Following a fatal accident on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2 that claimed the life of professional road racer Joi “SJ” Harris on Monday (August 14), Hollywood’s stunt community is asking whether producers should have allowed the 40-year-old motorcyclist to take part in the scene.
In interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, several stunt performers and film industry veterans have expressed concern over Harris’s inexperience as a stuntperson and her qualifications for the shot in question, which, according to reports, required her to complete a left-hand turn on a Ducati motorcycle.
An accomplished motorcyclist hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Harris was a pioneer in her field and billed herself as the first licensed professional African-American female road racer in U.S. history. While she was a highly trained on the racetrack, stunt experts argue that these skills do not translate directly into stunt performance, especially given that Deadpool 2 was Harris’s first time taking on such a role.
"It is my understanding that she is reported to be a pro racer," said Conrad Palmisano, an experienced stunt coordinator who has worked on films such as Sleepless in Seattle and 21 Jump Street. "But she rode 300cc cycles. The one she crashed on was a 900cc motorcycle—much bigger, more powerful."
Steve Kelso, a member of the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures who has worked on hundreds of TV and film productions, explained to The Hollywood Reporter that professional race car drivers and motorcyclists are trained to avoid crashing, while stunt people perform scenes that often lead to collisions, and thus, are forced to learn safe ways to fall, let go, or abort stunts before things go awry.
"One is about knowing when to fall off because you’ve lost the bike, or when to stop because you screwed up from the beginning," stated Kelso. "She appears to have been a capable rider, but it just turned into a terrible, terrible accident."
The stunt people contacted also criticized the Deadpool 2 producers’ decision to have Harris not wear a helmet for the simple reason that the character she was standing in for, Zazie Beetz’s Domino, doesn’t wear one. In addition, insiders allege that Harris was offered the role more so for her skin tone, which was the best match to Beetz’s, than her professional riding background.
“Are there not ways to create a helmet with hair protecting the stunt driver?” asked another unnamed stuntperson. “A production that's truly invested in set safety, including all the people involved, would order this done. I can't say it would have saved her life. However, it would have been one more step in the right direction towards making sure they were doing it all as safe as possible. The movie is on hold and worse of all, a life is lost. It's all sad and for what, matched skin tone? It's heartbreaking.”
WorkSafeBC and the SAG-AFTRA are conducting independent investigations of the accident. Deadpool 2 stars Ryan Reynolds and Zazie Beetz, as well as the film’s director, David Leitch, and Creative BC and the Motion Picture Production Association have all issued statements sharing their condolences.
Filming for Deadpool 2 in Vancouver resumed yesterday (August 16).
Harris’s death follows another deadly onset incident in July that killed stuntperson John Bernecker while shooting AMC’s The Walking Dead. Actor Tom Cruise was also recently injured while filming Mission Impossible 6. Taken together, such accidents are prompting some stunt experts to assert that a “Hollywood studio culture” is increasingly leading producers to compromise safety measures for aesthetic, political, or other reasons.More