French connection

Sep 15, 2010 at 12:00 am

It sounds strange to hear someone say they would trade a life in Paris for a life in Detroit, but Alex Black would.

"I can't stand being back in this fucked-up country," the Paris native says, via Facebook chat, of his recent return to France. 

Alex is a stuntman who has worked countless jobs in the French film world. But he says stunt actors are underpaid and underappreciated in his country.

"After a while, you get tired of just running around with a gun," he says of his film work.

But breaking into the American stunt business is no easy stunt. Stunt actors in America need a Screen Actors Guild card to build a solid body of work. 

But, as the 22-year-old Frenchman explains, there is a catch-22.

"To get the card, basically what you have to do is a real stunt, in front of the camera on film. But it is really hard to get in front of the camera if you are not a member of the union, so it's kind of a vicious circle."

Before returning to France in August, Alex lived for about a month with relatives in Royal Oak, and spent his days hustling to find work on movie sets, in hopes of landing a SAG card.

One weekend in late July, Alex's hustling brought him to the abandoned Packard Factory on Detroit's east side to help two other stuntmen shoot footage for a demo video.

Cedric Lee and Eric Stratemeier both have SAG cards, and their stories exemplify the luck that can make or break a career in stunts. 

Cedric first became involved during the filming of Gran Torino.

"I am half Hmong, and Gran Torino is based on Hmong people, so I was kinda like, 'Alright, this is my golden ticket.'"

Eric was working as a barber when he got a walk-in appointment from Chris O'Hare, a stunt actor and coordinator who was working on the Red Dawn remake that recently finished filming.

"He came in and said, 'Dude, you gotta come on and be a Chinese solider for Red Dawn,'" Eric said. "I'm like, 'I'm half-Korean, half-German, dude.' And he said, 'We'll put a helmet on you and you'll look the same.'"

Alex and Cedric met through a mutual friend, and, for Alex, the trip to the Packard Factory was an excellent chance to hustle. In addition to acting in stunts, Cedric works on films as a production assistant and an extra manager, meaning a friendship with him could lead to valuable time on movie sets.

"It is important for me to have people I know around," Alex says. "It improves my chances of stumbling on work that may lead to a SAG card. If I help those guys, they may help me."

The three stuntmen arrive at the endless complex of run-down, graffiti-covered warehouses at Mount Elliot Street and East Grand Boulevard on a sunny Saturday, and begin taking stock of their surroundings. 

"This is stunt heaven," Cedric says as he looks around a concrete courtyard full of rubble and debris. 

Alex is a self-proclaimed "ninja." As he warms up, it's easy to see why. After years of martial arts and gymnastics training, he can gracefully twist himself into various fighting stances and perform combinations of almost ballet-like high, leaping kicks through the air. 

"That is so feminine, but so badass," Cedric says while watching Alex.

After exploring several possible spots, they decide on an old loading bay which, like the rest of the factory, contains an amazing amount of random junk, a porcelain toilet here, a pile of hundreds of old AT&T Yellow Pages phone books there, and two half-rotted boats that become the setting for the fight scene. 

Alex acts as cameraman and stunt coordinator, giving instructions as Cedric and Eric run up and down the deck of one of the old boats, pretending to beat the hell out of each other. 

The finale involves Cedric lifting Eric off his feet and spinning him around in the air before dropping him through a (rigged) plywood table. 

Eventually, Alex will edit the footage into a sequence Cedric and Eric can send to stunt coordinators. During breaks in filming, the three discuss Alex's situation: out of money and set to return to France. 

"It's going to be hard for you to come in for a month or two and establish yourself," Cedric says. "You need to move out here."

But Alex's plane ticket is purchased and he has lined up several stunt jobs in France. With cold weather approaching and film crews here wrapping, Alex plans to save up money until filming in Detroit resumes next spring, when he says he will move here permanently.

"I'd be willing to leave everything behind in France to come start over in the U.S. at a single phone call," he says. "Some people don't know what they want to do until they are like 30 or 40. When I was 16, I was like, 'I am doing stunts. No matter what it takes.' And ever since I have been working toward my dream."

Michael Walton is a former Metro Times intern, studying journalism at Northwestern University. Send comments to [email protected]