You may not recognize Hollywood stuntman Hugh Aodh O’Brien, but that’s how he wants it. Working seamlessly behind some of Tinseltown’s biggest stars, he has stunt doubled for River Phoenix, Gary Marshall, Tim Robbins, and James Caan; sat in a foxhole with Mel Gibson; hung Bruce Willis off the side of a train; and helped Johnny Depp be a swashbuckling pirate. He spoke to us about everything from raising a terrific teenage daughter to being a private pilot and what it’s like to be lit on fire.
Q: What inspired you to become a professional stuntman?
O’Brien: The love of movies. I saw the movie Bullitt with Steve McQueen when I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I wanted to drive cars like Steve McQueen.
Q: What was your first job doing stunt work?
O’Brien: My first paid stunt job was for a live automotive thrill show, The Hell Drivers, that traveled around the East Coast, performing at fairgrounds, speedways, and horse tracks. We’d do automotive stunts: high speed driving, precision driving, car crashes, guys lit on fire, guys riding on the roofs of cars, standing on the side of cars being driven on two wheels, motorcycle jumps, and that sort of thing.
But I’ve been working since I was 11 or 12. If I wanted something, I had to work for it: paper route, mowing lawns, painting, whatever. I worked in family bars and restaurants. I was even a water-meter reader. Also, I did lighting and sound systems for theater and concerts. That’s where I thought I was going to have my career. I never thought I would have a real chance to be a stuntman. And then when I turned 20, I was presented with an opportunity to join the thrill show for about a month. That month turned into a year and a half.
Q: Have you passed on your work ethic to your 14-year-old daughter, Casey?
O’Brien: Yes. She’s very self-motivated. Ever since grade school she’s put forward an effort to help other people. She worked as a volunteer counselor at the Boys & Girls Club this summer, all while taking on extra required classes, just so she can take other electives throughout the school year. Oh, and did I mention she’s a straight-A student? She plays the violin, is a talented writer, and is taking singing lessons so she’ll be comfortable being in the school plays. That was her idea. She’s a planner like her mother and me. For the record, Casey’s mother and I are divorced, for five years now.
Q: That must have been a difficult transition for Casey.
O’Brien: She was very upset, thinking her world was falling apart. But her mom and I stayed living together for another five months so Casey could see it was going to be okay. We have joint custody. Casey spends one week with me and then one week with her mom, back and forth, and we live within 10 minutes of each other.
Q: It sounds almost easy how you and your ex are making it work.
O’Brien: Well, Cindy and I made a conscious effort to put aside our issues and focus on what was best for Casey. We get along very well. We talk daily, and we have a good relationship. Yes, we live in separate houses, but the three of us have joint discussions.
Q: With all of the pressures being put on teens these days, how are you helping to guide Casey in her life’s choices?
O’Brien: She’ll find what’s real for her. I think society dictates to teens the definition of success. You have to be this, you ought to go to school there. You need to earn this much money, you need all of these degrees. Society is putting forth a standard of what success looks like, and it forgets about what you love to do with your passions. I just want her to be happy.
Q: Any chance she might go into your business?
O’Brien: Casey doesn’t think that lighting herself on fire or jumping off buildings sounds like a fun day. That said, I’ve been teaching her the skill sets needed to be one of the better stuntwomen in the business. Stunt people are illusionists. Casey loves filming and photography and learning about how camera angles can create an illusion. She’s done zip lines, rock climbing, and rappelling; she flips on a trampoline; and she drives go-carts—everything under controlled circumstances. She’s fit, has done gymnastics and martial arts, and works out at the gym. But she probably won’t follow me into my profession, and that’s okay. Still, I believe that the mental and physical skills I’ve taught her will help her in life.
Q: So, what does Casey think of her dad being a stuntman?
O’Brien: She’s known about stunts and what I do since before she realized she was learning about it. In her world, the fact that I say, “I’m going to go and jump off a building today” doesn’t faze her. She’ll ask me who I worked with, and did you get some good shots? Are you going to be able to pick me up from school at 3 o’clock, or is Mom going to get me? It’s just so normal to her.
Q: What is your favorite stunt?
O’Brien: Fire burns are some of the most fun. I’ve been lit on fire over 150 times. Ironically, when you’re doing it, you’re not hot. You’re actually pretty cold, because of the way we set it up; we use specific materials and gels, and we chill the gel down. If you do it right you should never get hot. You barely get warm.
Q: If your life weren’t adventurous enough, you’re a licensed private pilot with your own plane. What made you take up flying?
O’Brien: It’s seeing the world through a different perspective. All that’s needed in the moment is to focus on my controls and instruments, and the rest of the world and its stresses fall away.
Q: Speaking of stress, your daughter will be getting her permit and driver’s license in the near future. How does a stuntman and stunt driver advise his daughter behind the wheel?
O’Brien: When Casey’s in the passenger seat, and either her mother or I are driving, we’ll ask her, what do you see going on? Okay, there’s a car coming up on the right, so what do you think they’re going to do? Does it look like they’re staying in their lane? Can you tell if their blinkers are on, or if they might be anticipating making a lane change? It’s teaching her about situational awareness.
Q: How does she take time to have fun?
O’Brien: Even though she’s good about schoolwork and is thinking about college, she can chill out or hang with her friends and just have a good time. Like today, she and her friends walked around the mall and then they played Dungeons & Dragons. We’re going to go to the county fair on Monday. We’ll do rides and all that good stuff.
Q: What stunt jobs are you working on these days?
O’Brien: I just finished filming this week on Marvel’s Agents of Shield; it’s the end of the series. And I’m presently working on Runaways. Both are superhero shows. So, there are a lot of super strong, powerful fights—this character kicks that one, and they go flying across the room. It’s a lot of the rigging to do that, to fly people through the air. The stunt rigging is one of my specialties.
Q: Have you ever thought of doing another career beside Hollywood stuntman?
O’Brien: I love what I do. For 34 years I’ve never wanted to do anything else. And I like my privacy. I can walk down the street and not be recognized. My neighbors know who I am, but they just think I’m that crazy guy that does weird things in the movies.
Q: It’s obvious that stunt work gives you great satisfaction. What advice will you give Casey about finding her own joy?
O’Brien: It’s the gift of being happy and being yourself because if you can’t be yourself, you can’t be anything. I mean, you have to be true to who you are to be a really happy person.
Q: What do you hope Casey takes from this time in her life?
O’Brien: Don’t grow up too quick. Enjoy being a kid.