Wellsford’s Bronson Steele is one of New Zealand’s most accomplished stunt performers. During his 20-year career, he has worked on major films such as The Lord of the Rings and TV series including Outrageous Fortune. He spoke to Jonathan Killick …
The most dangerous stunt I performed was when I nearly drowned in the Buller River. I had to pretend to drown and it just happened that the river was flooded, and there were logs and debris everywhere. The guides said we were nuts to get in the water, but we did it anyway. I had a thin wetsuit on but as soon as I fell in the water the cold hit, it took my breath away and I was sucked under. Drifting down river 200 metres for a minute-and-a-half, I just held my breath and tried not to struggle until I returned back to the surface. Frantically searching, the crew managed to find me, but not before I was sucked under again for another minute. You can’t fight rivers but luckily, I am a good swimmer. So, I knew to just let it go until I could see the light at the surface again. In general, I don’t panic too much.
I moved to Wellsford when I was seven, when my Dad got a job spraying gorse and later in towing. As a kid, I did gymnastics at Wellsford Primary, and my coach, Ron Jenkins, wanted me to take it to the next level in Auckland. Unfortunately, I would get car sick on the journey so I gave it up, which I regret because I would often place in the top three in competitions in Auckland and Whangarei. The skills I learned served me well, and I was always doing crazy stuff around the place on my bike and roller skates. I would line up girls at school on the ground and jump over them on my skates. Luckily, I never landed on anyone. I was always a bit of a crazy kid. My parents tell a story from when I was four and I wanted to go to work with Dad, so I ran out the gate as he was leaving and jumped on his towbar, riding it for around 5km to his work.
The idea of becoming a stunt performer came from a newspaper advertisement for a stunt school and I thought it was something I’d like to do. I went to the listed address in Mt Roskill, but it turned out to be a dodgy backyard operation, so I took my $400 and walked away. Later, a friend who did make-up for Xena and Hercules, put me on to a stunt work trial in Auckland. A week later, I was at work on the set, mostly getting hit by Xena. I learned on the job. Of course, my mates and I used to jump on the Hoteo River in our kayaks when it flooded or take wrecked cars to the dirt club track in Wellsford, so I had had some preparation.
The fun jobs for me are the ones that involve driving, like on the World’s Fastest Indian riding the Indian motorbike down the beach in Invercargill. I was also the stunt driver for the final scene of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, where a red Hilux crashes through a paddock and into a wrecking yard. I had a great time working as Jack Black’s stunt double in King Kong and I also did a job for him in Auckland, when he came for the Tenacious D concert, doing flips onstage and pretending to be him. We talked about doing the same in Sydney. Nothing really came of it until he accidentally left his guitar in Auckland and he rang and asked me to pick it up for him and take it over.
I start on Avatar 2 in Wellington in a couple of weeks, where I will be doing mostly stunt rigging, but there could be some fighting or falling out of helicopters. They keep a lot of that stuff secret so often you don’t know until you turn up. I recently worked in London for eight months, but I can’t name the upcoming films because of confidentiality agreements. A team of six Kiwi stunties headed over there to fill some shortages for stunt riggers. My partner thought it could be a bit of a strain, but she came over for a couple of months while we happened to be working in the Canary Islands and got to stay in a resort, so she wasn’t too disappointed in that. My family don’t seem to be worried about me being a stuntie and, in fact, my kids have been on different shows. My two youngest, Blake and Briana, have both been on Ash vs Evil Dead, running away from monsters, and Bradley has been on Power Rangers.
Despite all the travel, I’ve stayed living in Wellsford all these years. It’s a relaxed lifestyle and it was here that I met my partner of 20 years, Joanne. We got together one night at the old El Tapora bar, hit it off and that was it. The stunt work hasn’t always been continuous, and it helps that I’ve been able to get work with the family towing business here. Dad ran Steele’s Wrecking and Towing, and I ended up buying my own truck and operating under the name Mid Northern Towing. People crash and you go and pick them up out of a ditch. Some of the crashes in the Dome are pretty intense, and it can be difficult pulling cars out of banks or over retaining walls. One day I went out to a crash and a car was off the road and in a paddock. I put the hydraulic support legs on the truck down and tried to pull the vehicle out, but the road actually gave out beneath me. The truck slid down into the paddock with the car. Luckily it was flat, and the No 8 wire fence stopped the truck from falling over. I slowly let the weight of the vehicle down and levelled out the truck. I was able to drive down the paddock and pick up the car with minimal damage done. The fence was already buggered from the crash so that wasn’t a worry. All I had to do was find a gate and drive out.
Having a truck licence and experience with crashes was helpful when I was in the Wellsford Volunteer Fire Brigade for 11 years. I went to some really bad accidents and there were a few fatalities. It can be a really hard job, especially since attending accidents can involve trying to cut screaming people out of wrecks. But if they are screaming at least you know they are alive. In a situation like that you have to really hold your nerve – you’ve got a job to do and you just have to do it. Fortunately, the fire brigade up here do a lot of training, and I think that has helped with my stunt rigging. Although the callouts were predominantly for accidents, we did attend the Wellsford Community Centre when it burned down. That was hard to witness because it was an iconic building that we had all spent time in. It was too late by the time we got to it and it was bulldozed down.
You take all that stuff on board, but I try not to let it affect me too much. But it has made me think that there are people out there who can’t drive. People seem to take driving as a right and are too relaxed about it, but I see it as a privilege. The worst crashes seem to happen when people are distracted with things like texting or are just too tired. I’m a stunt driver and I wouldn’t drive like that. It can be hard to make the call to stop and have a sleep or take a call, but I do it and it works.