The Performer: Stuntman Jeffery Ong

On timing, adrenalin, and how to fall off a building and walk away without a scratch.

The Taurus World Stunt Awards are a daredevil’s version of the Oscars. The elite of the stunt industry gathers in Hollywood to honour the year’s top work — Best Fight, Best Fire Stunt, Best Work With A Vehicle.

This year, Canadian Jeffery Ong took home a Taurus for Hardest Hit. In the movie Push, he fell 25 feet from a building, crushing a car with his body. A veteran of more than 50 films, TV shows and video games, Ong also works as a stunt co-ordinator and choreographer. He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

Excerpts from the “Training” section of Jeffery Ong’s resume

Martial Arts: Kuk Sool Won (2nd-degree black belt), tae kwon do (1st-degree black belt), capoeira, fut ga kung fu, wushu, kick-boxing

Rigging: Rappel rescue (Seneca College)

Weapons: Bo staff, double bo staff, sword and shield, spear, tahn bong, rope

Dance: Modern dance (School of Toronto Dance Theatre), jazz, ballet, and hip hop (Canadian Dance Company)

Scuba Diving: PADI Advanced Open Water

Motorcycle: Dirt and street (intermediate)

How does somebody get started as a stunt performer? You didn’t go to school for it.
I actually came in through the world of dance. I was studying business at university, and hating it. Then I met this girl — it always starts with a girl — who suggested I try some dance. I grew up doing martial arts but had never studied anything artistic. So I started with modern dance, and from there I was adopted into a dance family at the Canadian Dance Company, and travelled and competed. That was how I realized that I wanted to get into big-stage performance.

So you did have a martial-arts background to call on.
When I was six years old, my dad started training me in karate in the house. He wanted me to get my black belt because he had never gotten his, so I went to a bunch of karate schools and got to my second degree. Then I stopped getting belts, and just wanted to learn stuff. Capoeira, jiu-jitsu, judo, akido, kung fu …

Is it normal for somebody to study so many different disciplines?
A lot of people like to just stick to one. Me, I like variety. But that’s helped make me a good stuntman, too. Martial artists have a big barrier to entry in the stunt world, because when a director says, “Throw a punch,” they’re like, “Kyah!” They’re very rigid and formal. But I had this bridge between martial arts and dance, so I understood movement and understood changing movement. With the Canadian Dance Company, I learned not just one style. We’d learn ballet for technique, then apply it everywhere else — hip hop, jazz, whatever. So when I took that to film, I understood how to translate my martial arts into whatever looked best on camera.

How long do you see yourself doing this?
Oh, I’d love to do this my whole life.

Is that possible, with the toll it takes on your body?
I started making a documentary on Alex Green, who was the founder of Stunts Canada, an elite group of stunt guys. He passed away this year, but he was performing right up until two years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. He loved doing it, loved being part of shows. You’re not doing the big gags anymore, but you know, you’re the old dude that falls down in the grocery store, or has to get out of the way of the car. I think everyone hopes for a long career. Whether that’s a reality or not has a lot to do with luck, and also with taking care of yourself.

The stunt for which you won the Taurus — you actually fell through the air onto a car. How do you prepare for that?
There are so many different elements that go into it. The special effects guys, they’re the ones that blew the windows and prepared the car. The stunt riggers made sure we could get up there safely. Your first step is communicating with those groups of people, making sure that everything is prepped and that as few things as possible can go wrong, so that you have a fighting chance to do it well, and be able to repeat it — because I had to do it twice. Stunt performers don’t always understand how important communication is. In a situation like this, you want to make sure it’s the best possible scenario, even though it might suck. I talked to the special-effects guys and looked inside the car. They had cleaned out the inside and tried to make it so that it would collapse when I hit it and cushion my fall as much as possible. But I double-checked that the vital things were taken care of.

When you fall, you want to make sure you’re not exposing something, like a limb, or your neck. For instance, even if cars don’t have sunroofs, they’re precut in the frame. So I asked the special effects guys, “Do we need to reinforce that?” They said, “No, no, it’s fine.” So I used my arm to support my neck and to bash through the frame as hard as I could. I actually punched through the sunroof. Had I not, looking back, my head would have stuck through the hole. It would have scalped me.

You must have been pretty beaten up afterwards.
No, I actually came out of it pretty awesome. A little jarred, but I was wearing body armour under my wardrobe. Girls have it worse. My girlfriend is actually a stunt double, too, and, you know, sexy outfits, you can’t wear as much protective gear. When she was doubling Megan Fox, she was wearing next to nothing.

So was that the most difficult stunt you’ve done?
Well in that one, I was just falling. There’s not much I can do other than fall. It’s funny, because I guess difficulty can be gauged in different ways. On Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a sword went into my mouth and took out my tooth. Nothing was cut, fortunately, it just took out the tooth. Fight sequences are all timing. It’s a dance. And we were rushing, and the timing was just a bit off. You can get hurt anywhere.

What about mental preparation?
You definitely have to be a certain kind of person to be a stunt performer. You have to like adrenalin and be able to deal with it.

Do you get scared?
Yeah, you get scared, you get anxiety, but you have to like that. I think we come from the same group of people that like to skydive. I think every stunt person I know would probably suffer in an office. If you find yourself thinking “Why am I doing this?” it’s probably not the right job for you. And it’s contract work, so it’s not like you have a guaranteed paycheque. You have to hustle, you have to make sure you’re putting yourself out there to get work.

What’s the worst you’ve hurt yourself on a shoot?
A twisted ankle.

You’re kidding. You’re lucky. Or very good.
I’m one of the few stunt people I know who’s never broken a bone.