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Action man

Stunt performer Mike “Mitch” Mitchell credits dance training as his secret weapon
Mike Mitchell

Pursued by an assailant, FBI agent Peter Sutherland smashes a window and steps out onto the second-storey hotel room’s glass awning, and then crashes to the cement ground below.

Gabriel Basso stars as Sutherland in Season 1 of the political thriller The Night Agent for Sony Pictures on Netflix, but it’s his stunt double, Matt Mylrea, who actually takes the fall in this scene. It’s just one of the series’ many action-packed stunts coordinated by award-winning BC stunt performer, stunt coordinator and second unit director Mike “Mitch” Mitchell of Big Surf Films.

“Matt was on a deceleration cable connected to a structurally engineered truss deck on the roof of the hotel. Only after engineering-document approval and multiple simulations and rehearsals did I okay this stunt to go ahead. All told, this was two months in the planning,” explains Mitch.

When you see astonishing stunts and convincing fight scenes in action films or series, you may be surprised to learn that some stuntmen and stuntwomen have previously had extensive careers in dance and choreography.

“In the 38 years of my career, I’ve seen an evolution from the rough-and-tumble cowboy guy and dirt biker, when we were just known as stuntmen or stuntwomen, to the present, where we call ourselves stunt performers,” says Mitch, who splits his time between Tofino and his five-acre farm in South Langley.

“And we come from various backgrounds—Cirque du Soleil performers, professional athletes or—like my friend, stunt performer and coordinator Lloyd Adams—a dancer in the Canadian production of Cats.

“When I choreograph a fight scene, for example, the memory, the timing, the coordination and all the relative action in movement with another person are just like a dance,” explains Mitch, who was formerly an apprentice in Vancouver’s Paula Ross Dance Company.

“Paula was one of my mentors, and it was a big decision for me to leave the company and move to LA years ago to pursue stunt work,” he says.

A Renaissance man when it comes to stunt skill sets, Mitch is a horseman (he owns two horses), kickboxer, karate medalist, scuba diver, surfer and motorcycle enthusiast. A pilot for over 30 years, he is currently finishing both his commercial and helicopter pilot licenses. Does the man ever sleep?

“One of the best things you can learn about our craft is to know a little about a lot,” he smiles.

Laid-back and self-effacing, Mitch is a technical tactician who emphasizes that stunt performers are not daredevils or risk-takers. On the contrary, he’s a stickler for meticulous rehearsals and adamant about safety precautions on set.

“Stunt performers are about as far away as one can get from Evel Knievel. We perform our action with deep planning, engineering and design. Only after several rehearsals do we take a stunt to set, where it must be repeatable and safe for the performer. And even if an actor has a great skill set, I don’t let them pressure me into letting them do their own stunts—the buck has to stop here,” he says.

Although stunts play such a crucial role in many films, there is, surprisingly, still no Oscar category for the genre.

With over 100 stunt performer, coordinator and stunt double credits for films and TV series under his belt, Mitch has worked with many stars in Hollywood’s entertainment industry. His credits include the recent multiple-Emmy-Award-winning The Last of Us, the biggest series ever shot in Canada, starring Pedro Pascal; The Adam Project and Deadpool, both starring Ryan Reynolds; The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio; and Forsaken, in which he was Brian Cox’s stunt double—to name only a few.

Working with the late Robin Williams remains one of Mitch’s fondest memories.

“The first time I met Robin was on the film Jumanji in 1994. I actually heard him before I even met him,” he chuckles. “Three rows of trailers away he was imitating Ethel Merman singing!”

“One on one, he was actually an incredibly shy man,” says Mitch, who worked as Williams’ stunt double on 18 films over 20 years.

“He was a dear, sweet man. I felt like I painted with Picasso and sang with Pavarotti,” Mitch reminisces.

Will AI be taking over stunt work in the future?

“Twenty-five years ago we thought that about CGI. I hope not, and I just don’t think it’s there yet,” says Mitch. “If you want that superhero, comic-book, fast-food kind of storytelling, yes, but I don’t like it. I think sophisticated audiences in the future are going to still want to see live action. Right now it’s a trend or a fad, but it will eventually fade away. But, yeah, it’s a shadow hanging over our shoulders.”

Keeping it in the family, Mitch is married to stunt performer and martial arts expert Angela Uyeda.

“I met her on a silly, short-lived show called Secret Agent Man for which I was coordinating a fight scene. The second I saw her move, I fell in love,” Mitch admits. “That was 25 years ago. We’ve been married for 20 years, have a teenage daughter, and have worked together on several productions.”

In his down time (of which there isn’t much), Mitch says with a laugh, “I’m a handyman, and there’s always work to do on our Tofino get-away property. I’m just built that way. I’m 61 years old and I just can’t sit down.”