'Deadpool 2' Motorcycle Death Leaves Stunt Community Asking Tough Questions

Deadpool Still and SJ Harris - Inset - Photofest - H 2017
Photofest (Deadpool)
Veterans question the decision by producers to give the green light for the motorcycle scene to SJ Harris, a professional racer, rather than a more experienced film pro: "It absolutely could have been prevented."

Hollywood stunt performers are, by and large, united in their desire for film and television sets to be as safe as possible. They earn their keep by testing the limits in dangerous and often uncontrollable settings.

But their insistence on this point also may explain why, in the wake of the tragic accident on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2, in which a 40-year-old professional motorcycle rider named Joi "SJ" Harris was killed, they have already started to ask whether Harris should have been driving the Ducati motorcycle in the first place for that film's scene.

"She was a highly qualified motorcyclist racer but not an experienced stunt person," says Conrad Palmisano, a veteran stunt coordinator and second unit director with 47 years in the entertainment industry, including credits on Sleepless in Seattle, 21 Jump Street and scores of other productions. Palmisano expresses concerns about Harris' racing background and how it would prepare her for this particular stunt. "It is my understanding that she is reported to be a pro racer," he says. "But she rode 300cc cycles. The one she crashed on was 900cc motorcycle — much bigger, more powerful."

Harris hailed from New York and was widely lauded for becoming one of the country’s first and most successful black, female motorcycle riders. She was featured in a 2015 profile in Black Girls Ride magazine. Her social media feeds were paeans to the world of motorcycle riding, and her role in bringing that culture to a wider, more diverse audience had been recognized.

The Deadpool 2 production was her very first job on a movie set. Several stunt people say her skills on the racetrack notwithstanding, the stunt work on Monday called for a professional stunt worker. Harris, they worry, was given the job less due to her professional riding chops and more because as a body double, her skin tone was a closer match with actress Zazie Beetz, who plays Domino in the film.

Through a third party, a member of the Deadpool 2 crew in Vancouver backs up the assertion that producers chose Harris largely for this reason. In the wake of the accident, producer and co-writer Rhett Reese said in a statement, “[We] feel what our entire crew feels: shock and sadness. Our hearts break for SJ’s family and friends and all she touched.”

One veteran stuntperson familiar with the production claims Harris’ death is especially disconcerting because another professional stunt woman was available. Melissa Stubbs, who has more than 200 IMDb credits and was was Margot Robbie's double for motorcycle stunts in Suicide Squad, wasn’t a match but had long experience riding motorcycles on productions. “She was willing to do the job,” says that stuntperson.

Another stunt industry veteran with knowledge of the production and incident is emphatic about what happened. "It absolutely could have been prevented," that person says. "Joi was totally unqualified and never should have been there or put in that position." The stunt veteran continues, "Joi had never been in a film or done any sort of stunt. She was just a girl from Brooklyn who liked to road race — which was not remotely similar to what was required for the shots. She didn't have the experience or skills for the job they brought her in for."

Other stunt insiders reached for comment agree with that sentiment. “I do tons of NASCAR stuff, and I have hired real NASCAR drivers to do work and they end up wrecking the cars,” says Steve Kelso, a member of the Stuntmen’s Association, a 40-year veteran of the film and TV industry who has worked on hundreds of productions from the Fast and the Furious pics to Beverly Hills Cop. “I can’t tell you how much different it is doing stunts with motorcycles than just riding where the aim is to go really, really fast. I’m a professional race car driver, but it’s just day and night. There’s no comparison. The two don’t really mix. Being a professional motorcycle rider is only half the job, the other half is knowing all the parameters and the art of making movies.”

Kelso explains that professional racers, car and motorcycle alike, spend their careers learning how to avoid crashing. The goal is to stay upright and make it over the finish line. Stunt workers, by contrast, evolve professionally in a world where the end point is very often — and very deliberately — a wreck. Thus, they learn how to fall, how to let go, how to abandon a stunt before it has become too deadly to escape.

Local news reports in Vancouver have indicated that Harris and the production crew ran through the rehearsal at least four times before proceeding with the live shot. That’s good, says Kelso, however it’s when one detail goes wrong that the difference between a stunt professional and a lay person becomes clear.

“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," he says. "She appears to have been a capable rider, but it just turned into a terrible, terrible accident.”

Harris’ death is the second fatal on-set accident in less than a month. In July, stuntman John Bernecker was killed when he fell off a warehouse balcony on the set of The Walking Dead. Prior to that, the last fatality on set occurred in spring 2014 on the set of Midnight Rider when camerawoman Sarah Jones was killed by a train on a bridge trestle in rural Georgia. Jones’ death inspired a large community of safety-minded professionals who gather regularly online to monitor safety-related incidents. In a closed Facebook group, several members recently expressed their concerns.

Some of those folks see Harris as a victim of a Hollywood studio culture that sometimes sacrifices safety for other decisions, be they aesthetic, political or otherwise. “She wasn't a stunt driver, she was a road racer,” noted one participant in the group, “Apparently she was used due to her skin tone matching the actress.”

“I’m sure she could outride me on a motorcycle,” says Palmisano, “But she had no experience in the world of filmmaking, stunts, cameras and all the pressure that goes with it.” The difference, says Palmisano, “is somewhere between capability and experience.”

Stunt people have also asked why Harris wasn’t wearing a helmet during the sequence. The ostensible reason is that the character she was doubling for, Beetz’s character Domino, didn’t wear one. But some of those on the Jones’ safety group took issue with this as well.

“Are there not ways to create a helmet with hair protecting the stunt driver?” asked one. “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.”

SAG-AFTRA and WorkSafeBC (the Canadian equivalent of OSHA) have all begun independent investigations to determine the exact cause of the crash and outline ways to improve workplace safety going forward.

SAG-AFTRA issued the following statement: “We are all grieving the tragic death of a stunt performer on the Deadpool 2 set yesterday. Our hearts and prayers are with her family, friends and fellow cast and crew members. The safety of our members and other production professionals on set is a core concern and top priority for SAG-AFTRA. Accordingly, we are sending a field representative to Vancouver and are investigating the incident.”

"Stunt coordinators should be the guys saying who should be hired and who can get the job done safely,” says Kelso, “I feel the studios pushed in the other direction here, and now these stunt coordinators are left holding the bag.” 

— along with each and every person she touched in this world," the actor wrote in a statement after the death of a member of the film crew."]