The Real Poop
Remember that time that you were doused with oil and set on fire? And then, to put yourself out, you had to hop on your motorcycle and drive off the edge of a 30-foot cliff so you'd land in the river below? And then you were carried by a strong current toward a 100-foot drop where you surely would have been killed on the rocks below, but you grabbed onto that low-hanging tree branch at the last second and pulled yourself to safety? Yeah—you should think about becoming a stunt performer. Especially considering the fact that you set yourself on fire in the first place. Or consider a little therapy.
There's no getting around it—stunt performers are a little bit crazy. (A little bit???) It takes a special type of individual to want to sacrifice his body and overall state of well-being for entertainment purposes. (Do you really care that little about yourself? Have a death wish? Recreational masochist maybe?) However, if you're in love with the film industry but don’t have the chops to make it as an actor (you're as wooden on set as that tree branch that saved your life), and you have a daredevil mentality, and you've taken out a nice life insurance policy (it'll be expensive, because no one expects you to live…), then there are worse things you could do. (Like professional Russian Roulettologist.)
To be fair, the stunts you see performed on television and in the movies aren’t quite as dangerous and death-defying as they may appear. A multitude of precautions are taken to ensure that the lives of the performers don’t flame out, even when they’re aflame. This is where a lot of those movie tricks come into play. Just because it looks like that guy is jamming his left arm into the mouth of a shark doesn't mean that's really what's happening. They might have flipped the picture, and it's really his right arm. And you were worried.
However, in the early days of Hollywood, they didn't have all the special effects that we have today. If you saw someone hanging from a sixth-story ledge, they were really hanging from a sixth-story ledge. That's right—they were even crazier back then. And it wasn't even a real "career," per se—there was no training, no qualifications…other than enough insanity to be willing to try anything for a buck. It wasn't until action movies and westerns started to come along that Hollywood said, "Hey—maybe we should figure out the best way to perform these stunts so that we don't end up with a bunch of dead people on our hands." Good thinking, Hollywood.
And it's a good thing (financially) for them that they did, because stunts are a major reason people go to the movies today. It's marketing sizzle—what a draw, to watch human beings perform death-defying stunts that no one in their right mind would consider doing. Since those early days, Hollywood has developed the safest possible ways to have you run through fire, wrestle with a grizzly bear, go plummeting down a waterfall, leap from one moving car to another, and even just get punched in the face without it hurting too badly. Every precaution that can be taken is taken, each stunt is meticulously planned down to the smallest detail, leaving as little as possible to chance. Even still, studios have invested far too much money in their big stars to see them taking unnecessary risks, so while the danger has been lessened, stunt performers are still in demand. The real danger threatening them is CGI technology, which can reproduce just about any performable stunt with incredible realism. The only thing saving them is that we sick human beings like to know that that guy on the screen really did walk over those flaming coals while arrows went whizzing by his ears.
A stunt performer basically works on a freelance basis; in other words, you seek out your own work, you get hired contractually by a studio for a particular stunt (or series of stunts) on a particular film, and once your obligation is fulfilled, you're a free man again. That's not necessarily a good thing, as you immediately have to start pounding the pavement for work again. But such is the life of a madman.
As long as the danger inherent in the stunts doesn't bother you all that much, this is an exciting way to earn a paycheck. Not only are you performing daring feats of physical strength and fortitude, but you are a TV/movie star! Okay, so the average viewer may only learn your name if they consciously scour the end credits for it, but at least it's up there! You and your friends (and your enemies) will know that it's you, and that is what's really important.
If you have designs on a straight-up acting career, this isn't a bad way to backdoor your way into the business either. Most actors aren't willing to do the types of things you are, so you have an "in" that they don't have. Once you've spent some time nearly killing yourself on a movie set, you have gotten to know the director, the producer, the other actors, etc. If any of them take a liking to you, they may give you a shot in another project, or at least get you in the door to audition for it. While less courageous actors are sitting at home, crossing their fingers and mailing their headshots and résumés to casting directors (who will likely pitch them without so much as a glance), you have shmoozed and networked your way to an easy audition. Now the hard part—conveying a sense of realism to the casting director without the safety net of being able to jump out of a three-story window. Beneath which would invariably be an actual safety net.