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Photo by Adam Ewing
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Richmond demonstrates a liquid fire suppressant at the Tactical Response Expo.Photo courtesy Kid Richmond
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With host Bear Grylls on the L.A. set of the Discovery Channel's Worst Case Scenario. Photo courtesy Kid Richmond
It's dark, the temperature has dropped to the 40s and coyotes are crying in the distance.
"Go! All! Out!" exhorts the director, who's calling the "martini shot," the last scene of the day for Wish You Well, a small-budget independent film. Jake "Kid" Richmond leaps from a barn-loft ladder onto an actor's back. He then pulls the actor — who plays a good guy, Eugene — off of another bad guy, whom Eugene's been pummeling.
That's a wrap. The set is broken down, and crew members scurry off to various vehicles, propelled by cold, exhaustion and fear of coyotes.
Kid Richmond is a stuntman. He gets paid for exploding things, getting beaten up, running over people with cars and fighting with hundreds of men in the mud — but he's often waiting, either for a producer's call or for a director to set up a shot.
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"Either you sit on set for hours doing nothing, or you're really rushed," says the 32-year-old Hanover County native, who legally changed his last name from Kirby to Richmond, his stage name, in 2005. He feels like it helps cement in film professionals' minds that he's the stunt guy from Richmond, Virginia. After about a decade in the business, Richmond has seen major success in the past four years: He's worked on Lincoln, Super 8, the John Adams miniseries and Route Irish, a thriller by acclaimed British director Ken Loach. If you've watched 1,000 Ways to Die on Spike TV, you may have seen Kid Richmond get set on fire. That's one of his areas of expertise.
Filming for Wish You Well, based on the book of the same name by David Baldacci, follows the familiar pattern of hurry up and wait. Because of scheduling, the trim and upright Richmond spent a bluebird October morning blocking and rehearsing the fight scene at a barn in Giles County, west of Blacksburg. But filming doesn't take place until 10 hours later.
Acting as stunt coordinator, Richmond practices fake punches and kicks with stuntmen Barrett Snow and Robbie Wiley — playing Thug No. 1 and Thug No. 2 — and two actors, Alano Miller (Eugene) and Ned Bellamy, who plays George Davis, the villain of the movie.
Miller's character gets the best of the skinny Snow, tossing him like a rag doll into a pile of hay, but the burly Wiley and Bellamy together prove too much for Miller, who lies on the ground getting kicked.
Miller, who definitely gets tossed around the most, wears a back shield and some other protection, but he and Bellamy try not to actually hit each other. Richmond shows them some moves that would never work in a real fight but which fool the camera from certain angles.
"Next one that touches Eugene is dead!" That's the director, shouting actor Ellen Burstyn's line and imitating the bang of a gun, the cue for the actors and stuntmen to look up and run away from Eugene, who's flat on his back. Filming is a few hours away, but the rehearsal meets the director's satisfaction.
The actors enjoy the sunny afternoon, discussing the presidential debate from the night before. A barn cat darts past. Richmond takes a bite from an orange bell pepper.
Ned Bellamy has a trick left knee, so Richmond takes his place for the leap from the hayloft during filming. A lot of times, actors want to do their own stunts, even when insurance companies say no, but Bellamy is a veteran with more than 30 years of acting under his belt, and he does stunts only when necessary.
"It's the simple stuff that can prove the most dangerous," he says, although a recent gig on Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Western, Django Unchained, which required him to ride a horse on ice in Wyoming, was also pretty harrowing. "Stuntmen will never tell you they're hurt. If you get hurt, it's a badge of courage. Most stunt guys are gentle. They're calm. They're like professionals at hiding their fear."
It's an ethos Richmond echoes, although he drew the line on a movie set when he says he was advised to just live with a cauliflower ear, a disfiguring injury that's permanent unless the ear is drained of blood within a few hours. That movie was Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
During training for the big muddy battle scene (the one in the trailers), Richmond got whacked in the left ear with the butt of a rifle. He was told "just to leave it," Richmond recalls, but instead he left the set and drained his own ear at home, in his bathroom, returning the next day.
Richmond adds that other men got hurt in the Lincoln battle, which was filmed on a field near the Virginia Farm Bureau in Goochland County, with one man separating his shoulder, and another hurting his back.
Unlike Wish You Well , which counts its stunt-rehearsal time in hours, Lincoln scheduled training and rehearsal for a week before the battle scene was filmed.
While a line producer on a major motion picture pays close attention to the budget, Richmond says, he was paid well on the $50 million Lincoln — more than $1,800 a day, amounting to $6,500 for three days of filming — as one of a small group of stuntmen among hundreds of extras, who are paid far less. He held a bayonet, and Spielberg came out of his tent to give Richmond and a few other guys a word of direction. Push the guy down who's next to you, the master whispered.
"I like to think of a film as a startup," Richmond says. "Line producers watch for overspending. Some watch it so close, departments don't get what they need. Others give you everything — and for no work." On a different movie, he got paid $1,100 just to stand in a field for more than eight hours in costume, plus $200 for a small fight scene.
The inconsistency and constant schedule changes of moviemaking, which appear to be universal no matter the size of the project, can be maddening to the efficient and businesslike Richmond. But the ever-changing environment, moving from safety films for factory workers to giant Hollywood productions and everything in-between, is part of the pleasure, he says.
Also, and not that Richmond's going to admit to it, there are the brushes with stars. He says it would have been just as much fun to be in a fight with an extra as it was to be on the receiving end of a beatdown from actor Michael Imperioli in the forthcoming film Foreclosure .
But would it be as good a story? Would we be writing about it?
So, how does one become a stuntman?
There are schools, but many of the top guys teach themselves stunts and learn by spending time on sets as glorified gofers. Jake and his brother, Willie Kirby, who's a year older, grew up on a farm near the edge of Richmond's East End. They went to Hanover County's Atlee High School, although both brothers dropped out. (Notes Richmond: "I wasn't learning anything other than how to use the No. 2 pencil.")
Richmond's first job out of high school was fabricating vehicles for Townsend Race Cars in King William County. He says he's always been attracted to jobs with a "coolness factor."
"I don't think either of us was a risk-taker," Kirby says. "We just had a colorful youth. His career as a stuntman came as an accident, just like my career as a tattoo artist." After school, they'd complete their chores on the farm and drive go-karts, hunt or fly down skating ramps in a nearby neighborhood. "Pretty much any sport you could think of, we did," Kirby notes.
Richmond also ran cross-country, and as a young adult, he went to a "weekend warrior" event in Seattle. He got to jump from a building, which made him think that perhaps this was something he could do for a living.
Richmond always was crazy about motorcycles, and he tried out for a Western-themed stunt show at a theme park in Maryland. Although it sounds about as far from Hollywood as you can get, a stuntman can make connections through theme-park work that will help him get into movies.
But Richmond says that this particular park didn't follow correct safety protocol, and even as a 22-year-old, he had the sense to question whether it was worth $9 an hour to risk serious injury. He decided it wasn't.
After taking jobs here and there, Richmond moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to pursue movie work. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood was not easy to navigate.
It's "very fake, full of nepotism and favoritism," Richmond says. "They're focused on pressuring you, often berating crew members. I'm all about harmony in the workplace." Hollywood and New York City productions are usually more professionally run than those away from the two cities, Richmond says, but they often "lack a personal compass."
He achieved moderate success, including stunt driving for the film National Treasure, but he had to work hard to be considered for jobs. In 2005, Richmond moved home to Virginia because his mother was dying of cancer. He and his brother took charge of her hospice care at home, assisted by the family's dog, Pogo, a sweetheart of a pit bull who now lives with Richmond. (The dog, now 13, seemed to know when their mother needed comforting and often turned up at her bedside at those times, Richmond says.)
Talna Pettigrew had been ill for three or four years, but she chose to stop treatment when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, followed by liver and brain cancer. "She said, ‘I'm done. I'm going to choose quality over quantity,' " Richmond recalls.
He started interviewing his mother on a digital recorder. "I am so thankful I did," Richmond says, advising everyone to "just interview [older relatives], ask them what their childhood was like. Preferably when they're not on liquid morphine."
Kirby and Richmond both say that their father was abusive when they were growing up, and Richmond hasn't spoken to his dad in 10 years. His sister recently mentioned that their father, a former commercial fisherman and farmer, had suffered a stroke.
"I remember times when he was trying to choke us out," Richmond says of his father. "It's violence. I'm sure if I talk to him now, he regrets how he raised us."
Moving back east didn't hurt Richmond's career; in fact, it's taken off since 2008 as his name and reputation have spread. One significant job was Route Irish, a 2010 movie about private contractors in Baghdad — partially filmed in Jordan — that was directed by Ken Loach, a winner of the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or prize. Set in Liverpool, England, after the death of the protagonist's best friend, the film features intense battle scenes in flashbacks. Richmond, who appears as an Iraqi taxi driver killed in an attack (his head is covered by a scarf), hadn't worked outside the country before.
Richmond's proud of the movie's message, which aims to expose the problems of privatization in war zones — the protagonist's friend is killed after he observes the slaughter of a civilian Iraqi family by contractors. Richmond had to watch actual footage of killing before filming the scene. "Not everyone knows what's happening," he says.
Everyone on the Wish You Well set straightens up when Ellen Burstyn comes to the barn in the early evening to film her part in the fight scene. Wearing a wig with a long white braid, she plays a stern great-grandmother to the two child stars of the film, which is set in 1940s Appalachia. It is tentatively set for release in late 2013, according to producer and screenwriter David Baldacci.
Burstyn enters the set with two women carrying a pair of director's chairs, an umbrella to keep the sun off Burstyn's face and her petite dog, Zoe, who perches in one of the chairs.
For a small feature, this film has some serious talent: the Oscar-winning Burstyn; Josh Lucas (of TV's The Firm and the films Sweet Home Alabama and J. Edgar ); Mackenzie Foy, who plays the vampire child Renesmee Cullen in the last two Twilight movies; and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, who was Damien, the Antichrist, in the 2006 remake of The Omen . The director, Darnell Martin, and director of photography Frank Prinzi are also well respected in their fields.
Burstyn, who turns 80 this month, is set to fire a gun to break up the fight, threaten George Davis and the two thugs — and then fall as she suffers a stroke. This scene will take up maybe a minute or two of the film, but choreographing it, lighting it and filming it from different angles will take more than two hours.
As stunt coordinator, Richmond makes sure the fighters look realistic without actually hurting each other and also keeps an eye on the actors to make sure they don't get injured in other scenes. With children and animals on the set (including a mule that emphatically is not a "movie mule," according to a production assistant), it's a big job.
The East Coast stunt community is small and close-knit, and a lot of people know Kid Richmond's name. "He's the go-to guy around here," says Sara Elizabeth Timmins, a producer of Wish You Well who hired him.
Pennsylvania-based Brian Merrick, who specializes in pyrotechnics and weather effects, often works with Richmond. "He's very professional but easy to get along with. One of my jobs and one of his jobs is to keep people safe. Sometimes ridiculous things get asked."
They recently worked together on a safety video, a major source of employment for stunt personnel in the region. DuPont Sustainable Solutions, based in Virginia Beach, produces many videos that employees are required to watch, dealing with subjects from sexual harassment to electrical safety. Richmond's been in quite a few, both as a stuntman and a coordinator.
Merrick and Richmond staged a scene in which a worker (a stuntman hired by Richmond) touches an electrical box with a charge of 480 volts. Sparks fly, and the man is launched backward on wires that the viewer won't see. Although Richmond and Merrick like to work on well-regarded movies that broad audiences will watch, they derive satisfaction from doing safety videos, too.
"I need the end product to be impressive," Richmond says, "but it's extremely important for me to have fun." And the creative director at DuPont, John Forte, "was born with a natural talent to have fun and make a good product."
Who else gets to say that a workday may include driving a Suburban SUV into a golf cart? Or falling down after being hit by 20 or 30 dodgeballs in a Virginia Lottery commercial? Or rigging a flaming machete in the Great Dismal Swamp?
Although Richmond still performs stunts, he's increasingly moved into stunt coordination, which is easier on the body if not the brain, since the coordinator is concerned with the safety of his stuntmen. Richmond also builds and designs some of his own equipment; he's created fire gels that add a layer of protection to a person's skin during pyrotechnic stunts and actually burn longer than the industry-standard brand. "I felt that everything else in existence was sub-par and lacked the level of protection," he says. Working with Safety Strategies, Corvo and Global Safety Labs, Richmond tested his gels first on inanimate objects and then on himself in a workshop, where the environment was controlled.
"I was a bit nervous at first and kept thinking, ‘I'm going to melt my skin off,' " he recounts. "It was a very surreal moment at first. I still couldn't believe I was actually on fire with only a thin gel protecting me. It worked!"
For a 2009 segment of the TV show 1,000 Ways to Die titled "Huffington Toast," Richmond plays a paint huffer who gets set on fire, an effect that he produced with Devil Skin, the gel he's patented.
"He's just cool as a cucumber," says John Regan, a Williamsburg-based writer and director who's worked with Richmond. "He keeps his head together."
These days, Richmond likes to stay close to home, although he trains monthly in Park City, Utah, where trail running and endurance training in the higher altitude keep him in better shape for work. At home, Richmond walks Pogo while wearing a weight vest. Although he's naturally fit, he eats lots of fruits, vegetables and lean meats, and he's a regular at Ellwood Thompson's, where he picks up healthy snacks for the set. Richmond even drinks the Mean Green smoothie, which looks like swamp juice.
Two years ago, he met Ann Marie Wilson. Or, according to her, they met again. She'd spotted Richmond a decade earlier when she worked at Carytown Burgers & Fries, and he was a customer.
Richmond doesn't like to say that Wilson has made him settle down and be careful — he notes that their main hobby is riding mountain bikes along the Buttermilk Trail — but they recently moved in together in the Forest Hill neighborhood with their three combined dogs and are serious about their relationship.
"He is very talkative, very open," Wilson says. "He's good. He's easy. He can do anything around the house." One of their early habits as a couple was to visit a florist and make arrangements for each other on Sundays. Richmond learned how to arrange flowers when his mother was in hospice.
On their first date at Julep's, "we were in the middle of eating," Wilson recalls. "He just stopped and said, ‘You're so beautiful.' "
They met on Match.com, after Wilson recognized Richmond's face. His picture was from the film set in Jordan, and if anything, he looks like an all-American Army man in the photo. Wilson says she probably wouldn't have contacted him had she not known who he was, because she considered him too handsome.
"I don't drink, I don't go to bars," Richmond says, explaining why he went the online-dating route. "I dance like Carlton from The Fresh Prince, so I'm not going clubbing." Wilson, he says, "is a very health-conscious person. She's an adult."
Also, she's fine with his job and has enough flexibility in her own position as a personal assistant to a local businessman that she can sometimes come to work with Richmond. "She was there when I've blown stuff up. She was there when Michael Imperioli beat me up," he says. "I've stayed the same. I've just improved."
He still has to hustle for work, but Virginia and the East Coast have attracted more films in recent years.
Although the business part of show business can sometimes be onerous, Richmond says, "I love what I do. We're just customer-service reps that specialize in blowing stuff up."
This article has been corrected since publication.