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What it’s Like to be a Stuntman on Yellowstone

by Buck Lunak

Picture this: You’re a horse thief, running loose colts at top speed across the plains of Montana at sunset. You’re galloping so hard and fast, the adrenaline is running for you and the horses. You’re trying to keep it under control, but you got helicopters chasing you, breathing down your mane. With all that ruckus right on your tail, these horses are gonna go. The chopper’s in hot pursuit when suddenly, you bust those horses into a river.

Cut! You’re actually a stuntman, and the director pumps his fist in the air. He knows he got the perfect shot.

That’s one the coolest action sequences I’ve ever performed on Yellowstone, Paramount’s hit series revolving around the Dutton family ranch. That’s just one of nearly two dozen western shows and movies I’ve been hired on in the last two years. Seems like everybody wants to shoot westerns these days. The American cowboy was America’s hero, then it kind of disappeared. Now it’s back, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Image by Paramount Media

My whole life has trained me to be a stuntman for westerns, without even really knowing it at the time. I grew up on a ranch, riding and roping, on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, in what’s now part of Glacier National Park. By the age of 10, I was breaking colts. At 15, I started riding bucking broncs. I did that for the next 18 years and earned a bunch of buckles. I’ve never really counted how many I have, but it’s quite a few. I’m a three-time Indian Rodeo Association Bareback Riding world champion, a Montana Circuit Finals Champion, and I’ve been in the top 30 of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association a few times. 

During my career, I didn’t ever put my buckles out or anything because I didn’t want to be complacent. I wanted to keep doing more. Today, I’m grateful for it. Now I have them on display to remind me of what I did. I’m proud. It’s meaningful now.

I’ve probably been on more than 1800 head of bucking horses. My body will sure tell that I’ve been on 1800 head of bucking horses. Bareback may not be the most dangerous event in rodeo, (like bull riding) but it’s the most brutal event on you hat-to-boots. They say riding bareback is equivalent to getting in a car wreck at 40 miles an hour – every time you nod your head.

Image by Buck Lunak

I don’t know who they is, but they is right. Over time, my body just wore down. I blew out my whole shoulder and had seven anchors implanted in it. Because of injury and overall burnout, I retired from rodeo when I was 33. In hindsight, it was probably a blessing in disguise.

At the time I was as confused as a bag of nails. I was sitting at home half depressed worrying about what I would do next in life. I couldn’t even lift my arm up. I got some gigs modeling with iconic western photographer Chris Douglas, who shoots ad campaigns for Boot Barn and Resistol hats, and is known for using real cowboys.

Suddenly, my phone started ringing to do stunts. Didn’t take me long to think it over. I realized I could go fall. My shoulder was already torn, it couldn’t get much worse. And it’d just pop in and out if I needed it to.

It was almost automatic how fast my career switched from rodeo to stunts. I can thank my Uncle Dutch and Uncle Scotty for that. They have been Indian stuntmen for decades. Dutch Lunak is a legend in the industry and has worked on practically every cowboy and Indian movie you’ve ever heard of, including Dances with Wolves, Geronimo, and The Last of the Mohicans

Uncle Dutch could get my cowboy boot in the door, but I’d have to keep myself there. Back during my rodeo days, I worked on a few shows with Dutch to make a few extra bucks and get my feet wet. But he never gave me preferential treatment. If anything, it was the opposite.

My first gigs were as stand-ins for the actors on the TV shows The Burrow and as an extra on A Million Ways to Die in the West. The reason my uncle made me start there is because he wanted me to earn it. He wouldn’t just hand me the stunts.  “You’re gonna earn this so you’re respectful,” he said. “You’re not privileged.”

Uncle Dutch and Uncle Scotty had such a good reputation in the business that my last name is pretty relevant in western stunts. They sure helped me get there but I knew I needed to perform. My first actual stunt show was on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, starring Liam Neeson. Since then, I’ve played a bank teller, got knocked out in a saloon fight, and died on camera at least 20 times. 

Image by Paramount Media

I had to get really good at “act-dying.” Whether I’m in a duel and someone shoots me, or I get shot off a horse. I’m a pro now at saddle falls, pretending to be shot off my horse. I guess you could say I was a natural at this skill. You can practice it, but what helped me was riding bucking horses my whole life. Sometimes you’re just thrown, so you learn how to fall through trial and error.

I figured out early on how to land as safely as possible. I was always taught to go belly down. You can roll but sometimes that’s out of your control. I try to at least hit on my stomach. I might get the wind knocked outta me, but I’m not gonna break a rib or ruin an elbow.

The worst thing you can do is try to land on your feet because a dead guy, he’s not gonna hit his feet. You need to make it look realistic, like you took a bullet hit. I pretend like someone punched me in the shoulder, then roll out of the saddle pushing my body out with my hip.

When you take that bullet hit, your horse is at full gallop, and he’s gonna pack you 20 feet, about two strides out. You need to time out where you’ll land to get the shot right. We don’t get no mats. It’s the ground, for real, and you gotta be on the lookout for rocks and cactus and whatnot.

Don’t worry, we get paid for our pain. I’m kind of used to it. Honestly, I kinda like the pain a little bit. You know, you gotta be a little crazy to jump off a galloping horse.

A horse you probably met that day. You only get a short time to bond and feel each other out. Luckily, most of the horses we work with are pros. They’ve been on shows before and are used to the sound of gunfire. When the actors start shooting blanks, your horse’s demeanor can change quickly. Some horses do not like it at all, especially in a big battle scene where you got twenty guys shooting guns. It’s just BANG, BANG, BANG. They use quarter loads, but it’s still pretty loud.

Some horses freak out, some take it really well. It just depends on your draw. You don’t get your first choice, they just hand you a horse, and you roll with it. I might be familiar with a few horses, if my uncles bring any to the set, but it’s not like they show that much mercy on me anyway.

Fortunately, my whole life has, by circumstance, trained me to do this. I’m a horseman. I can get by usually with most horses in most any circumstance. That’s why I’m there. Even if the horse has quirks, you can perform your job. At the end of the day, you are a stuntman. So, they’re not gonna give you the best horse. The best horses go to the cast.

I’ve worked alongside some of the biggest stars on the planet, from Harrison Ford to Sam Elliot, one of my personal heroes. Everyone I’ve met is super cool but at the end of the day, we all take off our chaps one leg at a time. So, I wouldn’t say I ever really get starstruck. But I am humbled to see the magnitude of these epic productions.

Image by Paramount Media

I do feel a lot of pressure to get my stunts right the first time. There’s so much to think about when it’s go-time. My uncle taught me well. He groomed me to be comfortable in front of the camera and get used to all the chaos around me. 

It’s allowed me to work on so many awesome projects, like 1923 and 1883. Butcher’s Crossing with Nicholas Cage and Kevin Costner’s new project Horizon. I worked on a spoof called Outlaws, which is like Blazing Saddles but with all Black actors. I also did stunt work for Bass Reeves, which is going to be a spinoff of Yellowstone about a Black lawman. It’s a super cool story.

As a Native American working in the entertainment industry, not only does representation matter, historically correct representation matters. A lot of people thought the natives were just out to kill whitey. Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan really shows the Indians from every angle, that they were a very big part of the West. He tells the whole story and I respect him a lot for that.

I get a lot of work because I’m Native American. I belong to “The Wagon Burners,” a group of Native American stunt people who have each other’s backs in the business. Over the years that group was instrumental in making sure that actors can’t portray an Indian and not be Indian anymore. I am a little light-skinned, so I can also go play cowboy. I really have the best of both worlds right there.

The stunt world’s pretty chill though. It’s a small community of people — most are retired rodeo cowboys because we’ve been bucked off, banged up, and know how to protect ourselves. We all just want to have a good time, laugh, and tell old stories from our glory days in rodeo. 

I love the OGs, the old school stunt guys. They give me a lot of respect because of my uncles, so that’s very humbling, but then I show up and perform, and they’re excited to see I can do the thing, too. At the same time, I know my place, and I’m the last guy to get a horse. If there’s 30 guys there, I’m always the last pick. I don’t mind. I’m gonna make mine work no matter what. I ride colts, so I ride the young ones and know how to get around them. 

One time on Yellowstone, I walked up to the trailer and there was this little buckskin horse lunging around.

“Any experienced riders?” the wrangler called out. No one said anything. “Any bronc riders?” he asked again.

“I guess that’s me,” I said, laughing. 

So, I get on this horse, and I get him pretty warmed up. We get to set, and it’s the first scene and I gotta elope this horse to the river first. My horse just starts bucking through the scene. I mean, I rode him pretty well, I didn’t get bucked off or nothing. But all the guys were pretty fired up about it. That’s the day I gave myself a rep that I could ride a bad one. I got to show, hey man, I’m legit. I can do this thing. Nothing more important than getting street cred from your peers. 

I’m pretty new to the business, just two and half years, so it means a lot to get recognized for my talent. My uncles set the bar high and I’m not about to let them down. You gotta respect the older generation. They did some really wild stuff back in their day. Some of them are really good at back overs, there’s the saddle fall guys, guys who get dragged by their horse. Things are more controlled now, it’s much more safe, but they really lived through it.

These old school guys love to mentor you and help you find your niche. I don’t think I’ve quite figured mine out yet. I would like to do it all, be an all-rounded stunt guy. One thing I haven’t tried yet is fall horses, where the cowboy and horse both hit the ground. It’s kind of a seniority thing. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity someday soon.

Image by Buck Lunak

For now, I’m just grateful for the paychecks and the amazing places it’s taken me so far, like Santa Fe and Arizona. We go all over but Montana’s getting more popular with the film industry. It’s hard to beat. Montana’s such diverse country. You can be in the mountains, you can be on a river bottom, you can be in the Badlands. We have it all in Montana.

The only hard part of my job is that I can be gone for a couple months filming, and I really miss my beautiful wife Emma, who is a champion team roper herself, and my Wiener dog Penny. I also started a business with my buddy called Buck & Dave’s Eggs. We own 2000 laying hens, so we are able to provide sustainable local eggs to local people. We’re sold out every week. With the price of eggs these days, everybody thinks I’m a genius. 

But being a stuntman is a great career. I get to do things I’d never even dreamed possible. When I shot Butcher’s Crossing, based on the novel about the last buffalo hunt, it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and will ever do in my life.

We were doubling these actors and they had to run 300 head of buffalo through me. I was a greenhorn, I messed it up and scattered the herd. So, then we were just chasing buffalo, with their tongues hanging out and stuff. I grew up around buffalo, not a lot of people get to run buffalo. And the chance of me going and running buffalo ever again, for a show or anything else, is slim to none.

The kicker? It was shot on the Blackfeet reservation, my reservation, my home. The sunset on that evening looked like a painting. It was really special.

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