Interview with Actor and Expert Stuntman Umar Khan!

horseback riding shot
Actor and stuntman Umar Khan on horseback in California

As an audience, when we get wrapped up in a fast paced action packed film it’s easy to forget that the actor on screen is rarely the one performing their character’s crazy stunts. A production goes to incredible lengths to cheat the shots and make an actor’s stunt double look just like their character so that when they hit the screen jumping off buildings, engaging in intricate battles and all the other physically challenging feats that make stunt men so heroic and necessary, that we as viewers remain on the edge of our seat, never noticing the role change. Although it is a rarity in the industry, there are some actors who actually do their own stunts and Umar Khan is among the best of them.

Khan is known for his work as both an actor and a stuntman in a plethora of titles including the films “Close Range” and “Deliver Us From Evil,” and the popular TV series “Bones,” “Rush Hour,” “Person of Interest” and “Scorpion.” Last year he also worked as a stuntman on the series “The Brink,” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” as well as the recently released film “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” starring Tina Fey and “Captain America: Civil War,” which is slated for its initial release on May 6.

Khan’s expertise in martial arts and various forms of combat have led him to become a sought after action designer in the industry with major productions hiring him to choreograph fights scenes for their projects. After working as the action designer on the 2014 TV series “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – District Voices,” Khan formed Stunt Fighting Concept – Umar Khan Stunt Team. With his team Stunt Fighting Concept Khan has developed pre-visualized fight scenes for several films that are set to begin production including “Killing The Seeds,” “The Master’s Legacy” and the “The Man From Kathmandu.” He is now along with his team set to make a pre-visualized fight scene for the American remake of “The Raid.”

Prior to moving stateside several years ago, Khan established himself as a sought after stuntman and actor back home in Sweden where he both directed and starred in the film “Veracious Perception,” in addition to being featured in countless magazines and commercials.

To find out more about this incredibly talented performer make sure to check out our interview, as well as the video of Umar in action below. 

 

I’ve read from some of your past interviews that you knew as early as age 7 that you wanted to become one of the few actors who also performs their own stunts– with that idea in mind, how did you initially approach your career?

UK: I started off like any kid by mimicking the fight scenes from the different action movies I saw. Later on, I developed an interest in fight choreography so I started choreographing my own fight scenes with my friends. During my years in middle school I used to borrow the school’s video camera to shoot my own “fight movies.” I remember that I was already a perfectionist at that age, I used to handpick my co-stars (based on their height, look and skills), do location scouting, direct, choreograph and act in the films I made. All of this would account for how I got more and more into the creative side of it.

For the physical aspect I tried to learn new moves and new styles all the time, trying to perfect each move and develop a new move out of it and so forth, watching martial arts movies and later on YouTube clips and comparing myself to the best in each discipline, that way I had a goal of where I wanted to reach skill wise. I think if you are truly meant to do something, there will be an urge that will draw you there no matter what obstacles you face along the way.

As a stuntman what are some of your special skills in the industry?

UK: My background is in martial arts, so I would say my primary skills as a stunt performer is screen fighting along with fight design, however I do a lot of different areas of stunts today.

How long have you been practicing martial arts?

UK: I have trained in martial arts since I was 7 years old.

 

teenager
Umar Khan as a teenager 

 

You recently wrapped production on the upcoming films “Captain America: Civil War” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” starring Tina Fey, can you tell us about the stunts you did in these films?

In “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” I was initially set to do stunts only but I replaced the original actor who was cast for the role as “Wild-Eyed Man”, the director said that he was impressed with my performance while I was rehearsing the scene as a stand in for the actor so he cast me for the role instead. The character I was playing was possessed and was running in a crowd towards the lion cage screaming and eventually throwing a hand grenade inside the lion’s cage. We actually had a real lion on set, so it was pretty amazing to see such a magnificent animal so up-close.

In “Captain America: Civil War” I was playing Hero Mercenary and my main scene was fighting Scarlett Johansson’s character Black Widow, it was a great fight scene, one of the best in the movie, so you guys should definitely check it out!

What technical challenges did you face on these films when it came to mapping out how your stunts would play out on camera?

UK: The fight we did for “Captain America: Civil War” was a demanding one because of the extensity of the fight combined with the lack of time rehearsing it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any time to rehearse the scene, which happens sometimes. We rehearsed the fight on set a few times right before we shot it and it all went really great actually. It all comes down to how well trained you are in screen fighting and how fast you can learn and adapt to a new choreography. Fortunately, that’s something I have always kept in mind since the day I started doing this, you never know when/if the director wants something different once he sees it in front of him, so I always keep in mind to prepare myself for any changes or the possibility of learning a new choreography at the last minute.

You have also worked as an action designer on several projects over the years– for our readers who aren’t sure what that entails can you briefly explain what you do as an action designer on a project?

UK: An action designer is basically a person or a team who is/are hired to design the action scenes on a production. In many cases, the stunt coordinator designs and choreographs the stunt sequence to suit the script and the director’s vision.

What projects have you worked on as an action designer and what were some of the different approaches that you took on each project?

UK: I designed a fight sequence back in 2014 on the TV mini-series “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – District Voices.” While designing the fight scene for the series an idea I had many years ago of creating my own stunt team came back and so a couple of months later I formed my own team, Stunt Fighting Concept – Umar Khan Stunt Team. We have been fortunate enough after creating our first action design pre-viz (sponsored by Under Armor Germany) to get a lot of calls from producers requesting to make a pre-viz for their upcoming projects. We created two pre-vizes for Joyto Films for their upcoming projects “Killing The Seeds” and “The Master’s Legacy” and successfully locked the position on both as the Stunt Unit, and I’m set to Second Unit Direct/Stunt Coordinate on both projects.

We made another Pre-viz for a project called “The Man From Kathmandu” which my team and I will action design and coordinate on, I will Second Unit Direct and star in that film. We also recently made a pre-viz for Screen Gems that we’ll soon know if we secured the position of creating the action. And currently we’re rehearsing for our upcoming pre-viz for the American remake of “The Raid.”

I start preparing an action design for a certain project by reading the script a couple of times to get familiarized with the storyline and the characters involved in it, then I ask the producers or the director what his/her vision is and what they’re looking to do with the scene and then I’ll start working my way from there creating an action design that fits the script.

From safety to how things appear on camera, what are some of the most important aspects that you need to consider when designing fight sequences on a production?

UK: The general idea of my fight designs is to make it look as authentic as possible but also visually attractive for the audience, along with the unique camera technology that we possess (the only one on the market), the cameraman can approach the performers much closer in order to get the hands on feeling on the actual fight and give the audience almost a third person POV, video game kind of feel to it.

With this system in use comes a lot of other responsibilities to keep in mind. Not only safety for the performers but also safety for the camera man who is now one more “performer” in the mix and automatically becomes a safety priority. The fight sequences I design are meant to look very authentic due to the actual physical contact me and my teammates are inflicting upon each other, it’s not something I recommend; my team consists of guys that have fought professionally or are highly trained in various areas of the stunt business and are used to the physical contact as myself. We train the same way real fighters do, with sparring sessions combined with our choreography training to have the best of both worlds and adapt fast.

The second thing is the environment and the props. Basically we use props that look authentic and can simulate the real thing, just like in any of the props on set, we utilize them when we need but as little as possible since one of the main features of the camera technology we use is to capture the action scenes in “one shot.” We are limited when it comes to cuts between scenes so it requires a lot more from the performers to stay in shape, being well rehearsed and being sharp to prevent unaccommodated injuries to themselves or their fellow partners.

What is this new unique camera technology that your team uses?

UK: It’s basically something that we refer to as a “Semi-drone.” We believe that our concept will revolutionize how filmmakers capture movie fights and overall action scenes in the future. The reason being is that our system freely captures the fights and action in a video game style look by utilizing the DP as a part of the movement within the scene along with the performers and having a second camera operator moving the camera through a monitor for a more up-close and detailed view of the action, this way it won’t leave a single part of the move out for the audience to feel, you get the best of both worlds, the sense of POV along with the interactive part of 3D which makes it feel like you are a part of the action. It’s a pretty advanced technology that we are happy to bring to the big screen soon.

Can you tell us about your work on the 2015 film “Close Range”?

UK: I got a call from the director of the movie, Isaac Florentine, when I was in Texas and he told me that he had a part for me on his new movie. So I flew back to L.A and we started working on it. Working with Isaac was great, we had been in talks of working together for about 5 years when I was still in Sweden, so when the opportunity arose we made it happen. I was playing a Mexican drug cartel assassin called “Sesma”.

 

director isaac florentine
Umar Khan (left) and director Isaac Florentine (right) on set of “Close Range”

How does your character Sesma fit into the film?

UK: Sesma is the Mexican drug cartel boss’ right hand in the movie, he is an emotionless cold-blooded killer. Playing the character that doesn’t have a lot of lines is quite demanding but also a lot fun since instead of vocally using your thoughts you have to transcend them through your facial expressions and body language.

Do you feel that you get cast to play a certain type of character more than others?

UK: Not really, I have played a wide range of characters from different ethnicities and backgrounds.

Can you tell us about your favorite role to date as well as your most challenging role an actor?

UK: I would say until this date it’s probably a project I directed back in Sweden, “Veracious Perception.” I was depicting the role of Robert Martinez, a corrupt cop with multiple personalities, so I had to bring out so many different emotions while still maintaining character. It was very challenging but something I really grew from and enjoyed doing.

They are all very different, what made you choose to participate in these projects?

UK: My main goal when coming to America and Hollywood was to work on projects that were on the mainstream level, such as popular TV shows and big budget movies. It has been great working on big name productions doing acting and stunts but at the moment I’m also looking for challenging parts for the acting aspect and great action scripts for the action design.

You get approached all the time to work on projects with people, what makes you pick one role over another?

UK: If the role has a challenging side to it, it’ll be more intriguing to me. I prioritize the parts when I’m pushed out of my comfort zone to find a “new” me through the character I’m playing. I believe as an actor if you are not pushing yourself to take on the most demanding parts you’re not really testing your limits of what you are capable of delivering from deep inside you.

Have you been in any commercials or music videos?

UK: I recently did a commercial for EAS Sports Nutrition as one of the featured athletes, before that I did a commercial for Red Apple’s Ale, performing as the Latino boxer. I did a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods representing Under Armor jogging apparel, and last year I did a photoshoot for Harley Davidson and Carnivore Fitness (Australian athletic apparel) who are also now my sponsors.

I was in a bunch of music videos back in Sweden, such as, Fjarde Varlden’s “Ingenting,” Unlima’s “N’ Say Love,” Emerson’s “Back Off” and Cee Rock’s “The Fury.” Anderson Iz Nice and I did a couple of commercials like Idol 2005 and ICS for Sony Ericson, and I’ve also been featured in many magazines such as Fighter Magazine, Fitness Magazine, twice in M3 Digital World, the cover of Friskispressen, as well as Kamera & Bild.

What projects do you have coming up?

UK: At the moment me and my team are rehearsing for a previsualization for the upcoming American remake of the martial arts film, “The Raid.” I’m also in preproduction with another project that is set to be shot here in the U.S. and Nepal later this year, an action thriller called, “The Man From Kathmandu.” The film, which I’m both action directing and starring in, is being produced by Clear Mirror Pictures.

Last year, I was requested to choreograph/direct two pre-vizes for Tom Delmar, a renowned British action director making his directorial debut. We shot the pre-vizes with our technology and he was really impressed by them, so he put me in charge as the Second Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator on his upcoming features, “Killing The Seeds” and “The Masters Legacy.” It will be my debut as a Second Unit Director/Stunt Coordinator on a feature film so I’m super excited about that and deeply honored to have been given such a high position.

What are your plans for the future?

UK: My plans for the future are to develop more innovative Action Design for major shows and carry on what I started when I was in middle school, borrowing the school’s camera and bringing my friends to different locations to shoot my own projects, this time I’ll do it with my stunt team and with big budget projects. I also have plans to star and direct in my own projects in the future.

 

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