Winter 2020 Issue

The Greatest Showmen

W&M gymnasts reach new heights in entertainment

By Sara Piccini

Winter 2020 Issue

When the hit film “The Greatest Showman” premiered in December 2017, millions of moviegoers were entranced by the acrobatic duet performed by Zac Efron and Zendaya — dangling on a rope high above a circus floor, flying through the air with the greatest of ease. • Through Hollywood magic, it appears that Efron leaps effortlessly from a balcony to catch the swinging rope. But that daring young man is actually Josh Fried ’10 — Efron’s stunt double.

Fried, a former All-American in men’s gymnastics, is one of a growing number of highly accomplished William & Mary gymnasts finding success in the entertainment field, from Las Vegas to Disney World. No strangers to risky moves, they’ve swung from helicopters, bounced off speeding cars, juggled fire knives, backflipped into water from 35-foot heights and leapt 40 feet in the air on the world’s largest trampoline.

Appearing alongside famous names in high-profile productions can seem surreal, Fried says. “It’s still strange to me that I’m crossing paths with these people, especially someone like Zac — he was a household name years before I became a performer. When you’re working with these people, you’re like, ‘How did my life get here?’”

The short answer: William & Mary.

Double Vision: Josh Fried ’10 (far left) performed as Zac Efron’s stunt double in the megahit movie “The Greatest Showman,” one of his many high-profile roles. Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Josh Fried '10

A League of their Own

W&M men’s gymnastics boasts a record of athletic and academic excellence that extends back decades. Under legendary head coach Cliff Gauthier HON ’14, who retired in 2017 after 43 years at the helm, Tribe gymnasts racked up 13 USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Team championships and produced 43 National Event champions. They’ve continued their winning ways under current head coach Mike Powell ’04.

These stellar scholar-athletes, armed with W&M degrees, have their pick of job opportunities. So why forgo Silicon Valley for the Vegas Strip?

As Powell explains, gymnasts who want to keep competing and challenging themselves have no equivalent to the NFL or NBA, no major or minor league baseball or soccer. “This is the closest that we have to doing professional gymnastics,” he says.

“I wasn’t ready to give up the competitive nature of acrobatics and gymnastics — daring tricks, pushing your body,” says Ramon Jackson ’08, one of W&M’s two NCAA champions in any sport at the university. Jackson headed straight to work for Disney’s “Festival of the Lion King” after graduation.

“In the past five to 10 years, this industry has grown so that more gymnasts are starting to learn about it,” says Jackson, who now works for the Screen Actors Guild. “Even more opportunities are being created every day, with different types of stunts that productions are willing to venture into and different types of live shows. It’s an exciting time.”

While accustomed to the pressures of performing as a college gymnast, Jackson found the entertainment world entirely different. “I can’t stress enough, it is the absolute opposite end of the spectrum,” he says. “In gymnastics I was inward-facing, it was all about myself and whatever piece of equipment I was on. Here you’re outward-facing, you’re big, you’re bold, you’re playing to the audience.

“And you have to do that outward-facing stuff while maintaining focus, because you are performing moves that could hurt you if you lose focus. It’s doing both at the same time that makes you a great performer.”

A Smashing Success

It’s 4 a.m. and Josh Fried looks like a zombie.

His makeup artist applies some finishing touches, and he’s ready for the day’s filming of “Army of the Dead” — a zombie heist movie directed by Zack Snyder of “Justice League” fame. “It’s sort of like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ meets the ‘Walking Dead,’” Fried says. (Because Atlantic City is standing in for Las Vegas, Ramon Jackson is the SAG rep on the set, giving the two alums a chance to catch up.)

The zombie movie is just the latest in a long list of film and TV credits for Fried: take a glance at his IMDb page and you’ll see such familiar titles as “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “True Detective” and “Captain Marvel.” The list is especially impressive considering how tough the field is to break into — there’s no such thing as an overnight success in the stunt world.

“The number that everyone gives is about three to five years,” Fried says. “It’s a completely network-based industry. If you’re an actor, you have an agent, whereas with stunts it’s somebody you know who calls you because they trust you. So when you’re new, all you’re doing is begging people for an opportunity.”

For Fried, his gymnastics background gave him a leg up. “There’s so much pressure that goes into performing on a movie set. There are a couple of hundred people there, and hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars at stake,” he says. “Going out and performing a floor routine, I remember how difficult that pressure was, with all eyes on you. Learning to control that anxiety was such an advantage for me compared to other performers who’ve never competed.”

Fried also calls on the acting skills he acquired taking theatre classes at William & Mary, and in four years of live performance with Le Rêve in Las Vegas — especially for his work as a stunt double for big-name actors like Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” fame.

“A few years ago, I doubled for Jesse Eisenberg, and Jesse has these little nervous twitches. I realized I had to do a little bit of that, otherwise it’s going to be very obvious that I’m not him. So you pay attention to these details — how they walk, how they hold their arms, and you can go to extremes to really try to match them as best you can.

“The stunt double dynamic is an interesting thing. Sometimes it’s a dream come true and sometimes actors are offended at the idea that they would even need a stunt double,” Fried says. “I got to do some tumbling for Mike Myers last year on a TV show, and every time I would go out, he’d say, ‘Have fun. Thanks for making me look awesome.’ That’s what you hope for.”

Working on “The Greatest Showman” was, of course, a highlight in Fried’s career. He explains that the stunt double very often takes the role of trainer, watching the video monitor during shooting and counseling the actor between takes.

“We were creating and changing the number during rehearsal. Zac got to do things he didn’t think he could do originally,” Fried says. “It’s always a big deal for me getting creatively involved, and not just smashing through windows,” he adds with laugh.

The Show Must Go On

In the darkened 1,600-seat Wynn Hotel theater in Las Vegas, the audience stares in awe as stage lights focus on Neal Courter ’17 and his fellow performers, rising 35 feet from a pool of water grasping slender bars. “You swing back and forth, dismount, do a series of flips and land in the water,” Courter says. “It’s sort of like high bar, but it’s much higher and much more intense.”

Courter, who earned All-American status as a W&M freshman, is currently a cast member in the hugely popular show “Le Rêve,” or “The Dream,” created by longtime Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone. It’s set in a unique aquatic theater-in-the-round stage with a pool holding a million gallons of water.

“What’s interesting about that is we have 14 scuba divers underwater at any given time helping the performers get from place to place and giving them air and moving set pieces and things like that,” Courter says. “So there’s a whole world happening under the water that the audience doesn’t see.”

To get his start in entertainment, Courter tapped into the close-knit community of William & Mary gymnasts, approaching Josh Fried about his experience with Le Rêve. “He was very supportive and he let me know what to expect for the auditions, what to expect once I got in the show, and what to expect in treating my body, since it’s a little bit different than being a collegiate athlete.”

Pat Vaughn M.S. ’11, who competed for W&M gymnastics while earning his master’s in computer science, credits Ramon Jackson for his first job — performing in Disney’s “Festival of the Lion King” as a Tumble Monkey. Jackson served as Vaughn’s stunt captain, a position that involved overseeing the routines as well as the safety of performers, drawing on skills he acquired as a team captain at William & Mary.

Tumble Monkeys perform elaborate stunts on trampoline, rings and high bar, all while wearing a furry striped costume and a large head piece topped with a Mohawk-style hairdo. “Bouncing around on a trampoline and doing double flips with a Mohawk on is certainly different than what we’re used to,” Jackson says.

Vaughn points out another difference from collegiate competition. “We do the show nine, 10 times a day, and it very rarely goes according to plan. If you watch closely, there are times that you see people spin off the trampoline or completely miss catching another person. You have to make it look intentional because the music isn’t going to stop,” he says.

“That was a huge challenge coming from gymnastics, where if, say, you fell off the high bar, you got 60 seconds or whatever you needed to jump back on. In entertainment, you have to just keep going.”

Playing with Fire

Having lived with physical risk most of their lives, W&M gymnasts-turned-performers are eager to push the boundaries even further. Pat Vaughn, for example, was fascinated by a Disney act featuring a group of Samoans spinning fire knives.

“Me being the intelligent person I am said, ‘Yeah, I can definitely do that.’ I was humbled by the fact that is a very difficult skill to acquire.” After enduring a lot of singed fingers, Vaughn achieved enough mastery to enter competitions.

Dave Locke ’08, a national champion on both vault and floor, has been testing the limits since his early days of competition. “I was always putting different stuff together in the gym, like doing mini tramp vault instead of just vault. I was a kinesiology major, and I fell in love with the biomechanical aspect of breaking down skills.”

That ability came in handy when Locke started performing on the acronet — essentially the world’s largest trampoline — in the Cirque du Soleil show “Kurios.” The apparatus is composed of tensioned trapeze netting and set about 9 feet above the stage. “If you jump on it by yourself, nothing happens. You need six people timing themselves to make someone go up in the air,” Locke says.

Acronet performers end up about 40 feet above the stage, twice as a high as a normal trampoline. “If you know where you are in the air, you don’t freak out, no matter how high you go,” he says.

Today, as a Vegas-based performer, conceptor and choreographer, Locke is renowned throughout the acrobatic and circus community for his innovations. “I’m a big fan of doing hybrid disciplines. So I took high bar and trampoline, because those are the two things I love to do, and put them together to make something more dynamic.”

Through his Cirque du Soleil connections, he was able to debut his hybrid act at the production company’s charity show “One Night One Drop.” “The director was a good buddy of mine and he asked me if I had anything up my sleeve. They gave me trampolines and two high bars, surrounded by 70 feet of water, at the O Theater at the Bellagio. I choreographed it, I designed the set, and I coached and performed in it.”

Together with his wife, aerialist Itzel Salvatierra, Locke recently debuted a new circus show during the Halloween season, putting together aerial stunts and a cyr wheel — a metal hoop that the performers fit inside.

“I get a lot of messages from gymnasts commenting about the stuff being really groundbreaking. That’s what I’m doing it for.”

Risky Business

It’s Global Film Festival time at William & Mary, and Jamie Northrup ’04 is in Kaplan Arena instructing students how to get punched in the face.

“I try to teach the most basic thing you can think of in a film, which is somebody getting punched. If you can do it right, it looks totally real and no one gets hurt,” says Northrup, a New York–based stuntman whose credits include “Noah” and “Zoolander 2” and TV series like “The Tick” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Stuntman Jamie Northrup ’04 leaps tall buildings in a single bound;

For the past several years, Northrup has returned to his alma mater to teach at the film festival. As a highly sought-after Steadicam operator as well as stunt performer, Northrup shares his experiences behind and in front of the camera.

Interestingly, Northrup says, his William & Mary classroom experience helped him become a successful stuntman. “It’s a surprisingly easy transition from paying attention in class to paying attention when something dangerous is on the line. There are people who can do the moves, but they won’t listen closely enough to make it safe.”

To help bookers find just the right person for the job, Northrup has started a website called Stunt Listing. “People get hired in stunts the way people got hired in 1920s films — you just show up. This is my way to give back to stunts and make it a safer world.”

Stuntmen like Northrup and Fried get thrown through a lot of windows, but they’re also called on to do stunts that require a special kind of risk-taking. “I’ve done a couple of stunts hanging out of a helicopter about 600 feet in the air. That was pretty wild,” Fried says. Northrup was lit on fire for 25 seconds during a “Saturday Night Live” episode; Fried had to climb a wall completely engulfed in flames for a scene with Kendrick Lamar on the MTV Awards.

“Those are the hardest jobs for me, because your safety is completely in someone else’s hands,” Fried says.

“I worked on a TV show called ‘Search Party’ where I do a complete backflip and land on my stomach after getting hit by a BMW and bouncing off the windshield,” Northrup says. “The cameraman asked me where I was going to land, and I said, ‘I’m not really sure about that one.’ When you’re going to get hit by a car, there’s not a heck of a lot of control involved.”

But Northrup says that the challenges of being a stuntman pale in comparison to another job he held — a three-year stint teaching eighth-grade math in the South Bronx as a New York City teaching fellow. Although he found the job immensely rewarding in many ways, he says, “you basically fail every single day, and you learn how to accept the failures.

“That’s the toughest job I’ve ever done, so I decided I’d rather go back to getting hit by cars and lit on fire for a living.”

Kudos to the Coaches

Every gymnast-turned-performer is aware of the risks involved in their work. “You know full well going in, your body is your paycheck, and there’s a very real possibility that you will get hurt doing what you do for a living,” says Vaughn.

These athletes all credit W&M athletics and their coaches for giving them the skills to succeed. “It’s not just the gymnastics skills, it’s getting ready for work in the real world, whether it’s in performance or the corporate arena,” says Ramon Jackson. “So, kudos to the William & Mary gymnastics program.”