Twenty-five years into his screen career, Daniel Bernhardt is having a bit of a breakout. The actor and stuntman played the henchman Kirill in the first John Wick movie, appeared in the Emmy-nominated Barry season 2 episode “ronny/lily,” and can currently be seen in battling Jason Statham in Hobbs and Shaw.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re having quite the year. After your Barry episode, it feels like many people are excited to spot you in your past work, especially John Wick, so it was fun to see you in Hobbs and Shaw. Does it feel like you’re being recognized more?
DANIEL BERNHARDT: I feel very blessed. I’m very, very lucky. You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, for 25 years, and the funny thing is I’ve been doing this for 25 years with my buddies. David Leitch, Chad Stahelski, we’ve worked together for all these years. Isn’t that amazing? And still today we work together. You know, there was a time when I would hire them; now it’s the time they hire me.
Did you start as an actor or a stuntman? And is that how you met Chad and David?
It was kind of funny, I was in the fashion business before. I was a model living in Paris, between Paris and New York. That was like mid-’80s to early ’90s, it was an amazing time. It was the heyday of male modeling. I was traveling the world, got the opportunity to do a commercial for Gianni Versace with Jean Claude Van Damme, got the opportunity to get a taste of the movie business. A few years later, I got asked to replace Jean Claude Van Damme in a movie called Bloodsport 2, and that was my first experience in film, but I wasn’t really an actor. I was an athlete, a martial artist who got a chance to do his first film, but I did all my own stunts. I did all my own fights, and actually, as a matter of fact, I already worked together with Chad Stahelski on my first movie. Two movies later I was introduced to David Leitch, I did a movie called Perfect Target where David Leitch came on board because Chad brought him in, and since then we’ve all worked together.
Between you, David, and Chad’s work, as well as with some other movies, do you feel like right now stunt performers are getting more of their due?
It’s funny you’re saying this, when I started out I was more like a martial arts actor. I wasn’t really an actor’s actor. I mean, I went to acting class, I studied, I put in my time, paid my dues, but to me, I was always a very physical actor. And Chad and Dave always said, “You’re an action actor.” Nobody back then said that. They were like, “You’re an action actor, you do action movies, you’re an action actor,” and it became very, very popular, I would say, especially with John Wick, where David Leitch and Chad called me and they said, “Hey, Daniel, we’ve got this great part for you, but of course you do all your own fights and your own stunts.” And I think it saves production money because they don’t have to hire an actor and a stuntman. It’s kind of like two-in-one, but then also it is very good for the director because now they can shoot you from the front. When you have a stunt double you always have to go to the back, you have to shoot from the back. An action actor does his own fights, and they can actually shoot me from the front and from the back. So that’s very good for directors, and you’re faster, you can shoot more, and then I kind of got put into this world.
I really give all credit to David Leitch and Chad Stahelski because without them I don’t know where I would be, but they’ve given me these opportunities, and David Leitch brought me in on a movie called Parker back in the day, maybe seven years ago. It was directed by Taylor Hackford, starring Jason Statham, and even back then they said, “It’s you, you’re doing your own fights, you’re doing your own stunts,” and I have to do a 300-foot drop from a building on a wire. I did it all.
Action actor is a great description. With John Wick Chapter 3, there was a lot of talk around Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry coming in months early to train because these stunts are elevated in a way that’s so specialized.
Yes, and we did the same for John Wick, John Wick 2, John Wick 3, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2. All the movies the boys do, it’s always the actors train for three months, they bring in stunt actors, action actors to fight with them, like I did with Keanu Reeves in the first John Wick. We trained for months together, months and months and months, and that’s why we could do fight scenes like this. By the way, Keanu does 99 percent of his own stunts. Halle Berry did almost 99 percent of her own stunts. The good thing is that it’s great to have guys like me, action actors, but now the actors actually have to do their own stunts as well as much as possible — especially with Chad and Dave.
You mentioned that you worked with Jason Statham before. Has he changed at all from when you fought him in Parker to now fighting him in Hobbs and Shaw?
I was really excited to do Parker with Jason Statham. I was always a very big fan of his work. He’s an amazing actor. I’m a very big fan of Lock, Stock [and Two Smoking Barrels] and Snatch. Those were my favorite Jason Statham movies. I’m always super-respectful, I don’t bother the actor. But he was super-nice to me. We practiced for a long time to do that fight scene. I thought Jason was fantastic. I played a hitman, and I was going after Jason’s girlfriend and him, and I had this fight scene in an apartment and it was such a vicious and strong fight scene. The fight was actually nominated for a Taurus award — which is kind of our Oscars — and we didn’t win, but we were nominated. It’s still today one of my favorite fights.
So having said that, over the years I kept seeing Jason. Jason is very dedicated to his martial arts, to his training. He would always come to 87eleven, he would hang out, he would train, and he was always super-nice to me. But then when I saw him in London [filming Hobbs and Shaw], he didn’t know that I’m actually in the fight scene. They didn’t tell him. And when I showed up he was so excited. He goes, “Oh my God, Daniel, you’re going to fight me again!” He was so excited, and we probably spoke for about 45 minutes, just talking about the past and having a good time. I think he’s a super-nice guy, ultra-talented, and I was very, very lucky to do another movie with him.
There’s been talk of male stars being very particular about how they come off performing a fight scene. Is that accurate? Do you feel like that is unique to male stars?
I’ve had the pleasure to work with Keanu, Jason Statham, Charlize [Theron], and I have to say everybody’s very similar. Everybody is an extraordinary pro, everybody knows exactly what they’re doing. Everybody worked extremely hard, rehearsed for months and months, so I see the same pattern, absolute pros, the actors. Same for women and men, and when I did the film Atomic Blonde with Charlize, same with her. What a pro! She trained for three months, and then when we did the fights scenes, nobody complained, everybody works hard — sweat, blood, [and] tears. It’s just… everybody loves it, and the funny thing about fight scenes is, you know dialogue scenes and all that stuff is great, but when you do fight scenes everybody gets so into it. The makeup people start videotaping, and they come in and they go, “Oh, how exciting. That was so fun.” People really love when you do fight scenes.
Hobbs and Shaw features some of the biggest stunts we’ve ever seen. Does it feel a little more dangerous now that these scenes are escalating?
The number-one thing in our business is safety. It’s the most important thing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a little fight scene where you throw one punch or if it’s a massive car stunt, it’s all about safety. You hire the best people in the business, and everybody does the best to be absolutely safe. That’s number one for us. And it doesn’t matter who it is, safety is number one.
You wrote and directed a short with Chad and Dave called Fetch. Is directing something you’re interested in, and what would you say makes stunt performers great directors?
About 12 years ago I was injured and I couldn’t work for like half a year. So I sat down with Chad and Dave and we were talking about “Hey, you know what, I actually want to direct something,” so we came up with the idea of me directing this little short. I was the writer-director-producer, David Leitch was the star and the producer, Chad was the second unit director and the producer, and we did the short together. It was actually the first project 87eleven did, and it was actually 12 years ago when we did it. It was so funny — Dave, by the way, is a very good actor. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. Dave is so good in it. And the irony is, back then I kind of thought about directing, and then it all flipped around. I went back to acting, did better than I ever did. David became like the superstar director who [before had] thought about becoming an actor. So it’s really funny how life works out.
And to answer your other question about why they’re bringing in all these action guys, the stunt guys to direct, Chad and Dave were both stuntmen, they became both the best stunt guys in the business. David Leitch doubled Brad Pitt, then he became one of the top stunt coordinators, then he became one of the top second unit directors. So then David was fixing a lot of other movies, he was getting hired to come in and fix the movie somebody did. He came in and reshot the action, and I worked with him on many films like that. Nobody has more experience with how it actually works in the action than the second unit directors. So everybody in the business now is looking who is the next guy. I actually said 10 years ago I always wanted Chad and Dave to direct and these guys are just rock stars, and they’re owning the business now. I mean like left to right, everybody is saying that they’re top directors in the business.
Chad and David movies have been some of the most successful summer movies outside of what Disney has released, so their brand of action does seem to be paying off, and bringing people to theaters in a time where there’s worry about the future of people going to the movies.
I think that the strength about David is not just that he is an amazing action director, but because David in the past wanted to also dabble a little bit in acting, acting is very important for him in a movie, and story is very important to him in a movie. If you watch Atomic Blonde, the plot twist, how the actors are. He’s a very good action director, but he’s also an actor’s director, I feel.
Before Chad and David, who would you say was the gold standard for directing action?
I’m a huge fan of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, [Steven] Spielberg. Those were the guys, and a lot of the Hong Kong directors like [Yuen] Woo-Ping, John Woo. I always loved those kind of directors. And you know, we grew up watching the Hong Kong cinema. Those were my favorite movies. But even directors like Tony Scott, those were my favorite directors. Peter Berg is another example.
I always said if I would pick a director, I would say David is like Ridley Scott and Chad is more like James Cameron, how they see things and how they shoot. To David, great stories are important, great acting is important. It’s not just about the action, the action just comes naturally because they do big action, but to him it’s always about story.
And I’m sure people are excited to see you in even more of his projects.
He has no choice. Any time he’s doing a movie, I call him: “Hey what about me?” And I tell him about the past. “Remember when I hired you…”
This interview has been edited and condensed.