Risking life and limb in front of the camera is all in a day’s work for Nicholas Daines. Samantha Booth meets the man who makes a living out of cheating death
Hollywood stuntman Nicholas Daines attributes his huge success to his mum’s smile. The 39-year-old, who has worked on blockbusters including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Batman Begins and Munich, helps care for his mum Sheila, who was brought up in Arbroath. She suffers from MS and has been wheelchair bound for 30 years, but stuntman and former British gymnast Nicholas says she always inspires him with her ready smile. He says: “My mum really is my inspiration, she has all these problems and has been in a wheelchair so long but despite that she always has a smile on her face and is always encouraging. I live about 40 minutes away from her in London and help care for her, but I only have to look at my mum to remember how lucky I am and that I have to keep following my dreams.”
With his mum’s encouragement, Daines did follow his dreams to become one of the best stuntmen in the world. Now he hopes to inspire others with aspirations to work in film to do the same with his book Dare to Dream.
“I always dreamed about working in movies but I didn’t know how to go about it. Now I have made it to Hollywood and have tried my hand at every kind of work in the industry, from extra work and modelling to voiceovers, I realised a book like this would have been invaluable to me when I was starting out,” he says.
“That’s what inspired me. I wanted to write a layman’s guide to the industry, leading people from the point where they have nothing but a dream. I hope it is also an inspirational piece, a diary of self-belief and determination urging people to follow their dreams. It is from extra to extra special, it shows what is possible and that working in movies is a relevant career choice.
“My dad would have preferred me to get a proper job because he was always worried about my ability to make a living, but I hope my book shows that it is possible to make a good living doing something you love and which is essentially a hobby.”
Daines started gymnastics as a young boy, mainly at the renowned Brown’s gym in Aldershot, and competed on the international circuit for many years. After he left school, he studied microbiology at university, but his passion was still the physical and his dream was still to work in Hollywood. So, despite having a first-class degree from the University of London, he joining the highly acclaimed acrobatic troupe The Acromaniacs.
He soon began to attract attention as an acrobatic aerialist and work on commercials for big brands such as Adidas and Carlsberg soon followed. He even fronted campaigns for companies such as Olympus, American Express and BMW. But he never forgot his dream and in 1998 he was commissioned for his first job as a stuntman.
Little did he know it would nearly kill him. “I had to do white water canoeing on a river near Fort William for an advert. On filming day though the rapids were outrageous. I have never seen rapids like them and even the specialist we had with us said he wouldn’t attempt to go down them. But it was my first job and I was eager to please, so I agreed to do it, even though the client didn’t want me to wear a buoyancy jacket,” he says.
“I had to deliberately capsize and go over a waterfall but I went over and became pinned to the river bed. No matter how desperately hard I tried I couldn’t move. Incredibly someone managed to get a rope to me to pull me in but it got tangled round my neck so as I was being saved from drowning I was being strangled. I managed to get my fingers between my neck and the rope just before I blacked out.
“Despite all the trauma, though, I look back on that shoot with great affection because I really feel I have never looked back since. Plus my dad had just died before that commercial, so I took my survival as a sign that I was on the right route.”
Since then Daines has made a name for himself as one of the world’s top stuntmen on films such as Robin Hood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Mamma Mia!. Most recently he worked on World War Z starring Brad Pitt and which was partly filmed in Glasgow last year.
It was his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, though, which recently won him a Screen Actors Guild Award and his skill on The Golden Compass which saw him nominated for a world stunt award. Daines says: “I had a fight with Daniel Craig before doing an ice slide off a glacier into a sheer drop. It was amazing. ” The scariest stunt Daines has ever done though was for hit TV series Waking the Dead. He says: “It involved jumping off a seven-storey building with a one and a half somersault for Claire Goose’s exit from the show. Normally men don’t double for woman but in that case none of the girls would touch it because it was so high and it had this gymnastic element. There is nothing natural about doing that kind of thing and I think it is only right you feel nervous as that keeps you focused, but my gymnastic training always helps me get in the zone.”
Inevitably such dangerous work leads to injuries. Daines has escaped reasonably unscathed over the years but he was hit in the face during the filming of Agent Cody Banks in an accident which almost ruined his career. He said: “My teeth were wrecked.
“At the time my main income was the modelling so it was tough. It was hard to come back from too because casting directors are very fickle and once they knew I had injured my face they just didn’t pick me for a while. It gave me the utmost respect for people who have terrible facial injuries or burns because you don’t realise until you have something like that how massively damaging it can be to your confidence and personality. Especially when you rely on it too for your living. It was just steely determination which brought me back, you just have to pick yourself up and move on.”
Of course, working on Hollywood blockbusters can mean getting up close and personal with some of the industry’s biggest names. Daines says: “Working on Harry Potter was extraordinary for me because I had read all the books and seeing Dame Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter work was just immense.”
There has been one moment which left Nicholas completely star struck. It happened during the filming of Munich directed by Steven Spielberg. He says: “There was a bit of down time in filming where I had to stay on my spot aiming my rifle at Daniel Craig and Eric Bana as we waited for filming to start again. Steven Spielberg came up behind me and started talking to me.
“Nobody had seen him for about two days because he had been directing from the shadows but there he was standing next to me. He started telling me what he wanted me to do and I never heard a word because all I could think about was the fact that Steven Spielberg knew my name.”
Film stunts came into existence the moment people started making movies. In the beginning though it was far from a profession. If something dangerous needed done the film makers would simply employ anyone who was desperate or crazy enough to do it.
The first professional stuntmen were actually comedians such as Buster Keaton and the Keystone Cops who performed the slapstick humour which was so popular at the start of the 20th century. They were not trained but simply learned on the job from trial and error.
At this stage in filmmaking there was no such thing as making “mock-ups” for the camera. If the film demanded a tightrope walk hundreds of feet in the air, then that’s exactly what the actor did.
One of the most famous examples is comedian Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock face hundreds of feet in the air in the classic film Safety Last from 1923, pictured. As the audiences’ thirst of action movies grew, though, stunts became more difficult and the first dedicated stuntmen were employed.
Thanks to the passion for westerns in the first half of the 20th century many rodeo stars went on to become some of Hollywood’s earliest stuntmen. The craft as we know it today though only came into being in the 1960s and 1970s and while many modern stuntmen and women fear CGI may put them out of business, talented stunt artists are still in demand in Hollywood today.