For many little boys, the notion of growing up big and strong like Superman is dangled in front of them like a rare gem by parents who are eager for finicky tots to eat their vegetables. “Eat your vegetables,” they say. “You want to be big and strong like Superman, don’t you?"
But Paul Darnell, a 2005 Virginia Tech graduate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise actually did grow up to be Superman — or at least his stunt double. Darnell appears this summer in the Warner Bros. “Man of Steel” movie as the stuntman for Henry Cavill, who has the starring role.
Darnell has come a long way since his first part — a straight-to-DVD production entitled “Evilution” in which he played a free-running zombie — and has gone on to appear in major blockbusters such as the “Twilight” series as Robert Pattinson’s high-flying vampire double and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” when he was Adam Sandler’s Krav Maga counterpart. He was also in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
While Stunt Double 101 isn’t a course of study in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studying nutrition and exercise certainly seem like practical options for a superhero in-training. As an alumnus of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, and a former member of Virginia Tech’s gymnastics team, Darnell laid a solid foundation for a career of flying, leaping, and otherwise performing physically preternatural tasks on-screen — movements that require knowing how his body works and how to feed it to perform optimally when the cameras roll.
Darnell recently spoke to Virginia Tech about his career and his path toward becoming a stunt man.
Q: How did you make the transition to stunt man and how did your degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise help you along that path?
A: After graduating from Virginia Tech I packed my bags and moved to California. My education helped me get a job at a physical therapy clinic so I could pay the bills while training and trying to land stunt jobs.
I was on the gymnastics club team at Virginia Tech, which is an open-gym style, so I was able to train for all sorts of flips and tricks that a stunt man would need to know. Going to college before I started pursuing stunts really gave me the preparation I needed to become a successful stunt man.
Q: Superman is one of the most iconic comic book characters of all-time – what was it like when you were asked to be the Man of Steel’s stunt double? Did you do any special training for it? Was it intimidating the first time you put on that costume?
A: Every little boy looks up to Superman and I was no different. I remember pretending to be Superman in my parents’ backyard with a towel wrapped around my neck. So to put on THE actual superman costume, it was fulfilling one of those lifelong dreams. I was able to become the superhero I dreamt of as a kid. Quite a surreal feeling.
Superman has the physique of a bodybuilder, so in order to look like him I started training and eating like a bodybuilder. I did intense isolated muscle group trainings with my trainer starting at 4:30 a.m. Monday–Friday.
Q: How do you appear to fly on film?
A: Most of the film is shot on green screen, which allows the editors to create amazing backgrounds and very realistic effects. There were different techniques used which included green screen and wires to make Superman fly.
Q: When Robert Pattinson won an MTV Movie Award for best stunt from the "Twilight" series he gave a shout-out to you for your good work. What was he like to work with? What about Henry Cavill?
A: Robert Pattinson is a genuine nice, good-hearted, deep-thinking, individual who I really enjoyed working with. I was honored to have him mention me during the MTV Movie Awards.
Henry Cavill is also a truly amazing person. A man’s man. Henry is pretty much a stunt man in the fact that he is super down-to-earth, very strong, and extremely athletic. Working with Henry is just like hanging out with one of the guys.
Q: What scenes can we look for in "Man of Steel" and know that it’s you?
A: Henry did all of his own stunts in the film. I would rehearse and set up the stunts and Henry would come in and knock them out on film. The few scenes I am in while wearing the suit are so quick it would be very hard to spot me in the suit. I also make a cameo in the beginning of the film as a guard who Russell Crowe takes out.
Q: What is the hardest stunt you ever did? How long did it take to shoot it?
A: That has to be when I jumped from one moving truck to another while doing a running gainer off the end of one of the trucks in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” It required one day of rehearsal and one day of shooting. My legs were so sore from the rehearsal that when it came time to shoot the next day I could barely walk. But it’s amazing what you can make your body do when they yell “Action!”.
Q: You have a lot of photos on your blog about food that you eat. Why is that important to you?
A: I eat a plant-based diet. Lots of fruits and veggies! I avoid most sweets. I’m just not that into them. Some people have computers or other pieces of equipment they use at work; my body is my tool so I try to keep it clean and healthy.
Q: You live out the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in a very interesting way — by conducting freerunning classes for kids. What are they and why do you do them?
A: Freerunning — which is an athletic and artistic way of expressing yourself while running, jumping, and interacting with your surroundings in a fluid style — is my passion. It has changed my life and given me everything I have today. I created a gym, along with two friends who shared my vision, to spread our love of freerunning. It has changed our lives for the better and hope that we can instill in children what we have learned and that anything is possible.
Written by Amy Loeffler.