Stuntman and actor Jacob Tomuri is riding a Hollywood high. He’d like to stick to acting but his stunt work as Tom Hardy’s double keeps him ultra-busy, writes Veronica Schmidt.
Lately, Jacob Tomuri has had a lot of surreal moments. There was the time he accidentally fell asleep on Charlize Theron's boob. There was the time the British tabloids splashed pictures of him holding a sawn-off shotgun. And there was the day a producer on the action film Mad Max: Fury Road called out of the blue and asked him to pack six months' worth of clothes and board a plane to Namibia - stat!
Today, the stuntman and occasional actor is back in his Auckland home, living what was his normal life until blockbuster movie-makers came calling. He has just hauled a pile of suitcases from the hallway out to the shed so I can get through to the living room. He hands me a coffee, shifts his two children's high chairs out of the way and sits at the kitchen table.
Of average height and seemingly average build in jeans and a hoodie, the 34-year-old doesn't initially strike you as a man who film producers would call in to execute brutal fight scenes, fire replica cannons or jump from the roofs of moving vehicles. But in his blue eyes there is intensity and determination.
"I always dreamed of this career. I was always ambitious," he says. Core cast roles on The Tribe and Shortland Street and stunt jobs on The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit, and Avatar weren't quite enough. He wanted more and got his chance in the most unlikely way.
In 2012, while working on the blood-and-sandals series Spartacus, his fellow stunt performer Danya Grant told her colleagues about how she was going to body double for Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron on the blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road.
"Someone said, 'Who's playing Mad Max? Is it Mel Gibson again?' And she said, 'No, no - this actor, Tom Hardy'. And I said, 'Oh, I love Tom Hardy! I think he's brilliant'," says Tomuri. "Everyone else was like, 'Who's Tom Hardy?'"
He is sought-after worldwide as a stuntman, including as a body double for Mad Max star Tom Hardy.
Tomuri recited the fast-rising star's resume (Inception; The Dark Knight Rises; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) then pulled out his phone, googled the actor and flashed Hardy's picture at his colleagues. Then he took a closer look at the photo and realised he shared more than a passing resemblance to the actor.
"I said, 'Actually, I could double him!'" In a less lucky story that would be the end of it, but when Grant flew off to the Mad Max set in Namibia, she found the producers struggling to find the right body-double for Hardy. They asked her if she could think of anyone and not long afterward, in Auckland, Tomuri's phone rang.
"I get a call saying, 'I just saw some photos of you and you're a good match for Tom Hardy for Mad Max. Would you like to audition?' And I said, 'Yes, mate, of course I would. What do you want me to do - [record] a tape?' And he said, 'No, we want you to fly to Namibia tomorrow'."
Still contracted to Spartacus, Tomuri tried to explain he couldn't just leg it to the airport but got his first taste of major movie studio power.
"He said, 'Nah, nah, I've already spoken to your boss and he's cool with it. So what do you reckon?'"
In Namibia, Tomuri worked hard and landed the job. His wife, Kate, and toddler son, Dustin (they have since had another son, Remy, now 1), packed up their lives and joined him.
Tomuri rode on the roofs of racing cars, rolled around in the desert sand for fight scenes and tasted the success he'd hoped for.
"People were saying, 'If he [Hardy] likes you, he could take you to other jobs'."
Then disaster. Walking across the roofs of some cars, Tomuri twisted his knee. Within a few days his leg had swollen and he couldn't bear much weight. He had badly torn the cartilage. "They [doctors] said I needed three months' rest or an operation."
He didn't like either option. "I thought of that job as the crossroads. It was my Olympics. I knew if I did a good job it could lead to a lot more."
Fearing he would be sent home, Tomuri kept the injury secret and had cortisone (a powerful anti-inflammatory drug) injected into his knee. He struggled on, aided in his deception by the most astonishing piece of luck: Mad Max has one bad knee. It is his left - the same side Tomuri injured.
"There were times when I'd jump off something and my knee would slightly give out. And they would be, 'I like that! I like that!'"
On the day Tomuri was to shoot a big fight scene with Charlize Theron, he awoke in agony and asked the film's medical team, confidentially, to start loading him with pain relief.
"They'd come up to me at the right time, at the right hour and say, 'Take one of these'. I thought, 'This is brilliant!' I couldn't feel any pain."
What wasn't brilliant was the side effect of the medication - Tramadol, a strong opioid. It can cause increasing sleepiness as the doses stack up, something the actor wasn't aware of.
"I'm on the ground with Charlize Theron and we're about to do this take. And then we hear, 'Hang on, we've got a camera problem. We'll just be a minute. Do you guys want to get up?' I said to Charlize, 'Do you want to get up?' She said, 'No, let's just stay here'. So I'm between her legs [on top of her] and we're waiting and then I just get this feeling of being in bed, rain on the roof, going in and out of sleep - that lovely feeling. I wake up and I hear, 'Okay, camera loaded. We're ready to go. You guys set?' I click back to reality and I'm in the middle of the Namibian desert, on one of the biggest films in Hollywood at the time, about to shoot a massive action sequence and I've fallen asleep and nuzzled into Charlize Theron's boob!"
He grins and shakes his head. Then his jaw hardens a little and he says: "I popped up - bang! - and we shot the scene."
Tomuri grew up in Porirua. His father left before he was born and he and his mother, of Nga Puhi descent, lived in council houses and often survived on benefits. His mother eventually had four more children - one, of whom, Jordan, died when she was 2½ years old from an infection following cancer treatment.
By the time he was 8, his mother could see a thespian in the making. "She thought I was quite animated so she put me into an agency."
He became the face of Shrewsbury biscuits, the MacLean's toothpaste kid and a very young contributor to the household coffers.
"All of a sudden I had this money and I could buy some shopping and help Mum out and I thought, 'This is pretty cool'."
He studied acting at the New Zealand College of Performing Arts and, to pay his way through his third year, worked as an extra on The Lord of the Rings. The stunt co-ordinator noticed Tomuri and another drama school student enjoying themselves during fight scenes ("We were grabbing rocks and dragging each other by our hair") and invited them to try out for the background stunt team.
The audition involved falling off a huge wall - a difficult task considering Tomuri was afraid of heights. He threw himself off it anyway and got the job. The world of stunts was fun.
Shortland Street viewers will remember him as Norman Hanson.
"It's acting at its most physical," he says. But he still wanted to act and was delighted when he landed a core cast role on cult series The Tribe and then the nightly powerhouse, Shortland Street.
"I was really happy. To be able to act every day [in New Zealand] is unheard of and to be able to pump out that many scenes is an amazing training ground for actors," he says. After two years playing Norman Hanson on the Street he was ready for bigger things.
"My confidence was at an all-time high. I was a budding actor and I thought the world was mine and bring on the auditions."
So he left. "I had probably the worst two years of my career."
He went to audition after audition and received rejection after rejection - no explanation, no feedback.
Every actor struggles with the casting process but for Tomuri, a self-confessed perfectionist, the rejections were torturous.
"I kept asking myself, 'Am I good enough?'"
His innate determination had nowhere to go. How do you improve or make sure you land the next role if you don't know what you're doing wrong or even whether you are doing anything wrong?
"When you're an actor you cannot get a job because you're the wrong height," he says. "I felt it was very hard to move forward and I was constantly playing games with myself, overthinking things."
Eventually, the struggle dimmed his interest in acting. Tomuri decided his future was as a stunt performer and turned his considerable focus to becoming a good one. That takes a lot of doing when one day you can be asked to fire a bow and arrow and the next to ride a horse through a battle scene. He has trained in the martial arts kali, krav maga, kung fu, karate, wing chun, capoeira and kickboxing and is working on his gymnastics, horse-riding, scuba diving and archery skills.
Though he's well-acquainted with adrenalin, he says he rarely feels afraid despite having abseiled off cliffs, fought with swords and fired guns. His most risky job arguably was wearing full prosthetics to double as The Hobbit dwarf Gloin.
His wife, Katie Newton, a writer, was heavily pregnant with their second son in Auckland at the time of filming. Tomuri was in Wellington, kitted out in everything from a fake nose and wig to wild eyebrows and a voluminous beard that grew down his chest.
Newton says they knew that if she went into labour and he needed to make a dash to the hospital, it would take two hours just to get his costume off before he could get to the airport and catch a plane.
"We joked a lot about how he was going to turn up to the hospital dressed as a dwarf," she says.
He made the birth. And he was wearing his own nose.
From Canada, where he's filming The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy sends me this email: "Jacob loves spandex and 80s kung fu movies that suck."
Tomuri responds to me by email, "Ha ha ha ha!"
The pair have struck up an archetypal male friendship. A good thing considering that these days they are spending an awful lot of time together.
Now an A-list star, Hardy is shooting back-to-back films and keeps requesting Tomuri as his body double. Earlier this year he lured Tomuri off the Gerard Butler film Gods Of Egypt, which he was shooting in Sydney, to London for a gruelling job on Legend, a British gangster movie.
In Legend, Hardy plays both notorious organised crime bosses Reggie and Ronald Kray. The twin brothers appear together in countless scenes, which meant Hardy needed not only a stunt man to fire sawn-off shotguns and to knife enemies but a body double to accompany him through most of the film, perfectly mimicking the physical idiosyncrasies that Hardy wanted to imbue each brother with. On top of that, the double had to be an actor who could learn and convincingly deliver all of Hardy's lines so that Hardy could switch back and forth between characters, running his lines against the double.
"They don't grow on trees," says Hardy, of trying to find a body double up to the job.
"One doesn't just do the words and the other the stunts. If that were the case then Jacob would not be such a rare find or exceptional. He is. As well as being a fine athlete and, to a reasonable degree, a fearless individual, he is a person who is fully capable of transformation not just physically to the detail, [but] right down to pre-empting psychological choices."
If Hardy makes it sound like Tomuri just walked on to the Legend set and blitzed the job, Tomuri says it was harder than that.
"Tom is, I believe, one of the greatest character actors of our generation and he said to me, 'These were two of the toughest characters I've ever played and I'm palming some of the responsibility on to you'. No pressure!"
But really, it was Tomuri who really piled much of the pressure on himself. He even perfected a Cockney accent despite Hardy saying he didn't have to and his lines would never be heard in the final cut.
Jacob Tomuri plays with son Dustin at his home in Auckland. Photo / Peter Meecham
Tomuri figured that if he was a believable gangster, then Hardy and the other cast members could lose themselves more easily in the scene.
"I thought if I'm going to do this I want to do it 100 per cent," he says.
Legend, to be released next year, was filmed mostly on the streets of London and Tomuri could often see paparazzi cameras flashing in his peripheral vision.
The photographers couldn't tell him apart from Hardy so Tomuri ended up splashed across a multitude of English tabloids. In one embarrassing episode for The Mirror, shots of Tomuri were run beneath the headline: "First look at Tom Hardy on set playing both Kray brothers". Several other papers made similar mistakes. Tomuri thought he'd solve it. "I went and introduced myself: 'Hello, I'm not Tom. I'm a stunt double. Nice to meet you'."
The articles didn't stop, they just took a different tack. The Daily Mail ran stories about Tomuri's stunts while E Online (the website of global network E! Television) ran an article entitled: "Is Tom Hardy's Stunt Double Hotter Than He Is?"
It was one of the many surreal experiences he had while making Legend but the one that most affected him was watching Hardy at close range.
"It was like a master class in acting and I was in the front row. When you're that close and you're watching someone you can learn a lot," he says.
It lit a spark in him that he thought had been extinguished."I have that taste for acting again," he says. That doesn't mean he's about to deviate from the trajectory he's on though. "Now I can see you can do both [acting and stunts] but right now my future is stunts. My next job is stunts. My job after that will probably be stunts."
His suitcases will be in the shed for only a few weeks before he packs them again and heads to Canada for six months to work on The Revenant.
God only knows what kind of stunts he is in for this time seeing as Hardy is playing a man who is mauled by a grizzly bear. Tomuri doesn't look worried. In fact, he looks quietly delighted.
"I don't want it to end," he says of his brilliant run. "I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am."
Then he smiles.
"I think sometimes about my career, 'Not bad for a little Maori boy from Porirua'."