Billingshurst stuntman Lee Sheward on life away from family and working with Hollywood A listers
PUBLISHED: 10:43 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 10:45 25 November 2014
Stuntman Lee Sheward lives in Billingshurst but spend most of his time coordinating dramatic action sequences with Hollywood’s A list
For me a tricky business choice is whether to have a sandwich or go wild and have a salad. Having to decide how to roll a car three times and still have to land on its wheels, or be propelled at high speed through a glass window is definitely not on my remit...but it is on Lee Sheward’s. Lee lives in Billingshurst but is more often to be found on the sets of major Hollywood blockbusters working with A list stars such as Kate Winslet, Antonio Banderas and Matt Damon. For the last 27 years he has been one of the film industry’s most sought-after stunt co-ordinators, working his way up from a young stunt performer to directing the action sequences. He has a wide television career working on productions such as Dr Who, Silent Witness, Sherlock and Eastenders.
The road to success hasn’t been easy, even for someone experienced in overcoming obstacles.
“I started work on my first film when I was 14 years old,” says Lee. “I was always fascinated by the action sequences of film and TV. Whether it was James Bond, very old classic John Wayne westerns or The Sweeneyon TV I was hooked and that‘s all I wanted to do for a living. I was never going to be office bound. I read every book and every magazine article about stunt work that I could find as there was no internet then.”
At just 16 Lee left home and joined a touring circus working as a trapeze catcher and acrobat. At 17 he worked as a film extra for six months and spent a season in a medieval Jousting show falling off horses daily. All this was and is today a perfect grounding for stunt work.
“At no time did I ever want to do anything else and I always had the support of my parents. I qualified to a high standard in karate, trampolining, high board diving, scuba, swimming, fencing and horse riding. I joined the Stunt Register at 18.”
There have been many changes in the industry since Lee first started out with regulations and working practice becoming much more stringent. “I spend a lot of my day filling in risk assessment and insurance forms,” says Lee. “But we have a very good system of working on the whole. Cuts, bumps and bruises were and are par for the course but serious injuries are only very occasional.”
All stunt performers are freelance in the UK, they are registered but don’t work on an agency basis. Performers, once they are accepted on to the Stunt Register, are restricted to working for the first three years with a qualified stunt co-ordinator, then, if experienced enough, they move on for a minimum of two years to working freelance before being allowed to coordinate anyone else or look after other performers or actors.
“My role has changed completely to when I first started,” says Lee. “I started out as a stunt performer travelling the world with my bag of pads, going from film to film jumping, falling, crashing and rolling about day to day. After about 10 years and with a wide list of experiences I moved on to co-ordinating the action in film and television. This in turn has led me to directing the 2nd Unit (action sequences) of films, all the time using the experience I have gained from each and every job.”
The lure of a glittering career in Tinseltown may be strong for many youngsters but it needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality. “You really need to get as many and as wide a range of skills as possible,” Lee emphasises. “It’s very hard to get the work and harder still if you are only good at one thing. The industry is flooded with 5’6 gymnasts. It’s also not a get-rich-quick business by any means, you will have to wait a long time between jobs when you first start and can spend long periods of time waiting for the phone to ring. It’s tough and you need to really want it to stick it out.”
Out of the thousands of stunt sequences he has been involved in over the years it must be hard to pick out favourites. Lee says he rarely watches himself on film. Once a job is done it’s done but he does watch others’ work to keep abreast with new tricks, technology and techniques. “I don’t have any real favourites as I love what I do, but I do have some that leave me with pride. The car chase that I set up and directed in Madrid for The Cold light of Day was hard but a lot fun with a great crew. And the 200ft high fall I performed on Enduring Lovewhich made the writer Ian Ewan cry on set. There have been so many,” Lee remembers.
When I spoke to Lee he was about to set off for Colombia to work on shooting 2nd Unit on a feature film called The 33 based on the 33 Chilean miners who were stuck for 70 days 2,200ft underground until rescue arrives via a pipe drilled down to them. “I am responsible for the collapse of the tunnel which is a major part of the story as it sets the tone of the film.” Says Lee “We have a great cast of actors including Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Philips, Juliette Binoche and Martin Sheen, so once again I’m working with a great group of professionals.”
Being a husband and father is not easy when your job requires you to be away from home most of the year but Lee, his wife Athena and their children Devan and Tishian have found ways around that. “I have been with my wife for 21 years and she puts this down to the fact that I have been away for 18 of them!” laughs Lee. “The industry on a whole has a high level of separation and divorce as we spend a lot of our time away from our families, but she would not ask me to change it and neither would I. Both my children now just look up as I leave and say ‘Okay, looks like Dad’s off for another three months or so,’ to them it is the norm.”
He has worked in some of the most far-flung locations in the world but there’s still somewhere that holds a special place in Lee’s heart. “With all the travelling I do both in the UK and aboard there is nothing like turning off on to the A29 and winding through the Sussex countryside the last few miles to home. I do get to see the Sussex countryside very early in the mornings and it is a hard place to beat,” says Lee.