized by the motion picture Academy with an Oscar category for the work they put in to do what they do.
“I literally broke my neck because people sit in front of a screen and want to go, ‘That was a good stunt,’” Holmes says. “Olivia Jackson lost an arm and paralyzed half her body on a Resident Evil production that didn’t have an insurance policy to cover her. We risk our lives for the sake of entertainment, so it’s a bit ridiculous when all other departments get recognized and we don’t.”
“If you can’t see the art of a brilliant stunt scene, you’re just not looking hard enough,” Radcliffe says. “I do think there’s a snobbery, but stunt work is an artform, and to do it well and do it safely is really, really hard.”
Radcliffe acknowledges an argument that incentivizing stunt performers to go bigger and bolder in the quest for an Oscar carries its own risks. “But when you go through what happened with Dave or Olivia, or the many people we’ve talked to that have had severe things happen to them, you realize everyone has put their bodies on the line to make the things we love. It seems crazy not to acknowledge that.”
Still, Academy Award nominations are decided by peers in each of the various categories; actors nominate actors, costume designers nominate costume designers, et cetera. And stunt performers are of course able to recognize exceptional work for its technicality as much as its spectacle. “When you see something that’s put together well, the choreography is great, the individual stunt elements are also good, you know how much has gone into that,” Holmes says. “I watch films all the time. Not only because I love them, but because I live in a wheelchair now, I can lose myself in them. A great stunt sequence in a film—the way it flows is brilliant to me. And I can see both sides, as an audience member and as someone who has been a participant and done it.”
For Holmes, the exercise of recording the podcast has been cathartic, especially as his condition worsens. “My job now is living with my disability,” he says. “It’s a fulltime job because it’s ever-changing, neurologically. There’s no stability. As the podcast has gone on, my spinal injury has deteriorated. So, I’m really glad that the podcast captures a bit more of the old me. I’m glad we got that time to get together when I was on better form.”
Yet still, he says, “There are people living with a lot worse in this world at the moment. So, I count myself very lucky.”
The Cunning Stunts podcast series can be downloaded here.