SEATTLE — In this job market, people will do some crazy things.
Say, for instance, flailing around with their clothes on fire, plunging 50 feet into an enormous air bag, or being catapulted through the air headfirst like a human missile.
At the International Stunt School, those daring feats are just part of the beginner's course. But some of the students have added another risk: During the worst recession in decades, they've plunked down thousands of dollars to start a new career in Hollywood.
It's a leap that fewer people are taking these days. The number of workers quitting jobs has dropped by about a third in the past year, according to federal statistics. And the competition for work remains fierce: On average, six people were vying for each job opening in July, compared with fewer than two per job in December 2007, when the recession began.
So why push for a new career now? What's wrong with playing it safe and drawing a paycheck, even if it's not your dream job?
"Most of us," says stunt school founder David Boushey, "are calculated risk takers."
Count Tony Olmos as one of them. Laid off from a job in retail when the economy tanked, Olmos fell into working security at nightclubs around Los Angeles. On the side, as "Big Tony," he pursued a nearly decade-long run getting his face bloodied on the minor-league professional wrestling circuit.
Neither gig was bringing in enough money. So after about a year of serious saving and planning, Olmos flew up from Whittier, Calif., for nearly a month of stunt training.
After a long day of high falls and catapult work outside an old Navy warehouse, the 30-year-old was tired — but still smiling. Once back home, he planned to submit a fresh resume for his dream job: Performing in live stunt shows at a movie studio theme park.
"Being a bigger guy, it's not hard to do security. But like I said, it's not where the money's at," Olmos said. "As a kid ... I always wanted to do live stunt shows, and it was always the guy on the high fall that I wanted to be. So that's why I am loving today."
There is no formal, structured training system for people who want to become Hollywood stunt performers. Private programs like the International Stunt School, which longtime stuntman and fight director Boushey has run for 17 years, have sprung up to fill that gap.
The International Stunt School's three-week beginner's course covers a wide variety of skills, including driving, fighting, falling from various heights, working with ropes and wire harnesses, and getting torched in a controlled burn while covered in flame-retardant jelly. Tuition is about $4,000; a one-week follow-up focused on aerial skills can run up to $1,800.
Completing the training course, however, doesn't guarantee anyone a smooth path into the industry.
Those who do succeed will often have to work a second or even third job, all while constantly honing their skills and hustling for paying gigs, said Anthony De Longis, a veteran stunt performer and actor who also does some stunt training.
"You've got to be ready. Most people spend, say, 80 percent their time hustling and 20 percent of their time working — and actually, that's a pretty successful career," he said.
Pay can be pretty good on union-approved productions, De Longis said, especially if there are residual payments from the finished product. But for every six-week film shoot, a stunt performer may go months, even a year without working again, he said.
"When you work, it's great. But of course, if I was to put together 37 years as a working professional, I may have worked my salary up to, oh golly, 30 cents an hour or so," De Longis said with a laugh. "There's a lot of feast or famine."
Brian Schechter already knows it's tough to break into entertainment — he's done it once already, as manager of the platinum-selling rock band My Chemical Romance. But after touring the world and building his own management company, Schechter found himself burned out and looking for a second act.
So after shutting down his business, the 31-year-old is betting that some connections around L.A. — along with a love of skydiving and other thrill-seeking sports — can give him a leg up as a rookie stuntman.
If that sounds risky, Schechter said, it can't be much worse than starting over in the music business, where online distribution and piracy have hammered traditional album sales.
"I never did it for money, but it's not there anymore," Schechter said. "It just isn't. To develop an artist in that business the same way — I'd rather bet on myself and develop this."
Boushey guesses that about four of every 10 students ends up working in show business. Newbies without any previous training? Maybe one in 100 might make it, he said.
"There's just so many dreamers out there who think they're just going to go down there and talk their way into the industry," he said.
But as Boushey also knows, dreams are the fundamental fuel that keeps Hollywood alive. It's what persuaded Alexa Marcigliano to save her money, pack the car, and launch a road trip from Amherst, Mass., to Seattle.
The recent University of Massachusetts grad already has a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But Marcigliano, who lists taekwondo and rock climbing among her hobbies, has realized she's just not cut out for life behind a desk.
After three weeks of intense stunt training, Marcigliano had no doubt: All the sore muscles, sweat and bruises were worth getting one step closer to her dream.
"Have you ever seen the show 'Xena: Warrior Princess'? Yeah. That's why I wanted to do this," she said with a grin.
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