You see stunt performers everywhere – falling off buildings, trampled by bulls, ducking from machetes; and their execution is mesmerizing, gravity-defying and awe-inspiring to say the least. They are what make an action movie … an action movie.
One of the most talented and highly sought after in the business is 33-year-old, LA born (Cedars Sinai), Iranian American, Shahaub Roudbari, whose film and television credits include Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Aquaman (2019), Captain Marvel, Logan and Deadpool 2, to name a tiny few. He humbly carries with him a Screen Actors Guild nomination for acting — and was also captured as a superpower to watch in People Are Awesome’s (which has 22 million followers) dedication to him. I’ve known Shahaub for about 32+ of his 33 years — so lucky me was gifted with the opportunity to interview him and gather insight on how (and why) he got to where he is today. He will show us what the art means to him (and for our political climate), and what he suggests for you if you want to follow his path.
Shahaub’s career requires martial arts know-how, top-notch athleticism and impeccable timing, for sure. But more important than that is the prerequisite of carrying a deeply embedded respect and intellect for the craft, understanding the art of storytelling and communication – and never relinquishing a hope to better our world.
Shahaub Roudbari on Stunt Performers and the Intellect Behind It
Shahaub hails from Los Angeles and moved to Iran when he was 7 years old. He comes from a line of richly educated professionals with MDs, PhDs — and tenures (and black belts) in their back pockets. He himself received his BA from UC Berkeley and his MA from The Academy of Art University (which boasts notable Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning alums) – and then later became a world champion in the Chinese martial arts of Wushu. Shahaub competed on the US and Iranian National teams to become an international Gold medalist.
So my question is: how did this man’s educational upbringing, his martial arts medals and accolades and his Iranian and American heritage transport him to becoming one of the most sought-after stunt performers in his business?
Let’s see the power behind this Stunt Performer and ask him.
What emotional release do you get from Wushu and stunting — how do they vary?
When performing/competing in Wushu, there is an almost serene state of hyperfocus we enter into. The world melts away, the crowd’s cheers become a backdrop of almost subconscious strength, the judges and surroundings disappear and it just becomes about you, your performance, and physical movement. Being a ‘Martial’ art form, there is a primal, controlled yet explosive, violence and aggression to the performance, which is demanding and incredibly satisfying. For those few minutes, you get to be the hero in your own world, battling with poise and your entire heart.
In stunt performance, there is a similarity in that you get to suspend reality, and indulge in that magical sense of performance; embracing character and story elements, usually action driven, that are truly transcendent and simply put, fun as hell.
A major difference between the two, is in the individuality of Wushu, whereas in stunt performance, you are just one part of a complex and ever-evolving collaborative environment. So many departments, creative and functional minds, and a multitude of technical factors play into the moment of performance — the camera position, hitting your mark, lighting, set design, keeping the actors and your fellow stunt performers safe, special effects fire/gunshots/mortars, etc. As a stunt performer, you have to be cognizant and adaptable to all these factors, and still perform and embrace the moment as if none of it exists, for the ultimate goal of telling a good story for the audience.
When did you start training…and in which martial art? In Wushu? Only in Wushu? What awards and accolades have you achieved.
I grew up playing a lot of different sports and always having a love for martial arts and performance. But I didn’t start Wushu till a later age, however. I started at 19, at UC Berkeley, but from the moment I started, I obsessively gave it my all. I was in love with my community of friends and fellow athletes and would spend my summers in China training alongside the best Wushu competitors in the world. In fact, I competed at multiple national competitions, winning many gold and silver medals. Eventually, I had the fortune of joining the Iranian then subsequently US national teams, to compete and win Gold at the world traditional championships in China. My last Hurrah before starting Grad School!
A massive reason I got into the entertainment field, aside from loving it and feeling like I was engineered for it was that I wanted to influence the greatest level of constructive and positive change in the world that I could. That is why I originally chose to major in Economics, but later on, it became clear to me that through storytelling, media, film and television, so much can be achieved. I very much aspire to have a strong and positive role in socio-political changes through my career. That part of the family gene resonates strong with me as well.
What cultural and personal significance does this have for you – being an Iranian American, raised in Tehran and Los Angeles, being Muslim, etc.?
I have always dreamt about and love the concept of ancient heroes, Pahlevans, in Persian history/mythology/literature. I very much aspire to portray those positive qualities of honor, empathy, care, strength, etc.
Especially being of both worlds, I care very much to not only rekindle and inspire those in the middle east to embrace those beautiful humanitarian qualities — but to also bring them to the forefront in western society. As a positive example, to shed light and knowledge where there is misunderstanding, so to speak.
Your family members are all immensely formally educated and have followed the path of MDs and PhDs. Did you receive any pushback from family members or did your birth order play into being encouraged to live out and pursue your dream?
I was extremely fortunate in that regard. The moment I made the choice to pursue film and shared it with my family, they were incredibly supportive, and if anything, they were scolding themselves for not having realized that was my calling all along, and how wonderfully it all made sense. I believe it to be a mixture of factors, definitely being the third child, but mostly I would say, having such a liberal-minded, and forward-thinking family. That, coupled with their trust and confidence, that my choices were always made with open and educated eyes, and unwavering hard work. Also, I have the suspicion they all love to vicariously live out their fantasies through my unorthodox exploits.
Your family is a loving and politically progressive bunch — and extremely proactive in the attainment of peace. Does your art play into that? Does what you do serve as a universal language that can help better our world?
Absolutely! I love and strive for that very much. A massive reason I got into the entertainment field, aside from loving it and feeling like I was engineered for it was that I wanted to influence the greatest level of constructive and positive change in the world that I could. That is why I originally chose to major in Economics, but later on, it became clear to me that through storytelling, media, film and television, so much can be achieved. I very much aspire to have a strong and positive role in socio-political changes through my career. That part of the family gene resonates strongly with me as well.
So you majored in Economics. Why?
In my academic pursuits, I was a big fan of the balance of the scientific and mathematic foundation of Economics. Side by side the social science elements of psychology, sociology, and human behavior. As touched upon earlier, I wanted to pursue a field wherein I could influence the most global change. And I thought what better and more decisive method, than through Economics, the lifeblood of civilization.
During my research into PhD programs and graduate school for Economics, however, I came to see that my true passions. And what I discovered to be a much more effective avenue for me, would be in the entertainment industry.
You’re an in-demand stunt person. Where do you want to go from here? Acting? Choreography?
I absolutely love stunts and choreography. And I have been extremely fortunate to be associated and sought after by the very top in the business. That being said, stunts are a means to an end for me. The beauty of stunts is the level of overlap it has with Acting and Directing. And even more special is the uniquely strong position it has to learn. Working with the stunt department, you communicate and collaborate across every department on set, and you are directly involved with above and below the line of production. You are a fundamental factor in the creative design of the project, and work hand in hand with the Director and performers. I plan to continue to learn and take everything I can towards my pursuits as a Director and Actor.
I will want to do it for as long as I am capable. Having found this path and dedicating myself to it I feel is a success in its own. But to feel content or complacent is contradictory to the ambitions I have chosen.
Who are your favorite stunt choreographers?
By some glorious twist of fate, I got to fall in directly with my heroes in the film industry, 87Eleven Action Design. The members of the team have been responsible for so many of my favorite action films, and they have undeniably evolved action as a whole in the film industry. I was brought into 87 by one of my close friends and mentors, Sun ‘Sunny’ Nuo, whom I knew and trained with back in China during my competitive Wushu days. He is one of the most extraordinary choreographers I have ever known. Responsible for the choreography of films like Deadpool 2, Avengers. And currently the live-action Mulan film. I have many other mentors and people I look up to at 87Eleven, like the incredible Jon Valera. And of course the legendary Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (Both A-list Directors now).
Then, of course, I will always have a soft spot for Jackie Chan and all the magic he and his team have created.
What makes great choregraphy? Creativity? Realism?
Choreography is storytelling, and there are so many facets that go into great storytelling. But one element in particular that I strive for and am learning from these men and women, is not isolating action and choreography for its own sake and throwing in cool movements for no other purpose than being cool. But rather, truly working to serve the story and characters as a whole. This synergy of character and action is what leads to the most memorable sequences and films. As I’ve been taught and experienced, 20 minutes of intricate, technical choreography can be easily forgotten. But a singular character-driven moment of action choreography can be iconic.
When will you know you have achieved success…as a person and as a stunt person?
Always and never! I don’t believe in a definitive end goal for my career. Striving to continually learn, improve, tell stories, and affect audiences is my passion and calling. And I will want to do it for as long as I am capable. Having found this path and dedicating myself to it I feel is a success in its own. But to feel content or complacent is contradictory to the ambitions I have chosen.
What is your diet? What is your exercise regimen?
I have never been one to carefully guide and regiment my diet. I’ve always had a healthy appetite. And am a believer in a well-balanced diet, hitting every food group in positive moderation. Counting Calories, knowing my protein intake, etc. is something I’m relatively ignorant about. On the flip side, I exercise very often. And aside from improving my physical abilities, I secretly train the way I do to support my ice cream addiction.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do? What was the first thing you did to get started?
Ah, the infamous advice for the young grasshoppers’ question!
So much to be said, but I’ll keep it to two fun points I come across often. One, is to not only train/work hard, but to train smart! We’re not in the business of growing big muscles and being able to jump high (though even that requires smart work), but we are dancers, fighters, choreographers, actors, storytellers. So focus and engage your mind. Be attentive and constructively self-correcting. That way you can improve faster than 90% of the people out there.
Second, is to believe in what you are doing. In the arts, many people struggle with support and acceptance from their family and communities. Especially from first or second-generation immigrants. In a majority of cases, it comes from a place of love. And they just may not see the viability or safety in our profession. But trust me in that with time, if you work hard (and smart!), and begin to achieve success and sustainability, they will very quickly come to love, accept, and even celebrate what you do.
My mother, Sayeh Dashti. Barack Obama. Steven Spielberg.
Thank you, Shahaub. You are an inspiration to us all. Just like your entire family and your badass Ted Talkin’ sister.
FEATURED PHOTO COURTESY OF MAC PRODUCTIONS