Meet the man behind The Blacklist's stunts

Cort Hessler won an Emmy Award for his work as a stunt co-ordinator on the first season of The Blacklist. Ahead of the show's second-season finale on Monday night, James Croot visited him on set in New York.

The Blacklist actors like Diego Klattenhoff try to do their own stunts as much as possible.
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The Blacklist actors like Diego Klattenhoff try to do their own stunts as much as possible.

How much of the stunts do the actors really do?

The actors do a lot of their own stunts, and that's what helps us here . There's a disconnect with just stunt people doing stunts and the actors not doing it, so everybody on our show – Megan (Boone, who plays Liz), Diego (Klattenhoff, who players Ressler) and James (Spader, who plays Red) – they've all done the fights, they've all shot people, they've all stepped in and really do it. I draw the line when I think they can really get injured. We all get bumps and bruises as actors and stunt people; when it goes beyond that is when you have to be worried. I can't have them do something where they're going to hurt their ankle or which would put them out of commission for even more than a day. If we do a fight and they get hit in the nose or something we'd be out of work for a while on the show, so it's a very fine line, but they do a lot of their own action here.

Are you limited on television to just a certain number of takes?

Everything is limited by time – if we don't get it on the day we're shooting it, we don't get it, so with anything to do with action, you always want to try to get it on your first take. That's in a perfect world, doesn't always happen. But as far as bigger stunts, like car crashes, we get one shot, and if it doesn't work, then it doesn't work and we have to try to figure out how to make it work with the end product we have. Stunts aren't perfect. If the car didn't land the way it was supposed to, we just have to change the script and adapt to it. We don't get a second chance at it. We don't even get to rehearse that kind of stuff.

Do you ever look at the final cut of an episode and wish you'd done something better?

All the time. It's just like you take a test and then you see the answers. You know you can do a little better all the time, and you use that as a tool. The problem with stunts is you can do the same exact actions twice and you're going to get different a result. So even though you learn something – "Oh, I should have hit that left at two miles an hour less" – it's a constant, changing thing. From just adding a pound of weight to yourself when you do a ratchet, that might mean 10 ounds of weight on the ratchet or 20. Everything changes, nothing's ever the same, even though it could be the same action. So yes, you learn things. That's how the stunt world has evolved to today. Those who are around from the cowboy days, they're all walking with their shoulders down and with a limp and a cane because they're the pioneers and they've taught us how not to do it. 

Cort Hessler has won an Emmy Award for his work on The Blacklist.
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Cort Hessler has won an Emmy Award for his work on The Blacklist.

How much CGI do you use?

We do as little as possible because of the turn-around time. My world for CGI is they remove a cable for me, or if the stunt person's pads are showing, they kind of try to hide it for me a little. Mostly, I'd say 80 per cent of the time, you're seeing what the final product is right then. 

And what do you think of the use of CGI in stunts?

You have to use it as a tool; it can't be the whole product. It helps us because we can be safer. Back when I started doing stunts in the 1980s, we were on little tiny cables that they didn't want to see, but they'd break. So we'd fly through the air, but the cables would break. Now we use bigger cables, like the width of my thumb, because it's easier to track and paint out. To go total CGI, you gotta make the crowd believe it, and they're gonna believe a person being  yanked out of the room on a cable more than a CGI person being yanked out of the room. There's a difference; you know it when you watch it. 

How did you get into stunt work?

I started in the mid-1980s while I was still in high school. I got approached by Disney to do a live show for them, but then that turned into a stunt show at Universal; I helped open Universal Studios Florida. And because we were on a backlot there shooting, they wanted the shows to come in, so I started hustling the TV shows. And my first full-time stunt job was on a show called Sea Quest way back in 1992.

Do you pay attention to what they are doing on other shows?

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I have to. To make sure we're not falling behind, and it's for my own personal references too. I watch and see what they do. I'll get a call and hear, "Hey, you gotta see what this guy did on Hawaii Five-O. It looked great!" Also they're all friends. We all know each other. Even though they're out in LA or Hawaii and I'm here (in New York). I was part of the Stuntman Association for five or six years in Los Angeles, so I know all the guys there. We do call each other if we hear that they did something. We'll be like "Hey, how'd you do that?"

What did winning the Emmy last year mean to you?

It meant a lot. I started stunt-coordinating more than a decade years ago and for the first four years I was nominated and I never won. And then in 2013 I was nominated for another show and I didn't win again, so last year when they actually called my name, I actually didn't believe it. I was like "What?" And it was up against really tough shows and really established shows and our show was brand new and it brought a lot of action to the table but, it wasn't as well known yet. It's still building.

Finally, how do you see the evolution of stunts going forwards?

Part of it's the CGI, but part of it's also the padding we have now. We're using space-age padding, where we have this gel that if you push it you can put your finger right through it, but if you take a hammer to it, your hammer will bounce off it and it won't move at all. And that conforms to our knees, elbows, wherever you use it. We're putting thin pads under wigs now to help prevent head injuries.  You never had that before. Where that goes to the next level? I think it's that stuff. It's the protection that we have. There's always going to be new materials. Like with cables. We used to use steel, now we use this stuff called Tek that looks like rope. You can tie it, it's pliable, it's thin, and it has twice the breaking strength of cable. So I think it's that kind of stuff. Everything will get stronger and smaller and protect us more.

The Blacklist 8.30pm, Monday, TV3

 - Stuff

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