Stunt professional Kirk Caouette has worked with a plethora of A-list celebrities over his 25-year career. As a stunt performer, coordinator, and fight choreographer he’s trained Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry. His credits include Catwoman, Elektra and the second and third X-Men movies. For X2: X-Men United, Caouette performed that movies memorable and thrilling opening sequence.
In 2010, Caouette wrote and financed his first feature film Hit ‘n Strum. The film sat on the shelf in his office for more than a year. Until one film festival showed the movie, where it went on to win several awards including Best Actor. Caouette then put 100% of his energy into recovering from bone marrow cancer and went back to work full time. He racked up dozens of credits on shows Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Lucifer, and Supernatural.
in 2014, he collaborated on a short film with world renowned cellist, Tina Guo between her work with Hans Zimmer on Wonder Woman. Caouette and Guo wrote and performed an original Cello/Piano composition for their short film The Devil and the Dancer.
Since 2015, Caouette has continued performing and coordinating stunts and making films. After the industry wide COVID shut down, he is now back working full time in the stunt department. He recently spoke to me from his home in Vancouver about his incredible career and journey.
Jason: Tell me a bit how you got started in the stunt profession. Your first job was as a stunt snowboarder for a Leslie Nielsen comedy?
Kirk Caouette: I was living in Whistler, British Columbia and had been competing in snowboarding back in the early days. I got called for Mr. Magoo (1997) and had to double three professional female snowboarders in this dangerous border-cross scene. The director of the film, Stanley Tong, was a stunt double for Jackie Chan so expectations were ridiculous in what they were asking for. But we somehow pulled it off and nobody got smashed. I went to work every day with a different wig and fake boobs and different lipstick for a month, it was fun.
Jason: This was right when Jackie Chan was crossing over internationally. What year was that? Because I know movies are usually filmed a year in advance.
Kirk Caouette: That would have to be 1996. I got my first credit in ’94.
Jason: Is it hard for a stunt person to get into the world of working in features?
Kirk Caouette: When I started, it was difficult. The stunt coordinators who had come up from Los Angeles had locked it down in an almost mafia style. They had meetings about only hiring each other and keeping anybody else out. During my time there might have been six or seven people who came up in the industry. After 2010 these groups had very much matured, they were no longer operating in such a fashion. They were hiring the people who were right for the job. Things started to pick up in 2013 and it was super busy. In our community it expanded from 100 stunt performers working full time to 220. It depends on when you arrived, how you came in. So that’s the inside behind the velvet rope of Hollywood and North Hollywood stuntmen and women.
Jason: What are the qualities which make a particular stunt professional standout?
Kirk Caouette: Everybody has a different quality. Some people are generally tough and can take a beating and don’t seem to get concussion issues and can have prolonged careers. There are very specialized categories such as if you’re good on a horse or something the industry needs for certain genre films. Also, you have to be a decent human being which helps the community at large. If you’re a selfish human, it’s the same in any industry—you’ll have a limited limited network of people you can call upon.
Jason: What is one, or if you have more than one, misconceptions the public might have regarding working stunt professionals?
Kirk Caouette: A misconception would be is that there’s a lot of creative people who are stunt performers. Up until recently we were dehumanized by the industry as a whole. That came from the John Wayne cowboy era where they would hire cowboys and keep it completely quiet. They didn’t want to break up the fantasy that John Wayne was riding the horse, which he didn’t know how to ride. I was up for more main unit director jobs after my first film Hit ‘n Strum, but I had to erase my stunt credits on IMDb. There was such extreme prejudice against a stunt performer being creative at all. After my film there was a real confusion about who I was. Some people thought I was a homeless man and then they’d check my IMDb and see that I was actually a stunt performer in big Hollywood films. I know friends that are talented artists, musicians, screenplay writers, directors, but they don’t get a crack at it unless they step up and do it themselves.
Jason: What are your feelings about there still not being an Oscar category for stunt work?
Kirk Caouette: There’s categories for everything from wardrobe to every department in Oscars, but we still don’t exist. And they don’t want us to exist. A lot of stars will recognize this and bring their stunt doubles out on stage and give them some credit but that damages the fantasy, doesn’t it? If you see Tom Cruise’s stunt double on stage with him at the Oscars people are going to be as curious about the stunt man as they’re going to be about Tom. That goes for a lot of a lot of action stars. For instance, in Deadpool, the character wears a mask so anytime he’s wearing a mask, all the cool stuff is being done by his double. The last thing the studios want is to take star power away from the star in any kind of public situation. So there’s discrimination against performers from the artistic side. They don’t want to recognize that we exist in this day of modern and social media and when I say they, I mean the Academy. They do not want to see us on stage, they do not want to see us collecting awards. Our awards are internal. We have awards in our union, and Red Bull had some stunt awards but again, these are not things that the public even know about.
Jason: I remember there was an hour long documentary on the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is my favorite movie of all time, and the stunt performers in that documentary were all featured prominently. There was even a crawl of all their names at the end but you don’t see that anymore. I think stunt and movie casting need their own Oscar categories and I hope to see that change soon as I’m sure you all do.
Kirk Caouette: I don’t think there’s been pressure applied. They could but I don’t think we’re going to see a category for stunt performers ever. A stunt coordinator will possibly get an Oscar, because they don’t take anything away from the movie star.
Jason: Harrison Ford has often called it “physical acting,” would you agree with that label?
Kirk Caouette: Yeah, he’s a gentleman. If there’s a good chance that someone’s going to be taken away in an ambulance it’s not something that a movie star would be allowed to do. Tom Cruise is an exception. He has so much power because he executive produces his movies and he’s so jazzed about doing his own stunts. One of my very good friends in the industry named Chris Gordon has been Tom’s stunt double for a long time. He does the rehearsals over and over again to make sure it’s completely 100% safe and then they’ll bring in Tom and he’ll do it. So the stunt double does all the takes, all the beats and figures out how to do it safely and then after it’s 100% safe, Tom comes in and does his own stunts. But he doesn’t take the chance of getting seriously injured on his own films, because that’s a major liability issue. If there’s one star that does his own stunts you could argue that he does in a lot of cases.
Jason: You worked on these big budget movies like X2: X-Men United which established the cinematic world of Marvel we have now. Do you feel you are a part of making that happen?
Kirk Caouette: It’s amazing how fast time goes. There were a couple films that propelled it. Spider Man, Batman and X-Men to me, were the three films that established the box office viability. X-Men 2 was by far the best X-Men they did. I was Night Crawler and that whole opening sequence was very well-received. Especially given that a lot of what we were doing was wire work which hadn’t been done. We had the best wire work team out of LA and a huge team of great guys. It took us a couple of months of wire testing to get that scene to work. We broke some new ground and learned a lot about about wire work and using mechanical devices to whip you through the air faster than what they’d done on The Matrix and in Hong Kong films. It was the biggest, most expensive opening four minutes of film in history. It was a motion controlled camera, all done with computers and I had to be in that precise spot as the computerized camera so we had to synchronize it perfectly. We also had the creative visual effects, storyboards by a bunch of guys sitting on computers coming up with lens sizes, exact frames of how this this creature should move, and then saying to me, “okay, you copy this exactly.” We were completely handcuffed and had to come up with ways to match the visual effects storyboards virtually identical. And hats off to the wire work team and the second unit, the action director on that show. I think that would be my contribution to the Marvel franchise.
Jason: You’ve worked with some really big stars on X-Men and on other projects like Catwoman with Halle Berry and Elektra with Jennifer Garner. How do you approach it if someone comes to you and they’re not confident in their own abilities when it comes to performing heavy action scenes which require physical?
Kirk Caouette: If an actor comes and they’re afraid or concerned, you put them at ease. We’ll bring in the stunt doubles or team and then create some very simple choreography and we teach them the basics of it. Then we put them in rehearsal running through it, and slowly their confidence builds. After a couple of weeks, they’ll start smiling and they get pretty excited about the process, generally speaking.
Jason: Was there someone in particular who surprised you or impressed you immensely as you worked with them over time?
Kirk Caouette: Kate Beckinsale surprised me. Her commitment on Underworld: Evolution was impressive. She came in and her work ethic was like nobody else’s. Incredibly determined with her character and even when she was doing the choreography, she would put herself in character. Even in the training, holding pads she would get into character while doing it. She surprised me with her tenacity and commitment to the part and commitment to bringing those fight scenes and that character to life. She was fantastic.
Jason: Do you have a favorite or more memorable stunt or stunt scene which stands out among your body of work?
Kirk Caouette: There are some that are memorable because they look very bad and there are some that are are memorable that went good. The ones I remember the most, the stunts that stand out to me were scenes where the performer is quite badly injured. There’s that cowboy mentality that permeates through the business where we can’t show weakness or we’re going to get ridiculed. There’s one where I got blown up off a boat and that was the easy part. Then I lied in the water and caught hypothermia. They placed me in a hot tub after I got pulled out of the ocean. We’re shooting in February and in the ocean and we didn’t have a wet suit forming. I was in and out of the water until the point where I couldn’t speak or couldn’t walk. The stupid director wanted close up dialogue coverage of the actors with me floating in the background. And you can’t even see me on-screen and he nearly killed me for this close up on his cast.
Jason: I imagine stunt professionals sometimes fear a job and when they do, how do they push toward doing the job required of them?
Kirk Caouette: As we’re young we’re rebels and adventure seekers. But being a professional performer I know the stuff I got to do and if it’s going to be a shit-kicker I can’t sleep for a couple nights. There’s no Hollywood magic, you’re getting the crap knocked out again. As you age and break more bones and have more concussions it gets worse. We’re all humans and we all feel fear. Up until the age of 35 I never said no to a stunt. I paid the consequence for that but you want to be the person that a stunt coordinator calls when they don’t know how to do it. So you want to excel at it, you don’t ask the stunt coordinator what’s the gig or how hard do I land? Sometimes it’s going to be a cakewalk and sometimes you show up up and it’s I got to do what? And you have to figure out how the heck you’re going to do it without breaking your neck or killing yourself. I’m very fortunate to have kept all my joints intact. I’m still performing full time pretty much but I haven’t been asked to do something heinous for about five years now.
Jason: Is that part of the reason you became a filmmaker yourself? I think a lot of people reading this article might be surprised to learn that you’re a filmmaker in addition to your stunt career.
Kirk Caouette: Well, like I said, a lot of performers are creative people. There’s a lot of creativity that goes into martial arts and acrobatics. Something happens to a lot of people and they get jaded and hate their jobs and they’re nightmares to work with. Then others find an outlet for creativity and expression. There comes a moment in life where we realize we’ve dedicated our body and soul to making violence on camera. We create thrilling scenes where people are always getting killed and getting smashed. Where bad guys shooting people in the head consumed by young kids and teenagers. When I hit 35 I looked back at the last 15 years and I’d been been creating violence for mainstream consumption. It’s fun play fighting with your friends. But when you see it on camera in the theater, it feels empty in that we’re not doing anything inspirational or uplifting. So that was a profound feeling that I started getting in my 30s. It affected me mentally.
Jason: With your directorial debut Hit ‘n Strum you utilized your hidden talents as a musician into a movie full of emotion. How did industry colleagues react to seeing this side of you?
Kirk Caouette: I was a closet musician. I was a composer and guitar player. I played at home and didn’t perform anywhere. I felt I had to do something beautiful to express who I am because I’m not an X-Men character. For my movie Hit ‘n Strum I composed all these songs and I played the lead character. I got to play all this music and filmed it and crafted this almost fairy tale. It’s gorgeous story, a transformational love story. That satisfied something deep inside of me. Even though it was a sensitive film a lot of stunt men and women would go to the movie and would all be weeping at the end. And that was a release valve for me, and after that, I was able to go back to work and not feel so empty.
Jason: And as you just mentioned you’re also a music composer. Where did that aspect come from? Was it along the same lines that you just wanted to put something beautiful out there with the phenomenal Tina Guo?
Kirk Caouette: I love composing music with a lead melody with the cello which Tina performs beautifully. But for me, the instrument of choice will always be the piano. You can see all the keys laid out in front of you and you can you can take it in way you want. It can be violent, it can be quiet. The piano gives you more space for creativity.
Jason: Transitioning topics now from the sublime to the not-so-sublime, can you tell me a bit about how COVID has affected your industry this past year?
Kirk Caouette: We were all smacked by it. We had a lot of people in bad places mentally. A lot of near suicides in our industry. I’m a surfer and surfed about 152 days during the lockdown. Coming back to work was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. My first show back was a Netflix project starring Sandra Bullock. I play a SWAT member and had to do a scene where I hop out of an SUV, run over and grab Sandra and grind her face in the rocks and handcuff her. Then they wanted me to flip her over and yell at her. I’m screaming in her face, like spitting all over. And as soon as they’d cut, they’d run up and put a mask on me and I couldn’t stand next to Sandra or talk to her without my mask on. Yet, when we rolled, I could scream and spit on her. None of this makes any sense, whatsoever. I can’t speak with the actress, but I can scream in her face. Everyone’s doing their best, but it feels pretty farcical. Most of the time we were being tested which is good.
Jason: Do you want to talk about anything that you have coming up? Are there things you’re performing in or you’re writing, or hope to get off the ground?
Kirk Caouette: I’ve doing fight choreographer for the Snowpiercer series, Predators and other films. But what’s exciting me the most right now is my film American Badger. We’re getting some good reviews. It’s a film with a female protagonist (Andrea Stefancikova). My character is one of the characters in her satellite of characters, and we follow her perspective. I’m excited about it. Maybe no one will ever watch it but it’s what I wanted to make. The performance that Andrea gives is phenomenal so I’m excited about that. And then I’ve got a whole slate of projects I’m involved with. For every 100 meetings you have there might be one minute of film made. I’m writing a screenplay for Massey productions that I’ll be directing next year, a female character driven action piece.
Jason: Do you think large audiences can go to the theaters on a Friday night and just enjoy themselves like they used to do?
Kirk Caouette: it’s going to takes take a lot of time. It’s going to take time to recover mentally from it. However, eventually we will all want to watch movies together again, take a date to film with popcorn. I mean, we miss it.
Jason: Thanks for talking with me and good luck with American Badger and everything else.
Kirk Caouette: Anytime. Thanks so much.