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You may not know his face, but Vic Armstrong is a cornerstone of modern cinema. The man responsible for the stunts in a plethora of films from Indiana Jones to Spider-Man, and Bond to The Green Hornet, takes us behind the scenes of his amazing career.
In your new autobiography, you give the very modest impression that part of your success is being in the right place at the right time….
I’m a great believer in that. I know they say the harder you work the luckier you get, but fate does have an awful lot to do with it. When I did the Indiana Jones [movies] I was at the peak of my career; I was the right weight and I just happened to look like Harrison [Ford] so that was a wonderful bonus! When I got On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I’d literally gone down to my dad’s stables to exercise one of the horses; the phone rang and I just happened to pick it up. If I hadn’t they would have gone from A for Armstrong to B for [Ken] Buckle and so on, down the line. But that film segued into lots of other movies so, yes, I’m a great believer in luck.
When did you develop the understanding that a stunt happens in context with the character, and that you have to perform it to match the actor you’re doubling?
I always say that I can’t act, which is true, but [when] you look back on it you’re acting in mime. You have to completely copy the actor’s movements and little nuances, but at the same time if you’re falling, you can’t look as though you’re falling to save yourself. You’ve got to fall as though you’re dead, or whatever you’re supposed to portray in the movie. But that all just came naturally. I guess it goes back to what I did as a kid playing cowboys and Indians with my ponies on the gallops. I’d ride along, pretend to be shot and throw myself off the pony; I was always acting out stuff like that. I like telling stories, so it’s all a part of that, it’s all a part of the creative business.
You presumably forge a strong bond with leading men you work closely with — famously you and Harrison Ford became good friends — but is that typical?
I try not to get too lovey-dovey and in their pockets. What you have is a working relationship and it’s got to last through a six-month movie, so you’ve got to keep things on an even keel and be able to discuss things logically. I was never one for that ‘You’re my best mate forever’ sort of thing. But I do get on well with Harrison, Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. They’re good friends, but I try to keep it on a professional level as well.
How do you feel about the claim that actors sometimes make that they did all their own stunts?
If it sells some tickets to the movie then it doesn’t worry me, we’re in show business after all. But with insurance issues it’s obvious that you can’t do that. Why would you risk a $200m movie on somebody whose face you probably wouldn’t recognise in the action anyway? A lot of stars realise that. But having said that, the advent of CGI means we can now take many, many more precautions on a stunt. When I was flying on Superman in the 1970s we had piano wire supporting us. Nowadays you have Tech-12 which is as thick as your little finger and virtually unbreakable, so you’re much safer doing things with people because you have more modern safety techniques. You can put an air bag underneath them all the time which you can erase afterwards, and have pads on the ground.
Are there actors out there we might be surprised to learn have an aptitude for stunts?
Cameron Diaz is amazing; she likes to come and hang out with the stuntmen. We were rehearsing Green Hornet while she was rehearsing Knight and Day; she heard we were there so she came over and was jumping in our stunt cars. You know, she can drive backwards at 45 miles an hour, changing lanes, doing 180s — we call her lead boots. There are some great ones out there, Harrison is a prime example and so is Tom Cruise. The biggest fight you have on a movie is trying to stop them doing something because they’re more than talented. You just have to blackmail them into not doing it for insurance reasons.
What can we expect to see in The Amazing Spider-Man?
Well, we’re hoping to go back to much more realism. My brother Andy was working on it, so while I was on the set we had a whole stage down in Culver City and he’d be rehearsing all the fights and the swings, trying to do as much as possible for real. There was some good footage on YouTube a while back, of Spider-Man going down 12th Avenue where you see him flying along under this beautiful Victorian viaduct. You can actually see the body pulling two-and-a-half Gs as he changes direction, fires one web one way and another web the other and uses his momentum to actually fly, using his webs. I think when you see that, subconsciously you know it’s a real person because you see the body straining, you see the stresses on him and the muscles flexing, then he brings his knees up, gets the rhythm absolutely right and you can see it tying in with the move.
It sounds like even after all these years you’re still learning new things.
One hundred per cent, and especially with The Amazing Spider-Man because that was shot in 3D. So nearly all the things we’ve learned in the past go out the window, things like throwing a punch where you shoot over the shoulder and foreshorten it. That doesn’t work any more in 3D because you can see that distance now between the object you’re hitting and the fist, rather than in the two-dimensional effect we had before. There are so many things you have to think about, and it’s good fun. It keeps you fresh, and it keeps things original, which is the biggest stunt you can ever pull off. •
The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman is available now in hardback from Titan Books (RRP £18.99)