Seize the opportunity
It was a Tuesday, 27 August 2019, when I noticed a shout-out
on the Radio Sangam Whatsapp group. The CEO said he had been invited to work on
a Bollywood film as an extra. It was set in a male prison. Did anyone want to
I did not expect it to be a paid opportunity, but it sounded like an adventure, and I had nothing to lose by throwing my hat in the ring.
My CEO asked me to send him two photos – a top-half and full-body shot. If I was going to be in an action film, I wanted a slice of the action, so I sent in two pre-fight photos from my first full-contact kickboxing fight – along with a list of my martial arts credentials. I even offered my services as a fight choreographer.
The next day, Wednesday morning, I was told that I had been
accepted to be a part of the film, and I would have to be on set for 10am Friday.
The set was a disused prison near Bath, and I had very little time to rearrange
my plans. At least I knew my costs would be covered as all extras would be paid
a modest amount each day to take part.
In the back of my mind, I expected that they had probably
found my photographs and stunt pitch quite amusing. After all, I am a 49-year-old
man with a face for radio…
“We’ve got another one, Jim.”
“What, another topless shot?”
“No, it’s another has-been going through a mid-life crisis.”
Where there’s a will…
… there are plans to be made!
The pay was not great, so I now had to organise travel and
accommodation at a budget, not to mention having to reschedule a few things,
but I was absolutely determined to get there.
I got together with the other four Radio Sangam presenters
who were all going to be extras. We agreed to take two cars and book two double
rooms. On Thursday evening, I had to drive to one of the other presenters’ houses
in Altrincham. From there, we had to rise at 5am and set off at 6am for the
long drive to the prison. What an adventure! This was happening. I was going.
My first day in prison
I will let you in on a secret. It wasn’t actually my first
time in jail. When I was in advertising, I visited a young offenders institution
to discuss a campaign they were running, and a few years later, I delivered a
mindfulness workshop to some of the staff at HMP Leeds, more commonly known as “Armley
We arrived at the prison at 9.50am. Phew! The last thing I
wanted to be was late. And we managed to wing a parking spot within the prison
grounds. Result. The casting agent told us to sign in, and I was pleasantly
surprised when she complimented me on my photos: “Great pics, Martin.”
Reality hit me in the face
Shortly after I’d signed in, another group arrived; five young,
Asian bodybuilders. That’s me finished, I decided. This was an Asian
production, a Bollywood film, and if anyone was going to get action shots, it
made more sense to give it to these human tanks.
Then the next group of lads arrived… straight out of the next biggest boy band. They looked like a gang of male models (two of them were!); each one of them at least six foot with young, good-looking faces and bodies like Action Man. Put it this way: I wish my physique had been as good as any one of theirs when I had entered the full-contact kickboxing ring.
I’ve had it. What was I thinking? The action roles are going
to be given to these guys.
A shout-out from the stunt coordinator
An older, stocky man entered the mess room where I was sat
with all the other extras, or SAs as we were called – an abbreviation of “supporting
“Hi, everyone. My name’s Dom, and I am the stunt
coordinator. Does anyone here have either theatrical combat training or real
One of my Radio Sangam colleagues pointed at me and shouted,
As the guy looked over at me, I piped up, “I am Sheffield’s
oldest active full-contact k1-rules kickboxing fighter,” and then another guy
stepped up as being theatrically trained, so the two of us were then put
through an on-the-spot test; we had to demonstrate that we could make it look
like we had been hit with a fake punch. Child’s play. Time for some real
Riot in the cell block
We were introduced to a couple of professional stuntmen. One
was a former dancer and taekwondo expert while his on-screen opponent was a
former professional wrestler. They were going through their moves slowly, “marking”
the key strikes and manoeuvres, and it was fascinating to watch.
Dom told me and my opponent to leave the security of the
cell block’s steel walkway and step out from the balcony on to the suicide-prevention
netting. What you will never know if you haven’t been to prison is that the
netting is made out of wire, not some kind of fibrous material, and it is joined
to the balcony with springs, much like the ones you see at the edge of a
trampoline. Stepping onto it was quite unnerving, but this was going to be my
new home for the next few hours.
As my combat experience was primarily full-contact and focused
on really trying to hit someone, I had to be taught about theatrical combat. It
was explained to me that although I knew how to pull my punches, I would have
to aim to miss my opponent by a good foot. Then, with some guidance from Dom,
we worked through a fight sequence that was believable, safe to execute and dramatic
Repetition, repetition, repetition
We had to rehearse the moves over and over to be absolutely
certain that when we did it for real with cameras rolling there would be no
mistakes and no injuries. However, since the routine involved both of us being
smacked down onto the deck, we both started to feel worse for wear after around
the fifth time.
My elbow took most of the initial impact as I was crashing
down on to the space to my right, so I adjusted my move by literally throwing
myself in the air and landing on my back. The results were quite astonishing…
The bruising on my back makes it look more painful than it
actually was. The elbow looked broken, but the swelling was caused by a build
up of fluid around the joint. Again, it didn’t hurt, but I had to reduce the
swelling as an emergency because I know from previous experience that such swellings
can quickly become infected and then you do have a problem!
Doing what it takes
At one stage, Dom said to us, “There’s no need to be a
martyr on this shoot. These guys are being paid for it,” pointing to the
professionals. As far as I was concerned, this was my chance to be noticed by
someone in an industry that I had always fancied. Of course, he was going to
tell us not to take too many risks, but I also felt in my heart that if we did
and if we pulled it off, he’d love us for it. Besides, a bit of pain killed no
one. I wasn’t going to break my neck!
We practised that routine many times in rehearsals and then
many more in front of camera. On the final take, the director wanted us to
carry on fighting, so after what seemed like a lifetime of not knowing what was
going on, we got stuck in. We had only rehearsed one routine, so we had to wing
Instinct took over and at one point, when my opponent had
his guard down, I threw a high roundhouse kick with my right leg, and it felt like
the most natural thing in the world. He clocked it and acted as though it had
hit his head. It was cinematic magic, but whether or not they caught it on
camera or chose to keep it in the final cut, I won’t know until the film is
Ask and ye shall receive
My strategy paid off. Dom was delighted with our fighting
and said we were awesome. Was there any chance of any further work based on
what he had seen, I asked him. “Of course, mate,” he said. “I am always looking
for good fighters to join the team,” and we swapped numbers. I was only one day
in to the four-day shoot, and I already felt I’d bagged more work as a
professional stuntman. Great start!
After limping home, tucking into some fried chicken and
getting my eight hours of shuteye, it was back to the studio for 8am. After
tucking into breakfast and sitting around for a while, they asked for volunteers
for a basketball game. I raised my hand even though I have only played the game
on a handful of occasions and have neither the height nor any natural ability
to play well.
Anyone who has been on a film set will tell you two things:
firstly, there is a lot of waiting until you are needed, and secondly, you
might have to spend several hours doing many takes just to get a 30-second
A killer on the court
Every scene has a purpose and when it comes to prison films,
a scene set on the basketball court is rarely about basketball. This scene was
no different, and it turned out I had been chosen to be an assassin. I can’t
really say much more about that at this stage as the film has not been released,
but it certainly put me in the spotlight.
Sharing the screen with a star
Nothing of any significance happened on the third day, but
on the last day I shared some scenes with one of the main Bollywood stars. His
character was my character’s boss. As it was the last day that the production team
would be working in the prison, we would all have to stay for as long as it would
take to complete all the scenes. We had started at 8am, but we didn’t finish
What did I learn?
The whole experience was gold, and I learnt one hell of a
When my radio station’s CEO had asked for volunteers, I had
not even thought we were going to get paid and I expected nothing, but I felt a
strong intuition that I was supposed to do this. If you had asked me a year ago
if I thought I would end up in a Bollywood film, I would have told you that it
was on my list of things to do. However, I had expected some kind of cameo role
as a radio presenter, speaking Hindi terribly in a light-hearted comedy scene,
not action scenes in a thriller. My Bollywood experience beat all expectations.
The director is second only to God
From what I saw, the way film sets are portrayed in films is
pretty accurate. The director was really focused, passionate and enigmatic, and
he reminded me of an Indian version of Prince, the musician. And yes, he wore a
baseball cap most of the time. Once the scene was set, he would shout “SILENCE,”
followed by a tense moment that seemed to last a lifetime as everyone waited
for him to give the signal to start: “ACTION”
Acting is like performing martial arts forms
Over the years, I have practised many martial arts from
karate to wing chun kung fu, traditional jiu jutsu to MMA, freestyle nunchaku
to Japanese sword, and of course full-contact kickboxing. I love it all, but
always had a passion for practising the forms.
Karate has kata, iaido (a Japanese sword art) has seiteigata,
wing chun has its forms, and with freestyle nunchaku you learn how to feel the
natural forces of the weapon and dance with them. Either way, once the action
starts, you dissolve into it.
Similarly with my stint on a film set, no matter how small my
acting role was, once the director shouted “ACTION”, I was totally immersed in
the task in hand. I was later told this is “method acting”.
Give a lot and get a lot
Bollywood expects a lot but gives a lot. Extras get paid the
same whether they finish on time – at 7pm! – or have to stay until midnight to
complete the scene. I won’t get paid any more for taking on more of a key role,
but only in Bollywood can you arrive on set for the first time in your life as
an extra and come away with a bit part!
Remember my initial assumptions about the weight trainers
and the young heart throbs. I couldn’t have got it more wrong. The weight
trainers got to stand around pushing weights in the prison yard, and the young
athletes got to look fantastic on the basketball court. It was a mistake to put
myself down. On the second day, the casting agent told me the director had
loved my photos and had specifically asked for me to be invited to his set. I
had a look that he wanted.
Put yourself forward
Had I not expressed an interest in doing further stunt work,
the stunt coordinator might never have given me a second thought. Since my stint
in prison, we have exchanged messages and on Wednesday we had a detailed
conversation over the phone. There will definitely be more stunt work in the
Having been relieved of duty at 10pm on Monday, I finally
arrived home at 5am on Tuesday morning. At 8am, I received a phone call from
the casting agent thanking me for my efforts and telling me in no uncertain
terms that I have a future in the film industry. Doing more extra work will not
make me a millionaire, but it will give me further experience and exposure.
Go with your gut
I had laughed at myself for sending in my pre-fight photos,
but that turned out to be an excellent move. The casting agent told me that
everyone else had sent in pictures of their best selves, and that my photos stood
out because they showed a character. The director was looking for characters,
she explained, and as soon as he had spotted mine, he had insisted that she get
me to the studio.
Make sure you want the prize
Life on a film set is not glamorous. We had the same breakfast
and lunch every single day; scrambled egg and spicy dal for breakfast, then a minced
lamb curry, some chicken, soup, nan bread and salad for lunch. The canteen was
an outdoor set-up, eating with plastic cutlery from plastic trays. There was
one toilet for around 30 extras and production staff. Being on set involved a
lot of sitting round and being kept in the dark about what we were going to be
doing from one hour to the next. Whatever you are aiming for, make sure you are
ready for everything it involves, not just the juicy bits. As a writer, I spend
a lot of time sat down in silence. Musicians on tour spend a lot of time either
travelling or spending time in hotels. It is not all excitement.
What do I get to take away from the experience?
I am so glad I stuck my neck out and grabbed the opportunity when it was presented to me. It has given me more options in life. The life of a ghost writer and editor is not fixed from one week to the next. Being able to work as a stuntman has given me an extra avenue to take during quiet times. Compared to my life in advertising, I have so many more choices now – writer, speaker, radio presenter, stuntman, coach, actor… whatever next? Anything as long as it fits my values of truth, justice and well-being. I feel more agile and adaptable than ever before, but more than that, life is fun!
Bollywood has given me an unforgettable and rich experience.
It has provided me with some fantastic content for future talks. Now I can’t
wait to see the finished product, the film itself!
One of my missions is to show others that anything is possible. Several years ago, I decided to live a life without limits, to go with my passions and see where they took me. If you are looking for a quirky and energetic speaker to motivate and inspire at your event, get in touch.