Mike Mayhall: Stuntman/Story Teller
Some people make their way into show business following the standard path: they take acting classes and then start auditioning. They get bit roles and then, with luck, land roles that are a bit bigger. Then they get noticed; get an agent… get that one great booking that gets them on the map. Then come the sexy parties and weird diets. (Usually. Not always, but usually.)
On the other side of the camera you have the producer/director types who go to film school and then start working on sets, maybe starting as a grip on commercials or as DP for friend’s indie film. They work their way up by working hard on other peoples’ projects, and then at some point have the clout/cash/luck to make their own film or show. And if it works, they go on to make more.
Then you have the route Mike Mayhall followed into his cinematic career, and it hardly fits either of those two descriptions, despite the fact that Mike is both an actor and a director/producer.
He’s also a stunt man, by the way, but you likely guessed that from the title of this piece. You can see his stunt work in such major films as LOOPER and OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. In many ways, stunt work is what led to the rest of Mike’s career, but rather than listen to me prattle on, let’s hear from the man himself.
He was classy enough to give me/The Manual time for an interview, after all…
I reached him by phone (as opposed to by telegraph or smoke signal… why do we even bother pointing that out? Oh well) from my Los Angeles
chateau home office in his native hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.
ME: What do you consider to be your main vocation? Stunts? Acting? Directing?
MIKE: Storytelling. My role depends on the story being told, on how it has to be told. Whether it’s acting, directing, producing, doing stunts, I just want the story out there. So it’s really never just one thing. I came up in the theater, and in theater I was always doing everything: acting, behind the scenes work, all of it. The collaborative process is important; I want to create my own projects, my own stories, but I’m happy to work with someone else’s vision too, to help them get their story out there, alive.
ME: How did you get into the industry?
MIKE: Well it started with an award-winning, truly amazing high school theater department. I went in one afternoon, auditioned for a part, and I got it. I’d always wanted to act, but I never — I guess I was hesitant — I waited until my senior year to try it. You should have seen my parents’ faces when I told them; they were super supportive but it was a surprise. I think waiting all that time and being as ignorant about acting as I was made me fearless, and that helped me a lot. Soon I was doing improv, acting in theme parks, and soon I was auditioning for roles in shows and films.
ME: If you weren’t directing films and being thrown through windows and such, what would you be doing?
MIKE: I… I really don’t know. When I started all this, it just became the only thing I wanted to do. I guess maybe I’d have gotten into business. Probably studied law, because it runs in the family. I guess I’d like to say something adventurous, but I really don’t know.
ME: Have you ever been injured in your work as a stuntman?
MIKE: Knock on wood. No. I haven’t taken any serious injuries, and I get superstitous thinking about it. Sure, I’ve gotten bruises, hits, bangs, but I’ve never gotten hurt myself yet, blessedly, so.
ME: Has your life as a stuntman ever helped out in your everyday life?
MIKE: Let me think… I remember once taking what should have been a bad fall, slipping off something — what was it? — anyway, slipping and falling and I just naturally tucked into a roll and came up just fine, so I guess that was the training and experience helping out.
ME: What is the hardest stunt you’ve ever had to pull off?
MIKE: Well, they’re all hard the first time you do them. Every time I step into something new I’m outside my comfort zone, there’s risk, no matter what the stunt is. For example flying backward through a window? I did that for the first time recently, and that was pretty tricky. I remember in earlier days, when I was in a live stunt show in Orlando, there was an act with a rope swing, which sounds easy enough, just a rope swing, right? But there were all these marks we had to hit, there was timing, and I was flying through the air with pyrotechnics blasting, others guys spinning around, there were just so many variables, but when we all practiced, controlled the variables as much as we could… it all went OK.
ME: On the back end of the camera, what has been your greatest success so far?
MIKE: Well directing and producing JAKE’S ROAD for sure. It’s a smaller film, an indie film, obviously, but everyone I talk to who has seen it, everyone who watches it genuinely says they like it, and that’s my main measure for success right now. Obviously films are for the audience, so if people are liking it, then we were successful.
ME: What are the biggest challenges to getting a project made?
MIKE: It’s funding. And that really sort of dictates, unfornately, what you can or just can’t do. What I’ve been lucky to do is make a lot of good friends who, say maybe I can’t pay them what they’re worth, but if you all work together, lending your skills in return for help down the road, you get the quality you need out of the crew and even the cast. More funds would alleviate so many problems, but still there’s the difficulty of trying to match what’s in my head and putting it out there into the film, getting everyone on the same page, learning to comporomise, learning to tell the DP I want this when he says we have to do that, so on. Trying to get “The Vision” while working with a whole team? It can be hard.
ME: How did growing up in New Orleans influence your career?
MIKE: There’s just an amazing amount of creativity here, you can just feel it. You can walk down the street and there are characters to study, to be inspired by; it’s just vibrant. I can’t say “This is the moment the city showed me so and so,” or “This is a character I’ll use for… that,” but the whole city kind of gets inside you.
ME: What advice do you have for an aspiring stuntman or stuntwoman?
MIKE: I got training in the theater, then I got training in Orlando at theme parks and such, and then because I had training in that very physical background, friends made a recommendation to a stunt coordinator, and I flew in to meet him; he gave me my chance. I managed to pull it off, and since then it’s just about training, keeping fit. Studying what you need to. The biggest advice is just training; martial arts, fitness, practicing stunts, whatever it is. But also, have some modesty, have some professionalism. I see a lot of stunt workers who think they’re a big deal, but even once you make it in the field, you have to be part of the team, or you’ll find yourself outside fast enough.