Like many other Asian kids, Kage Yami’s parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer. To their chagrin, he’s a stuntman, forging a career by leaping off tall buildings or getting shot in the heat of battle. Despite his Cambodian family’s ambitions, Yami never wanted to do anything else — growing up, he dreamed of being the next Jackie Chan. Like Chan, Yami is a martial artist with an acrobatic fighting style and innovative stunts. He’s still building his stunt resume, with bit parts in “The Amazing Spider-Man” 2 (bus victim), “Ghostbusters” (pedestrian), episodes of the Netflix series “Daredevil (a yakuza member), “Madam Secretary” on CBS (Chinese military soldier) and the TNT series “The Last Ship” (Japanese pirate), among other credits.
“I play the nerds, the triads, the yakuza, the Asian gangsta, etc. It’s Hollywood and though it’s slowly changing and making strides towards true representation of what it’s like to be an individual, I’m still usually the stereotype,” says Yami, 29, who often is on set in Boston but also travels to New York and beyond. Stunt work can be lucrative — Yami says someone can make $30,000 to $800,000 a year (“the more dangerous the stunt, the more money”) – but it’s also risky business. Stunt workers have died during the filming of “Dark Knight,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Deadpool 2.”
Stuntmen like Yami are managed by stunt coordinators, who act as casting directors, choreograph the stunt, and ensure performers’ safety. Still, with a culture of machismo among stuntmen often get banged up or even seriously injured, but never reveal the extent of their injuries. The Globe spoke with Yami about what it takes to be in his line of work.
“My resume kind of says it all. I list my specialized skills: martial arts, acrobatics, falls, fights, snowboarding, sports, firearms, precision driving, archery, flips, high falls, stunt driving, rappelling, experience with Russian Arm and Ultimate Arm (two types of gyro-stabilized camera cranes often used in chase scenes.) The main thing when working on set is asking yourself, ‘How can I make this look dangerous while being as safe and painless as possible?’ So many film, stage, and TV productions wouldn’t have the ‘wow factor’ without stuntmen. Maybe it’s a car crash, fight scene, motorcycle pursuit, fire explosion – many of these entertaining filmmaking feats are possible due to the skills of professional stunt performers.
“While stunt work is inherently dangerous, specialized equipment such as safety cables, harnesses, and wires mitigate the risk, as well as the use of body pads, crash mats, flying rigs, wrist loops, ankle straps, and more.
“Most stunt men like myself go to stunt school, where we learn tricks of the trade, such as how to fly through the air when launched by an air ram or air ratchet. Of course, you don’t see these pneumatic and bungee rope systems, as they are always behind the scenes or edited out. For the scene in “Amazing Spiderman 2,” we had wire inside our clothes to make us look like we’re frozen in position while the bus collides with another vehicle. It took over five days of shooting for a 10-second clip.
“There’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ while on set. I also get hired a lot for simply falling over and dying. The secret to falling without getting hurt is landing on your upper back and tucking your chin to protect your head. If possible, I’ll use my hands to buffer the impact and take the shock waves. After doing any type of stunt, I’m usually very sore, which means I did a good job. I’d be lying, though, if I said I don’t feel the wear and tear that five years of stunt work have had on my body. I have cuts and bruises and a permanent bump on my back but they all make for a good story. And it makes it all worthwhile when I see myself on the big screen. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, there I am.’
“My parents, of course, give me mixed feedback. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, my son’s an actor.’ They ask me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I’m still a rookie, trying to make my way. But my mother and father were very pleased when I bought them a washer and dryer with my stunt earnings. Some day I think they’ll understand my career choice.”