This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
When DiCaprio lifted his Best Actor trophy at this year’s Oscars, I was surprised he didn’t scream, “It’s about damn time I won one of these. I slept in a goddamn hollowed-out horse for you people!”
Ah yes, the hollowed-out horse. But there was also the scene where DiCaprio had to eat a raw bison liver, or the sundry moments where the actor had to crawl in and out of freezing cold lakes and rivers. At a time when whizzy computer effects can make the impossible look possible, the cast and crew of The Revenant decided to take a decidedly analogue approach to making their period survival drama, with the long, arduous shoot taking place in ice-cold parts of Canada, the US and Argentina.
Grim though the experience of making The Revenant was, DiCaprio’s by no means the only actor to suffer through all kinds of hideous experiences for his art. The following is but a tiny sample of our favorite stories from film history. We’ve left out those oft-shared stories where actors lost or gained weight, or the movie productions where just about the entire cast suffered equally.
Instead, here are eight very odd tales of freak lightning bolts, dangerous stunts and close encounters with very angry birds. We also should point out that not all the actors below got an Oscar for their often punishing ordeals…
Gunnar Hansen and Marilyn Burns – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
There’s a grit and grunginess to Tobe Hooper’s horror classic that positively burns through the screen – and that’s due in no small part to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s painfully low budget. Unable to afford expensive prosthetic effects, Hooper instead created a cacophonous montage of disturbing sounds and images, forging the impression of a movie that is much more violent and sordid than it really is.
Unfortunately for the movie’s actors, the low budget also made for a thoroughly unpleasant four-week shoot. Gunnar Hansen, who played the infamous Leatherface, only had one costume that he wore every day for almost a month; by the end of filming, the actor had broiled in the Texan summer heat for so long that nobody wanted to go near him. The set itself was a fetid hell-hole thanks to the animal and human bones strewn about the place (yes, the skeleton you see towards the end of the film is real).
The mask Hansen wore also limited his vision, which meant he’d often hit his head on doorframes because he was wearing three inch heels to make him look even more imposing. Worse, he had to wield a real, running chainsaw that would still have caused him or anyone else damage even with its teeth removed. There was apparently a moment towards the end of filming where Hansen slipped over in a muddy puddle, causing the chainsaw to fly out of his hand and only narrowly avoiding his head.
Marilyn Burns, the actor who plays luckless survivor Sally, had it even worse. The role required her to spend hours tied to a chair in the smelly set mentioned above, and repeatedly struck on the head with a prop mallet. The production couldn’t afford the special effects to fake the scene where Burns’ finger is cut, so the scene was shot for real. When asked by the Terror Trap whether she remembered being cut, Burns replied, “Oh please! Like it was yesterday. I can see the blood spouting out of my index finger. That was a bitch. I mean, it hurt!”
Another late sequence required Burns to drop several feet from a scaffold as a member of the production dropped pieces of sugar glass on her head – all part of the moment where Sally makes her escape from her captors by jumping out of a window. You might recall that Burns is limping by the end of the movie; this is because she really did injure her ankle in the fall. While the young cast and crew were all keen to make the best movie they could at the time, it was only years later that Burns realised just how dangerous the production actually was.
“You know, one thing I realized in London – and it was the first time I ever thought about it was, ‘My God, I ran through dark woods chased by someone holding a live chainsaw! Where was my head?’ […] We were tripping and falling… one time, Gunnar tripped and the chainsaw went up in the air. What were we thinking?”
Linda Blair – Exorcist II: The Heretic
An inch-thick book could be filled with the weird and wonderful things that go on in Exorcist II, John Boorman’s infamous sequel to William Friedkin’s horror classic. But to stay on topic, we’ll stick to this heart-stopping scene in which actress Linda Blair was asked to stand on the very edge of a Manhattan building – Warner’s HQ at 666 Fifth Avenue, to be precise. A close up of Blair’s feet was cleverly taken with the actress lying down, her toes just over the brink; the cameraman then stood over Blair wearing a safety harness and got the required close-up. For the shot you see above, however, Blair really is standing on the edge of the tower block without a harness, several stories up and millimetres from oblivion.
Clearly, Blair wasn’t afraid of heights.
Tom Cruise – Mission: Impossible II
Yes, Tom Cruise is famous for performing death-defying stunts (clinging to the sides of high buildings, dangling from the outside of aeroplanes during takeoff and so on), but one of his most toe-curling feats took place firmly at ground level. During a fight between Cruise and Mission: Impossible II‘s arch villain Dougray Scott, one scene required Scott to pin Cruise down and bring swing a knife dangerously close to Cruise’s eye. The stunt was achieved by securing the knife’s hilt to a cable – the tension of the cable designed to halt the blade before it could reach Cruise’s quivering cornea.
Cruise, however, decided he wanted to use a real knife for the scene and – just to make things even more harrowing for himself – suggested that the blade halt about 6mm from his eye. Why, Tom? Why do you do these things to yourself?
Tippi Hedren – The Birds
It’s one of The Birds‘ most effective horror scenes: Tippi Hedren creeps into an attic, only to discover that a flock of vicious raptors have managed to sneak into the house through a hole in the roof. For what feels like an eternity, we watch as an increasingly bloodied Hedren is savagely pecked and scratched by assorted gulls, pigeons and crows.
If audiences were left shaken by the violence of this scene back in 1963, spare a thought for Hedren herself, who, having put up with months of obsessive and unpleasant behavior from director Alfred Hitchcock, was then forced to suffer through one of the most harrowing on-camera moments of her career.
Hedren had been led to believe that the attic sequence would be shot with mechanical birds, which had been used for much of the rest of the movie. On arriving on the set one Monday morning, Hedren discovered that real bird were being brought in instead. As Hedren told The Telegraph in 2012:
“When I got to the set I found out there had never been any intention to use mechanical birds because a cage had been built around the door where I was supposed to come in, and there were boxes of ravens, gulls and pigeons that bird trainers wearing gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled at me, one after the other, for a week.”
According to Hedren, the ordeal of shooting the scene was so harrowing that she eventually collapsed and had to be carried off the set.
Steve Carell – The 40 Year Old Virgin
Yes, that’s Steve Carell’s real chest hair, and yes, the exclamations of pain are genuine.
Ray – Jamie Foxx
When it came to playing soul pioneer Ray Charles in the biopic, Ray, actor Jamie Foxx faced the difficult task of singing and playing the piano in the style of one of the most famous musicians in the world. To make his performance more challenging still, Foxx had to pretend to be blind, since the real Ray Charles lost his sight at the age of seven. To help Foxx achieve this, director Taylor Hackford made the somewhat drastic decision to have the actor’s eyes glued shut.
“Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day,” Foxx told the New York Times in 2004. “That’s your jail sentence.”
Foxx’s inability to open his eyes initially left him suffering from panic attacks, while the rest of the cast and crew would sometimes forget that the actor couldn’t see. He even recalls an incident where he was left sitting at lunch and accidentally left to find his own way back to the set. Ultimately, Foxx’s hours of darkness and claustrophobia eventually brought their own reward – the actor won an Oscar for his performance at the 77th Academy Awards.
Sylvester Stallone – Rocky IV
Remember that bit in Fight Club where Brad Pitt says to Ed Norton, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can”? Well, Sylvester Stallone told Dolph Lundgren to do the same thing and – just about – lived to regret it.
Rocky IV, also known as the greatest film of all time, saw Stallone’s Italian Stallion square off against the cyborg-like Russian boxer, Ivan Drago. Stallone, who also wrote and directed, was so determined to make the fight sequences look realistic that he said to Lundgren, “Hey I got an idea. For the first 45 seconds, really try to knock me out. I mean, go for it.”
Lundgren duly obliged, and punched Stallone square in the chest. “Woah,” Stallone said. “Cut, cut, cut. I am directing so I can do that.”
“What?” Lundgren enquired. “What?” Stallone said. “What? I thought I had a car accident.”
Stallone quickly wound up in intensive care, where he was forced to rest for eight days until his heart recovered from the shock. Stallone’s insurers also assumed he’d been in a car accident, and initially refused to pay for his hospital bills – they maintained that a Stallone’s bruised chest and swollen heart could only have come from being struck by a steering wheel, not a fist. It was only when Stallone showed the company some footage from the fight that they finally relented.
Filming on Rocky IV eventually continued, though this time Stallone wisely let Lundgren pull his punches.
The Passion Of The Christ – Jim Caviezel
If Jim Caviezel wasn’t a superstitious man before he started work on Mel Gibson’s maniacally full-blooded account of the crucifixion of Jesus, then he may well have been afterwards. First of all, playing a scourged, bloodied Messiah really was as exhausting as it looked in the finished film: in 2004, it was widely reported that Caviezel had battled hypothermia and pneumonia during the shoot, and the weight of the wooden cross he had to carry was such that he wound up with a separated shoulder.
To get an idea of how hard The Passion Of The Christ was on Jim Caviezel, consider this. The sequence where Jesus is nailed to a cross and hoisted skyward took about five weeks to film. So imagine you’re Jim Caviezel, secured to a full-sized wooden cross (though not by nails, we should point out), dozens of feet off the ground and just yards from a steep cliff. You look down and the rest of the cast are standing around, eating coffee and donuts while you’re tied up and, aside from a cloth preserving your loins, profoundly naked. Then the wind starts to get up, dust is billowing around you, and the cross starts to sway…
“We’re in the middle of a shot and all of a sudden the wind started,” Caviezel recalled in an interview with The Christian Broadcast Network. It’s like going to the Grand Canyon and sticking a cross at the edge of it. It’s all cemented in and you think you’re safe, but the winds blow, it’s teetering back and forth, and hypothermia is horrendous.”
And we haven’t even got to the part where Caviezel was struck by lightning.
While filming the Sermon on the Mount sequence in Rome, Caviezel and assistant director Jan Michelini were both hit by a lightning bolt which according to producer Steve McEveety, left Caviezel with smoke coming out of his ears.
“I was lit up like a Christmas tree,” Caviezel said later. “What they saw was fire coming out of the right and left side of my head. Illumination around the whole body.”
Mel Gibson reportedly screamed, “What the heck happened to his hair?”
Incredibly, this wasn’t the first time Michelini was struck on set, either; a few weeks earlier, the filmmaker suffered from burns to his fingers when a bolt of electricity hit his umbrella. Making a movie about Jesus isn’t, it seems, without its stresses, strains and thunderous acts of god.