The ability to set oneself on fire, free fall from a building or turn a perfectly functioning automobile into a twisted heap of metal without being injured aren't skill sets on a typical resume, but Birmingham resident Ele Bardha's work as a Hollywood stuntman isn't a typical career.
"The things most people are scared of are the things I tend to steer myself toward," said Bardha, who's work as a stuntman and driver has appeared in more than 300 commercials and 85 films, including "Transformers: The Last Knight," "Baby Driver," "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Jaustice," "Deadpool" and others. "I'm scared of half of the things I get involved with, but there's no quitting. That attitude doesn't comply with my line of work."
Having worked in the entertainment industry for three decades, Bardha originally left Oakland County for Los Angeles with intentions of being a stand-up comedian and actor. Although he had been involved with extreme sports and car racing since a kid, it wasn't until moving to Hollywood and meeting other stunt coordinators that Bardha discovered he could "actually get paid for falling down."
"From a young age, at least as long as I can remember, I was always running around and jumping off of everything. As soon as I could walk, I was trying to get on furniture and jump off of it. Then it went on to the side of our house. I would be scared to have a kid like me," he said. "My parents were worried and talked to a mentor about it. After that, they left me alone and I found my own boundaries on my own. If that hadn't had happened, I may be working at Google in a cubical."
As Bardha got older, he transitioned from jumping off of furniture to jumping skateboards and BMX bicycles off ramps and landscapes. When Richard Golden needed a skateboarder for a DOC commercial, he gave Bardha his first gig after recognizing him as a skateboarder in downtown Birmingham. He later got into shifter kart racing, winning a national championship. Likewise, his driving ability provided him an inside track in commercial work, as well as televisions and movies.
Bardha's stunt work took off while living in California, where he was hired to do a series of high-energy, extreme sports commercials for Mountain Dew. Today, Bardha's work goes beyond stunts.
"I basically break down a script to see what the liability is or where the action is, and then I orchestrate and choreograph that," he said. "It's about making sure all of the elements are together to make sure everyone can do their job safely. Sometimes it might take weeks or months to prepare. To do it on the fly, that's where people get hurt."
Ultimately, stunt work is taking calculated risks.
"I saw my knee surgeon today," he said. "I've had five knee surgeries, and have had back, legs, ankles and neck injuries. Each incident was either at work or learning to do things."
Today, Bardha's work is expanding to include producing and directing. While he must often leave town for specific projects, he said he prefers living in Michigan, where he also operates his own production company.
In his free time, Bardha said he's usually training, and enjoys restoring 1970s Porsches with his brother.
"As life slows down, I'm easily distracted," he said. "But when things get crazy, I'm the guy you want when things go sideways."
Photo: Laurie Tennent