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Sep28TueStunt performer Neil Davison brings faith to film. September 28, 2021 by Giselle Randall
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- Faith & Friends
Neil Davison has crashed cars, plummeted off cliffs and been engulfed in flames. He has fought superheroes, monsters and mutants. He’s died a thousand deaths in countless movies and TV shows. But before filming every heart-stopping scene, there’s always a moment when the stunt performer’s alone with his thoughts.
“What am I doing? Why am I doing this?” he thinks.
“Then I tell myself, I’ve prepared for this, I have the skills for it, we’ve done everything we can to make this right. We’re on!
“You put all those thoughts aside and focus on where you have to be in a few seconds. Because you have to go all in. You have to be 100-percent committed.”
For one stunt, those “few seconds” meant running at top speed, smashing through a third-floor window and landing on the fire escape outside—with no net or safety harness.
“I had to get on that fire escape, or I was in trouble,” Neil says. “But the kind of people who become stunt performers like to find the edge and push themselves. I like it when the stakes are high.”
Taking a Risk
Neil grew up on a farm outside of Peterborough, Ont., with one older brother.
“I often credit Scott with my career,” he says. “We were always getting into mischief, trying out crazy ideas. Usually his ideas, but he’d give me the honour of going first. I got used to bumps and bruises.”
Neil started gymnastics in high school and went on to compete at the national level while on the varsity team at Toronto’s York University. After graduating with a degree in education, he taught French and physical education at a school in Toronto, where he met his wife, Claudia.
Although he enjoyed teaching, he missed the challenge of gymnastics. So he called a former teammate, who had done some stunt work for film.
“At first, it was just for fun on the side, a way to keep using my physical skills,” Neil says. “Over the course of a few years, though, it was evident that maybe I should chase it. But we had just moved out of the city and bought a house, and we had three kids. It was a risk.”
When they met, Claudia was a member of The Salvation Army, but Neil hadn’t been connected to a church in several years. He found the Army welcoming and down to earth, and Claudia’s faith was inspiring.
“She was on that solid foundation,” he says. “She could see how rewarding stunt work was for me—she said I was a different person when I was doing stunts—and she encouraged me to go for it. She’s a risk taker in a different way.”
One of his first roles was on Mutant X, a sci-fi series with a lot of acrobatic fight action. While it was gymnastics that led Neil to stunts, he quickly started martial-arts training, and became a black belt in Taekwondo.
“If you want to stay in stunts, you’ve got to keep expanding your skills,” he says.
Along with martial arts, Neil’s other skills include high falls, rappelling and wirework, and stunt driving. He has fought at the edge of a cliff, flown on the outside of a helicopter and raced cars in adrenaline-pumping high-speed chases.
Injuries are just part of the job.
“There are always bumps and bruises and scrapes,” he says. “I had a broken toe for about a year once because I kept performing when I was already banged up. Things physically going ‘wrong’ is what we do. You check yourself over, make sure you’re OK, and then you get up for take two.”
As a stunt performer, Neil can either play a character or be a stunt double. In the movie 300, he played several of the silver-faced Immortals, as well as some of the Persian infantry, and is killed by the King of Sparta in a pivotal scene. In Shazam!, he was onscreen just long enough for his character’s head to be ripped off.
These days, he can also be found co-ordinating stunts, working to bring the script to life.
“In the beginning, it’s a bit of a puzzle,” Neil says. “That’s part of the fun—solving those problems so that we create a reality that looks great on screen but keeps everybody safe.”
Setting the Scene
Neil attends a Salvation Army church in Peterborough, Ont., and his faith is an important part of his life.
“I rely on my faith, but I don’t throw myself into things, thinking, God’s got me,” he says. “Being a good stunt performer is about intelligent courage—I don’t feel like I take foolish or irresponsible risks. But I still find strength in knowing that God is there for me and cares about me.”
Trusting God also helps him face the challenges of the film industry.
“It’s an adventurous field quite aside from the physical risks we take,” Neil says, “whether that’s encountering injury, of yourself or someone else, or long periods without work. The rollercoaster of this business is its own stunt.”
But even more importantly, Neil’s faith is grounded in his confidence that God is at work in the world.
“God’s got His plan, and that plan is going to play out regardless of what you or I do—we’re on that ride,” he says. “Things will happen along the way that we don’t have control over, but the scene is set. And we can rest in that, we can take courage in that.”
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