Chris Denison: Magazine Editor Turned Hollywood Stuntman

FMX pioneer Kenny Bartram (left) and Chris Denison on the set of Logan. Guess which beard is fake?

FMX pioneer Kenny Bartram (left) and Chris Denison on the set of Logan. Guess which beard is fake?

By Jerry Bernardo

By Jerry Bernardo

JB: Your Mom and Dad hugged in the dark and you fell out and landed on a dirt bike. Did you drive that same bike to Hollywood in order to land the gig as the editor of the famed Dirt Rider magazine?

CD: More or less, that’s about how it went! Coming from a two-wheeled family, it was probably inevitable that I would end up working in the industry somehow. My early aspirations to be a national enduro champion were sidelined by a fun-filled yet unremarkable career as a professional privateer freestyle motocrosser, and college seemed like a good next step when everybody started back flipping. From there, I enjoyed a brief stint at Transworld Motocross before landing a gig at Dirt Rider. Altogether, I was at DR for 11 years, serving as the Editor-In-Chief for my last five.

JB: You recently changed up professions and now find yourself as a working stunt man in California. Is this just a plot to make all your buddies jealous because you get all the ‘coolest jobs’?

CD: I’ll tell you what, I love manual labor and would have no problem digging ditches or cutting firewood for a living, so at this point I am beyond grateful to be able to pay the bills in this manner. But yes, it’s a pretty cool gig. As odd as the career arch from ramp rat to journalist was for me, going from a full-time magazine editor to a full-time stunt guy is probably even more unlikely. A good way to describe it is that if freestyle is a job where I used my body to make a living and Dirt Rider is a job where I used my brain, being a stuntman is an even split of both—it requires a high level of athleticism combined with insane amounts of problem solving, calculation, and risk management. I absolutely love the challenge of it, as well as the variety that it provides. That said, there are definitely some moments that test you down to your very core—I’m fond of saying that everyone wants to be a stuntman until it’s time to do stuntman stuff!

For the movie War Dogs, Denison spent a week doing flybys over his buddies in the California desert from the gunner’s seat in a modified Huey helicopter.

For the movie War Dogs, Denison spent a week doing flybys over his buddies in the California desert from the gunner’s seat in a modified Huey helicopter.

JB: The movie business is notoriously difficult to break into if you don’t already have family in it. Who did you sleep with to get the stunt gig?

CD: I pretty much just fell into the stunt world—no pun intended! About 10 years ago, my good buddy Tod Sciacqua, [a multi-time EnduroCross Vet class champion] was doing some sign work on a TV show and invited me down to set with him. I ended up making fast friends with the stunt coordinator, who is still one of the baddest motorcycle guys in the history of the business. We started trail riding together, and one day he mentioned that he wanted to pull me in for a big car chase scene he was directing on a fairly huge movie. What started out as “hey, do you want to do some driving?” turned into “any interest in getting lit on fire and ratcheted 60’ through the air onto a police car?” Early on, I was presented with some incredible opportunities, and I pretty much never said no to anything, which allowed me to rack up some solid experience in a relatively short amount of time. I’ve branched out a bit since then, but said stunt coordinator is still a close friend and my mentor to this day.

In addition to being in the right place at the right time, the freestyle background helped tremendously. The stunt community is understandably tight, and there were times as a new guy when I’d show up and get a, “Who the hell is this kid?” vibe from the OGs. But then they’d see me do a switchblade can-can over a fence or something, and be like, “What’s up man? That was rad!” Having an uncommon skillset helped me to be more easily accepted early on. Even now, there are probably less than half a dozen FMX guys who are really chasing the stunt dream.

A true team effort, Chris and his wife Heather are equally supportive of each other's careers.

A true team effort, Chris and his wife Heather are equally supportive of each other's careers.

JB: To add insult to injury, is this where we add the part about you being married to the reigning Mrs. California?

CD: First off, it should be mentioned that I don’t think there’s any bigger fan of Ma Bernardo’s famous spaghetti sauce than my better half! And yes, my wife is a lifelong pageant girl who currently holds the Mrs. California title; she’ll be competing for Mrs. United States in July. Heather is unbelievably supportive of all the things that I do; there are a lot of stunt guys who don’t fully reveal to their wives what we are sometimes doing for fear of over-worrying them, yet I’m thankful to have a gal who has my back no matter how crazy things at work are getting. And with her doing pageants, I am grateful that she has something that she is equally as invested in that I can support her through in return. I suppose the only downside is that our combined schedules are insane! Adding a little man cub to the mix has upped the household RPM quite a bit, but we love it.

JB: What is the biggest misconception about stunt work?

CD: People think that being a stuntman is all about expensive sunglasses and driving fancy cars. It’s more like plenty of Motrin and really, really long days on your feet! There’s no mystery to it; being a stuntman is work, plain and simple. Much like how people see Eli Tomac win a race and think that’s all he does, there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes. I’d say that beyond that, another misconception is that stunt guys are huckers; it’s a lot more calculated than you think. Sure, there are dudes who will launch themselves into and off of things without a care, but they seem to come and go pretty quickly. It’s like that saying, “there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” The majority of stunt guys out there approach the job with a very safety-oriented mindset.

Chris (left) doubled Zac Efron (right) on the recently released comedy Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates. Notice Mrs. California in the back with the epic photo-bomb.

Chris (left) doubled Zac Efron (right) on the recently released comedy Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates. Notice Mrs. California in the back with the epic photo-bomb.

JB: We have heard rumors of you and a ‘monkey’ launching a sidecar off of a freestyle ramp. Could you confirm and elaborate on this please? [The term monkey refers to the rider in the sidecar swinging from front to back to help the pilot steer.]

CD: Certainly. The movie isn’t out yet, so I have to be careful about the details, but the short version is that I was chosen to guinea-pig a scene for an upcoming feature film that at one point had me hitting a makeshift FMX ramp on a Suzuki DR650 with a homemade sidehack welded to the right side. The second unit director asked me to do a test jump without a monkey in the sidecar, just to see how it would work; I ended up throwing it away immediately upon landing, as you really need 150-pounds of ballast on the hack in order to make it handle properly. So we take another stunt man—not a bike dude, but definitely one of the more talented guys that I know—and throw him in the hack. This poor dude was SO nervous! On our first test jump, we learned that as the front wheel of the bike leaves the ramp, the entire bike rotates around the hack wheel (which is still on the ramp face). This causes the entire machine to rotate ever-so-slowly through the air. To counter this, we simply pointed the ramp off to the far left, and then essentially “hipped” our way to the landing. It was super sketchy—especially when they added 45-pounds of props to the hack—but we made it work!

JB: Is all of your stunt work moto related?

CD: The majority of stunt jobs that I land aren’t specific to freestyle, or even motorcycles in general. A lot of the work that I do is in driving – both on and off-road—which is a natural transition because so many motorcycle skills (situational awareness, judging distance and speed, and hitting marks) transfer over. It seems like I’ve been getting called a lot for fight scenes lately—which is cool because I can use the experience—and just last week I did a full burn, where I was completely lit on fire for about 15 seconds. I was also fortunate enough to get some pro-level SCUBA certifications when I was racking up gym credits back in college, so I also do a fair amount of water jobs. Every day is different, really, which I think is part of the fun.

JB: Fellow freestyler Kenny Bartram got the shitty end of the stick during a stunt you performed in the new Wolverine franchise film Logan. What did they have you do?

CD: Working with Kenny on Logan was a blast, because he and I have been riding together for almost 20 years. We did a bunch of lead-up riding for the movie, but there’s one point where we’re chasing Logan’s limo, and I do a transfer from the bike onto the trunk of the car. From there, the limo’s action was to take a sharp right and basically just plow into Bartram, knocking him to the ground (forgive me if I mess the details up, because I haven’t seen the movie yet!). Anyhow, when we actually did the scene, Kenny and I took off and I jumped onto the trunk with no issues. From there, I basically had front-row seats for his crash; as the limo swerved, I was just looking over the edge of the car, watching ole’ Cowboy Kenny slam into the edge and bite the dust. Thank goodness the camera was behind me at that point because I’m certain I was laughing my ass off and heckling him the entire time!

JB: We all know that there are countless award shows for actors in Hollywood. Are there any stunt industry awards where you and your peers get recognized for all the dangerous things you do at work?

CD: Yeah, there’s the Taurus World Stunt Awards that gives the nod to various achievements within the stunt business, but that’s overshadowed by the massive snub of “Outstanding Stunt Coordinator” not being included in the Oscars. There’s been a movement for a few decades to try to get a category for stunts, but the academy claims that it’s not legit because they feel that stunt coordinators don’t have any creative input or some crap like that. We’re basically the only line of work in the movie business where guys and girls are literally putting their lives on the line to do the job, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Personally, I don’t think any of us do this job for the recognition, but still, it’d be nice to see the top players in our industry getting the respect they deserve.

Freestyle is in Denison’s blood, and he still rides a few shows a year to help him stay sharp.

Freestyle is in Denison’s blood, and he still rides a few shows a year to help him stay sharp.

JB: Is there anything you miss about the motorcycle industry?

CD: Yeah, I miss racing. When I was at DR, I was able to get out and compete in a number of ultra-fun off-road events throughout the year, from GNCCs and National Enduros to one-off events like Erzberg and Romaniacs. Nowadays, though, my schedule gets so crazy and unpredictable that I’ve had to back off on racing for the time being. Plus, if I break a collarbone or sprain an ankle, I’m out of work until I recover, so I more-or-less have to play it cool with my hobbies.

JB: Do you know who Dar Robinson was? [The late Dar Robinson broke 19 world records and set 21 "world's firsts” in the stunt industry.]

CD: Absolutely! Dar was pretty much the GOAT of the stunt world. I have so much respect for guys like him, because they were pretty much learning how to do things as they went along—nowadays, we have so much data and experience to fall back on, thanks to the cowboys like Dar that came before us!

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