Urban Explorer

Hollywood stuntman Paul Darnell made it to the big screen by perfecting the art of freerunning—which means employing a combination of athleticism, technique and intelligence to overcome anything that stands in his way.

Darnell side-flipping down a set of stairs. The surreal effect is achieved in post-production.

Photography by Chad Bonanno

When Gloucester native Paul Darnell was a high school sophomore, he climbed out of his bedroom window and onto the roof of his family’s two-story home and challenged himself to leap. “I bet I can jump off here without breaking anything,” he thought, heart pounding. A minute later he was in the grassy yard below, all bones intact, high-fiving his friend and planning to do it again.  That wasn’t the first time Darnell pushed himself physically, and it was far from the last.

Darnell, 29, is now a successful Hollywood stuntman, his resume growing longer and more impressive each year. He doubled Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and Robert Pattinson in both “Twilight” and “Water for Elephants.” And next summer, according to IMDB.com, Darnell will be seen flying through the air as Henry Cavill’s double in “Man of Steel.”

But the 6-foot 1-inch Darnell—dark-haired and lean—may be best known as a leader in the urban sport of freerunning, which is a way of moving acrobatically through one’s environment by rolling, vaulting or flipping to navigate obstacles. Freerunning and its precursor, parkour, are more recognizable than ever, thanks to their growing use in feature film chase scenes. (Think of Matt Damon sailing over Paris rooftops in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or Jake Gyllenhaal running up walls and scrambling over buildings in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”) Darnell is a co-founder of one of the few professional teams of freerunners in the world, Tempest Freerunning, which he helped start in 2006 after graduating from Virginia Tech.

Team Tempest competes in the growing number of freerunning competitions around the world and is in high demand for stunt work in television and film. Their client list includes such iconic brands as Ford, McDonald’s, BMW, Samsung and K-Swiss. Last year, Darnell and two other members of the 10-person team opened the Tempest Freerunning Academy in Los Angeles, a 7,000-square foot facility designed by X Games ramp builder Nate Wessel, where coaches will train anyone old enough to turn a somersault in freerunning and parkour.

But Darnell’s journey began right here in Virginia. Growing up in Gloucester, Darnell played baseball and basketball through middle school, adding track and tennis in high school. His interests expanded to include BMX bicycling, break dancing and extreme sports, and he says he never missed the annual X Games on ESPN. Later, in high school, Darnell became interested in gymnastics, mainly because he wanted to learn how to flip. “Flipping and breakdancing had far less rules than baseball and basketball,” he says. “I started to gravitate toward less structure and more fun. … I also wanted to discover what I could do with my body.” Jumping off the roof successfully prompted Darnell to form a group with some like-minded friends. The group was called XJ, for “Extreme Jumping,” and each new member who joined (there were ultimately four) had to go through an initiation jump off the Darnell family’s roof.

Of XJ, Darnell recalls, “We would meet at my house and wait until it got dark and walk down Indian Road to Ware Academy. We jumped off every balcony and roof at the academy that we could get on,” adding, “No one ever got hurt. It was a rush of being all alone at the school, climbing onto rooftops and flying through the air. We had so much fun!” Though he was never actually injured from a jump, Darnell says he didn’t know how to properly absorb the impact of landing, so his knees took a lot of it, and that was painful.

Right around that time, Darnell caught something on TV that would save his knees and change his life: an episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” that featured a group called Yamakasi. They were nine young men living just outside of Paris in the 1980s who had conditioned themselves to sprint through the urban settings around them, leaping over, rolling under or diving through obstacles in their way—techniques that would eventually become known as parkour.

When he saw Yamakasi, Darnell was riveted. “It was a perfect mesh with what I was already doing,” he explains. He also learned that his passion for jumping didn’t have to mean the end of his knees. “They had style and technique,” he explains, and were able to absorb the impact of their jumps. Darnell studied the types of moves Yamakasi practiced, joined Internet message boards and meet-up groups, and soon became a devotee of freerunning, which has been described as a more stylized way of doing parkour.

Freerunning supported a long-term goal of Darnell’s: to become a movie stuntman. Though he considered stunt training after high school, he wanted a back-up plan and so opted for college. “I started as a computer geek,” he says, but realizing it wasn’t a good fit, changed his major to human nutrition, food and exercise. He also joined the gymnastics club, which he would go on to captain.

In spring of 2005, toward the end of his senior year at Tech, Darnell and fellow gymnast Andy Causley started planning Tempest Freerunning. “We were both graduating and figuring out our next steps in life,” says Darnell. “We saw the potential for the world of freerunning to become like that of skateboarding, with clothing, DVDs, magazines and gyms. We wanted to be innovators in the sport.” Under the Tempest name, the two trekked from Blacksburg to Los Angeles—where skateboarding began—participating in local freerunning “jams” along the way. “We made a plan to move to LA,” explains Darnell. “Since we were basing our model of freerunning on skateboarding, then why not start in the same place?”

Darnell’s first freerunning job was in a music video—he climbed ladders and jumped on roofs to get into a nightclub. “I was getting paid to jump off stuff! It was amazing,” he says. His major break in stunt work came when he met Scott Rogers, an award-winning stuntman, stunt coordinator and second-unit director for numerous films, who hired Darnell to double Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”

Rogers hired Darnell for his next project as well, “Race to Witch Mountain.” Darnell credits Rogers with showing him the ropes of the stunt business. “I was lucky to find such a big name stunt coordinator who was willing to take me under his wing,” he says.

Darnell, whose college graduation gift from his parents was three weeks of training at a stunt school in Seattle, says he learned a lot about stunts on the job. “You only have a certain amount of time to make it work. It’s always a little rushed,” he says, crediting his freerunning experience with giving him the necessary strength and agility to overcome any obstacle.

At first blush, this all sounds like thrill-seeker’s work, perfectly aimed at those who live for the adrenaline rush of a challenge. In fact, Darnell says, the opposite is true. “I don’t seek the stuff that makes me feel pumped up,” he insists. More than anything, his work is about problem solving. As with freerunning, he says, “You adapt yourself to the environment. Whatever’s been built out there, you find a way to run through it, get over it, climb it.” When it comes to filming stunts, he says, “You want to be prepared and calculated. You don’t want crazy types doing this work.”

That’s because it’s dangerous, right? “You do hear about bad outcomes,” Darnell concedes. “It is a dangerous job. … But sometimes I forget that, because I’ve always worked with professionals and been pretty safe.”

“Pretty safe” doesn’t mean injury-free, however. In a climactic fight scene in the first “Twilight” movie, Robert Pattinson’s character is hurled from the floor into a (breakaway) window high above. Darnell recalls the scene: “Three, two, one, GO! The wires are supposed to pick me up and toss me through the window, but they didn’t pull me up as far as I needed to go, so I hit a solid wall below the window instead.”

Though he separated his shoulder, the filmmakers still needed the shot, so a re-take was necessary. “I felt like I could do it as long as I didn’t hit the wall again,” Darnell says. They recalculated, and Darnell did it again. “I trusted them, and it was fine.” As far as Darnell is concerned, it’s all in the line of duty. “You’re there to get the job done,” he says, matter-of-factly. TempestFreerunning.com 

This article originally appeared in our April 2012 issue.

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