Michael Papajohn is one of the hardest working guys in Hollywood, but his road to Tinseltown actually started on the college sports fields. When a stunt job landed in his path, it changed his life forever.
Read on to learn more about Papajohn’s pivotal role in helping Peter Parker become Spider-Man, what it’s like to duke it out with Bruce Willis, and his roles in some of the hottest movies this year, including “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Terminator Salvation,” “Land of the Lost,” “G-Force,” and “Old Dogs.” Oh, and why he just might have to kill me!
Jane: You were drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1985, but chose instead to attend Louisiana State University on a baseball scholarship, playing starting center-fielder on the first LSU team to go to the College World Series in 1986 and 1987. What was it like going from the world of sports to the world of film and TV, doing stunts and acting? “Long strange trip” keeps popping into my head, but you’ve really had an awesome, interesting career.
Michael: I remember when I would make a great defensive play or have a great at bat in baseball, I would get a high. Then when I had an opportunity to do stunts, I got that same high on the set. When I had my first acting class, I was in a scene and the situation my character was in felt so real to me, and I got the same high. Right then, I knew I wanted to be an actor.
Jane: Your first movie was as a stunt double for Dennis Quaid in 1988′s “Everybody’s All-American.” Had you thought about working in the film and TV industry prior to that?
Michael: That was my first film experience. It was a life-changing event. Not only did I double Dennis Quaid, I also got to work with some of the top Hollywood stunt men in the business. That film experience, “Everybody’s All American,” led me to my first speaking line with John Goodman, which then lead to my getting a SAG card, which lead to my close connection to the director, Taylor Hackford, who really encouraged me to pursue this as a career.
Jane: You played the pivotal role of “the carjacker” in 2002′s “Spider-Man.” What’s it like being the character who ultimately led Peter Parker to become Spider-Man? (And I think this applies to your character, too: “With great power comes great responsibility.” :-)
Michael: It was awesome playing that part. The director, Sam Raimi, had me in mind for the part because he knew me from our work on “For Love of The Game.” It was really exciting playing that character. I remember being on the set for the first day. I was so nervous, and I remember doing my first rehearsal in front of the camera and hearing Sam Raimi yelling from across the set from his director’s chair, “Papajohn, I’m so excited you’re playing this role.” It made me feel great, but I was still a bit nervous, so I just used that edge for the character.
Jane: You have some amazing movies coming up this year: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Terminator Salvation,” “Land of the Lost,” “G-Force,” and “Old Dogs.” Are you like the hardest working guy in show biz or what? Do you ever sleep?
Michael: I really enjoy working hard. The whole business excites me. Being an actor/filmmaker, I love the atmosphere on a set. It feels like family. Hey, I only die in one out of the four films, so that’s pretty exciting. Who needs sleep?
Jane: You’re the Lead Stunt Double in “Old Dogs,” but have acting roles in the rest of those films. Are you moving out of stunt work and doing more acting (because I would imagine stunt guys eventually have to move into something else, right? Before the body completely breaks down?)
Michael: When I was working on “The Waterboy,” stunt doubling Adam Sandler, I knew on that set that I really wanted to start focusing more on my acting. I just knew in my heart that I wanted to go more into the acting direction. I still enjoy stunt work, and I just worked on “Old Dogs” with John Travolta as his stunt double for select scenes, and that was great. So, I enjoy stunt work when it involves playing a role.
Jane: Tell us about your role in “Terminator Salvation.” Do you have scenes with Christian Bale? I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: Is he as intense in person as he always seems on-screen?
Michael: I can’t tell you if I have scenes with him, because I’d have to kill you… As far as him being intense, when he first walked in the make-up trailer, that was the first time I actually saw him on set. He was in full wardrobe, and I said to myself… Man, he’s ready to go to war!
Jane: Talk a little about “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” How does your character of Cal play into the storyline?
Michael: I was excited to play that role because there was such a great back-story coming in. Megan Fox talks a lot about my character in the previous film, so in this film … well … all I can say is … we have a very, very close relationship.
Jane: “G-Force” looks like the cutest movie ever made, and you play an FBI Techie in that movie. Seems like quite the genre switch for you after doing mainly action flicks. How did your role in G-Force come about? Is it considered an action film?
Michael: It’s a Bruckheimer film, so trust me, there will be action. As far as a genre switch, it was refreshing. I got to play a good guy. I didn’t kill anyone or get killed.
Jane: You did stunts in “Live Free or Die Hard.” Please tell me you were involved in the stunt where Bruce Willis jumped out of the semi and ended up on the top of the fighter jet. That was an awesome stunt! Was it mainly computer-generated, and if not, how the heck was it filmed?
Michael: I actually had an acting part in the film. I wasn’t in that particular scene, but I went toe to toe with Bruce Willis. So it was just me and Bruce Willis in an intense fight scene, and I had the best of him until he shot me in the foot and then four times in the chest, so I guess he got the best of me.
Jane: I see where Bruce Willis has three action films coming up. Did he have his bones injected with adamantium like Wolverine, and if not, how does he keep doing these intense action flicks?
Michael: I loved working with Bruce Willis. He’s intense and professional and always had the crew laughing.
Jane: What’s it like for you as a stunt guy, going to work every day knowing you could end up with broken bones or a head injury or something? I mean, it must take a certain kind of person to do that work year in and year out.
Michael: Having an athletic background … you prepare … you show up … and do your job the best you can. When I’m working I always remember what Bear Bryant used to say, “Expect the unexpected.”
Jane: What’s the most dangerous stunt you’ve ever done?
Michael: The most dangerous stunt I ever did was on “The Waterboy” doubling Adam Sandler. I was sitting on top of an air-boat, going 30 – 40 mph on a lake, I hit land and the boat went air born with me holding onto the arm of the chair and no seat belt. I almost lost my grip, flying off it. Thankfully, I was able to hold on. But that was a close one.
Jane: What’s the most difficult stunt you’ve ever done?
Michael: In “Spider-Man,” when I trip out the window backwards to my death, I couldn’t look where I was falling. I just had to trust that I would fall on the pad correctly. That was a tough but great scene.
Jane: What’s the stunt you WISH you’d never done?
Michael: My first commercial in Los Angeles. It was hot in the valley that day, and I was doubling an actor wearing a fat suit. I ran into a goal post head first, 29 times. After 13 times I couldn’t count anymore, but I told the wardrobe guy to count for me, because every time I’d hit the goal post, they would pay me $100. And the director was yelling at me from his tall tower through a megaphone, “Use your head more!!!” It got so bad — I was overheating, two black eyes, head swollen — that the head guy from the wardrobe department stopped everything, checked my blood pressure, and then yelled out to the set, “It’s a wrap!!!” That’s the first set I’ve been on where wardrobe called “wrap.”
Jane: And I must ask about ending up in the emergency room after being kicked by Cameron Diaz in stiletto boots while filming “Charlie’s Angels.” How did you explain that to the docs and domestic violence people there, and does Cameron still send you flowers on the anniversary of the event? (If not, she should!)
Michael: Cameron Diaz is off the hook. This was actually a fake leg and fake foot with a stiletto shoe on it for close ups that caused the trip to the ER. Once the ER staff got the true story about the shoot schedule (1 AM) they realized I wasn’t drunk, just tired from a night shoot.
Jane: Anything else you’d like to add?
Michael: When I first worked with the director, McG on “Charlie’s Angels,” right before the first take he came up to me and said, “Hey Papajohn, have fun, film lasts forever.” I’ve never forgotten that, and when I saw him again in New Mexico on the set of “Terminator Salvation,” I told him how much that thought stays with me.
Michael Papajohn and Chris Rock in “The Longest Yard”
Michael Papajohn in “The Longest Yard”
Michael Papajohn and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Eraser”
Photos: Michael Papajohn; Buena Vista Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Columbia Pictures