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“The Greatest Living Stuntman”: How Tanoai Reed Became Dwayne Johnson’s Double

The Hollywood Reporter’s Stuntperson of the Year, who just unleashed ‘Red Notice’ and has ‘Black Adam’ out next, reflects on a 27-year journey that has included broken bones, a nearly career-ending injury and most of all, a feeling of family with Johnson, his distant cousin.

Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot took center stage Nov. 5 as they brought their splashy Netflix movie Red Notice to downtown L.A. for its premiere. But among the A-listers on the red carpet, it was another face that turned heads, maybe even causing a few double takes. Like he does everywhere he goes, Tanoai Reed stood out.

Built like Johnson (a distant cousin) and with the same amiable features, 6-foot-3 stuntman Reed has been by Johnson’s side for 20 years as the actor became one of the biggest (and busiest) stars in the world. Along the way, Reed, 47, has taken punches, broken bones, fallen hundreds of feet through the air and survived an accident that nearly ended his career. Taking on ever bigger challenges, he has endured the most grueling schedule a stunt double could  imagine.

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He joined Johnson on this year’s Jungle Cruise and Red Notice and wrapped the DC superhero movie Black Adam (due July  29, 2022), a film Johnson has called his toughest role ever, requiring the duo to get in the best shape of their lives; and, as he has for decades, Reed does the same punishing workouts and follows the same exacting diet as Johnson. “He is right there with me, shoulder to shoulder,” says Johnson. “Training just as hard, just as committed, just as disciplined.”

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who has worked with Reed on Red Notice as well as Central Intelligence and Skyscraper, calls him “the greatest living stuntman.” Adds the filmmaker, “There is no world [in which] we could have made Red Notice without him. We had him run down a bridge and get yanked 150  feet through the air to the other side and the bridge was exploding behind him. Pretty good for a day’s work.”

Reed grew up in Hawaii, raised on food stamps by a grandmother. During summer break from the University of Hawaii, where he was on a football scholarship, he got a job as a laborer on Kevin Costner’s infamous 1995 pic Waterworld through his father, a transportation coordinator on the set. When a rowdy group of L.A. stuntmen took a shining to the strapping young man, they got him a day shoot riding a Jet Ski. “I was pushing a broom,” Reed says. “Then they offered to get me in front of the camera a couple days as a Jet Ski-riding bad guy.”

Those couple of days turned into a year. Reed was so physically imposing that he stood out in the dailies and was asked to stay on, and in no time he found himself hooked on the job, by both the adrenaline and the pay. “I never saw a hundred-dollar bill in my life. It was huge, the paycheck,” says Reed, who quickly began learning the ropes. “On Waterworld, I learned on the job from the best in the business. I had the world Jet Ski champion at the time [Larry Rippenkroeger] teach me how to ride a stand-up Jet Ski and several other veteran stuntmen teach me the basic stunt skills like fights and falls on the job.”

Putting both college and football behind, stunts became his new life. When Waterworld moved to L.A., Reed went with the production and decided to stay after filming wrapped to find more work.

But, Reed remembers, “I didn’t know how to hustle. I didn’t even have a headshot. I didn’t have a cellphone.” He wound up bouncing for bars, crashing on friends’ floors and living out of his truck until he gave up on L.A. He moved back to Hawaii and got married, though he still dreamed of Hollywood and booked occasional stuntwork on island-based productions like Baywatch Nights and Nash Bridges.

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Dwayne Johnson and his stunt double Tanoai Reed have spent 20 years together, bonding over their shared cultural background, their similar workouts and their action-packed scenes. Courtesy of Subject

Meanwhile, Johnson’s career as wrestling star The Rock was heating up. Reed watched from afar, aware they were related although they had never met. “I remember saying, ‘If he ever does movies, I can double for him.’ Never thinking he would be in movies,” recalls Reed. “His mom knew my dad and everybody.”

Six years after Waterworld, Reed decided to give Hollywood another go, moving back to L.A. with more resolve and experience. Once again, he got an assist from his father, who hired him for construction jobs on shows like the Buffy the Vampire spinoff, Angel. It was while he and a few other guys were on the Universal backlot to pick up some material to haul back to Paramount, where Angel filmed, that fate intervened. In a crosswalk were some of the men he knew from Waterworld. There were shouts of joy; apparently they’d been looking for him but had no idea how to get in touch. On the spot, they brought him to the stunt coordinator of The Scorpion King, a new movie they were working on.

Even as he got into costume, Reed still had no idea what the project was or what he was doing there. He met director Chuck Russell and was told he’d start the next day. “You’re going to be doubling The Rock,” he was told.

As fortuitous as it was for Reed, it was just as lucky for Johnson, who was a few weeks into shooting Scorpion King. He already had a double, stuntman Norm Compton, whom he considered part of his family. But the scale of the film required more. Johnson, in his first Hollywood starring role, was having trouble navigating the whirlwind his life had become. Reed, with his shared family history and Samoan roots, felt like a much-needed port in the storm. “Did I have the sense I’d spend the next few decades with him? I did. We immediately became close,” says Johnson. “It was as if I was meeting my long-lost brother who could at times double as my twin.”

Reed worked hard on Scorpion King but afterward faced skepticism among his stunt peers, some of whom assumed he got the job only because of his resemblance to Johnson, not because of his ability to perform. So he strove to disprove doubters, hoping to win more work with Johnson. 

Johnson and Reed moved on to The Rundown, a 2003 action-comedy also starring Seann William Scott. Though Reed was still relatively inexperienced, he took on what he still considers the most challenging stunt of his career and spent several days rolling down a mountain after Johnson’s and Scott’s characters drive a Jeep off the road. Reed ended up being rolled away in a wheelchair and even broke his ankle on a different stunt, forcing the production to shift the shooting schedule to allow him time to heal. “When you think about the level of danger, yet the precision that had to be executed on that roll, keeping your eyes open, your head on a swivel, getting a sense of that mountainside before you went down it — all the things had to come together,” says Johnson.

Johnson next stepped into The Gridiron Gang, a drama in which he plays a football coach attempting to help troubled teens. Reed assumed he’d be sitting on the sidelines, as the production had no budget for a stuntman. But Johnson personally paid Reed’s stunt rate. “He told me, ‘You’re more than just a stunt double, you’re like family,’” recalls Reed. 

For many of those early roles, Johnson and Reed slimmed down to about 230 pounds. “That’s skinny for us,” says Reed. Then, a decade ago, Johnson called Reed with news. He was taking a role in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), a feature that — along with Fast Five (2011) — ushered in a new age of action work for the duo. Says Reed, “He called me: ‘We’re going to eat again. We’re going to put on the muscle, we’re going to be kicking ass doing G.I. Joe. I said, ‘Great!’ “

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From left: Reed mastered the jet ski on his first movie, Waterworld; Johnson (left) calls Reed, who’s taken many a fall for him, “my long-lost brother who could at times double as my twin”; Reed, in action, may be a risk-taker, but he’s also very calculated in the risks he takes, Johnson says. Courtesy of Subject (3)

The past decade has seen a dizzying number of action-heavy roles for the two: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) and its 2019 sequel; Skyscraper (2018); Rampage (2018); and Hobbs & Shaw (2019). Months before a film shoots, Johnson will call Reed and give him their workout and diet regimen. Reed has gotten adept at reading scripts with an eye for how he’ll need to prepare if the action calls for any stunts he might need to brush up on.

Thurber, who’s directed several of their films, testifies, “On Central Intelligence, he jumped out 40-feet high, through a plate glass window and into an airbag. And on Skyscraper, he leapt off a supercrane and had to catch a lip of a broken window and pull himself in, all in one take. And he did it.”

Reed notes that the stunt world has gotten safer over the years. It’s no longer necessary to fall from such great heights; CGI can make a 70-foot fall look like 200. It still requires spending time worrying about what could go wrong, but the things that do go wrong are often the little things easily overlooked. That’s what happened on Fast and the Furious 7 (2017) when Reed suffered a nearly career-ending injury that could have taken his arm.

Reed was working on a brawl in which Johnson’s Luke Hobbs fights Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw throughout an office full of glass windows and furniture. Statham and Johnson performed much of the fight, but Reed stepped in for a moment that saw him propelled via a cable through glass. The glass was supposed to be tempered — meaning it would crumble into relatively harmless pieces. Instead, the glass broke into shards, putting an iPhone-size piece in Reed’s arm.

Johnson immediately sensed something was wrong. “Tanoai is a very calm and cool man in the pocket when it comes to doing stunts. And when he got up and I’m kind of looking, and I see in his eyes that there is just something that’s just a hint in his eyes of concern,” says Johnson. He rushed over to Reed, and the team got him to a hospital. Reed, who is stoic about the fact that he could have lost an arm because of the piece of glass that cut him, notes that tempered glass comes in packs of five, and the team is supposed to break one as a test, which apparently did not happen on Fast 7.

“I could have lost my arm. But if that shard of glass had gone through my back, my neck, I would have been paralyzed or worse,” he says. “The next time I go through glass, I’ll double-check and make sure we break the first one, see how that goes, and that means the rest of them are good.”

Despite the dangers he sometimes faces, Johnson does not worry about Reed. “Is he a risk-taker? Yes. But very calculated,” Johnson says. “He’s a very smart man, and he doesn’t approach stunts like a bat out of hell and throwing caution to the wind.”

Most stars have multiple stuntmen; one that specializes in driving, one that specializes in falls. But because of Johnson’s size, there aren’t many men who can do the job. Finally, after 14 years, Reed brought on a backup double, Myles Humphus, to help out. The move came after Hercules (2014), which saw Reed shooting night and day in Budapest, filming on both first and second units. “I would have a 6 a.m. call, and I’d wrap around 5 or 6 in the afternoon. I would take a van for an hour to the night shoot, and I would shoot all night until the sun came up,” says Reed. “Twenty-four hours straight I worked. Then I’d get my 10-hour turnaround, and I’d start nights to days. [I said], ‘I need a backup.’”

After 20 years, Johnson is still giving him new challenges. Black Adam, in which Johnson plays the classic DC antihero, required the toughest training the duo have yet undertaken because the costume left absolutely nothing to the imagination. “There were no fake muscles,” says Reed of the unforgiving suit, which took five months of training to fill out properly. “Dwayne said, ‘We’ve got to get in the best shape of our lives because I don’t want to be these other actors who put these fake, padded muscles in.’”

Though Reed, who has acquired scars and numbness in his arms, is now getting closer to 50, he still believes he has plenty of years left with Johnson, 49. “His characters are going to age with him. And so is his action. He’s not going to be parkouring — running and flipping off buildings — when he’s in his 50s,” Reed notes.

So while Reed is not retiring from stunts, he is aware that there is life beyond his current career. He’d like to produce, maybe stories focusing on family and the values he learned growing up in Hawaii, where he lives with his wife when he is not working. They also own a condo in Atlanta, which allows them to go watch their son, University of Virginia football player Samson Reed, play when he’s not working.

Thurber isn’t sure what his films would be like in a post-Reed world. Says the filmmaker: “I don’t know what we’re going to do if he decides to retire. I hope Dwayne retires before Tanoai, I’ll say that.”

As for Johnson, he looks back on Scorpion King as a special project, not only because it was his first leading role, but because it’s the movie that brought Reed into his life. Says Johnson. “In our Samoan language, there’s a word called ‘aiga.’ It means family. Tanoai gave me that.”

Borys Kit contributed to this report. 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.