Star stuntman Andreas Petrides tells Shimbun how karate can be the launchpad to out-of-this-world opportunities…
WHEN it came to getting career advice at school, Andreas Petrides did not need telling to aim for the stars – he was already set on pursuing a profession that would take him to a galaxy far, far away.
And that is exactly what his determination to become a stuntman delivered 20 years ago when, as a fight arranger and double to Ewan McGregor, he lent his expertise to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and helped to create a chapter of cinema’s most-celebrated franchise.
On anyone else’s CV training Obi-Wan Kenobi to wield a lightsaber and sparring with Darth Maul would rightly rank highly among any achievements listed, but for Andreas these out-of-this-world experiences represent the briefest of clips from a stellar showreel.
His hard-won reputation as one of the UK’s leading stunt co-ordinators and performers has seen him share sets with – and square up to – some of Hollywood’s biggest names, and bring to life blockbusters such as Braveheart, 28 Days Later and Tomb Raider.
The respected action director’s enduring 30-year career has also included four Bond movies and, alongside colleague Nick Powell, he choreographed all of the fight sequences in the Oscar-winning Gladiator and trained the film’s cast. Indeed, things couldn’t have worked out much better for someone who spent much of his childhood rewinding and re-watching the fights, falls and fast-paced chase sequences of classic films.
“I am, without doubt, living my dream,” the 51-year-old told Shimbun. “A great American stunt guy called Dar Robinson had a brilliant saying – ‘why grow up when you can make movies’ – and he was so right. The last 30 years really have been like being a kid.
“Yes, it is hard work and takes dedication, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I get paid for doing something I love.”
Landing the perfect job was, however, no mean feat. While the next-generation of stunt performers can now learn their craft through courses at training establishments such as Andreas’ own British Action Academy in Surrey, there was no such professional education available three decades ago.
KARATE KICK START
Fortunately, Andreas found karate to be an ideal syllabus from which to master many of the skills needed to work in the industry and he credits his dream career to the dojo.
“My dad learned and later taught Shotokan karate back in the 1950s, so I learned a martial art from a very early age,” he explained. “I probably started training when I was six or seven and dad showed me the basics – kata forms and how to punch and kick.
“I guess that’s what got me into movies; I loved watching the likes of Bruce Lee, Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace, Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan – all great martial artists – and sort of became fixated with getting into the movie industry.
“I used to have every martial arts movie imaginable on VHS and would wear them out watching and copying the actors’ moves,” Andreas added. “It wasn’t about me wanting to be the hero on the screen but the physicality of it all.
“I loved the fighting stuff but also how it combined with the acrobatic elements and stunts involved. Karate first drew me to the idea of becoming a stuntman and everything else came after.
“Back then I didn’t know how to go about getting into the industry, so I just used to practise all the time. When I wasn’t in karate classes I would be training on my own or learning from films and books, and became fascinated with the philosophy behind martial arts.
“My father – a very powerful, disciplined individual – was my hero growing up and he used to tell me that you could achieve anything with dedication and that’s what inspired me. I dedicated myself to being the best I could be.”
Andreas’ audition for the career which eventually followed certainly required no shortage of commitment. In order to collect the skills demanded of those on the British Stunt Register the martial artist added trampolining, gymnastics, high diving, motocross, fencing and breakdancing to his repertoire.
But despite having also previously toured as a circus acrobat, his first application to the register was rejected on the grounds that he had not completed 50 weeks of work in the entertainment business.
With the door to the movie business seemingly closed, Andreas instead opted for a six-year stint in the military.
“I was devastated when I didn’t get on the register first time round,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, so, because I had always had a passion for the military, I thought I’d join the British Army and The Parachute Regiment was the place for me!
“Films again played their part – I loved all the old war movies and I was inspired by the real-life tales of heroism from Arnhem and D-Day; those guys were hardened, disciplined individuals. I knew that if I was joining up I had to go tough and go hard.
“You don’t join The Parachute Regiment to sit in the tearoom. You do it to get out there.”
True to his promise, Andreas made the most of his time in uniform, which saw him pass the Royal Marines’ notoriously difficult All Arms Commando course and a host of armed and unarmed combat instructors’ programmes.
He picked up fighting techniques which, combined with his karate skills, have helped to add realism to everything from scripted space scraps to choreographed clashes in the coliseums of Ancient Rome.
Andreas is, however, quick to stress that not everyone with experience of military service or a black belt can forge a career in film.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
“Screen combat is very different to the real thing,” said the soldier-turned-stuntman, who, while still serving in the Army, accepted a chance invite to return to the circus – and in turn earn the equity card that would secure his place on the stunt register.
“Martial arts all have their own style and in many ways you have to unlearn what you’ve learned. You may be used to performing symmetrical powerful moves or using nunchucks or a bow staff, whereas the job might need you to be a thug in a pub with a bottle in their hand.
“Guys who come into the business from a Wushu background, for example, can move beautifully and flowingly, but it’s unlikely a thug would behave in such a way. It can be hard to translate those skills to portray certain characters.”
Another significant difference between competing in kumite and making movies is the distance from your opponent, according to Andreas, who recently helped to co-ordinate the stunts featured in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cold War spy thriller Ironbark.
“We obviously don’t hit each other, we just make it look like we are,” he said. “With screen combat we step back and use a three fist rule; when fully extended our punches are no closer than three fists from the face. Adjusting to that range takes practise. Having a martial arts background does not necessarily mean you can fight on camera but the attributes are great for the business; the mindset and discipline is there to adapt. Karate is about dedication, discipline, mind control and channelling energy and that can relate to the screen if you learn the right techniques.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Despite Andreas’ extensive list of film and television credits, which include work on hit series such as Broadchurch and Poldark, his face is not instantly recognisable to those outside of his industry and rarely features in finished productions. Being largely anonymous to audiences does not mean, however, that stunt performers do not need to be able to act.
“It comes as a shock to people actually how much acting is required,” said Andreas, who was inducted into the Hollywood Stunt Performers’ Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievements in motion pictures.
“Your back might be to camera as a stunt double but as a stunt performer you often play featured parts so have to become a character. You have to behave as a musketeer, a pirate or a Mongolian rebel and that means you need to do your research. You need to know how your character fought, how he moved, what armour he wore and what weapons he carried. You then have to put the necessary physical energy into a performance to create something that looks real to the audience.”
Andreas believes such attention to detail commands the respect of the stars he schools in screen combat. Ego, he insists, goes out of the window on a film set even when the names in question are of the calibre of Russell Crowe, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
“Whether we are doubling, fight arranging or advising, everything we do is about making them look good and they understand that from quite early on,” he said. “There is a mutual respect – action is what we do and acting is what they do. A lot of the time my job is to take the actor from being a novice to looking like a highly-experienced and trained warrior – be it a modern day secret agent or special forces operator or a gladiator in an arena. That takes dedication from them so they listen to you and take on board what you say so they can be the best they can.”
There is of course a far less glamorous side to life on set than rubbing shoulders with Oscar winners. The very nature of stunt work means bumps, bruises and breaks are very much an operational hazard.
“You never forget the risks and dangers of getting things wrong,” warned Andreas, whose own battle scars include two cracked vertebrae which were only revealed by X-ray following a simulated car knockdown. “Even with the fighting, if you make a mistake you can break someone’s nose or jaw; you have to keep focused. I’ve lost colleagues through the business and seen others seriously injured. Most of my injuries have been sustained during training but I tore my cruciate ligament in a motorbike crash, my ankles are both damaged and the ball in my shoulder socket is worn from drags and throws.”
Andreas’ end credits are, however, still a long way off. With his diary commitments for the week following his interview with Shimbun including a car chase for a major Netflix production and a motorcycle crash for another show, the action man has no intention of taking his foot off the gas.
“I do a lot of stunt co-ordinating, fight arranging and second unit directing so I could quite easily put my pads on the wall and not do any more stunts myself, but it is in my blood and is what I love.
“I know that I’m not getting any younger so in order to keep myself at the top I still train hard and look after myself by staying true to the martial arts and giving my body good food, good sleep and good rest.”
Founded by Andreas in 2007, the British Action Academy offers industry-recognised screen action courses. Many of its students have gone on to feature in major blockbusters. Find out more at britishactionacademy.com