Driving up the 101 north, on an 80F Degree-day, I take the turn off for Mulholland Drive; a sprawling Hollywood landmark, a street that stretches a huge span of the city. A Collected Man visits with Riley Harper, a fourth-generation Californian, a stuntman born into the industry. We arrive at his home, at the end of a picturesque street in star-studded Calabasas. A grassy lawn, an open garage with motorcycle helmets mounted on the wall, complete with a California Flag. Riley, less rugged than expected, greets us with his golden retriever, Walker, and King Charles Cavalier, Marley. A picture of the California Lifestyle.
To start, I’d love to know about your family lineage in California. You’re fourth generation, right?
Technically, yes. My great grandfather moved to California in the late 1800s.
Do you know what for?
The gold rush and all that. My grandfather was born right here in Encino, California. California has a very short history, but I’m proud that we have a pretty long lineage here.
And who was the first to get involved in stunts?
It was my grandfather. He was a pilot for United Airlines his whole life and did some flying for a few movies. My uncle and dad then later got involved. They grew up in the San Fernando Valley and all around this area. All of their friends’ dads were the original stuntmen: the guys that doubled John Wayne, and all the original movie stars. That’s who my dad grew up around. And then, almost as a natural progression, my dad and my uncle started doing stunts when they were in their late teens. They grew up racing motocross, cars and surfing. Stunts was just the way they made their living.
As a kid growing up, did you think this is something that you would do?
It’s like growing up in a family of musicians. You’re just always around it and it becomes normal. If your parents have a cool job, and it’s what you see on a daily basis, then, of course, you want to do that.
I think in some cases, but in others, you have kids that are like, “Oh, this is what my parents do this. This is not cool.”
Yeah, I think it depends on the career. Funnily enough, my brother also became a stuntman. He and I have both been doing stunts since we were seven years old.
What was your see your first job when you were seven?
It's funny, at the beginning of January I was coordinating some reshoots we were doing on a new Godzilla vs Kong movie that we shot last year. And I was working at Warner Brothers studios. I was there for two weeks every day. My career has always been travelling to other countries and other states to work. Very, very rarely am I working on a movie in LA on the sound stages anymore. So, I was there, coordinating it and I was walking around the lot with all the stages and I realized, “Wow, my first movie was here on Warner Brothers lot.” So, I call my dad and I'm like, “Hey, what stage was the movie Soldier with Kurt Russell.”
What was the stunt?
I did a stair fall.
[Laughs] Yeah, my dad's friend was carrying me. We were running up a set of stairs, get shot and then he falls with me in his arms. And that’s when I was seven years old. It’s weird to think, now I'm 30 years old and I’m standing at the stage where I first worked. I still have really vivid memories from that.
A proud Californian
It seems like its’ always been about the film industry for you.
Well, I raced motorcycles quite a lot as a kid. I didn't play team sports. My dad would just pick me up with my motorcycle on the back of the truck and we would go train on weekdays and then race on weekends. Every weekend. That was soccer practice in my mind, you know what I mean?
Is it what you’re known for in the industry?
I'm definitely known for vehicle work. It's really hard to break into the industry unless you were born into it and had the skills to maintain a career in it. When I was a kid, I was taught everything you need to know. You can't just be a motorcycle rider; you need to learn how to do fights. You need to learn how to do highballs, firework, water work – everything. When I was a kid, I was always training one way or another with my dad. And so luckily, being raised that way, I can pretty much get thrown in any situation and figure it out. Unless it's something drastically out of my league, then they get a specialist, but for the most part, I can handle it.
"You’re just always around it and it becomes normal. If your parents have a cool job, and it’s what you see on a daily basis, then, of course, you want to do that."
Is there anything that you've had to turn down because you found that it was too much of a risk?
No, I've never turned anything down for being too risky or anything like that. You’re only going to get asked if the stunt coordinator who's hiring you thinks you can do it. And obviously, they're going to make sure you're cool with it. And they're going to make it their job to make it as safe as possible. But when it comes down to it, you have to get there and do it yourself. So you're not really gonna get asked to do something so crazy. With more niche or specific things, for example, extreme motorcycle jumps, there are two guys in the world that can do it. So they're going to get one of those two guys.
So, what’s in your garage now?
Right now I've liquidated. I used to have so many motorcycles and multiple vintage cars. I had like, nine motorcycles at one point. I think as I got older, I kind of realised that I didn't need them all, you know? Right now, I just have my 1969 vintage Triumph Bonneville. Triumphs are my favourite.
Why is that?
I think they’re the coolest motorcycle in the world. I grew up watching all these epic Bruce Brown films and old school motorcycle racing champs were always in them. So, ever since I was a kid, they spoke to me. I decided to finally go for one because a guy that was helping me build one of my other vintage bikes had this Triumph. He just had the engine, the frame, miscellaneous parts. I don’t even think it ran; it wasn't even together, just in boxes. And I really wanted to find one and build it. And so, I traded the guy for my car.
A box of parts for a car?
Exactly. I put money into it and probably about a year and a half of finding the right pieces, consistently building it and restoring it until it was like new. Now it looks like this. I'll have it forever, you know?
A few of Riley's motorbike helmets
Some racing memorabilia
What was the hardest piece to say goodbye to?
I had a vintage truck that I really miss. It was a ‘64 Chevy, turquoise, and it was just my favourite vintage car. It was my surf truck. When you drive that thing through Malibu Canyon and you're at the beach, it's just such a different experience than when you're in a regular new car, you know? I sold it to a professional surfer named Chip Wilson, from Australia.
The perfect surfer name [Laughs]
[Laughs] It is, isn’t it? After he bought it, he shipped it to Australia. He redid it and made it really nice. It was really nice when I had it, but he made it beautiful. I was actually working in Australia last year and hung out with him and got to see it. But when I saw it I had massive nostalgia, like seeing an ex-girlfriend or something.
"I don’t even think it ran; it wasn't even together, just in boxes. And I really wanted to find one and build it. And so, I traded the guy for my car."
At least you can still hang out her [Laughs].
[Laughs] Yeah! The most interesting car I ever drove was for this company Deus. They asked me to do this shoot with this guy, Jeff Zwart, who’s a really successful racecar driver, photographer and filmmaker. He raced for Porsche for years and years. Still does actually. He's like 60, I'd say. He wanted to direct this short film, that Deus helped fund. And he had this “car” [does speechmaker gesture with his hands] from the ‘50s. It's a belly tank racer, which is like a steel, literal belly tank, of an old warplane from World War Two.
So, after World War Two, people would find these belly tanks in scrap and in their garages make cars out of them. Put an engine, no suspension, it was just four wheels, and when you're in it, it looks like a bullet. The only thing coming out is your head. And it's the most strangely put together vehicle I've ever seen in my life. It’s the definition of what speed looks like in a vehicle. It's a bullet of raw metal. And we did this short film and photoshoot.
Jeff owns it. He owns tons of Porsches, has a big car collection and he bought this car. I always think about it because it was very hard to drive. But no one, well not many people, still have them, let alone in working order. So, to drive one in the current day is pretty insane.
Riley on his Triumph motorbike
"I put money into it and probably about a year and a half of finding the right pieces, consistently building it and restoring it until it was like new."
Anything you’re itching to get your hands on?
If I were going to add something to my own collection though it’d have to be a vintage Porsche.
Oh, there's multiple. I love the early 60s 911s. They’re so clean and classic. But then I like late 50s Speedsters, or a Spyder would be the ultimate dream.
Yeah, and now with getting into watches, which has been a recent slap in the face of a passion. It’s a very similar mindset. I've always loved vintage Rolex. I've always thought they were extremely cool, but I thought, I'd rather spend money on cars or motorcycles that I can ride or drive. It seemed a car was more personal because you can drive it; it makes you really feel a certain way. And I always had this misconception of watches. I respected them and thought they were cool, but I just didn't think spending money on them was a valid thing for me.
For my 30th birthday, my fiancé got me a Rolex. I’d been talking about how I really wanted to get one eventually and I spotted one in the wild; she realised I was looking at it, so she eventually went back and got it. It's a late 80s Air King. Once she got me that watch, it triggered a reaction in my mind, and I started looking online every day. Every single day. It totally lit a fire. It’s not a particularly expensive or rare Rolex, but it’s special to me. It's just simple and I'm a simple person. It's still my favourite, but it's turning into an addiction.
"Put an engine, no suspension, it was just four wheels, and when you're in it, it looks like a bullet. The only thing coming out is your head."
And what about cameras?
That’s also a similar mindset. I've shot photography since I was a kid; I took video classes in high school and used to be really into skateboarding. I’d make skateboarding videos and shoot photography, just for fun, obviously. And then, with the birth of Instagram, I use it as a partial career.
What do you shoot on?
I've always shot film and have a lot of film cameras. More recently, I started shooting with a Leica; which is a dream, you know, Leica is Leica. I got an old M6 film Leica and started shooting with that. And then that led to me getting some digital ones like the M240 and Q2. I don't need to have all these cameras, but it's the interest.
Riley and his golden retriever
A selection of Riley's watches
You’re investing in an interest.
Yeah, and each one makes you feel a different way. It’s like wearing different watches for different occasions. I love going to shoot street photography with an NSX Leica one lens. You take a different perspective; if you have a different camera and different lens, you shoot something totally differently. I shoot pretty much 90% of everything on a shitty point and shoot film camera. I mix it up. Sometimes I go shoot 120 film as well. That's what I originally shot - photography was 120 film. And it's pain in the ass and it's expensive but there's nothing that beats it. It's such a different thing.
So when you travel, do you bring all of your cameras?
Depends where I'm going, what I'm going to be seeing, what I feel like at the time. Sometimes, I'll make it fun and challenge myself by only bringing one camera. I was in Iceland last week, working on a movie, and I only brought one camera. My Leica Q2, which is a newer camera that I just got recently. When you're forced to only use one, you shoot differently, you think differently. I usually spend summers in Europe and I bring a lot of cameras - every Leica 120 film camera, one or two 235mm cameras and then my digital Leica and sometimes I have a Sony as well, that I use for video. So sometimes I bring like five cameras with me.
Some of Riley's cameras
"Each one makes you feel a different way."
You mentioned spending summers in Europe?
A place that is close to my heart, that I go every year no matter what is Majorca, Spain. My fiancé first brought me there. She grew up going there as a kid because she's from Sweden. We fell in love there, I proposed there. It's just our spot, and for the last seven, eight years we've been going there multiple times a year. Another place that really sticks out is Norway. Especially Lofoten.
Have you ever seen those photos of the crazy mountains, waterways and it's just like nowhere you've ever seen before? It's so different. I'm leaving at the end of February to Rome for like two months to do a motorcycle and car chase. I can’t say the name of the movie, but I'm doubling Ryan Reynolds.
I’m curious about the actor to double relationship, especially with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just coming out.
I loved that movie. I worked on it, only for a few days, but one of my best friends was the stunt double for Leo and Brad on that movie. And another friend of mine, Zoe Bell, coordinated it along with another friend of ours, Rob Alonzo, and there's a bunch of my friends that were doing it. I was lucky I got to work on it, just driving an old pickup truck with Leonardo in the back shooting a shotgun.
"It’s like wearing different watches for different occasions. I love going to shoot street photography with an NSX Leica one lens. You take a different perspective; if you have a different camera and different lens, you shoot something totally differently."
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm a really big Quentin Tarantino fan. I always have been and it was the first one I got to work on. It was sort of surreal. How he works is so different than anyone else I've ever seen before. I've gotten to work with some of the best directors in the world and I love paying attention to how they all work. And he's just such a different human being – in the best way possible.
The Leica M6
A few of Riley's surfboards
Do you have a favourite director that you've worked with?
A few! John Favreau is brilliant. Christopher Nolan is also incredibly smart. I mean, he wrote Inception. But as a director, I like that he respects what we do. He really understands that we bring a lot to action movies, and without us, certain movies with action limits, wouldn't be the same.
And he appreciates that?
He's one of those directors that just knows exactly what he needs and just moves on once he has it. As a stunt guy, you're constantly getting slammed to your back with the director being like, “Oh, I think I got it, but let's keep going, let's do a few more”. They don’t necessarily think about us, that we're slamming ourselves in the ground and getting hurt. Good directors understand that and respect it. But yeah, he's such a cool guy to work with. Very old school.
Have you always wanted to live in Los Angeles?
Recently I’ve been questioning that actually.
Why is that?
All my best friends and a lot of my family is here and I'm always going to want to have a home base here. But my fiancé is from Stockholm, so we spend a lot of time in Europe. I really appreciate the way of life there; it’s very different from here. Especially in the Mediterranean. I had to have lived there in my last life or something because I feel very at home there. But I'm not the kind of person that wants to live anywhere full time…
Thank you to Riley for taking the time to speak with us.