One day last year, Matt Philliben went to work and was murdered by ninjas.
He’s also been beaten up by Batman, thrown through fire by a Transformer, and jumped through a window while dressed as rapper Eminem.
And he’s just fine, because it’s all in a day’s work for the up-and-coming stuntman and actor. The Buckhead resident is gaining increasing notice for his work in such productions as the new Keanu Reeves hit “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” – where he had that bloody ninja brawl – and the Atlanta-based superhero series “Black Lightning,” where he got screen time playing a mob boss.
“I’ve wanted to be an actor, as well as a stuntman, since I was 4 years old,” he says. “There’s legitimately nothing else I wanted to do with my life. Also, I had no back-up plan, which means if things didn’t work out, there was no safety net. I was going to work in film and television as an actor, as well as a stuntman, no matter what.”
The Detroit native studied film and theater at Western Michigan University, then began hanging around low-budget movie sets, offering to work for free to break into the business. He also boasts black belts in several martial arts – he picked up the love of the disciplines from seeing “The Karate Kid” – and turned that into bodyguard stints for such celebrities as Hugh Jackman, giving him another angle into filmmaking.
He came to Atlanta for its status as a new moviemaking mecca. When he’s on a set, he’s working 11- to 17-hour days, getting paid a rate set by a union that also provides health insurance. While computer graphics often fancy up an action scene these days, there’s still a human stunt performer working underneath it, taking real bumps and falls. And there are real dangers. Georgia’s filmmaking scene has had some recent controversies about crew deaths, including a pending lawsuit over a stunt performer’s death on the hit series “The Walking Dead.” Philliben declined to comment on those larger issues, but emphasized that in the stunt world, safety is paramount and stunts are done in a “controlled and contained atmosphere.”
He has done stunt work in such big-budget movies as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” and the upcoming “Bad Boys for Life.” And he’s worked as a stunt double for stars, including Eminem in the music videos for “My Life” and “Good Guy.”
“Say you see a guy diving out of the way of a car, or a guy get punched by Superman, or a random guy get thrown through the air by Godzilla, or a zombie that gets shot by the hero,” says Philliben. He often is that guy, in the largely faceless world of “utility stunts.” But now he’s getting more screen time and acting opportunities, including on a recent episode of “Chicago P.D.,” and says he’s getting recognized out in public.
“The grind never stops, though, and I’m still to this day working to accomplish my dream of having the world know my name,” he says.
The following is an edited Q&A with Philliben about his career.
What inspired you to become a stuntman?
What inspired me to do stunts was my lifelong knack for adventure. I had been jumping ramps in the street on my bicycle when I was a little kid and climbing up random buildings and trees since as far back as I can remember. Also, I’ve always been obsessed with martial arts. I remember seeing “The Karate Kid” when I was very young. This opened my eyes to martial arts. I then started watching Bruce Lee movies…
But with all that being said, what got me into wanted to do stunts was a movie called “Point Break,” starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. The thing about “Point Break” is, it’s got so much action in an adrenaline-laced film. You’ve got every avenue of stunts, from car chases to surfing, to nervous fights, to shoot-outs, to skydiving, to fire burns, to dog attacks, to foot chases and parkour, to football hits, to high falls, you name it. I was blown away by this film.
I worked alongside Keanu on “John Wick 3” last year and I let him know how much I loved his work and how I was acting and doing stunts because of “Point Break.”
Q: What is the stunt lifestyle like?
A: When I’m not on set, I’m constantly training for my potential next job. I still train in many styles of martial arts every day. I ride motorcycles, train in parkour, practice stunt driving, go rock-climbing, do yoga [and] gymnastics, practice weapon work, and on and on and on. I’m also constantly looking for what productions are going on and who’s on them, submitting my [movie highlight] reel and resume and just grinding towards my next job.
Q: Where have we seen you on-screen?
A: In “Batman v Superman,” I worked with the fight team. I get beat up and blown up by Batman in the final fight scene of the movie, the warehouse scene. In “Transformers,” I did everything from ratchets — getting yanked by a line and flung in the air to simulate an explosion – [to] high falls out of fake airplanes. In “Divergent,” I had a little stunt acting role, where I was the bodyguard of Kate Winslet’s character Jeanine. I followed her around and protected her and eventually got killed by the character Four, aka her nemesis.
In “John Wick,” I was one of the bodyguards in the Roma Ruska ballet scene. I open the door for John Wick and greet him when he initially enters the lair. I also end up getting brutally killed by two ninjas later on.
Q: Do you specialize in a type of stunt? Do you have a favorite stunt?
A: I would classify myself as an all-around stuntman, doing anything from fire burns to stunt driving, to fights, to water work, to wire work, to high falls, to ratchets — you name it, I’ll do it. There’s nothing that I won’t do. I signed up for this job, so I know what the risks are. I love doing action and fight choreography though, coming up with intricate fight sequences.
I can’t say that I most proud of any particular stunt, because anytime I get on set and get a chance to do what I love and my true passion in life, I’m proud of that experience. A stunt that stands out, though, is probably in “Transformers: The Last Knight,” where I did about a 40- or 50-foot ratchet off a stage through a fire.
Q: What’s the secret of making a fake punch look real?
A: The secret of selling a good punch or hit is practicing your reactions over and over again and watching yourself perform them afterwards… practice always makes perfect and camera angles are very important. People often think that stunt guys are actually getting punched in the face when really it’s just the camera angle and the acting/performance of the stunt professional. This is where acting and stunts collide, since you still have to know how to act and perform even when doing stunts.
Q: What brought you to Georgia and Buckhead?
A: I moved to Georgia because the film industry collapsed back in my hometown and the governor took our film incentives away. … I always loved the South. The weather is way better. There’s no snow and the people are really friendly. I moved to Buckhead because I love the ambience of this city. The restaurants are amazing. It’s super clean. The people are really friendly. The amenities are top-notch. And I love the view of the city where I live. … Buckhead just has an overall amazing vibe. I wouldn’t consider living anywhere else.