By Deborah Hall
In the American film industry, which makes self-promotion a cardinal virtue, stunt actors take pride in their anonymity. They move purposefully through movies intent on how well they can forward the action of a particular scene as a double for the star or as a non-descript stunt player. Jodie Foster's role in the newly released Panic Room needed one of these professionals because she was pregnant with her second child. In the film there's a scene where she's fleeing intruders, and the action shot calls for her to jump through the door of the panic room and land on a pillow with her face toward the lens. Her double was so effective that Foster later saw the video-tape twice before she realized it was her double-not her-in the scene.
And then there's Achilles Gacis, a Honolulu stunt man who has spent the last ten years auditioning and performing in movies and television series. In the summer of 2001, he spent one eventful week as a stunt man for the $135 million extravaganza Pearl Harbor released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures six months before the 50th anniversary of the historic attack on U. S. territory. Newly interested in the rewards and risks of this often overlooked contribution to the film business, I managed to interview Achilles in a quiet locale away from the action-packed venues of most of his screen ventures.
Deborah: So what was it like being part of this new cinematic retelling of "the date that will live in infamy"?
Achilles: Well, the call times were 7 a.m. and we finished at 7 p.m. They were full days. In Hawaii to work on a major motion picture is rare. It was very fulfilling.
Deborah: And the pay?
Achilles: Also very fulfilling.
Deborah: What were some of the scenes you performed in?
Achilles: Sometimes the stunt crew I worked with would be dressed as mechanics; other times we would be dressed as army air corps guys-whatever the wardrobe called for. For the most part we were running around the tarmac at Ford Island (on the site of the actual attack) dodging bombs and bullets. We did whatever the stunts coordinator told us to do-whatever the gag was for the day. In the business, gag is what we call a stunt
Deborah: Can you describe a specific scene?
Achilles: You can see one of them in the photograph on the back of the video jacket. I'm one of three guys in uniform behind the co-stars, Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett, and we're all running furiously across the tarmac as bombs fall. I'm the tall one in the middle and we're wearing World War I doughboy helmets because the World War II design wasn't in production until after the attack.
Deborah: What was the biggest danger?
Achilles: The explosions. If you look carefully at the film, you can identify some of them as CGI (computer generated images), but many of the explosions were real, and pretty hairy. We could feel the heat. And we felt the intensity of the noise. If we hadn't been careful where we were running, we could have gotten badly hurt. Very bad, I'll leave it at that.
Deborah: So let's go back to the beginning of your stunt career. How does a kid growing up in laid-back Hawaii get interested in the challenges and dangers of the stunt profession?
Achilles: Well, I have always had an interest in the performing arts. I started in musical theater when I was ten. And we had a great theater program at McKinley High School. Growing up in the 70s was a perfect time for someone like myself. I had also begun to study karate by age 10. The Bruce Lee films projected a different way of screen fighting and bizarre acrobatics. Movies directly from Asia were plentiful and tickets were cheap. I'd see a different film every week. By my last year of high school, I was voted most talented, and everyone thought I would go directly into theater. But I decided to continue my education. I got my bachelor's degree in world religions from the University of Hawaii, and then I entered the four-year master divinity program at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. I ran the TV productions there. In hindsight you see your passions. And then I roamed around the Mediterranean for a bit, specifically in Greece, and I visited some monasteries and churches in the country.
Deborah: A bit like that famous Homeric hero of the Iliad with whom you share the same name.
Achilles: When I decided to come home, I pursued my second master's in Asian religions at the University of Hawaii. And that was wonderful because I immersed myself in Asian traditions, and I studied the Japanese language for a couple of years. I grew up speaking Greek at home, but I had to learn classic Greek at the seminary. After I finished that MA degree program, I began teaching courses in world religions at the university and Honolulu colleges.
Deborah: And you were and are a knowledgeable and vigorous professor of world religions. What happened that persuaded you to change your course in life-or should I say add a new direction to the course you were on?
Achilles: Well, in 1992 I was a fitness instructor at the Honolulu Club teaching water aerobics. One person in my class worked for an agent and she told me that CBS was having open casting for a new television series to be filmed in Honolulu entitled Raven. It was about a man called Jonathan Raven who is looking for his lost son, and a lot of the scenes called for martial arts. I had worked as an extra back in 1978 for a Hawaii Five-O segment. So I showed up at Honolulu's Diamond Head studio to audition and decided that what I really wanted to do was stunts. I learned I had to send in a résumé with an 8-inch-by-10 inch headshot to the stunt coordinator, Gary Baxley, who was also the double for the co-star Lee Major. On the set two days later to play an extra, I introduced myself to Baxley who introduced me to Howard Jackson, a martial arts expert, who goes back to karate tournaments on the west coast in the sixties and the seventies. This was a time when guys like Skipper Mullans, Bill Superfoot Wallace, Chuck Norris fought in tournaments bare-knuckle style. These were my role models as a kid. Jackson had competed with my martial arts teacher Dana Goodson some years back in LA. So that was a nice connection. The stunt profession is a contact-driven business.
So Jackson asks me to show up two days later on the beach at Waikiki for an audition. I brought all my stuff and my black-belt karate uniform and showed him what I could do. Howard called out techniques: round-house kick, side-kick, cross-behind kick, jump-spinning kick.
Deborah: And did you get the part?
Achilles. Yes. Ironically the first fight scene I ever did on the show was as a member of a religious cult. I worked with Eddie Braun who was Charlie Sheen's stunt double at the time. Since we had to audition for each scene, every Saturday, around 30 of us would show up. And the stunt coordinator would decide who he needed for the following episode. Did he need a biker, a drug addict, or a hit man? As it turned out I did a lot of these parts because I was able to be a chameleon. I did six episodes of Raven. And I got my Screen Actors Guild union card a few months after I started working on the Raven set.
Deborah: What other memorable parts have you played?
Achilles: When I was in an episode of Baywatch Hawaii, I played a guy named Denny who sells the detonator that kills off the David Hasselhoff character and doubled another actor as well. I doubled Richard Burgi in One West Waikiki, one of the leads with Cheryl Ladd. I played a sword fighter in the 1997 adventure film Escape from Atlantis. I really wanted that role. The director asked if I could use a claymore (a large two-edged broadsword originating in medieval Scotland). And I said I could swing one in each hand. He liked that and he liked the way I delivered my lines, and he knew I could take direction well. That's what got me the part. It was great.
Deborah: Do you have a reputation for playing the bad guys?
Achilles: I haven't had a romantic lead yet. (laughs) So I figure the uglier I grow, the more work I'll get.
Deborah: What kind of personality makes a good stunt actor?
Achilles: Well, you have to be sharp. Your mind's got to be clear, first and foremost. Stunt actors are not daredevils, you know; they're engineers. They have to have a strong head on their shoulders and be very business like about what they're doing-and realistic. Equal, not second, but equal, they have to be in top physical condition because they're kind of like professional athletes. Their body is their life. The more I work with the top stunt guys, the more inspired I am to run my laps and do my sit-ups and pull-ups and grow strong. Training for stunts involves physical skills like sword fighting, martial arts, gymnastics, football, rugby, and soccer. All of these physical activities prepare the stunt actor to perform at his best.
Deborah: At www.stuntplayers.com, your résumé lists16 martial arts and weapon arts that you've studied-from Japanese Aikido to Filipino Escrima to Greek combat. Are skills in the martial arts essential for stunt roles?
Achilles: A martial arts background helps a lot. But I also have theatrical training. Since getting into stunts, I have continued to perform in the theater. I played Petruchio in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. I'm an odd ball. I can do lines, I can do characters. I can also do a helluva ballroom brawl. Stunt actors develop specialties. Have I done things like full-body fire burns? No, I don't want to do fire. Have I done things like air rams (being propelled into the air)? It's too dangerous and at six foot four I'm too big. But the more skills you have the more marketable you become.
Deborah: I noticed stunt schools advertised on the Internet.
Achilles: Yes, there are some stunt schools on the mainland. They're very expensive, though. The best place to learn is on a live set, obviously. The more you work, the better you get. Out of the thirty or so people auditioning each week for the Raven episodes, three of us became very good friends. We were recommended by the stunt coordinator to the local organization, the Hawaii Stunt Association, and we joined. It was nice because we had a group of professionals with whom we could work out and share trade secrets. Now I'm the recording secretary and a member of the Screen Actors Guild's Stunt and Safety Committee. It's been a nice growth process.
Stunt jobs are not advertised in the newspapers. So you knock on the door and wait until it opens. Then you go in and work your tail off. You prove yourself. If you go into the business because you have that clichéd attitude that you want to be a star, you're going to be nothing.
Deborah: What about women? Do they have fewer opportunities in the profession?
Achilles: No, they are very popular. The ultimate stunt movie with women, I would guess, would be Charlie's Angels in 2000, twenty years after the popular TV series ended. Years ago men dressed up and played female roles. Women stunt actors today are tough and talented. They're amazing at dialogue. They've got Black Belts. They've got incredible gymnastic ability. And they're beautiful.
Stunt actors, men or women, grow because of their talent. You meet people in the profession who have doubled stars like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you think, it would be great if you were in a film where Schwarzenegger punches you out. When I'm working on a set, I never want the day to end. .And then I wait for the next call. For me it's not work. People ask me where do I work. I say I don't work. I live. And that's my philosophy for stunts and teaching. They are the best of all possible worlds.
Deborah: So you love what you do. In an earlier conversation you called performing stunts an art? Can you explain that to me?
Achilles: Yes, it's an art-and a science. For example, let's say I do a barroom brawl. That's like an old-time MGM musical, a big dance number for stunt guys. Bar room brawls are great because you get all these guys together. First of all, you all have the same mentality: you love doing fight scenes so the energy is there. That's the camaraderie aspect of the atmosphere.
The art involves playing a certain character. You might be the card player or the drunk. If it's a modern barroom brawl, you might be a car thief or a drug dealer. So how do you portray this other than just your wardrobe or your make-up? It's by the expression on your face, and how you move. You have to develop a certain kind of fighting style that will work in the scene. If you're big and muscular, you fight one way. If you're small and wiry, you fight another way. You may decide to jump on the back of a fighter and pound him on his head. If you like martial arts, maybe you can throw a visually appealing kick. You have to put all the details of a scene together: how and when are you going to fall over the table, who's going to be in front of you, behind you, around you, above you. What's flying, any bottles being broken, and anyone jumping through windows? All of these elements have to be considered before you hear the director shout "action" and you start your routine. Then everything falls in place, and I mean literally falls in place.
Deborah: You clearly love the business. And now you're working on a film script?
Achilles: Yes, last fall I wrote and directed a short film called Pacific Crossfire and took one of the bad guy roles. It's an action piece. You can see it online at <http://www.ifilm.com> It's like an extended trailer, only 15 minutes long, and hopefully will arouse people interested in funding a longer film. Last year it won a Gold Telly Award, which has been recognizing non-network and cable commercials since 1980, and a few years ago included film and video production. Our entry was among 11,000 in the nation.
Deborah: You are near completing a doctorate program in education at Walden University in Minneapolis. What's in your future? More or less stunt work?
Achilles: Teaching and stunt work! Absolutely. I want to accelerate, to do more. I figure I've got a lot more years left.
Deborah: How many years can you continue in such a physically demanding profession?
Achilles: We've worked with some guys who are in their mid-fifties, and they look like young Charles Bronsons. One of them was telling me I was in this movie with the Duke. He was talking about fight scenes with John Wayne. And I looked at him and said to myself: "What a role model!" I'm doing 15 more push-ups tomorrow. I'm running 10 more laps. If you have the drive, how can you fail? I say to my students what I say to my movie crew: "Tell me how we can do it, whatever the IT is; don't tell me how we can't, cause I'll tell you there's always a way to do IT. The IT can be anything-from getting a job to becoming this or that in life. In other words, there is always a way to get IT. If you don't have drive in something, you are a very boring human being to be around. Nikos Kazantzakis said it perfectly in his novel Zorba the Greek. There's a wonderful scene in the film version when Anthony Quinn (What a wonderful actor!) asks his boss played by Alan Bates: "Why did God give man hands? To grasp"-or maybe he said grab. And how simple: to grasp. I like getting involved with life-with the process. I love creating, and once you stop the dream, then you yourself stop.
Deborah: So what will be your next IT? I hear Bruce Willis and his film crew have created a slice of Africa at Kuoloa Ranch in windward Oahu (northwest of Honolulu). His next film entitled Hostile Rescue has him saving an American doctor, played by the beauteous Monica Bellucci, from the throes of an African revolution. You think you might be called?
Achilles: I'm hoping for the call. In the meantime it's always "hurry up and wait." See you in the movies!
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