Interview: Russell Crowe’s fight double talks ‘Unhinged,’ set to be the first film back in theaters

Tony Donno has been a stunt performer for close to thirty years. His father was a stunt man before him, and got Donno into…

By: Carolyn Lee Adams | 3 years ago
Interview: Russell Crowe’s fight double talks ‘Unhinged,’ set to be the first film back in theaters
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Tony Donno has been a stunt performer for close to thirty years. His father was a stunt man before him, and got Donno into the game back in 1988—when he was only 13 years old. He played baseball during a Blue Cross commercial and got his SAG card. And he’s been in the business off and on ever since.

As heavy duty production fled Los Angeles, so did Donno—moving to New Orleans to take advantage of the large action feature shoots happening near the city. A year ago, he learned of a meet and greet with a stunt coordinator for an upcoming feature, the details of which were kept secret. Donno soon found himself selected for a small role.

It turned out that feature was a film called Unhinged, a road rage thriller from Solstice Studios. Unhinged will be leading the charge of new theatrical releases, hitting movie theaters July 1st—as the first major US film released after the COVID shutdown.

On Donno’s first day on set, a man he had not yet met walked up to him. “He was looking at me going, ‘No, no, this isn’t going to work,’” Donno says. “He was even doing that thing with the two hands, framing my face as if from the camera’s point of view.” Donno was a bit worried he had been fired and didn’t know what to say, but it was a good thing he kept his mouth shut. The man was director Derrick Borte, and it “turned out the problem was that I looked too much like Russell.”

The next day, Donno found his name on the call sheet listed as Russell Crowe’s fighting stunt double. “Fight double? Holy crap!” Donno recalled saying. The man who had been hired to do the work wasn’t able to perform to the level needed, and Donno was brought in as the replacement. He felt the pressure to meet expectations, and evidently he did. Donno wound up working with Crowe again later in the year.

As a stunt man who specializes in fight work, Donno has invested years in tae kwon do, kickboxing, and krav maga. A lifelong veteran of fighting on film, Donno says one of the toughest scenes for a professional stunt man are crowd scenes. “You have all these extras, with only a handful of stunt men in the crowd. When the director yells, ‘Action!’ 20% of those extras will have forgotten what they’re supposed to do and just go crazy.” In one such scene, Donno was flipped over a table and onto the floor—where he was kicked in the head by an extra.

Far from the bumblings of extras, however, Donno found Russell Crowe to be “an absolute pro.” As someone who has spent his entire life in the industry, Donno has seen it all, and he was deeply impressed by the actor. “As soon as he walks onto set, you know exactly why he is who he is, why he won the Academy Award. He doesn’t miss a thing,” Donno asserted.

Stunt man Tony Donno, whose resemblance to Russell Crowe has landed him two stunt double projects with the actor.

Donno worked closely with Crowe, with painstaking rehearsals of the fight scenes. “The camera doesn’t see depth,” Donno explained. “Your fist can be six inches from my face, and the camera can’t tell. New actors or stunt men think you have to be close, but no, the hairs on your knuckles do not need to brush my nose for it to look real.”

Similarly, punches are thrown in bigger, looping haymakers, hands held farther apart. Movements are made larger to telegraph the action to the camera. “It’s important to know how to do the move correctly, to know what it is supposed to look like, and then be able to do it with the right sort of poor form for the camera.”

Donno spent at least 12 hours a day hashing out just the right form for Crowe and director Borte. When asked about Crowe’s famous temper, Donno says he saw no evidence of it on the set of Unhinged. “He knows what he wants, and he’s very professional about getting it done,” he said. But then, Donno grew up with a father who was rather Crowe-like in his own way, “so Russell felt like family to me,” he added.

Donno mentioned, with evident pride, his father’s most famous work, done as John Belushi’s stunt double on The Blue Brothers (1980). The fall Donno’s father took down the stairs is a memorable part of the movie, and widely admired within the stunt community.

As production on Unhinged wound down, Crowe shut down a local Thai restaurant and treated everyone to dinner and drinks. “Not that he needed to hear it from me” Donno says, “But I was so impressed by him throughout the shoot I had to tell him so.”

Donno was happy Unhinged will be first out of the gate after the COVID shutdown. Originally scheduled for a release later in the year, Solstice Studios decided to take advantage of the empty theaters. “It’s pretty cool,” he admitted. “I think everybody will run to go see it.” He explained the film as an intense thrill ride, with great twists. “This is a movie that will make you think twice about honking at somebody.”

Unhinged will be out in theaters July 1st.

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Carolyn Lee Adams
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