While filming The Mechanic, Ben Foster wasn’t about to let something like vertigo—-or even the possibility of death—-prevent him from doing his own stunts. Particularly one of the movie’s most stunning: a free-fall off the side of a 450-foot building that he performs with his co-star, stuntmaster Jason Statham.
“I’m not partial to heights,” Foster says. “But it’s the great thing about working with a real athlete like Jason, where I’m always striving to lift my own game, or physical bravery, or whatever that is.” (Director Simon West has a term for it: “They get so macho on those sets. ‘If someone’s jumping off [the building], we’re all jumping off it!’ So we’ve got these shots of them going down and Ben’s looking terrified—-and it’s real fear.”)
Foster elaborates: “It was absolutely crushing! Because you don’t start at the top — they drag your ass up, they put you in a little harness, they hook you up to this wire. And then they say, “OK, you ready?” and one of the riggers came up and said, ‘Well, that’s not how you do it.’ And other people are saying, ‘We gotta go! We gotta go!’ and he’s saying, ‘You gotta loop it the other way.’ And it’s like—-bup bup bup bup [indicates going up]—-‘What do you mean?! What other way?!’
“And it’s four minutes, roughly, to the top, and the physics of it is that the wire turns so you start to spin. And—-my heart’s racing just talking about it—-there’s a certain moment when you say, ‘Fuck this, get me down, no! No.’ And we get to the top and the camera operator says, ‘Let’s go.’ So you just give in. You think, ‘OK, so the thing’s not hooked up right. What’s gonna happen? You’re done.’ There’s no way around it, you know, you’re done. So there was a moment of comfort in that.”
Statham wasn’t exactly feeling Foster’s pain. “That stunt was particularly fun because I got to do it with Ben. He’s a man who’s very fearful of heights. So to see someone’s face quivering in the wind [laughs]…but he was very brave. Those kinds of situations are full of adrenaline and they’re very exciting to execute. You always question whether they’re safe. There’s no guarantee that something can’t go wrong, so there’s always a thrill to it.”
The Transporter star wouldn’t have it any other way. “I hate green screen, personally, because there’s nothing that can allow you to experience the full adrenaline of dropping down the side of a building unless you actually do it. To pretend you are, flailing your arms, is so fake to me. It’s good to excite the heart. And I always work very closely with the stuntmen. I’m very involved from start to finish. You know, my opinion counts for a lot since I’m going to be the one doing them!”
Despite his initial fear, Foster eventually caught the bug. “The first time you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this, I shoulda let the stunt guy do this.’ But the second time you wanna go up again. Then it’s the best ride in the world. It’s the greatest job in the world. It’s an addiction. ‘Do it again! Drop me! Let’s go! Faster, drop the thing faster!'”
Intense physical training is obviously a must when actors perform their own stunts. “There’s no drinking in the bar every night and waking up hungover,” Statham says. “We do a lot of martial-arts training, a combination of everything—-punching, kicking, kickboxing, jujitsu. It’s not specific to a certain martial art; it’s movie martial arts, and it could incorporate any array of moves. We’re not trying to portray a guy who did kung fu all his life.”
Statham’s experience as a competitive high-diver and adrenaline junkie (“I was always throwing myself around, doing silly things”) as well as actioner-veteran gave him an edge over Foster, who got hurt while filming a brutal fight sequence with a much taller, much wider actor. “The night before we started shooting the bulk of it, I got injured, terribly, doing a very small stunt that I shouldn’t have allowed myself to do,” Foster says. “I just did a fall — fell on my shoulder, it snapped. Didn’t say anything on set, thought I’d just kinda shrug it off. Woke up the next morning, shoulder’s up to here [raises it to his head]. It’s not a phone call you want to make to production.
“So they sent me to the doctor for the [New Orleans] Saints and he pulled out a big syringe and gave me about five shots. And I felt really good. So I was like, ‘Let’s do this, we’re ready, my arm’s back.’ And an hour before we were ready to shoot, the shoulder went back up. Doctor comes to set and he’s just laughing. He’s like, ‘You know, I work with the Saints and they’re a lot bigger than you. But I’ve never given anyone this much.’ [The arm] wasn’t quite operational so we just re-choreographed the scene so everything was reversed.
“But it was great fun. We got our asses kicked.”