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Aaron Toney didn’t grow up dreaming he’d be doing stunts for the biggest franchise in the world. But much like the characters he’s had a hand in shaping for nearly a decade as a stunt performer and Anthony Mackie’s double — most recently on the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, in which he brought insight into the character of Sam Wilson as both an athlete and an artist — a willingness to learn and push himself has made the 39-year-old a force to be reckoned with.
“I come from a martial arts background,” says Toney. “I was introduced to martial arts when I was a little kid. My dad used to keep books around the house.” For Toney, a native of the L.A. neighborhood Harbor City, his skills were self-taught at first, and later acquired in classes provided by nonprofit Family Matters PACT while he was in junior high. His teacher was so impressed by his skill level that he used him as an instructor for the other students. Eventually, Toney was awarded a scholarship to a tae kwon do martial arts school, where he excelled, skipping several belt classes.
Despite a natural inclination toward martial arts, Toney imagined his life going in a different direction. “Honestly, I thought I was going to become a computer programmer because I’m a huge geek,” he says. “I love computers. I build them. I love anime and tech. I’m constantly tinkering with stuff.” Before venturing to Hollywood, Toney studied at DeVry in Long Beach to be a computer information tech. “But something in me just told me this isn’t for me,” he says. He found what he was looking for at the L.A. Valley College Fitness Center, a hub for trickers, break-dancers, circus performers, cheerleaders and stunt performers. “I fell in love instantly with everything that was going on in the room.” Toney paints a picture of the place during its prime as a haven for athletically inclined performers where you could find anyone from the actors on WMAC Masters to Power Rangers.
Making it from the gym to the studio lot wasn’t easy. Before he got his SAG card, Toney landed a summer gig as a live performer at SeaWorld in San Diego for its Cirque de la Mer show from 2004 to 2006. “Doing the live show work really helped me get over a lot of fears — fear of heights, fear of trying new things,” he says. “It gave me a better, broader sense of performance. I think of it as theater.” Between summers, Toney worked nights as a security guard while continuing to train and build a stunt reel. Before a night shift, Toney got a call from longtime stunt performer and second-unit director George Marshall Ruge, who was impressed with Toney’s reel. “I went in right after I worked all night. I didn’t even go home. I changed in the bathroom and went to my interview over at Disney in Burbank.” The meeting went well, but the admission that he didn’t have a SAG card left him walking away feeling a little defeated. Two days later, he got a call for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and it was his experience as a live performer at SeaWorld that landed him the gig.
Years later, a fellow stunt performer Toney had met on Dead Man’s Chest, Don Lee, called him: “They need a stunt guy for this actor in a project called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and you look just like him.” That guy was Anthony Mackie. “We actually do look alike. Were we long-lost cousins or something? We’ve actually talked about that,” Toney says. “We matched up so well, it was already a done deal.”
Toney has been doubling for Mackie for a decade now, and the pair hit it off right away. “From the day I met Mackie, he was always really, really cool. He just said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, so show me.’ ” he says. “He always had a good attitude and good heart about things, so we got along really well.”
Three years later, Disney approached Toney again, this time for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Toney now laughs about what he thought the job would be, only to learn that Marvel had bigger plans. “I started for Falcon trying to do all the fancy stuff that I could already do, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do that yet.’ “
By the time he got to Captain America: Civil War, Toney was allowed to delve into what could be done with the character’s fighting style. “We started to explore more acrobatic kicking, and more Tai-style techniques,” he says. “It started to evolve, and people started to take Falcon seriously.” So seriously, in fact, that a lot of the fight choreography Toney developed for the Falcon has made its way into the pages of comic books.
When asked about the influence he’s had on Sam Wilson as a character, both onscreen and in the comics, Toney cites one of his friends in the stunt community to make his point, something he does often while talking about his work. “I like to say Black Widow is not only what Scarlett Johansson does but also [her stunt actor] Heidi Moneymaker,” he explains. “It’s really a merger of the double and the actor that makes up the style, and also the source material from the actual comics.” Perhaps it comes from his background teaching martial arts, or maybe it’s the circus performer in him, but Toney always finds a way to extend the credit to the larger stunt community and friends who helped him along the way. He’s a performer very much aware of the shoulders he stood on to get to where he is, and eagerly lends his own to help others on their way up.
Many Marvel actors like to do as many of their own stunts as possible, and Toney couldn’t be more excited to see what Mackie is able to achieve. “I love to focus on what an actor’s strengths are,” he says. “We would focus on his boxing, a lot of leg work and judo kicks. He’d always get mad at me and say, ‘My legs don’t work that way, A.T.!’ ” Yet Toney only has praise for the actor’s progress. “I was super impressed on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. We’re all getting older, but somehow Mackie got bigger, stronger and more flexible because I’ve been torturing him. When it’s something he wants to do, he’ll push me, lovingly, out of the way and say, ‘Get out of here. I’ve got this.’ ”
Being active on social media has made Toney aware of the many people who want to do stunts and think it’s simple. “You can be seriously hurt, and you could possibly die. It’s important to know that when you sign up to become a stunt performer, you are signing up to be someone who is looked upon to be put in the danger zone, the position where you wouldn’t put an actor,” he says of those who misunderstand the physical commitment of his work. “You must train. You must take it seriously. And you must respect the craft.”
That respect of the craft is something Toney emphasizes as a science. “We are professional athletes. Our job is to stay ready,” he says. “A lot of it is constant physical therapy. I think some people get very comfortable and they stop training, which isn’t smart. I’ll be 40 in June, so I’m really excited that I’ve been able to last almost 16 years in this business without any real major injuries.” Toney credits the ingenuity of the stunt community, who have made possible stunts that would at one time result in serious injury or death. “We don’t just go ahead and say, ‘Well, that’s how it’s going to work.’ ” he says. “There’s so much science and planning involved. There are so many brilliant minds among the stunt community. Some of these people have degrees in physics and chemistry.”
In recent years, several stunt coordinators and performers have moved into directing — such as Chad Stahelski (the John Wick franchise), David Leitch (Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2) and Sam Hargrave (Extraction). Toney expresses excitement when asked about the potential of taking his career in that direction. “I’ve been developing a series,” he reveals. “Earlier this year, I did about five days of shooting on a project called Project H. It’s under my new company called Halvon Corp. Entertainment. We are now in postproduction and so we are developing that and will now at some point pitch it as a pilot. I have a solid team of people who believe in the work and what I’m creating for this world. I think the endgame is to produce and develop my own stories so that I can help my friends go ahead and tell the stories they want to tell, too.”
Enthusiasm over the new stunt category at the Emmys — which will honor individual performers for the first time this year — is yet another extension of Toney’s admiration for the larger stunt community and hopes for seeing his friends achieve their goals. “It is nice for people to see the hard work that actually goes into developing and creating stunts,” Toney says. “It’s nice to see that the Emmys are starting to pay attention to that, because it is art, it is a science. It’s poetry in motion.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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