We had the pleasure of speaking with Afton Rentz, the Edmonton-based stage combat actor and star of the new web series Mental Case. Afton is incredibly talented and full of information about fight choreography and what makes a great fight scene in a movie.
Check out the Mental Case Trailer here: Mental Case Trailer.
Just be warned, if you're a fan of Game of Thrones, you may not want to read any further.
Interviewer: Hi, Afton, it’s nice to meet you. Thanks for talking with me today.
Afton Rentz: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Interview: To start with, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into stage combat.
Afton: I was born and raised in Edmonton. I went to Grant MacEwan theatre school and did musical theatre for a couple years. In the program they offer a couple hours of stage combat and I really liked it. I asked where I could learn more and my teacher said to contact FDC Canada. They certify all actors who want to act as fighters in Canada.
So I did my basic with them, figuring it would be something for my resume. But then I really, really liked it. So I trained a lot, did my intermediate then trained a lot more, and got my advanced.
So, yeah! It’s been really interesting because no one here in Edmonton really knows what I do and there wasn’t really anyone here who did what I do now. So it’s been interesting. A lot of it is educating people that this is a very interesting, very crucial component of acting. If you want to be an actor you need to be able to act through a scene of violence whether you actually have violent acts committed or it’s just a violent scene between two people.
Violence is so prevalent in the world today that we see it all the time and I think we don’t really understand it. So what I hope to do through this work is really bring to the forefront what violence is and how terrible it can be and how necessary it can be as well.
If we, as actors, understand the audience and what they’re seeing, we can tell a clearer story in regards to violence. And that’s why I like it, because I like telling stories and I love acting and to me this is the funnest part. You get to do the funnest part of the acting. It’s the point where the stakes are the highest.
It’s really fun. It’s super exhausting obviously, but it’s also very rewarding.
Interviewer: What does the fight choreographer do in a movie? Do they just work in scenes involving violence, or just elaborate fight scenarios?
Afton: It depends on the director. Like a costume designer or light designer, we’re just an expert that’s brought in for the violence of the show. There is a difference between a fight choreographer and a fight director. Fight choreographers only choreograph the movement. The violent movement. What’s going to happen? How you’re going to do it. The mechanics. What the reaction would look like. That kind of thing.
Fight directors are a very valuable part of our work. They will direct the whole scene, the whole violent scene. Before there’s any violence, there is something that initiates it. There’s some kind of tension between the characters, or some event that happens and they have to respond with violence. So the fight director will be able to work with the actors to develop that scene to get it to a place where now the violence can ensue in a reasonable manner.
In my opinion, I think that fight directors are such a gift for the actors because they are usually actors themselves. So they understand what the actors job is and they’re trying to make this violence make sense.
I also think that violence does not need to be physical blows. The threat of violence is just as scary to an audience or character. So I think that sometimes fight directors have a really good sense of that and they can create a violent scene with anything. They can do what the director wants and also make the actors feel comfortable, because they’re coming at it from an acting point of view which is important for what I do for stage combat.
If you don’t act well, it looks terrible. And if you act poorly, or if you don’t fully understand why the characters would fight or what fighting even looks like in terms of that character’s intentions, that’s where I think a fight director can take some of the burden off the director by saying “Look, it’s a fight scene, I got it. Do you like it?” Then from there they can have a conversation about, “No, I don’t like this.” Or “Yes I do.” That kind of conversation instead of having to direct the scene and having the violence be too separate things when they’re the same thing. It’s much easier for everyone involved.
Interviewer: What’s the difference between a fight choreographer and a stunt coordinator?
Afton: Fight choreographers are people that are aware of different movement styles, are aware of different fighting styles, different martial arts. Different periods in history where there was more violence and who it was committed by. That kind of thing.
So we really like to research that sort of information to just have it in our back pocket so we can pull it out if we are working on a Shakespearian play and we know that at that time in history they used these types of weapons. Or the higher class people used these weapons and the lower class used these weapons. So we can be historically accurate that way. So the actors know where their characters are coming from.
A stunt coordinator, on the other hand, has to deal with so many other things. They have to deal with safety issues, things like pyrotechnics or explosions or any number of things. So their attention is on a lot of different aspects of one shot that are all very important. That’s the main difference – as fight choreographers, we research what violence is, where it came from and why it changed and how as a culture, we’ve used violence to attain certain ends or to attain our personal goals as well.
Stunt coordinators have many other things that maybe aren’t specifically related to the intricacies of the violence itself.
Interviewer: Is it hard if you’re a fight choreographer to work with actors if they have no fighting experience?
Afton: No. The only tough part is that they don’t speak your language, so it just takes some time. You just have to be patient and it’s our job to make everyone look good. It doesn’t matter how good they are, how much training they have. Obviously it helps if they have movement training, that kind of thing, because a lot of what we do in this kind of work is different martial arts, different styles. So the ability to know what your body looks like in space and be able to manipulate it in certain ways so you can look like a specific person is obviously an asset.
All the time I work with people who have never heard of stage combat and for me, it’s a lot of talking about what they’re comfortable with, what they can do. How I can make them look the best. Just with the experience that I have, that’s something that I can do now and that is a skill that I really think is important. Especially because it’s such a small niche market.
Interviewer: What are the differences between a movie that did not have a fight choreographer and one that did?
Afton: I find the biggest difference is editing. In films or TV series that don’t have fight choreographers, the fights are always edited with a lot of jump cuts, kind of back and forth, and you don’t really see the whole picture of the fight and you don’t feel as invested as if you saw the whole thing.
I just feel like I’m seeing pieces and for me that just sort of jars the storyline. Whereas really great martial arts movies or really great movies with a great choreographer involved, I find because there’s such great movement by the actors, you get longer shots, you get really intricate shots of different movements and they’ll slow it down or speed it up and you can see exactly what happens. So it really facilitates an understanding in the audience member as to what’s going on.
So I think that having a fight choreographer really helps to develop a clearer story because people don’t fight for no reason, usually. If you’re going to tell a story through a fight, the narrative should be clear. And that’s the major difference and how I can kind of tell whether or not a film used a choreographer or a fight director is that the arc of the story and the fight is very clear. Whereas if they don’t use one, it is much jumpier, much more confusing, almost like they’re trying to cover it up, they just weren’t very confident to begin with. Either the actors weren’t confident or the person who choreographed it wasn’t very confident.
Interviewer: What do you think are some of the misconceptions people have about fight choreography?
Afton: A lot of people that it’s stunt work. And it’s not. We don’t get paid a lot of money to hurt ourselves. As bad as it sounds, that’s often what stunting ends up being. Obviously you know your own body and you know how to be safe and no one wants to get hurt, but I think there’s always that kind of expectation that you will end up getting bumps and bruises and you’re getting paid a lot anyway.
Whereas we do everything pretend. So nobody actually gets hit and nobody hurts themselves because we’re actor combatants so we’re able to act reactions and act tension in the body, act what a throw would look like. So in that way they’re not the same thing.
I also think that people have a misconception that they can do what we do that it’s not that hard. And I think that what a lot of people don’t understand is the amount of work and study that goes into the history of various weapons, of times in history, that sort of thing.
The time that goes into developing many martial styles in your body. Being able to produce a convincing reaction. Being able to hit a specific target. Being able to act aggression, being able to act violence without ever wanting to hurt your partner and without ever hurting them by accident.
We talk a lot in stage combat about 51/49. That 51% of you is always yourself and 49% of you is the character. It’s an analogy we use because you should always be in control. And that is hard for people to understand because I know that people think differently. Some people believe that you need to be 100% in your character all the time. And for stage combat, that’s just not realistic. It’s just not safe.
The ability of the actor to be in control and portray a very convincing character as well is such a talent and you don’t see it every day. That’s where the true art of what we do comes through. That’s what we’re striving for. We’re always striving to be that good and at the same time to be safe and so careful with the other actors, the cast, our costume, the set, the audience.
Interviewer: What frustrates you in the movie industry in regards to what you do?
Afton: It really bugs me in movies when there’s a lot of cuts through a fight and the timeline doesn’t match it. You can tell there just wasn’t an understanding of what the end game of the fight was. You also get a lot of shaky cam. I hate that because you can’t see what’s going on.
I also don’t like what I call “shadowcam, ” because everything is just in shadow . Daredevil uses it a lot. . Everything’s just dark or black. I understand, but at the same time I feel like, if you’re trying to tell a story and that story can’t be seen because it’s too dark or it’s shaky cam or it’s jumping, you’re not doing your job. You’re doing your audience a disservice. You’re doing your job for the audience. You’re trying to tell a story, so if you don’t do that then why do you have a fight?
Interviewer: What movies have good/bad fight choreography?
Afton: Sherlock Holmes is fantastic. It has wonderful fight choreography. I really like Haywire, it’ san amazing movie. Great choreography.
Movies like Blade and John Wick are really good too. Vikings is wonderful. I’m aware they hired someone who knew what they were doing. It makes a lot of difference. It’s really beautifully clear what’s happening during the fight scenes for the audience. It’s something that people aren’t used to seeing, but when they do see it, they’re like “Oh, that was great. I know what was happening. That’s awesome! I feel very involved in the story and this character’s struggle now.”
Ong-Bak is great. There’s so many to name. Like any Bruce Lee movies. Any Jackie Chan movies. Those guys are so amazing to watch because they are such strong actors and they sell everything that they’re doing, although what they’re doing is usually actual martial arts because they’re all black belts and they can all do it.
It’s still just wonderful to see them portraying characters as they’re doing it. I’ve always found that really inspiring.
Ones that are bad?(laughs) Game of Thrones is not…I’m just unhappy with it. That’s where you see a lot of jump cuts, there’s little martial reality, like things that would really happen, that fighters would never do. Like leaving themselves totally open, or moving their entire body weight somewhere without being balanced. Just little things that I only notice because I’ve studied this for so long. Like people using weapons inappropriately, that kind of thing.
I’m trying to think of more bad ones, but I just have a bunch of scenes from Game of Thrones in my head. (laughs)
Interviewer: Where do you see your career going from here?
Afton: I definitely hope I can start to develop this niche market in Edmonton, in film. I think we have a great opportunity because Calgary’s getting really big and I think that will spill up here. I think that it’s such a valuable service because we can fight like stunt coordinators can, but we won’t hurt ourselves every time.
In that way I think it’s much safer for everyone. You save more money. You have really great quality actors who can also fight and it would result in a better story over-all and more options for the story. If your actors know how to fight, just like if they know how to sing or dance or juggle, it just opens your options. And this is one of those things.
Interview: Tell us about the new web series, Mental Case, that you’re starring in.
Afton: I really like the idea of a series that centred on violence, because you see it in the media all the time, video games, on the street. It’s not that it’s something that people aren’t aware of, but I think it’s something that misunderstood. It’s something that people sort of ignore. Or they think that it’s not their problem. But it is something that as humans we need to understand.
So through this web series, that’s what I’m very excited about and want to explore. The range and depth that violence has. Especially in the wold where Mental Case takes place. One that is more violent than most.
Interviewer: What do you think is going on in the main character, Elya Virk’s, head? She seems to have two sides to her personality – the weird side and the violent/fighting side.
Afton: I think she doesn’t even know really yet where this person is going to take her. I find that interesting. I think it’s weird that even I do this as much as I do. Because I’m not a violent person. Why do I doing stage combat? I don’t know why. Sometimes there’s just a part of you that needs to do something and that’s what this feels like.
That’s something every artist struggles with. There’s a part of you that needs to do this thing and you don’t know why and you always questions whether it’s right because it’s not making you money and you don’t like this project that you’re doing or you’re working with someone you don’t agree with or whatever the case may be.
But at the same time, that’s just a part of you. Elya’s struggle to understand who she is through this other personality is really interesting. There’s a time or many times in one’s life where you feel like there’s a different part of you that needs to come out more or you’re changing and you’re not who you used to be.
And that’s really scary. It’s not a great thing to feel and it’s hard to sometimes really fully grasp how to deal with that and how to move forward. We’ve just caught her theatrically at a great place because she’s trying to figure out who she is in terms of this personality and trying to marry the two and if she can’t what happens then?
Interview: Thanks again for talking to us today, Afton. Best of luck in your future and with your new web series.
Afton: Any time. And thank you.