I have acted with my back pushed against the wall in a disproportionate amount of my work, and whatever destiny has planned for me it is nice to think I will soon be able to master this particular niche. The key thing I have noted from looking at rushes is that the most important thing one can do when pinned down and threatened by a knife, sword or metal bar is keep your chin down. At least when you have eyes that are roughly Charles Bronson shaped and disappear the minute the face is anything above horizontal.
The latest opportunity to use my relative wealth of experience in this field was on The First Musketeer, Harriet Sams’ historical epic web series that is sure to make waves once it is released next year. The talented and highly experienced crew, matched by their extensive equipment set up were to capture scenes of genuine medieval castles throughout France populated by fantastically costumed actors, many of whom have handy additional skills like horseback gymnastics. Seriously, it may well be the best web series yet released.
I was recruited by iD’s Ronin Traynor and asked to screen test for the part of ‘Assassin’. Ronin and I have worked together before on action orientated shoots, and I was looking forward to a detailed fight rounded off by a nice dialogue scene. I even attended fight rehearsals, but when I was asked to take part in lucrative and specialised work helping examine a medical school’s potential psychiatrists, I had to arrive the day after that part of the shoot was to take place. At least I can take comfort in the fact I was replaced by my good friend and man-who-has-punched-me-in-films Taylor Hohman.
When I at last arrived, I did some work as an extra in the background to help populate one of the bar scenes and got to know the cast and crew as they worked, as well as being treated to a live performance by Entre’Act, a French group who play rock music on medieval instruments with the benefit of jugglers and tumblers. Of course!
The day came when I was to brush off my unused shoulders and once again place them in the comforting embrace of a cold, hard surface. In this case, it was to be a tree. I had done my preparation and rehearsed the scene with Tony, playing Lazare, who was to interrogate me at knife point then kill me as I tried to escape. We got through the dialogue takes quickly enough, which I take to be a sign of having given a virtuoso performance in my first role since graduating LAMDA, though I know better than to count on it. There is no ‘disposable assassin’ category at the Academy Awards for a reason.
The work continued apace however, and if I couldn’t flex my skills as a swordsman in the grand fight, I could at least show my if not skillful, then at least habitual ability to run. And run I did. I ran from Athos, I hurdled a branch, I ran up a hill in a forest, I ran through the undergrowth, I ran through trees -no really, through trees- and crucially, I ran into a horse.
Running into a horse is more difficult than it may seem. Horses are intelligent creatures, and they are also rather large- my target was around 500 kilograms if I remember correctly. Overcoming one’s own fear at running into a horse is not an insignificant task, but I achieved it as readily as I was able to. Overcoming the horse’s intelligence however was something different.
Running out of the woods after the first couple of takes, the horse variously skidded to a premature halt and let me sprint straight past its face, began trotting sideways (an impressive skill I did not know they had) at the same speed I was running so that I never reached it, and performed (physiologically inaccurately titled but nonetheless accurate to the effect) handbrake turns to effectively leave us stood beside one another facing the same direction. Never work with animals they say.
It all depended upon timing and when I finally hit the side of the horse hard enough to wind myself severely, I toppled as in keeping with the script and was graced with a hoof rather closer to my face than I fully realised at the time, judging from Ed Mitchell’s gracious explanation after the take that he had grabbed me by the doublet not to continue the interrogation but to pull me out of immediate danger.
After around fifteen attempts, I had thought the danger was over, but the stakes simply changed. Now it was not a tree I had to backpedal into, or a horse I had to run into the side of, but a BlackMagic Camera and the show’s Director of Photography Neil Oseman I had to run into.
Getting that wrong would have caused far more serious problems for the show than my untimely hoof-fractured skull could ever have done, and I knew it. We tried but three times, and the second resulted in me using my well-developed action roll reflex to avoid ruining things for everyone.
At last, I was wrapped, and left as always with a paradoxical sense of wanting more- not quite masochism, not quite desperation, but something else- a simple wish to do good work with good people, and keep doing it.