Keanu’s Stuntman Becomes His Boss
by Chris Collis
Chad Stahelski spent years perfecting punches and kung fu kicks as Keanu Reeves’ stunt double. But with John Wick (in theaters Oct.24), he’s gone where few in his line of work have gone before: to the director’s chair. And which movie star did he get to order around from behind the camera? None other than Reeves himself.
Chad Stahelski claims he never gets mistaken for Keanu Reeves in real life. “Keanu wears way better clothes than me,” the 46-year-old says with a grin. Yet if you were to glance at this trim, dark-haired gent out of the corner of your eye, it is conceivable that you might confuse him with the actor. That might not seem like a particularly useful superpower, but the resemblance allowed Stahelski to work as Reeves’ stunt double for almost a decade, including on all three Matrix movies and 2005’s Constantine. Now Stahelski has reteamed with the star on the action movie John Wick – only not in the way you’d think. This time, Stahelski didn’t double for Reeves. He directed him.
It’s not unusual for stuntmen to direct second unit (the arm of a film’s production that tends to be action-heavy, dialogue-light). But it is rare that they graduate to top dog. And it’s even more uncommon that they find themselves calling “Action!” to the very person they have dodged bullets and leaped off buildings for in the past. (Stahelski, a die-hard, Kurosawa-loving movie buff, points out that stunt legend Hal Needham is the precedent: he directed Burt Reynolds in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit.) “I may be the last of my kind,” Stahelski says. “They’ll never let anyone do it again!”
John Wick stars Reeves as a recently widowed hitman who embarks on a vengeance-fueled killing spree after the mobsters steal his car and snuff out the dog that his dying wife gave him. The film is filled with murderous mayhem – “We have 84 kills,” Stahelski boasts – and long shots that showcase Reeves’ martial-arts skills. The actor felt at ease in the hands of longtime business partners Stahelski and David Leitch, who produced the film. “They know what I can do and can’t do,”, Reeves said. “It allowed us to be in a situation where the bar [for action] was pretty high.”
Stahelski was raised in Massachusetts and took up judo when he was “8 or 9. I’ve been doing some kind of martial arts ever since.” His big break as a stuntman arrived under the most tragic of circumstances: When his friend Brandon Lee (son of kung fu legend Bruce) was accidentally shot to death while filming 1994’s The Crow, Stahelski doubled for him in some of the remaining scenes so the movie could be completed. “It was a weird situation,” he says. “But I was proud to be a part of it.”
By the time he landed the gig to double for Reeves and train him for the Wachowski siblings’ era-defining 1999 head trip into virtual reality, Stahelski was a seasoned stunt guy with more than 15 movies under his belt. He and the man who would be Neo hit it off immediately. “The Matrix involved a lot of wirework and martial arts that hadn’t been done in a studio movie, but it was something Chad had experience with,” Reeves says. “He was so gracious in helping with training. We just got along.” Leitch joined the muscle-pounding fun on the two Matrix sequels, and he and Stahelski worked together again on Mr. & Mrs.Smith, V for Vendetta, and 300 before they set up their own stunt-and-training company, 87Eleven Action Design, based in the L.A. area.
Over the past few years, both have worked as second-unit directors: Stahelski on the first two Hunger Games movies and Leitch on Conan the Barbarian, among others. But they were dying to prove themselves as full-fledged filmmakers. So when Reeves, 50, approached them about overseeing second unit on John Wick, they saw, and took, their chance. “The guys put a pitch together,” the actor says. “it was great, and away we went.” Stahelski is grateful that Reeves put his faith in him and Leitch, never second-guessing them for being newbies behind the camera. “Keanu – God knows why – he trusted us. In the end, every decision was made by Dave and me.” Including, it turns out, to allow Reeves to do the majority of his own stunts, with an assist from an 87Eleven pro who has taken over the action doppelgängering from Stahelski. “My days of doubling for him are way over,” the director says. “I’m just too old.”
John Wick has garnered positive buzz since premiering at last month’s Fantastic Fest in Austin. But Stahelski knows his most impressive stunt to date –the one in which he directs a successful movie- will not be complete until the film turns a profit at the box office. When EW asks about the worst injury he’s ever sustained, he replies that he’ll get back to us on Oct.25, the day after John Wick opens. “That may be the worst,” says Stahelski with a knowing grin. “It could be an injury of the soul.”