Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on hold

From the Midlands to the Hollywood hills – action man Justin Pearson has graced the screen in some of the world’s biggest movie franchises. His credits read like a blockbuster who’s who, including a couple of Harry Potter films, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, two 007 movies, plus Marvel and DC Comics adventures – not to mention the TV phenomenon Game of Thrones. Right now, though, the 48-year-old stunt co-ordinator and performer is just one of the many self-employed people who find themselves out of work, and socially isolating at home.

So what exactly does a man with such an adrenaline-pumping, globe-trotting lifestyle do when the lights, cameras and action grind to a halt? “I’ve got to admit, it was a real shock to the system when the shutdown began,” says Justin, who was born and raised in south Shropshire, but now lives with his wife Lisa and their two young children in Wem in the north of the county.

The art of being a film stuntman is to appear to make it look effortless, but it also takes years of practice and many safety precautions

“At the time, as well as starting rehearsals on my next major feature film, I was training for a white-collar boxing fight – I was about six weeks into an eight-week training programme. So as you can imagine, I was doing quite a lot of fitness work.

“We were also well under way with rehearsals for action scenes on The Batman in London, and about to move up to Liverpool to start shooting, when everyone started talking about the news headlines that Tom Hanks had contracted coronavirus.

Advertising “It made us realise that literally anybody could get this thing, and we knew straight away at that time that rehearsals would be curtailed and that the shoot in Liverpool would be either postponed or cancelled. “That’s exactly what happened.

So since the lockdown, I’ve been here in Shropshire with the family, going out cycling every other day to keep active. But probably like most people, I also seem to be eating my own bodyweight in food almost daily! This kind of lifestyle is not great for the diet.”

Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on holdOn the Curfew set, doubling for Billy Zane

Alongside his movie industry work, Justin is a former champion horseman and founder of medieval jousting display team The Knights of the Damned, which has performed in the past at Shrewsbury Flower Show and other events in the West Midlands.

The touring show is currently mothballed while Justin focuses on his growing body of screen work, but that’s ended up coming in very handy right now.

Advertising He explains: “I’ve actually built a full-scale medieval jousting arena in the back garden for the kids – I’ve got Archie who is seven, and Millie who is two. I went in the shed the other day, and there was all the equipment, stacked up; the rail that the knights go up and down, and the man-shaped targets, known as quintains – Archie and I had a bit of fun getting all that out and blowing off the cobwebs.”

So, does this mean Pearson junior may be thinking of following in his father’s footsteps? Justin says: “It’s too early to say at seven years old. When I was that age, I could barely even tie my laces.

He shows an interest, but I don’t know whether that’s because it’s all he has got at the moment in between so many hours on the iPad or Playstation.”

Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on holdJustin with Tom Hardy on the Legend set

One of the most arduous tasks for Justin right now has been getting to grips with the challenges of home schooling. “My wife has been doing most of that, to be fair, and I’ve been picking up the PE sessions – a bit of football in the garden, and some shooting practice. I have to take my hat off to teachers when you realise what they have to do on a daily basis; it’s hard work keeping young kids occupied for that amount of time.”

With a history of horsemanship in his family (his grandparents ran a stables business in the Stretton valley) Justin naturally found himself gravitating towards equestrian sports as a child. Little did he know, however, where it was all going to lead. Through his early life and into his teens, he became heavily involved in show jumping and mounted games, and represented England on eight occasions, at the highest level with the Great Britain team.

He became mounted games British Champion in 1995, and Reserve World Champion in 2004.

Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on holdMurder on the Orient Express

At the age of 18, Justin auditioned for a medieval jousting team which was about to embark on a world tour taking in Europe, Asia and Russia, and it was here that he discovered a love of performing action and stunts in a live show format. There was already an established pathway for performers in such shows into the movie stunt world, and it wasn’t long before Justin began training for a place on the prestigious British Stunt Register. Since the early days cutting his teeth on TV dramas such as The Hunt, and Lorna Doone, Justin has amassed some 200 screen credits to his name, in a career spanning more than 20 years.

During that time, he has stunt doubled actors from Kevin Costner and Sean Bean to Billy Zane, Sam Worthington, Jeremy Irvine, and Christopher Eccleston, and worked everywhere from Manchester to the Maldives. He has three Screen Actors Guild awards for work on James Bond movie Skyfall, plus Wonder Woman and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and two further nominations for Doctor Strange and Fast and Furious 6.

Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on holdJustin Pearson as Black Knight, one of many stunt double roles he has taken on

Most recently, Justin co-ordinated the action on a couple of episodes of the BBC drama The Nest, and was part of the stunt team in Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton John biopic Rocketman, and Mary Poppins Returns. He has also completed work on two yet-to-be-released movies, The Hitman’s Bodyguard 2, and Fast & Furious 9.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to get the chance to work on some of the biggest movie franchises in the world,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world, experience many different cultures and meet some incredible people. “Every day is different on a film set, and it’s a real rollercoaster ride.

From the outside looking in, it’s every little boy’s dream, isn’t it But it’s a very hard-working industry with professional people.

Between jobs: Stuntman Justin's double life in the movies put on holdPlaying Freddie Mercury’s chauffeur

“As a professional stuntman these days, you can’t just make your living doing one kind of thing. They do say that the most difficult kind of stunts to perform are the horse stunts, because you are dealing with another brain, and brains are unpredictable. “I’ve been a professional stuntman for over 20 years now, and I’ve taken a lot of knocks in that time.

So the natural progression for me has been to move up to the role of stunt co-ordinator, and pass on a bit of the knowledge that I’ve learned over the years.” So what’s the most dangerous or visually spectacular stunt which Justin has been asked to perform on screen? “That’s a tough one, but I worked on a Sky series last year called Curfew, about an illegal car race set in the future.

I did quite a bit of driving on that one. “One of the stunts involved me driving a tow truck which had a car attached to the back of it. Someone runs out into the middle of the road in front of me, and I have to swerve, and turn the truck over into a lake, which was quite tricky.

Something like that takes a lot of time and planning. Fortunately, it went well.” Justin’s autobiography, Rolling With The Punches, is due for publication soon, and he believes there are plenty more chapters of his story yet to be written.

He is confident that when we do eventually emerge from the other side of the pandemic, the movie industry will be quickly back in its stride. “Who knows when that is going to be, though? They were talking about maybe restrictions starting to be lifted in June, but no-one really knows, do they?

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“If that’s true, though, it would be great, as it would mean that the peak has arrived and passed.

But this year, like so many other people, my work has just been completely decimated. “I’ve got a lot of friends that work in the film industry, not just in the stunt department, but costume makers, caterers, hair and make-up – we’re all in the same boat. We’re freelance, self-employed, and just keeping an eye on what the Government is able to offer in terms of remuneration.

“A lot of people are falling through the cracks, but it’s just a wait-and-see game right now.” Having been in the business for more than two decades, it’s certainly not the first economic challenge that Justin has overcome – hence his confidence that the good times will return. “We had that big recession in 2007 and 2008, and I remember that from the back-end of that second year, through to about 2011 or 2012, the film-making industry in the UK was booming.

“All the studios were full, there was so much work out there, and people like me were going from job to job, living out of a suitcase and never at home.

“That was helped by the tax breaks which the UK was offering to overseas production companies, which created a big boost.

“Hopefully the film industry can recover in the same way once again, and we’ll all be back to work again soon.”

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