Michael Papajohn couldn’t say enough nice things about his time spent as a stunt double and actor on NCIS Los Angeles. NCIS:LA Magazine got a chance to sit down with Papajohn to discuss his career and his time spent working with the cast and crew of the hit TV show. Papajohn has worked on the set three times between last season and this current season and he shared with us his experience behind the scenes and what it’s like to work with Troy Brown, the show’s stunt coordinator.
Michael is a native of Birmingham, Alabama and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1985 but chose to attend Louisiana State University on a baseball scholarship. That fateful decision led him to a career in the entertainment industry and he’s never looked back. During the time he was playing baseball at LSU, a movie was being shot on campus – Everybody’s All American. The production crew was looking for athletes to play football players. Papajohn caught the attention of director Taylor Hackford who encouraged him to become a Hollywood stuntman and to pursue the career full time. Since then Papajohn has worked not only as a stunt man but also as an actor and producer in such block busters as Spider Man, Charlie’s Angels, For Love of the Game, Transformers, and Waterboy.
With Troy Brown being nominated for an Emmy this year for Outstanding Stunt Coordination on NCIS Los Angeles, it was natural that we would begin our discussion talking about his time spent over the years working with Brown.
Can you tell us about your stunt work on NCIS Los Angeles?
It’s one of my favorite shows to work on. I first worked with Troy Brown on The Unit and you can tell that the cast really liked each other. And then when I had a chance to work on NCIS Los Angeles, the same feeling was there….that the cast and crew really liked each other and it was more like a family working together. Troy just got nominated for outstanding stunt coordination for 2012 and that’s why I’m a great fan of Troy Brown. I get real excited about that because I know how hard he works and you want to pull for people like that. In Episode 2 of Season Four, I doubled an actor in an explosion scene. I was able to be part of a team again and feel good. The people that Troy brings in reflects the energy on that set and the way he does his job. He works hard and expects a lot from you but you have a lot of fun too. It goes back to those relationship skills too. If he is not the best he is one of the best stunt coordinators out there. You know it’s going to be safe and a set that works hard and is fun to work for. All the actors like Troy a lot too which is great. It truly is like a family on that set. Troy and I go back a long ways and I really want to thank him for all the things he did for my career. I really have some great memories working with Troy.
How did you get into the business?
I was a baseball player at Louisiana State University and they shot a movie there called Everybody’s All American with Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange in the late 80’s and the production was looking for LSU athletes to play some of the football players and fill out the teams and I got to play one of the college football players. Then they said if you take hits or deliver hits we’ll pay you more money and since I only had 11 dollars in my pocket I said I would do it! Taylor Hackford, the director said to me you are really athletic and I think you can do really well as a Hollywood stuntman and I was 22 years old at the time. I began playing minor league baseball but was released and so I called Taylor and pursued stunt work full time. He stayed true to his word and introduced me to some very talented stuntman who helped me. What I leaned in athletics was the fundamentals and that’s what I use in this business. To be successful in this business you have to play to your strengths. Be willing to learn and train and build relationships and be relentless because it’s a very competitive business. It reminds me of sports a lot and when I made the transition going from athletics to stunt it helped a lot.
When did you make the transition to acting?
I knew I wanted to act early in my career and I doubled Adam Sandler in his movie Waterboy but for about 12 years I was the Hollywood hit man in sports movies. I was the go -to-guy to take the football hits, and make the base slides. But when I doubled for Adam Sandler I was getting older and slower and that’s when I envisioned me moving my mouth and speaking and acting instead while still taking some of the hits. Once again the fundamentals came into place and I was relentless in taking acting classes and training. There are a lot of talented people who are not relentless and they are not in the business anymore. So as much as I love stunts, I lean towards acting…I’m forty seven now and I love acting and being in front of the camera and the creative process of acting but I also love when you’re playing the role and get to still mix in the action…then it’s even more fun.
I played an Iranian, part of a group, with a lot of action, foot chase, gun fire, and I can’t believe how much action we did for a televisions show. Looks like a big budget movie instead of a TV show. A good chase sequence, explosions and I was very impressed by the actors and what they are willing to do without complaining. They do a lot of their own stunts too…Daniella and Eric were great and they were always willing to go over it again…and in between takes they were joking and having fun. But you can see that if Troy will let them, they will do as much action as Troy will let them. They want to do the fights, the running, the driving and I can see why directors like working with the series regulars like that and it’s much easier to film and not cut away. Daniella was having fun not only with the extras but the fans who were watching.
Why is this set so different to work?
Every set you show up on has a different energy depending on the film or show and especially if you show up as a guest star and you can see how the cast treats you since you are not a so-called regular, but you can tell the success of the show by how they treat the guest stars…not only the cast but the crew because there are different directors for every episode but you can see how the cast and crew stay together and welcome the new guest and NCIS Los Angles makes you feel like you are part of the team.
They are great with the general public too. You see Eric, Daniela and LL and Chris, you see them really open to not only people who are working that day but people who are around the show and the public watching the shooting. It’s not even like going to work when you are there….because it’s really a team effort. Even the wardrobe, hair, make up, are great! It’s a first class operation.
I remember going to wardrobe and everyone is so nice and they have the same energy. It goes over on to the set too … having fun, not taking yourself too seriously and having a good time. And it’s like that way even if you are not there working every day on the show which is a huge compliment to them.What makes it so special?
You can see why the show’s successful and it’s on the fourth season now. It’s my third time to be on the show and I worked on it last year and you can tell from last year to this that it is still a very successful show and you can tell by the way they work together and being a family. I was on other shows and you can see why they didn’t last too long but they are talking about this show continuing for a long, long time.
So what’s next for Michael Papajohn?
I have some movies coming out right now like the Bourne Legacy. I had the opportunity to go to New York and go for a month to work with Jeremy Renner, who is awesome. I love the way he works so I enjoyed working on that film. I’m in a movie coming out called Gangster Squad with Sean Penn which is based on a true story, I love the old wardrobe and I have a really nice part in that movie.
I have also written a one man show with Larry Moss, something that happen to me on the set of Titanic and it changed my life and I’m writing about it. I’m a film maker at heart, so I’ve got other creative things going….it’s great to be a stunt man and be a gun for hire, but it’s also exciting to be producing when you got a story to tell and getting the story made.
I think it’s the best business in the world. It’s competitive but like I said, I feel like I’m 7 or 8 years old and get to choose what I want to be for Halloween, a cowboy or an Indian? I love it!
Michael just moved back to his original home base of Baton Rouge where the entertainment industry is thriving and growing. Although he can always go back to Los Angeles, it’s nice for now being close to family and home. NCIS:LA Magazine would like to thank Michael for taking time out from his busy schedule to speak with us. It was a joy getting to know him and we invite him to stop back any time for an update! Thanks Michael!