“you’ve got to trust in the planning you’ve done” — damien waltersBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
There was some confusion about where Damien Walters really was on the morning that we called him.
We were told he would be in a time zone four hours ahead of us, in Dubai. This was confirmed by a photo we saw on Damien’s Instagram, in which he was upside down next to the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest structure. In the photo, Damien’s foot was pointed above him; his body was perfectly parallel to the Burj Khalifa, to his right. He was wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘XDubai’ printed across the front.
The photo, with the Burj Khalifa in the background and the XDubai t-shirt, felt like a solid piece of evidence. It was because of the photo, and because we were told that Damien would be four hours away from us in Dubai on the morning we called, that we were surprised when we got through to him to discover he was really in the right now. Sharing our island’s time zone with JME and the Queen.
It was 10am. Damien sounded confused.
So we asked him, “Sorry, what time is it there?”
“It’s 10am,” he replied.
“Oh, we thought you were in Dubai,” we said.
“I just got back from L.A.,” he said.
Los Angeles. Seven whole hours behind! And here we were thinking he was four hours ahead. When really, he was in the right now with us; 10am. Which meant we were four hours early for our phone interview.
“Very sorry, we’ll call back,” we said.
When we called him four hours later (6pm in Dubai; 7am in L.A.), he was driving to the airport to fly to Cape Town, two hours into our future.
“Is this a good time to talk?” we asked, thinking it was a less than ideal time to talk.
“Yes, yes of course.”
The problem with calling Damien Walters, the stuntman and gymnast, is that he has a relationship with space and time that is considered and defiant. So when he’s not flying 30,000 feet in the air in an aeroplane between jobs or conducting interviews from his car, he’s likely to be doing something we might find unreasonable, like somersaulting between buildings, or bungee jumping without a harness, or being set on fire, or jumping over his house, or running a 360 degree loop like a human roller coaster.
And when he’s not doing those things, he’s probably doing some other fantastic things that make answering phone calls complicated; like choreographing a fight scene with Daniel Craig, or teaching Jaden Smith how to do backflips (at the request of the Fresh Prince). And when he’s not doing all that, he’s coaching children in gymnastics at his gym in Derby, that he runs with his dad, Dean, and his sister, Amber. Or he’s training with friends, many of whom are gymnasts, or his fiancé Heidi, who is also a stunt performer.
People talk a lot about the Jaden Smith thing, and the Daniel Craig thing; they talk about the films he’s worked on, like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Skyfall, Kick-Ass and Assassin’s Creed, where he played Michael Fassbender’s stunt double. They talk about his ‘big break’ into Hollywood, when he was asked by Jackie Chan’s stunt agent to be a tumbler in HellBoy II.
Sometimes, they talk about his gymnastics career.
Damien has competed in four Trampoline World Championships; at his second, in 2003, his four-man tumbling team placed first, followed by France, Russia, the USA and China. He began gymnastics when he was seven, and has never stopped. He doesn’t like being called a free runner, although people still do, most of the time.
“What people class as free running is just my gymnastics, outside,” he’ll say.
Damien has a YouTube channel, with videos toppling over a million views. They’re the kind of videos you can watch again and again. The kind that come with warnings: Remember, this is a professional! Under no circumstances should you try this at home!
They’re the kind of videos repurposed by clickbait websites with clickbait headlines like ‘Watch this stuntman backflip over a Formula E car!’ And the clickbait webmaster puts his feet up on his desk (white, IKEA) and cackles (high-pitched, heavy breathing) as the clicks come in. Because who doesn’t want to watch a stuntman backflip over a Formula E car?
Except Damien’s videos aren’t clickbait. They’re real. The kind of real that hangs around the foggy edge of unrealness, curling its toe over the border, testing the cloudy, kaleidoscope-coloured abyss.
Damien has made a career out of disbelief. His stunts are a combination of perfect planning and an obstinate posture against the impossible.
Now, let’s watch this stuntman backflip over a Formula E car!
Come on, this is an extremely fast car; the kind of car that you watch from a fair distance, behind barriers. Or on television, if that’s your thing. These cars have got a lot of horsepower; the average is 250, and they whizz around at 225 kilometres per hour.
Listen to the sound of that engine; look at it go!
It’s screaming. And there’s Damien, standing right in the centre of the track, the place you don’t want to be. Remember, this is a professional! Under no circumstances should you try this at home!
Right now, Damien is in Cape Town, or Malta, or Budapest or Derby, but your heart is beating faster than that Formula E car, going up to 225 kilometres an hour.
Damien! Watch out! It’s behind you! He’s not turning around. One, two, hold your breath and he jumps! You’ve watched this stuntman backflip over a Formula E car and how unreal is that! Time needs to be slowed right down to see it; in slowed down time, the air looks liquid and clear, like water.
“Damien,” we ask. “How on earth do you do it?”
“I’ve done some stunts where I don’t know if I’m ready for it,” he says. “You’ve got to trust in the planning that you’ve done, and hope that everything goes right.”
We wished him good luck on his trip, said our goodbyes, and hung up the phone.
Words by Jennifer Lee O’Brien
Photographs provided by Damien Walters
Originally published in The City Talking: Sport.