After years of working with the team at Stargate to bring you interviews and exclusive features, you eventually make a few friends. Undoubtedly one of the closer relationships we have built is with Stargate SG-1 fight coordinator and SGA / SGU stunt coordinator James “BamBam” Bamford.
Despite contributing to the site through the “Ask BamBam” forum thread and his blog, we have never taken the time to do a sit-down interview with the man. Why? His work on Stargate is extremely visual and we’ve been planning on shooting a video documentary of his work for years.
In this exclusive we learn of BamBam’s initial years in acting and stunts, the character and mindset of a performer and preparing various SGU cast members for their intense roles, among many other topics. We talk about a stunt man’s immense pride in his work, and the life and death events involved with the job.
This interview runs over 54 minutes and is available in audio. It’s also transcribed below!
GateWorld: I’ve been looking over your resume. Holy cow, you have been involved in so much stuff since you began doing this. IMDb records back to 1993 with The X-Files. Does that sound about right?
James Bamford: No, actually, my first show as a stuntman — I mean my first show, I did background extra work when I was like 18 — there was a TV series shooting in Vancouver and it came to Victoria where I grew up and I went down to the set because I heard that there was some work for extras. I showed up and they put me in a rabbit costume.
GW: Like a bunny rabbit?
JB: Like a bunny rabbit. Like a pink bunny rabbit. I think it was called Stir Crazy. That was when I was 18-ish so that was — do I want to say this? — 1985-ish. And funny enough, the location manager for that particular TV series was George Horie, who is now one of our producers on Universe, and I’ve worked with him several times since then.
And that particular day, they were lacking a stuntman on set for whatever reason, so they put George Horie in this car and had him jump this car into a Y in a tree. I didn’t know any different when I was 18. I was just like, “Wow, that’s cool!”
GW: George Horie did this without any experience?
JB: [Laughter] Yes! Except possibly the experience he may have had on the odd weekend now and again. But aside from that… That’s how I became familiar with George Horie. But I re-met him again several years later when I was a stunt coordinator on one of the projects that he was producing.
GW: Small world.
JB: Yeah! Well, in the film industry, especially out here on the West Coast, it’s a very small world. Globally, actually.
GW: You just decided to show up on this set? Was this something that you had wanted to do? Obviously, I imagine you didn’t want to play a pink bunny, but…
JB: When I was a kid, that was just as exciting as anything to me. I grew up on Vancouver Island in Victoria, it’s a very small town and I had no idea that the film industry even existed over here. When it ended up right on my doorstep, I think it was my uncle at the time said, “Hey, you should get yourself down to such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time and they’re hiring background extras.”
I thought that was great! And it paid, at that time, I can’t remember exactly what it was and I was 18 but it was some astronomical figure to me when I was a kid. I just jumped at the chance, got in there and made it. There was a whole of people that showed up and I made the cut, whatever it was, because I got there early, and I had a blast. I was in a pink bunny rabbit outfit in some lodge meeting or something, and then later on I was in a police precinct playing a police officer. I was like 18 years old playing a police officer.
But that was my first taste of the film industry and how it worked and whatnot. Up until then, I did quite a bit of theater at high school and was acting in local theater companies.
GW: What first got you off into the whole stunt fighting arena then?
JB: Originally, when I was ten or eleven years old, I was slated to play football on a local team in Victoria called the Hornets, I believe. I was a big kid at the time and when we played football at lunchtime I could carry five kids on my back as they’d try to tackle me and I’d keep running.
It was just a natural thing and my Dad said, “Hey, let’s throw you in football.” Most people played rugby. I went on to play rugby later — it’s a more popular sport in Canada, football’s more of an American pastime. And it’s a lot more expensive to play than rugby, because you don’t have any pads in rugby and that sort of thing. But that wasn’t available to me then, so I signed up to play football.
At lunchtime at school, I think I was in grade seven and I was playing basketball, intramural basketball. I went up for a jump shot and somebody got underneath me and I ended up sliding down their shin and at the bottom of their shin I twisted my ankle, quite badly. I was unable to run so I couldn’t go out for the football tryouts.
I was incredibly disappointed and right then and there a karate school opened up where I was living, which was Sidney, sort of a satellite of Victoria, a really small town. I thought, “Well, I don’t have to run, I can stand in class and do karate.” My uncles had taken me to a drive-in theater at that time and the first movie I saw at a drive-in theater was Enter the Dragon, which was a Bruce Lee movie.
As soon as I saw that I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do!” The next thing you know, I started martial arts in that class because of my sprained ankle and, bada-bing bada-boom, I just kept going and it took me all through school, through junior high school and high school. I became an instructor and a corrections officer and I taught corrections officers self defense.
I kept going and while I was a juvenile corrections officer my karate instructor, my sensei, got a call from a stuntman from Vancouver looking for a stunt double for an actor named Michael Dudikoff. They were on a series called Cobra, a [Stephen] Cannell series, and that was being shot in Vancouver, reduced by John Smith, funnily enough — yeah, small world once again.
I had no idea, I was about 24, and my karate instructor said, “Yes, of course. I’ve got a young black belt here, he’s six feet tall and about 170 pounds,” which I was at the time [Laughter], more like 200 right now but who’s counting? And they required somebody that could kick a specific way and do specific tricks that I was able to do at the time, mainly like kicking cigarettes out of somebody’s mouth. You’d stack poker chips on top of somebody’s head — I could kick those off. That kind of stuff.
We did a lot of live performances at fair grounds at that time and I was choreographing fights for those live performances, so it was kind of a natural thing. Although I didn’t know what was entailed in being a stuntman, but the stunt coordinator at the time said, “Send me over some video of yourself,” and I put together a little demo reel of different things I could do, jumping over, like, seven bodies, flying side kicks, breaking boards and throwing people around. You know, the usual stuff… red-blooded Canadian boy kind of thing.
This coordinator received my video and called me and said, “Hey! Come on over here. I want to make sure you’re the guy in the video.” Because, to this day, there’s a lot of false pretense that goes on when people submit resumes. It happens with actors and it also happens with stunt performers. You can say whatever you want on a piece of paper, but unless you actually see it — you have to actually see it for yourself. I learned that back then.
So I went over and went through a bunch of the techniques, the kicks and whatnot, that I had demonstrated on the video and he said, “OK, great. That’s you.” I did some fight reactions, getting punched in the stomach and the face.
GW: Lives are being placed in your hands.
GW: Have you had scares over the years? Hopefully no loss of life, but accidents do happen.
JB: There’s one loss of life that’s occurred. It was the stunt coordinator, a friend of mine. It was on set. I was standing right there, and about 10 feet in front of me. It was on a television series called The Crow. It was a TV series version of the Brandon Lee film, and the lead character was played by Mark Dacascos in the role of The Crow.
That’s when I first worked with Mark Dacascos. I was fighting him as a regular bad guy, basically. I used to stunt double a lot of the bad guys on the show. It was great to work with him on Stargate Atlantis of course, after that, because we had an established relationship. But I digress.
Back on the set of The Crow, there was an explosion, Special effects at the time was not our crew on Stargate but a different crew. There was a small boat in the water. There was nobody in the shot, no people in the shot, it was just a small boat that was meant to explode.
JB:It was about 150 feet away from the closest camera and the boat exploded and something went wrong. There was a battery pack that got caught up in the explosion and it jettisoned upwards and into the air. I have no idea how high it ended up going, but it traveled over 150 feet because my friend the coordinator, Mark Akerstream was his name, he was right beside the first camera and I was 10 feet behind him. This hunk of battery struck him in the back of the head at the occipital.
Of course you couldn’t see it, it was faster than light. He just collapsed in front of me and I thought he was playing at first. I said, “What are you doing?” and next thing you know he doesn’t get up, doesn’t get up, and the rest is history. I rode in the ambulance with him and a couple of days later they decided that he had too much brain damage and they took off life support. So that sort of thing does happen. I’ve not been there before or since, nor do I want to be, but it was an incredible learning experience.
GW: Well, it’s not a game. You guys are doing some outrageous stuff, some amazing stuff, for entertainment. Anyone who’s there, there’s no telling what can happen. Some things go wrong.
JB: Of course. That’s why we’re there. There’s a reason for a stunt performer, there’s a reason why we are proud — the few, the proud — to be able to call ourselves stunt performers, stuntmen, stuntwomen. It’s not a job that just anybody can do. It’s just not.
Some people, crew members, see you on set for, say, a stunt that isn’t as dangerous or doesn’t take as much toll on the body and they just kind of go, “I could do that,” but they’re not there for the days that you break your arm or you break your leg or your ribs or your jaw or your skull or you die, or you lose your sight. That’s what being a stuntman is about. You’re there so that the actors don’t have to be.
I have great respect for the history of the stunt performers that have come before me. The guys have pioneered the business and basically experimented all the way up till the present day. A lot of guys have lost their lives, a lot of guys have been permanently injured just or the sake of entertainment. I don’t say that in a complaining manner, I say that because I’m proud to be part of that legacy.
GW: I grew up with some folks, very reckless, and we always talked, “You know, they’ll be perfect as stunt performers when they get older,” and this was when I was very naive and I didn’t know any of you guys at this point. Later, I realized that’s not the kind of person that you’re looking for. The amount of judgment that you guys have to have, you have to have very good judgment and you have to have a very sound head on your shoulders before you can even get involved in that sort of thing.
JB: I’m approached quite regularly, saying “I can do that, I’m crazy!” and I’m like, “You’re crazy! Great! Let’s lock you up, then. You can go over there and we’ll go shoot our movie over here.”
GW: You can’t risk lives based on someone’s wide-eyed, “Oooh, let me try that! Let me try that! I’ve always wanted to try that!”
JB: Exactly. It’s risk, but it’s calculated risk and when it’s performed on a film set there’s an incredible amount of legalities involved and waivers. Everything that’s performed on this set, Stargate Universe for instance, is based on my resume. My resume goes to the insurance company. Every year they want an updated copy of it.
When I break down the script for every episode that breakdown gets forwarded to the insurance company. If something were to go wrong, I’m liable. Myself. That weight is on my shoulders, not the production’s shoulders. It’s on my shoulders, unless something happened and I wasn’t on set. If somebody elected to, say, perform something and I wasn’t scheduled to be there that day and they didn’t bring me in, if they didn’t end up bringing me in and something happened, then the production would be liable.
I’m basically there, and it sounds like a cliché, but I’m the fall guy for the production as well. That’s part of the coordinator’s job. That being so, I have to dot all the Is and cross the Ts on a regular basis and make sure that that’s not going to happen. Specifically for the actors, because on this show there’s a lot more actor action, as we call it, involved than stunt action. We haven’t brought out as many stuntmen on this show as, say, Atlantis or Stargate SG-1. This is a much more character-driven, actor-driven, real reality-based show.
GW: There’s no secret about that. The first hour definitely has some stunt work in it, that very first physical scene.
JB: The first ten minutes.
GW: Exactly, and then the finale of that. But then you get into the second hour and I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, BamBam, I’ll see you at the finale, I’m sure.”
JB: “I’ll see you later BamBam, thanks for coming out!” Nice! [Laughter]
GW: But that’s not the case, right?
JB: No, I’m there all the time. There’s action-light episodes, obviously. They decide to develop the characters on specific episodes, so there’s not an incredible amount of action. There’s always something. There’s always some sort of safety that requires my presence on set, whether it’s a couple of days a week or every day of the week.
When it’s a stunt-heavy show, obviously, I’m there. I’m on set every day, if I’m not on set I’m in the production office prepping for the next episode. We get seven-ish days to prep an episode, give or take, and then we’re shooting the episode previous as we’re prepping the next episode. It just rolls into itself, just keeps going like that, and sometimes I can make it to some meetings, sometimes I can’t because I’m on set. You’re always going.
No matter if there’s a stunt-light episode or not, I’m prepping the next episode anyway, so there’s always something for me to do, and training actors, that sort of thing. That was a big part at the beginning.
We didn’t know what to expect from the characters at he beginning of the year, so I just had some conversations with Brad [Wright] and Robert [Cooper] about who they were. [I] just took it upon myself and gave specifically Brian Smith and Jamil Walker Smith — there’s a lot of Smiths — took the young boys and took them out and gave them some basic training. I met Brian first, he was up here so I took him on his own and did various training with him — boxing, some trapping, some knife work, different things that a Marine or a Special Forces soldier would be exposed to. Just to give them a feeling.
GW: Are you responsible for giving them their weapons training? Because they have to know how to hold a gun and fire it.
JB: No, I do work in conjunction with our military tech advisor, though. That would be Ron Blecker and Rob Fournier. Those guys have been working on Stargate, on the franchise, since day one. They’re both military-based, they’re both ex-soldiers.
Actually, Ron Blecker, if you watch Black Hawk Down, one of the characters is based on him. So that’s the kind of access that we have. We try to get the best and we try to give the audience the most realistic demonstration of the technical military process. Obviously, it’s science fiction so we do depart from reality from time to time and take license. Of course.
But quite often in the combat situation, especially nowadays with the UFC, audiences are very sophisticated when it comes to martial arts, when it comes to physical combat, whether it be with weapons or unarmed combat, so I’m constantly in the director’s ear and the producer’s ear saying, “Well, this would be technically sound, this would be technically correct, this would be tried and true.”
JB: Like I said, I work very closely with the military technical advisors. I did attend the weapons training, the firearms training, with the cast just so that they’d be comfortable because I had met them previously, and then I did a separate training for the boys in hand-to-hand combat.
I like to leave the weapons training to the armorers because these guys also come on set and they’re also there to provide the weapons. They work for another company that provides our weapons that we rent, in conjunction with our props department with Kenny Gibbs.
Our military tech advisors, I’ve worked with Ron and Rob Fournier for years and years. I met Ron actually on X-Files when I was doubling David Duchovny back in the day, way back in the day. I think I was there for his first day on set when he was fresh out of the military and he was there getting the extras in line. [Laughter]
GW: A boot camp, huh?
JB: Oh yeah! I looked at the stunt coordinator who was Tony Morelli, he was an old kickboxer that I knew from back in the day, and he was the stunt coordinator on X-Files. I looked at him and I said, “Oh my God! Have you listened to this guy?” He’s like tearing a strip off the extras as if they were really in the military. But I tell you what, that really paid off in what you see on the screen.
Very authentic. Brad Wright often comments on how I treat my stunt guys. I treat them with the utmost respect, but I expect a lot out of them. I expect out of them what I have expected out of myself, out of my own stunt performing career. I’ve said this in many interviews and I’ll always say it — I expect them to be tough. They’ve got to take it.
When the rest of the crew is looking me saying, “Aw, BamBam, come on man, don’t make them do that again. Come on!” or the director goes, “Oh, that was great!” and I’m like, “No. No, we can do better.” Hit the ground harder, higher, faster, stronger, bionic man-type stuff. That’s what I’m there for and like Brad says, he enjoys that. He enjoys the fact that some people are not happy when I ask them to do it again.
GW: I imagine that you don’t ask them to do things that you don’t think they’re capable of doing. You only push them as far as is reasonable, I’m sure.
JB: Well, I do push them past their limits quite often. But I am a very good judge of character, I’m a very good judge of what physically and mentally I can get out of a performer, whether it be an actor or a stuntman — or a stuntwoman.
Quite often, I can see things about themselves that they don’t see and I have the ability to get them to perform things that they never thought they could do. As I said in the history portion of this conversation, I ended up teaching at my instructor’s karate school just before I got into stunts and I was an instructor on a regular basis.
Aside from being a martial artist you learn to read your opponent, but as a teacher you learn to read your students and know when to push them, when not to push them, how far you can push them, what their limits are, what they’re capable of, that sort of thing.
It’s really transferred into the film industry working with actors, as you’ve seem previously with other actors, Jason Momoa, Rachel Luttrell, and look how far we’ve pushed Chris Judge in the last couple of years and some of the fight sequences that he was able to accomplish.
GW: I know. I watched “Talion” the other day and was dirty, it was bloody.
JB: Exactly. Thank you. That was me going, “More blood, more blood.” I’m standing right there, and I’ve always done this. I work very closely with the makeup department and you can’t have a fight without blood. It has to be realistic. I’ve been on a lot of shows where it’s a kids’ show or whatever so you have to be respectful to that and you have to back off, or not have any blood at all.
I’ve choreographed huge fight sequences where nobody bleeds before, because of the network or whatever. But it’s very important, if you want the fight sequence to be authentic, if you want it to look real, people bleed. We’re made of skin and flesh and muscles and there’s blood inside us and it comes out.
When the skin gets split, there’s something underneath there and it comes out. The guys this year, Brad and Robert, all the directors, everybody has been really on board with that, and as I said, this year our makeup artist is Fay von Schroeder and she’s very detailed and wants everything to be exactly right and we work very closely together.
Sometimes I attend her meetings, sometimes she attends mine if there’s a fight sequence coming up so we can discuss, “OK, after this fight sequence, what’s going to happen in the fight, what would happen, where would they get cut, would they get cut?”
Things that I’ve seen in my travels as a fighter and when I used to compete as a kickboxer as well, there’s just certain things that happen when you get punched in the face a certain way. If you get punched in the cheekbone — certain people have higher cheekbones so they’re more likely to split their cheekbone open. All sorts of little things like that, that people aren’t aware of, that actually go on behind the scenes that we actually have to discuss, obviously, because like I said, when there’s a fight, people bleed.
It’s not for the squeamish. A realistic fight scene is not for the squeamish. If you’ve ever seen one at school or if you’ve been in a nightclub or something and one breaks out, everybody’s heart just starts pounding immediately.
GW: Fight or flight kicks in.
JB: Exactly. And going back to being a stuntman, the fight or flight is part of your persona. What a stuntman does, instead of being, “I’m crazy!” You have to turn it on and off as a stuntman, so what a stuntman does is learn to harness that. You turn off the flight, obviously, because if the camera rolled and the director said “Action!” and all of a sudden you ran the other direction [Laughter] and said, “I’m not jumping off that!” In Andy [Mikita]’s episode we did a couple of years ago, where I did that jump into the water, when Andy says “Action” you jump! That’s what you’re there for.
GW: Some of it’s simulated, a lot of it’s not.
JB: Correct. It hurts. Stunts hurt. We were doing a rehearsal last night. I had to wait for main and second unit to wrap, I was working on both on set — we had little stunts going on on both sets — and then I had to rehearse for what’s happening tomorrow.
One of my stunt guys, there’s this particular stunt which I can’t talk about specifically right now because it’ll give away the episode and I’m not Mr. Spoiler, but it’s not an easy stunt, it’s a big stunt and it’s a very painful stunt. No mater what, he’s going to feel some pain and you have to resign yourself to the fact that it’s going to hurt. “I’m going to start off over there, I’m going to end up over there, and when I end up over there…”
GW: “I’m not going to feel great.”
JB: [Laughter] Yeah, it’s not going to feel great. Although, funny thing David, it does feel great. That rush, you sort of welcome the pain as a stuntman. That sounds insane.
GW: Yeah, see I don’t do any “rush!”
JB: Exactly. But see, that’s our job so you have to. You have to look at it that way or you will get back into the fight or flight and you will freeze. That’s what happens. And that’s what I’ve taught people, especially in self defense situations, in the real world when I’ve taught psychology of self defense as well. People freeze and if they’re not used to being, say, punched in the face or punched anywhere, or struck at all, people tend to freeze and that’s when the rest of the beating occurs.
I’ve always taught to begin with, the first thing you do is run, try to get out of there, if it’s a real fight. Someone could have a knife, they could have a gun, you don’t know, especially nowadays. But people won’t even do that, quite often. They’ll get punched once and they’ll freeze. Their brain will just interrupt itself.
A part of what I’ve tried to train people throughout the year is so that doesn’t happen. You react, or you act — you should be proactive in the first place and avoid certain situations. For instance, dark parking lots, that sort of thing. But go in the dark parking lot at the movie theater after midnight or whatever — it’s fine to do that as long as you’re aware, where are the corners, where are the isolated areas. As long as you’re aware, you can prevent bad things from happening to you.
GW: As long as you’re aware where your mace is, you’re OK.
JB: Exactly. We don’t get mace, specifically, in Canada. We get the bear pray, the pepper spray, which is a different version. We trained with that when I was a corrections officer, actually, and with the riot team they wanted volunteers and I was like, “Sure, go ahead. Spray me.” That was a really bad mistake.
GW: I bet it’s not comfortable stuff!
JB: No! No, it sucks. Really bad.
GW: But if you’re going to use it on someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to know what it feels like yourself? That’s what they do with corrections officers when you have the tasers. You have to get tasered before you can use it, at least you do here.
JB: Yeah. No, here in Canada, it’s a little more of a liberal system so they ask you — you have to volunteer. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but in my experience I just assumed that it would make me a better corrections officer if I experienced it myself. The same with being a stuntman. It made me a better coordinator to have gone through all those things that I’m asking people to do now as a stunt performer. Because I understand, I’ve been there, I’ve felt the pain, I’m still feeling the pain. I’ve got arthritis now.
I know when to call it quits, I know when it’s too dangerous, I know when we can’t do another take, I know when to push the guys another couple of takes if we have to. I know when to let the director know, “No, the actor won’t be doing that.”
GW: “This is unreasonable.” That’s one of the things I want to know is, there are times when your decisions either slow down or halt production, do they allot time for you to be able to do that?
JB: We try to alleviate that from happening. That has happened on other productions because there wasn’t ample prep. Everything gets taken care of in prep, everything should unfold naturally once you get to set and you’re shooting because you should have answered every possible question or alleviated every possible problem before you get to set.
Sometimes, when you get to set, the director’s had time to think about something else and right on the spot he’ll go, “Well, how about this?” So you have to be able to think on your feet, of course, but usually by the time you get there I’ve already encountered every situation possible and gone over it in my head and come up with an equation to remedy that.
There are certain directors that are famous for coming up things at the last-minute so you have to say, “Well, no. We don’t have ten fire trucks and a clown here right now. Sorry, we can’t do that.”
But most of the time, I try to exhaust every possible avenue in the prep, as I mentioned, so that we don’t have to be concerned when we get there on the day. I have every element there.
Like tomorrow, Andy Mikita’s directing, it’s our season finale, our two-parter, and I have every possible element there for him. Everything’s been rehearsed, any question he asks me tomorrow, I’ll be able to answer him immediately, and if it’s something I can’t answer, I will divert to my riggers or whoever’s there that may have had that experience that I haven’t. But in this particular case, I’ve been there before, so many times.
GW: Well, you’re not going to do anything that you don’t know how it’s going to go down, “Well, let’s try this and see what happens.”
JB: Well actually David, sometimes, I like to call it an “organic stunt.” Sometimes there’s that “what if” factor and you don’t want to do it without filming it. Some things you can’t rehearse in advance because they’re just too painful. So they’ll ask me, “Well, where do you think his body’s going to land after he bounces off that wall and clips the corner of the staircase and then Joe Blow kicks him in the stomach on his way down? What do you think his body’s going to do?” Well, I don’t know.
GW: Or you have a really expensive model like the Season Three finale [of Atlantis] where all that glass exploded in Weir’s stunt double’s face. I imagine there are certain things you only have one shot.
JB: Correct. Big time. That was huge. We took every precaution possible. Even so, my rigger at the time, Corbin Fox, I couldn’t get him this season because he was on several things, Percy Jackson and now he’s on the third “Twilight” film, but I did one better, I’ve got the guy that trained him. [Laughter]
I brought him out of retirement to come work for us, his name’s Claude Bouchard and he actually rigged the stunt you saw in the pilot, the opening, when you see Young fly through the gate. It’s amazing, isn’t it? We took the stuntman right to the floor and that was over 40 feet in the air, about 10 feet high at some points, over everybody’s heads to the floor. He sprained his ankle pretty bad, actually, but we were expecting something like that to happen.
GW: Something was going to hurt.
JB: Yeah. But he got up and walked away. He limped, but he walked away. And he smiled. So that’s who I got. I trust the rigger and my performers trust the rigger because of all his experience. They’ve done so many movies, big feature films — the guys that I bring in — and I’m very proud to say that they love working for us and they love working for our production.
GW: I’m sure you’ll agree with this above anything else, you have to have your mind there. You have to be prepared for something to happen to you. I took six years of Tae Kwon Do but still, I didn’t enjoy the process of kicking the crap out of someone else. They would always say, “If you have the option, you run.” Fighting is the last course.
JB: Yes. Martial arts are not about kicking the crack … Crack … OR that! Martial arts are not about kicking the crack out of somebody, they are about self defense. A true martial artist does not want to hurt another human being. It’s about protecting himself, protecting his family, protecting his friends.
If it comes down to it, he will definitely go there but it’s not like he’s walking around in his life looking for a fight. That’s just wrong. I started martial arts at a very young age, like I said, 10 or 11 years old, exactly as in where you trained, I was taught the same discipline. And if you’re caught fighting outside of this dojo, outside of this training facility, you will be removed and not allowed to come back. That was instilled in me at a very, very young age. Of course I got in fights, but when I was in the seventh grade I was known as “The Bully Killer.”
GW: “The Bully Killer!” The bringer of justice.
JB: The bringer of justice. The protector of the nerds, or whatever people said — all sorts of different things like that. Some of my friends from back then have met my wife now and they try to describe to her how I was viewed by all the brainy kids that were picked on. To me, I didn’t even realize it at the time, I truly didn’t realize it but I’ve run into some high school friends recently and having these conversations are really entertaining, how people thought of me. It was unbelievable, like Superman, sort of thing.
A couple of times, yes, I did get in fights, but most of the time I would just talk down the bullies. I would just get in between them and whoever they were victimizing and say, “No. No, this isn’t happening any more,” and walk away. Most of the time, they would back off and once in a while they’d take a swing at you. But because of the last guy that took a swing at you, and what occurred, generally that would go around the school and the next guy wouldn’t. And once in a while, that has to happen.
You notice this in the prison culture as well. When I was a corrections officer, some of the residents there would be there for long periods of time and they’d be known as a tough kid or whatever but, after a while, a new kid would come in that didn’t know them, so they’d get tested. They’d have to reassert their authority, basically. Then their reputation would continue on for another however long it would be. Its just sort of human nature.
I spent a lot of time when I was in martial arts as a teenager, and very uncharacteristic for a teenager to spend a lot of time meditating and studying Zen, and the way of Zen, and Zen Buddhism and looking into these things. My parents brought me up Catholic, but this had nothing to do with that as far as I was concerned. This was something else I was looking into and trying to unlock what was inside me.
GW: Centering yourself.
JB: Exactly. In fact, I read a book back then called “Return to the Center” and it was about a Benedictine monk that studied all world religions and he noticed all the common ground, instead of all the differences, as most people point out. He went around and looked, “Hey, look, in India, this happens. In Rome, this happens.” He pointed out all the similarities, so “Return to the Center” being we’re all part of the oneness of the world.
I really dug that when I was a kid, and like I said, uncharacteristically, because most 14-15 year olds are like “Gaaaaaah!” Going crazy! Having a good time, “Let’s go to the mall, let’s go to the Rec Center!” That’s what everybody did on Friday nights, “Let’s o to the Recreation Center and hang out!” Kids were drinking beer and that when they were that age, Friday night, what was I doing? I was training in karate. We’d always start the classes with meditation, but I was throwing a thousand kicks or whatever, so I had a little bit of a different teenage years. Very, very disciplined, at least three days a week in the club, and then the rest of the time I was training at home.
That Zen, that calmness before battle, basically, it’s the same thing with the samurai and any soldier really. If there is such [a] thing as “The Art of War”, which is in my library, the book, but that calmness, you need that to concentrate in the midst of battle. You need that to concentrate in a meeting, you need that to concentrate like right now in this interview. Not being intimidated by just talking to people on an everyday basis. You and I, we’ve met each other several times and we’re friends, but…
GW: But even still, when you said, “Do you want to do an interview?”, despite the fact I was over at the gym there was no way I could have done it right then and there. I have to sit for 10 minutes, I have to Google you a few times, no matter how well you and I know each other, I have to get ready. This is my craft.
JB: I sent you that text message I said, “Prepared?” because I know that you have to formulate your questions, you don’t just have a conversation. You want to know the gist of the direction where you’re going and I understand that. Myself, I really enjoy interviews because I enjoy people, period, and I enjoy conversations, and I like answering people’s questions.
I like doing that. I love it at the conventions, I love seeing all the people and I’ve met some wonderful people since I’ve been on this show and with this franchise. Just fantastic. Our fans are wonderful and I really can’t get enough of seeing them. I like seeing them.
Every time I see them, I’m so happy to see the same faces over and over again, no matter where it is. In London, in Australia, Vancouver, wherever it is. You and Darren included, it’s always great to see your guys’ smiling faces when you come barreling into the office, “Hey!” It’s just so cool. It’s so great to pick up where we left off last time, like you just went in the other room for six months or something. You just went into our boardroom or something, “Oh, there you are. You’re back again.”
That’s what happens every time we come back also at work, when we come back for the next season. It’s just like we went into the next room and we come back and, “Oh, hey Robert! Hey John!” Here we go again. It’s just like a family, and everybody reacquaints and we go again and it’s great.
The Zen thing has always been a part of me since I started martial arts and then it became part of me more so when I started doing stunts. I learned in martial arts not to fear any man. Everybody’s human. Just because a guy’s six four and has a huge scar across his face, some people might look at him and think he’s scary, whereas I’d look at him and think, “Well, somebody gave him that scar and I’m just as capable of giving him another one if he’s got a problem.” You need to look at things in a different way and that calmness takes over and it turns into logic.
GW: And it gives you a far greater chance of succeeding than self doubt.
JB: Exactly. Some people think self doubt is useful because then you have nothing to lose when you’re backed into a corner. That’s how some people look at it. That’s not how I look at it. I just think you can’t think in that particular [situation] and that’s how a lot of governments run. They want their subjects doubting themselves, some employers like that style.
GW: They rule through intimidation.
JB: Exactly. They want you second-guessing yourself, always wondering whether you have a job, whether you’re going to get fired, that sort of thing.
GW: It’s one way to get stuff done. It’s one way to motivate.
JB: Yes. When I have people working for me, I want them to like me. They’re my friends, I want them to want to do a god job for me. If people like you, they’ll do anything for you. If they’re loyal to you, they will go out of their way and go that extra mile to give you not what you’ve asked for but more than that. That’s how I feel towards these people that have created this show and brought these characters to life.
I’m so into this show and I’ve been so into these characters. I know them intimately. I know what each one is capable of. When Brad says to me, “Can you go over and speak to one of the actors because he should be ‘this’ and I know that you can convey that to him and get that across?” Before he finishes his sentence I’m across the room in the actor’s ear saying “Blahblahblah.” I’m not always specifically saying “Well, Brad Wright says this,” or “Robert says this.”
GW: No, you’re seeding the idea.
JB: Exactly. Sometimes it’s necessary that I say that because they want to know where it’s coming from, it’s a piece of direction and everybody’s got their own thought process and they don’t always agree or have to agree with what I have to say. They may have a different idea about what their character is about to do, and they should because they know their character better than I do. But I have to ask those questions, I have to get them thinking about it, at least. It’s a really enjoyable process, especially on SGU because the characters are so layered and they’re so in-depth.
Our producers here are fantastic in that they know when I say, “We need some time here. We’re not rushing this. If we rush this, it’s unsafe.” They know for a fact that it’s not going to get rushed. We usually account for that in our prep as well, as I mentioned before. It’s very, very important not to rush any stunt. We’ve got a great track record, nobody’s been injured, nobody’s lost an eye. All our actors really enjoy doing their own stunts, some of them I’ve had to talk out of things. Jason Momoa, he’s an easy one to refer to because he’s so gung-ho all the time. Robert Carlyle, people probably don’t realize this but that man loves to throw himself on the ground. [Laughter]
GW: He’s so little! He’s such a small man.
JB: That guy, his soul is 10 feet tall. He is tough as nails. He’s like that Glasgow… he’s like Brave Heart. He is just tough as nails. I offer him elbow pads, I offer him knee pads, he’s falling down on cement, he’s like, “No BamBam, I’m great. No problem, no problem!”
And now we’ve got this little competition going on on set. I guess Jamil has started, because Jamil’s heard me speak of Bobby’s unwillingness to wear protective equipment so it’s, “OK, Jamil, here, throw on these elbow pads,” and he’s like, “I’m not wearing that! Bobby Carlyle don’t wear that, I’m not wearing that!” Not in exactly those words, but this is a PG show.
I mentioned that during the meetings. I say, “Well, if we do this, Bobby’s probably not going to wear elbow pads.”
GW: Can you insist? Can you order him to?
JB: It’s something I will advise him.
GW: But you can’t tell him he has to wear this.
JB: Well, I can. What I can do is I say, “Well, you’re not doing that unless you do.” That’s part of my job as well. Or, “If you refuse to wear these pads past this point, then this is a stunt double, not you.” We’ve got a great double for Bobby, but he is just so capable himself. All the guys, so far [are]. Actually, Elyse Levesque has performed a lot of her own stunts. In fact, I think I doubled her once and that was on the pilot and everything else throughout the season she’s done herself.
GW: It’s good to know that has scenes where she has stunts.
JB: Well, there’s jeopardy. Stuff happens on the Destiny.
GW: She’s not given a gun and told to run into battle?
JB: No, it’s something that would happen to Chloe. Like I said, and as everybody knows, this is a reality-based show, it’s not unrealistic. Chloe doesn’t suddenly become a kung-fu expert. It’s not The Matrix, it’s Stargate Universe where it’s real people in an unreal situation. That’s what I keep telling people.
You’ll see a big difference in the action as well. In our shooting style, you’ve already seen a big difference — we’re sort of going for that documentary feel, we want the audience to feel like they’re right there. I don’t want the actors to feel like they’re being watched. We want them to perform completely relaxed so that they’re not feeling like they’re acting, so that they can be real.
GW: So this has been a good year for you, you’ve enjoyed yourself.
JB: Immensely. It’s been fantastic.
GW: I was wondering when they started this year if there was going to be much for you to do. It is a tremendously more character-focused show than Atlantis. Atlantis always had those bantos scenes, where if it was Rachel we’d find ourselves in the gym with her and that always required coordination, but it’s good to know that there is some cool stuff coming.
JB: There was a lot of stuff on Atlantis. It was a completely different style of show and completely different style of action as well, very stylized. There is a lot of action on this show as well but there’ll be episodes you’ll see there’s not much. You’ll see episodes where there’s a lot. The action is merely there to help tell the story and you’ll see a difference in the style of action as well on this show. You’ll see a big difference. If there’s a fight, you’ll see a big difference from any fight you’ve seen on Atlantis.
It’s great. They showed us the pilot, actually three hours, we went to the theater and it was on the big screen and I couldn’t wait for the next minute to go by and the next minute and the next. We saw the first two parts and I couldn’t wait — we had an intermission, I couldn’t wait to see part three, and I work on the show. I’m there every day and I still can’t wait to see it
It’s got me that excited and I’ve always said I’ve never really been a huge sci-fi fan to begin with, but I would watch this show if I wasn’t a sci-fi fan. I would watch this show before I was a stuntman, just being James Bamford out there in the world I would watch this show.
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Lahela.