When it comes to careers in Hollywood, Mark Kubr is certainly one of the most unique you will encounter. From crashing cars to being lit on fire to going toe-to-toe with some of the entertainment industry’s business names, he truly has done it all. As a stuntman/stunt coordinator, he is one of the unsung heroes of the film industry and an integral part of bringing our favorite films to life. However, his life is not all explosions and roundhouse kicks.
Kubr recently served as the stunt coordinator on Damien Chazelle’s much buzzed about new film, “La La Land.” The film centers around aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). They meet and fall in love but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart. Kubr coordinated the opening scene of the film which involves Mia and Sebastian meeting for the first time in standstill traffic on a freeway in Los Angeles. The major dance sequence was shot in two days with more than 100 dancers. In his review of the film, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter said, “There’s never been anything quite like this opening sequence.”
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Mark Kubr to discuss his unique career path, his evolution from model/actor to one of the respected stunt players in the industry. He also offers a look inside what it takes to sustain a career in this rough and tumble profession, the challenges he has faced along the way and where he plans to focus his energy in the years to come!
Everyone has their own path. How did you get your start in the entertainment industry?
I was bagging groceries in a supermarket that was close to my house. I used to take groceries out to the car for a voice-over actress name Jean DeWitt. We got to talking and she said, “Oh my gosh, you have such a good look. Have you ever thought about acting or modeling?” Actually, she was the voice of Wilma Flintstone on “The Flintstones” and Rosie The Robot on “The Jetsons.” I lived in San Clemente at the time and we drove into Los Angeles and I met with her agent. The agent said, “Yeah, let’s see what we can do.” I started going on auditions then I booked a couple of jobs. I booked a Sunkist commercial and print ads. I went to college in San Diego and I had a scholarship for volleyball. Afterwards, I just couldn’t get the bug for acting out of me. I was really loving movies, filmmaking and photography. It’s something I’ve enjoyed my entire life. After college, I moved straight back to Los Angeles to pursue the heck out of it! I stayed in touch with Mrs. DeWitt’s agent and that’s how it all started!
Even though you had the bug, did you have reservations about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry? That is a scary step to take at a young age.
That is the perfect word for it — Scary! [laughs] I was scared to death! It sounds silly but on auditions, you really put yourself out there and put your heart on the line. It’s a very scary thing! There was fear but I didn’t let that fear govern me. Sometimes you feel something deep down inside of you and you know you have to give it a chance or you will regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t. I think that comes from the discipline my parents taught me. Surfing and sports. You have to have the drive to stay in the game.
Was there anyone behind the scenes helping to guide you?
To be honest with you, no. I was pretty much a lone soldier out here hitting the pavement. I really wanted to stay with it and kept plugging and plugging away. I had a few close friends who encouraged me through all the rejections! There was a ton of it in the beginning. The modeling came my way pretty easily and I was a child of the world when it came to that. When it came to auditions and acting that was another really, really tough, competitive arena.
How did you go from model/actor to stunt professional?
That’s a great question. I had this part in a movie and the stunt coordinator on the movie was looking for a stunt double for me. The stunt coordinator on the set is in charge of anyone that’s hitting the ground or involved in any sort of action in the scenes. I asked him if I could perform my own stunts. I told him that I had come from a very athletic background and so on. In short, he let me do it. Then he introduced me to some really powerful people, stunt coordinators, in the business. I started to become a go-to guy when it came to delivering a line and fighting with an actor. I wasn’t Jean Claude Van Damme by any means but I was becoming an action actor. My acting was pretty good so I started working and getting a few credits to my name. That parlayed itself into more work then I began to build up a reputation for myself.
As you picked up steam, how did you make the transition from stunt professional to stunt coordinator?
That’s the other thing! I just kept climbing the ladder. I turned down big jobs because I felt I wasn’t prepared or ready enough to become a stunt coordinator. You meet the producers and director and build a relationship with them. As the years go by, you have gained experience and one day you just say, “OK. I’m ready. I’m ready to coordinate. I’m ready to hire people. I have built up a good resume and I feel confident that I can make everyone safe. I’m ready to take that step.” For me, I really wanted to have my ducks in a row before I said, “Yeah, I want to coordinate.” That is another entire process. You have to go to interviews and it’s almost like casting. Sometimes you might meet the director and not get along with him … it’s a whole other thing! [laughs] Like you said, it’s a scary business! [laughs]
I talk to so many actors who want to do their own stunts. Do you work with actors in that capacity and what challenges present themselves?
You bet! Great question! I will go back a couple of years. I coordinated a TV series called “House of Lies.” “House of Lies” had a really stellar cast with Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell. The thing that scares me the most is not when you crash a car or light someone on fire but when the actors want to do physical humor. The series had its share of action but it also had moments where someone might walk into a room, trip over his desk and hit his head on a chair. It’s physical humor like that or when you sneeze and land on your back or you take out another person. In situations like those, you have to use those actors because they might have dialogue while they are falling or something like that. You have to pick and choose your battles with certain actors. Sometimes an actor can handle the entire thing and other times they can take it up to a certain point and then we might put a stunt double in so he or she can take the brunt of the fall, hit or whatever the action is.
You worked with plenty of people in that capacity, I assume. Who are the most gifted actors when it comes to stunt work?
Absolutely and it’s a long list! I actually just fought Russell Crowe in a movie called “The Nice Guys.” It was Russell Crowe, a shotgun and I! He came close to my face with the shotgun, I hit him, he hit me and we never connected! I also had a fight with Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 3.” Same thing. It was Downey, myself and another stuntman named Mike Massa. Mike and I had dialogue with Downey and then, all of a sudden, the suit comes flying through the window. He has part of the suit on when he blasts Mike away and then Downey and I fight. He is really keen on fighting and very aware of his body. He’s actually been taking Wing Chun from a friend of mine, Sifu Eric Oram, so his fighting prowess is totally dialed in. Don Cheadle is another one. He is an amazing athlete. I had the opportunity to work with some very talented actors and the physicality of these gentlemen and ladies is terrific.
I feel like stunt professionals are some of the unsung heroes of the movie industry. Is that fair?
Yeah, that’s true. There is no Oscar for it. We started our own awards ceremony. Red Bull puts it on and it is called the Taurus World Stunt Awards. For me, it’s about being on set pursuing a dream. That dream has become a reality and is feeding my children. I guess I don’t really need all that acclaim. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see your name in lights but it’s good enough to see your name in the credits. For example, I just finished “La La Land” as the stunt coordinator. To see my name in lights as “Stunt Coordinator Mark Kubr” was fantastic! It was like, “Wow! I’m on the scroll with Damien Chazelle, Mandy Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling!” The actors, directors and other people who are out there in the audience, I think that they understand and that’s good enough! But you’re right it is a bit of an unsung hero thing.
As you mentioned, you were the stunt coordinator on “La La Land.” What can you tell us about the role you played in bringing it to life?
I don’t want to give any of the key elements of it away. However, I will say it is a wonderful film! Please go see it! There is a freeway sequence where there is a traffic jam in Los Angeles. We shut down the 105 onramp onto the 110, the fast track onramp. There were about 100 dancers and 300 cars. They are dancing on top of these automobiles. It’s a magical, magical moment! What do you want to do as a stunt coordinator to stay true to the director’s vision? You start out by talking to the director and the dance choreographer to figure out what you can do as far as bringing action in the traffic jam. In “La La Land,” there aren’t explosions, car hits, fire burns or anything like that but it still brings that physical humor we talked about. To stay true to Damien Chazelle’s vision of an LA traffic jam, I started thinking, “What could we put in this?” So, we came up with a skateboarder who is also stuck in traffic and takes out his skateboard and starts skating through the dancers. Another great stuntman gets out and starts doing parkour; back-to-back flips over cars. There’s also a gymnast who does a backflip and a BMX bike rider who takes his bike out of the bed of his truck. It’s all choreographed and all of those stunt performers are in tune with 100 dancers. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking that naturally highlights everything I’ve done.
What was it like working with director Damien Chazelle?
The man is a master of film. I was a huge fan of his when I got the job from his work on “Whiplash.” What really struck me about him was that he is such a gentleman. He remembers everyone’s names and treats every single person equally. He could be talking to Ryan, Emma or me but he was constantly a consistent gentleman from A to Z. He was always open to suggestion and took everything into consideration. He’s the man!
What is a typical day on set for you like? I imagine each day is fairly unique depending on the project.
Every single day is different and that’s another great thing about this profession; it’s not a mundane job! You read the script and whether you are a stunt performer or a stunt coordinator, each day brings something different. You also have to prepare for the unexpected. You have to be prepared for when a director says, “Can we make a change here?” It’s always ever-changing!
As a stunt professional, what goes into training and how do you stay at the top of your game?
That’s a great question. I train a lot. I do cardio and I do some weights because I’m getting older. I tried to keep my joints and my muscles strong. I also like to keep my heart-rate good so I can show up to work, as a stunt performer, able to deliver what the stunt coordinator wants. The same thing goes for a stunt coordinator. You don’t want to see an out of shape stunt coordinator on set telling everyone what to do! The physical aspect is very important. I also read a lot. I read a lot of the scripts and read, read, read! It’s great to show up to set, as a stunt coordinator, and be able to converse with the director and every other department head, whether it be a hair makeup or whatever, and knowing what the heck you are talking about. Every single department is important to the stunt coordinator and stunt performer. For instance, on “La La Land,” there is a scene that is a dance number. It takes place on top of the hill at a Hollywood mansion. The stuntman has to dance along with the dancers and then he goes into a flip and twist. He does this into a pool. It’s a really dressed up Hollywood party. So, I go to the makeup people and say, “I need his hair off of his face so that when he is flipping he can be aware of where he is landing.” Then I ask, “What is he wearing?” He is wearing a tuxedo, so I know we will need five or six changes for the same tuxedo because he’s going to land in the pool and get out of there wet. I also need to know what kind of shoes he’s wearing because I don’t want him to slip up there. Coming prepared to work is extremely important and that’s why I read a lot to pick up these details and break it down in those ways, if you know what I mean.
I’m sure you have seen the industry change through the years. How has the rise in CGI affected the industry?
It hasn’t impacted me personally but it has impacted some of the up-and-coming young players for sure. In the past you would have an army of 10,000 people running down the hill but now you don’t need all those people anymore with CGI. However, it has opened up a new realm with motion-capture and there are a lot of stunt players who become motion-capture experts. That is where you use a dancer and a stuntman, film them and capture the motion. From there, they bring that motion into the CGI. That’s kind of cool and it has created another cool little niche in the stunt world but, to answer the question, yeah it is affecting it.
You have been a part of a ton of great projects through the years. Which film had the biggest impact on you?
What moved me the most was “La La Land.” I literally cried all the time. I was watching the dancers dance and was blown away. The choreographer, Mandy Moore, we re-did that pool scene I was speaking about on “Dancing With The Stars.” It was awesome! I got to hire some of the toughest guys on set, the parkour guy or the BMX guy, and even they were moved watching the dancing! I literally had to turn my head away because I was crying. That had the biggest impact on me, honestly! “La La Land” was a life changer!
I know you have a lot of projects on the horizon. What has you most excited right now?
I am excited to work with Matthew Carnahan, who was the showrunner of “House of Lies.” He just pitched another series to Starz and they bought it. I loved working with him on “House of Lies,” so I’m looking forward to working with him once again. He’s another wonderful man and wonderful human being. He’s an incredible author and incredible director!
You mentioned having kids. Are they interested in carrying on your trade? I mean, you’re a stuntman, you have to be the coolest dad on the block! [laughs]
Well, thank you! Both of them work in the entertainment industry and both of them have worked as stunt players. My son was four years old when he did his first stunt. It was on the first “Iron Man” movie. He was the baby in the car seat when Dynamo throws the car around and Iron Man rescues him. He played the son of one of my friends, who was driving the Audi at high speeds and my son was inside the car. It was amazing and I got to hire him again on this movie called “Kook.” We just finished shooting that around Hermosa Beach.
Is there anything you haven’t done you look forward to do in your career?
Yes, I would like to direct. I befriended a stuntman when we were on a project together called “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” We got along really, really well and totally clicked. He’s Eric VanArsdale. We are shooting a couple things. I just shot a little documentary on how important it is to keep trades in schools. We went to a local junior college around here and interviewed people in auto mechanics. It’s a really long story but the Cliff Notes version is I helped a man out a long time ago. He was really not in a good place. He had been arrested and was strung out on drugs. I took him in and he lives with me. Time went by and he called me a year ago out of the blue. He said, “Hey, I owe you some money for phone bills … ” I said, “Man, don’t worry about it. How about you buy me a beer?” We got together at a bar and I sat down with him. I asked what he would be having and he said, “I’m sober.” I said, “Wow! What are you doing now?” He said, “I’m the professor of auto mechanics at El Camino College.” I was shocked. He said, “I turned my life around.” As I got into his story, I thought, “Holy smokes!” He was telling me about how they were taking away art and trades from the curriculum. He said, “Look at me, I wasn’t going to go to a four-year school. If it wasn’t for auto mechanics, I would still be in jail. I would probably get shot again.” It moved me so much that I went to the school and met some of the students. I knew I had to do something about this, so I got testimonies from his students and him. I did that and now my directing partner and I are shooting another short project. It’s going to be incredible. In short, yeah, I kind of want to direct! [laughs]
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Be kind along the way. Life is a precious, precious gift, so don’t take it for granted.
Are you involved with any causes we can help shine a light on?
Yes! Thank you so much for asking. The reason I got “La La Land” was from a man named Charlie Croughwell. Him and I started the Earth’s Oceans Foundation. It started from him having two homes in Belize. Belize has some of the most beautiful water in the world and is a well known destination for divers. It is also one of the most polluted places. We started Earth’s Oceans and it’s taking plastics out of the water and making something out of them. We started a line of exercise equipment, different kind of sculptures and art with tile. It’s been an amazing experience. People can learn more about it at earthsoceans.foundation.
It’s been great talking with you, Mark. With everything you have going on I’m sure we’ll talk again in the future! Keep up the work and keep inspiring!
Thank you, Jason. It’s been a pleasure talking to you!