Professional stunt performers hone craft in Chicago

Professional stunt performers Chris Nolte and Rebecca Vickers perform a scene in "WaterWorld" at Universal Studios Singapore. (Photo/Facebook)
Professional stunt performers Chris Nolte and Rebecca Vickers perform a scene in “WaterWorld” at Universal Studios Singapore. (Photo/Facebook)

Usually when a person gazes at his image in a photograph, he recognizes the face looking back at him. For Chris Nolte, this isn’t always the case — He once mistook himself for actor Steve Martin.

“I had taken photos of myself with a disposable camera,” Nolte said in a phone interview. “When I got the prints back, I remember looking at a particular photo thinking, ‘when did I take a photo of him?’ only to realize that it was of me. Truth be told, I even fooled myself.”

As a professional stunt performer, it is often Nolte’s job to fool an audience into believing he is someone else. In the 2001 film “Novocaine,” his work as Steve Martin’s stunt double was so convincing, even the producers and director were fooled. Nolte, 43, has been a stunt performer since 1995. He auditioned for a show at Six Flags in his hometown, St. Louis, while studying theater and working as a bartender and waiter. There, he learned sword fighting, general stage combat and gun play for a role in “Robin Hood.”

Because of his size (6’2” and 200 pounds), Nolte is often cast in tough-guy roles – a thug in “Prison Break,” one of the Joker’s henchmen in “The Dark Knight” – for which he won a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance in an Ensemble in a Motion Picture.

“It’s very nice to be recognized for that,” Nolte said. “It’s probably going to be one of the classics…so to have that be the one to win an award on is a proud moment.”

With the recent increase in movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago – “Batman Begins,” The Dark Knight,” “Divergent,” “Chicago Fire” and its spinoff, “Chicago P.D.,” to name a few – local actors and stunt professionals have more opportunities for work. An industry with so many nuances, Nolte said, is ideal for stunt performers with diverse backgrounds and skills. One job may require specialists in rigging or martial arts, while another utilizes wheelmen with expert driving prowess.

“I wouldn’t say I do everything and I wouldn’t say I specialize,” said Nolte. “Everyone’s got their own story. There aren’t two stunt men that have the same story.”

Though their stories aren’t exactly the same, Nolte’s story is deeply intertwined with another professional stunt performer’s, Rebecca Vickers. After first meeting at Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan, they met again while working at Universal Studios, Singapore. The job was for “WaterWorld,” based on the 1995 blockbuster.

When they initially met in Japan, Vickers and Nolte became friends, but were dating other people. In Singapore, they were both single and the timing was right to begin a new relationship. A few years later, they became husband and wife. In April, they moved to Naperville.

“I can’t see it being anything other than destiny,” Nolte said, while Vickers, 34, laughed in the background. “I didn’t marry her because she’s a stunt performer…my wife is many things, she just also has a background in stunts.”

Vickers, who grew up in New South Wales, Australia, started dancing at age 3. At 17, she left high school to attend the David Atkins Dynamite Dance School of Performance Arts. She was working professionally as a dancer and actress at Universal Studios Japan when producers approached her about doing stunt work after another performer was injured.

“It was new world for me,” Vickers said. “I’d never trained with weapons or done any sort of high falls or fighting…you never really stop learning, you never stop training. Every day I go to work I learn something different, either a new stunt, a new way to fall or a new way to get hit by a car.”

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Vickers is currently filming episodes of “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.,” which premieres January 8 on NBC. She said the most challenging thing about her work is not the actual stunts, but the exhaustion after filming all day.

“In a perfect world it would be so good to be in and out in three or four hours, but sometimes they are 14-15 hour days,” Vickers said. “There’s a lot of waiting around. Stuff that we’ve been doing takes 15 hours to do one scene…you watch it when it airs, and it literally takes 20 seconds then it’s over.”

Despite the long days, Vickers said she loves her work and would love to say she’ll never stop taking stunt jobs. Emmanuel Manzanares, a 27-year-old stunt performer, shares her passion. He said he’d like to work for as long as he can walk.

“I’d love to perform as long as I could perform safely and adequately and then beyond that, I’d love to keep filming and creating until my body says no more,” Manzanares said in a phone interview. “To me, the biggest gift I can hopefully give is to help other people get to where they want to be, and help the community learn and grow as much as the community has helped me.”

Nolte recently got Manzanares a job working on “Chicago Fire” under veteran stunt coordinator Rick LeFevour. Manzanares, who specializes in Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate, Muay Thai kickboxing and general fight choreography, founded LBP Stunts Chicago in 2006, and now splits his time between Los Angeles and Chicago. He said being a stunt performer is much more than knowing how to fight.

“Let’s say you have a black belt; it means you’ve mastered the basics,” Manzanares said. “So, you should have a fundamental background and you should be able to control what you know. But, let’s say you only know how to fight and you only take that mentality onto a production, that’s not necessarily how it’s going to work…you have to learn how to adapt that training to what’s necessary for the production.”

Manzanares said one of the things he loves most about the stunt profession is the art of creation and getting to work as a team. He feels positive about the rise in job availability in Chicago.

“I think it’s a great-looking city…it’s a market that hasn’t been completely tapped,” he said. “It’s clear that the movies and TV shows that have been well done and shot in Chicago look great…the city just has a really natural look that you can’t get in the studio…It definitely gives a lot of the locals work to look forward to and it gets to show everyone else in the industry that we have something to offer.”

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