Leap of faith

He’s worked with Steven Spielberg and starred in Hollywood blockbusters but you’ve probably never heard of Rob Jarman. Antonia Charlesworth talks to the stuntman

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You’d be forgiven for not recognising 33-year-old Rob Jarman in the street. When he’s not at home in the small market town of Pateley Bridge, with his wife and two Siamese cats, he spends his time doubling for actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them stunts that can include anything from jumping off six-storey buildings being hit by moving vehicles or even being set on fire. But despite these dizzying heights, the modest Yorkshireman’s feet are firmly on the ground – he’s not in it for the glory.

“The actors do a lot more than I do and it’s not something I brag about. At the end of the day it’s their face on the screen – they’re the ones getting exposed so they’ll do everything they can to make it work and then work with you to make them look good.”

Thespians aren’t all fragile beings, according to Jarman, who says he’s experienced actors with varying levels of enthusiasm for doing their own stunts. Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz and Chloë Grace Moretz are among current stars who do their own stunts.

“I have a normal level of fear. I get scared of the regular things, like sharks and girls.”

The epic plunge he took for Cumberbatch in the buzz-surrounded Sherlock series finale he says was a joy to do.

“Benedict was really up for getting involved and a fantastic actor to work with. He was doing all the smaller falls and then he wanted to do the big jump on the wire and even though he’s such a big star I felt I could communicate with him on a personal level and talk him through the stunts,” he says, before pointing out that it’s not always that easy. “Sometimes you get someone who knows it all and doesn’t want your input so you leave them to it.”

Jarman isn’t willing to name and shame the actors who shy away from stunts. Indeed, he says there is no shame in it.

“If somebody doesn’t want to do it that’s fine. I’ve said no to stunt work before but it doesn’t mean I was scared of it – it’s just that I didn’t feel I had the skill. The actors understand that I’m a stunt guy and I’m there to make a living so they usually leave me to my job and I leave them to theirs. Ninety-nine per cent of them are lovely but I just see it as a job.”

Jarman is one of only about 300 men and women on the stunt performer register in the UK but says the unconventional career was a natural progression from what he’d been doing all his life – as a wild child in the Yorkshire Dales.

“The only difference is I’m getting paid to do it now,” he laughs, adding that the rural landscape around his home was an ideal training ground. “I was always riding motorbikes and horses, climbing and mountain biking – I lived on a farm so it was my way of getting about. Every other day I’d come home beaten up, wounded or stung to death by bees.”

But although his mother despaired of him as a child, his wife, who herself comes from a renowned Yorkshire motorcycle family – the Lampkins – is totally understanding.

“That’s the biggest thing for me – she understands what I do for work and what I feel I need to do at home too, so she lets me crack on.”
His stunt work is very much his day job – a means to funding the adventures he is passionate about.

On the National and World Cup Downhill biking scene, he has established himself as one of the top riders in the UK. True to form, he has also made a name for himself with a number of daredevil stunts such as riding a bike down the Lillehammer bobsleigh circuit, riding a bike across a slackline – a bit like a tightrope – and competing in a gruelling eight day race through the Himalayas. A recent stunt, in which he biked down a jagged Lake District mountain at over 100kmh, was filmed as part of Alistair Lee’s All My Own Stunts, which is being screened at the international Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, which comes to the north this week.

Despite this Jarman says he is not an adrenaline junkie.

“I have a normal level of fear. I get scared of the regular things, like sharks and girls,” he half jokes. “But from my experiences growing up I can deal with the job. My actual self-confidence is quite low but when I’m on a bike or up a mountain I’m in my element. It’s definitely about escapism for me. I can switch off and put 100 per cent concentration into what I’m doing instead of worrying about the silly stuff in life.”

And while the stunt work feels like second nature he admits that in the weeks leading up to a job, he suffers from nerves.

Jarman says his injuries have altered his mental as well as physical health

“It’s not because of getting hurt. You don’t think about that. But you get a call for a job maybe two or three weeks away and you’re told it’s a car knock-down on Casualty for example. Then you’ve got two weeks to think, what car is it? How fast are they going? Who’s driving? There are a lot of questions and you only know the answers to them on the day. I just have to have the confidence that I know what I’m doing.”

But Jarman points out that stunt work is not just about confidence – a lot of it is about trust in the stunt co-ordinator. Now, after some close calls, there is only a handful that he will work with.

“I’d like to think that anything that ever happened to me on a job was my fault and not because of bad planning,” he explains. “I don’t want to put myself in a position where I could be in a wheelchair and thinking ‘this wasn’t my fault’.”

One of his most dramatic injuries was detaching his retinas while carrying out a motorcycle stunt on Marvel Studios’ Captain America.

“The stunt was simulating a clothes line – a wire between two trees that whips you off. The way they did it was very old fashioned. I was on a motorbike, in a body harness with a rope tied to my back that was tied to a tree. I went on the motorbike flat out in second gear until the rope went tight – so it was about 30mph to going backwards in an instant, which caused my retinas to detach. I drove home from London but I really couldn’t see. I’ve still got a blind spot in my left eye, but you live and learn.”

Also among his injuries are a twice dislocated shoulder, and in one job for an advert, a full set of broken ribs along with a broken arm, broken collar bone, a lung bleed and a brain bleed. “I did it doing a bike jump. I had a very heavy landing, went over the handlebars and crashed head first into a load of rocks.

“Head injuries are the big ones that would really make me stop if it happened too many times. Shortly before this one I went to see a surgeon because I was having dizzy spells. He told me I had mild damage and I could do with not banging my head for six months at least, but I had work booked in and three weeks later I had one of the biggest accidents of my life – so I had to take six months off.”

As well as making him more cautious about who he works with, Jarman says that his injuries have altered his mental as well as physical health.
“A big bang on the head changes you, and lots of them can really alter things – that’s a bit of a battle,” he admits. A 2014 study into the links between head traumas and mental disorders showed that the risks of developing the likes of bipolar and depression are significantly increased.
In contrast to his daredevil career Jarman speaks candidly about his vulnerabilities. “You never know what creeps up on you but I’m definitely not the same person as I was when I was 21.”

Despite this Jarman has no intentions of stopping just yet. He is training for an ultra-marathon – a 100 mile race – and is about to make covert appearances in Hunter’s Prayer, a film shot in Yorkshire and starring Avatar’s Sam Worthington, Everest, a 3D adventure thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightly, and as Peter Capaldi’s double in the next series of Doctor Who.

“I could probably carry on for another 10 years,” he muses before adding that he and his wife would like to start a family in about five years time.
“I suppose I have a few years being completely selfish before I really have to grow up.”


Film: Speed (1994)
Stunt: Jumping on to the bus
Performer: Keanu Reeves
He might not be the best actor in the world and this nineties action film hasn’t aged well but you can’t knock Keanu Reeves’s commitment to his roles. Director Jan de Bont wouldn’t allow Reeves to do the scene where his character Traven jumps from a car on to the bus but the actor rehearsed in secret before insisting on giving it a go on the day and pulling it off flawlessly.

Film: Ben-Hur (1959)
Stunt: Chariot race
Performer: Joe Canutt (for Charlton Heston)
When he drives his chariot over another wrecked one, Ben-Hur is flung in the air. This epic stunt is steeped in legend as the crash was not planned and many including Canutt’s father, stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt, believed he had died. Luckily, he came out with just a cut to the chin.

Film: Safety Last (1923)
Stunt: The clock scene
Performer: Harold Lloyd
Long before CGI there were brave (or stupid) actors like Harold Lloyd, the legendary silent comedian. In Safety Last Lloyd hangs from a clock on a 12-storey building in one of the most dangerous stunts in film history – he was protected by only a wooden platform two stories below, which wouldn’t have adequately broken his fall.

Film: The Great Escape (1963)
Stunt: The jump and the fence
Performer: Bud Ekins (for Steve McQueen)
There’s no one in Hollywood history as macho as Steve McQueen. An avid motorcyclist he of course did most of his own stunts. But insurance didn’t cover him doing the most dangerous one. In the famous scene McQueen’s character Hilts jumps to freedom by propelling his bike over a 65-foot clearing and barbed wire fences. While stuntman Bud Elkins is who we see do it in the film, legend has it that McQueen later made the jump, just to prove he could.

Film: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Stunt: Climbing the Burj Khalifa
Performer: Tom Cruise
Most women would argue that this stunt is child’s play in comparison to giving birth in silence, as Cruise famously required ex-wife Katie Holmes to, but nevertheless scaling the world’s highest building is quite a tall order. The stunt, filmed in Dubai, took five months to prepare, during which Cruise trained intensely for the 2,717-foot ascent.

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