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Casting call: South African stunt people

There aren't yet enough able black performers to meet demand as location work increases, but Thulani Ndlovu's school aims to fix that.

August 20, 2004|Laurie Goering | Chicago Tribune

CAPETOWN, South Africa — CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Thembaletu Tuytu flies through the air with arms flailing, then lands flat on his back with a thud. He leaps off the mats smiling, to quick applause from his classmates.

"I was scared, but now I'm getting it," says the 22-year-old from Cape Town's tough Khayelitsha township, before heading off for another practice run at his new career: African stuntman.

South Africa over the last two years has become a favored new location for shooting feature films. Last year, Cape Town alone hosted 37, most of them foreign productions. Just this week, filming is beginning on "Lord of War," a major U.S. production starring Nicolas Cage as an international arms dealer.

But black stuntmen remain in short supply in post-apartheid South Africa, where white stunt actors capable of bungee jumping off a bridge, disarming a knife-wielding attacker or being set on fire outnumber blacks 7 to 1. At times, desperate directors have had to resort to dressing white stunt performers in wigs and makeup to make a scene work.

That, however, has begun to change with the launch of the Dimensional Stunt School, Africa's first affirmative action stunt training program.

In a martial arts studio in downtown Cape Town, would-be stunt performers now learn to sword fight, fall, attack each other with guns, knives and clubs, and throw a good fake punch, all without getting hurt.

"I'm looking for people with the right frame of mind -- not daredevils," said Thulani Ndlovu, managing director of the school. "We don't want the ones that want to jump off a building."

Ndlovu got his own start in the industry a decade ago when a friend approached him about working as an actor and stunt double for a Canadian production of "Sinbad" being filmed in South Africa.

Ndlovu, an accomplished martial arts instructor, dancer, choreographer and classical actor, had no idea what he was talking about.

"I was clueless," he said. "I had to ask him, 'What is a stunt double?' "

But with the help of a Canadian trainer, he quickly learned how to fall, fight and ride a horse -- and saw that there was plenty of work for performers like him. Urged to move to Hollywood, he instead opened his own stunt school in September 2002.

"People said, 'Why not come to Hollywood and make money?' But my aim is to help people here," said Ndlovu, who grew up in Durban. "How can we get better if everyone who is trained leaves?"

With stunt performers earning at least $115 a day in South Africa -- and as much as $700 for really tough work -- Ndlovu's initial class drew 225 enthusiastic applicants. He chose 25 -- 70% of them black, several women and a handful from the poorest and toughest of Cape Town's slums.

The prerequisites for students are simple, he said: good health, basic athletic ability, good coordination, good English skills and a willingness to be a team player and take instruction.

Of the 25 students Ndlovu has trained so far, 14 get regular stunt work in films, television and commercials, he said. He maintains a database of the physical details and skills of each performer, and dispatches the most suitable performers when casting agents call.

So far his students have worked in movies including "Country of My Skull," starring Samuel L. Jackson; "King Solomon's Mines," starring Patrick Swayze; and "Third World," a Canadian six-part series on genocide. He's also training 100 "action extras" for "Lord of War."

"Thulani does a fantastic job," said Martin Cuff, head of the Cape Film Commission. "Any effort to develop black talent is really useful. The market's determined that he's needed."

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