Tulsa King Stunt Coordinator Freddie Poole On Car Chases, Surviving Fire, And Taking Hits [Exclusive Interview]

"Tulsa King" kept Freddie Poole busy. He was the stunt coordinator, doubled for Sylvester Stallone in most episodes, and handled second unit work for the Taylor Sheridan-created mob series. Poole, who's collaborated with Stallone for over a decade now, even directed a highlight in the debut season: episode 3's car chase through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stallone's 76-year-old mobster is more calculated than quick whether he's throwing or receiving punches, which Poole helped depict in the stunts. 

"Walker, Texas Ranger" launched his career, which includes projects like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "The Suicide Squad," and Jeff Nichols' next film, "The Bikeriders." Like most people in the stunt world, Poole has a lot of stories to tell. "Because of the nature of the business and where it takes us and who you work with and the time that we spend together on a set or outside of work, you definitely get a lot of stories," he said. "I've had my fill from different peers and friends and, of course, I've got my own." Recently, Poole shared a few of those entertaining stories with us.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'Everyone knows Sylvester Stallone's style, right?'

You've been working with Stallone over a decade now, right?

It started back on Walter Hill's "Bullet to the Head." To be quite honest, we really didn't have any interaction. It was limited, I should say. It was basically a "hello" in passing, but that happens your first time out. Fortunately, my size and look is very similar to Sly, so I started getting more and more calls and then, of course, you start to build the rapport. There's a comfort level once an actor sees your face more than once and gets to know you. It's been great.

When you develop that rapport and get to know someone better, does it help you portray them better?

It helps tremendously because you get to figure out the little small details and nuances: how they move, how they walk, even. Not just in action, but walking and certain little details that if I had only doubled them once or twice, I probably wouldn't pick up. You learn their style as well. I mean, everyone knows Sylvester Stallone's style, right? He's Rambo, so not very difficult to figure out.

You're never going to see Sylvester Stallone do these intricate martial art moves or anything like that. He even says it himself. "I'm not a martial arts guy." I've heard that come out of his mouth more than once. So as a double, I'd always try to get with the coordinators that I have worked for that maybe don't know him quite as well, and just get in their ears and let them know, "Hey, I'm not stepping on toes here, but this is what Stallone likes to do and this is what he doesn't like to do." I think it's been a beneficial relationship over the years.

Even his walk and its swagger, just the way he swings his arms, is very him. Is that a small detail you pick up on?

Exactly what you just put down. Those are just small little details that even people pick up on set. When I'm there, I just naturally fall into that mode and then I'll have our first AD or our second united come up and go, "Gosh, you really move like he does." And I say, "Well, that's what I'm here to do." I'm going to make that as seamless of a transition as possible, so that when the audience is watching, you're going to have a very difficult time knowing whether it's him or whether it's me. If we accomplish that, we've done our jobs.

What were some conversations you had on "Tulsa King" where you said, "Well, that's what he likes, and this is what this character would probably do"?

Fortunately, I have the same process with every episode in regards to "Tulsa King." It's the initial meeting with our director and showrunner, but always in the back of my mind knowing, okay, I know what we're going to get out of Stallone. I would voice that and I would be very upfront. I think there was an appreciation there from the directors that we've had when they'd say, "Well, I'd like for Sly to do this." And I would say, "Okay, we can make that happen," or, "Well, that'd probably be better if I did it as a double." And then there were times when I said, "No, that's just not going to work. We, unfortunately, won't be able to do that." They were very understanding.

They knew that there was history there from my end working with Stallone. And then of course, once we have the framework of the action in those initial meetings, I would turn right back around and go meet with Stallone personally and some of our bigger action sequences and then he and I would discuss it. He's a legend. He's an icon. He's going to have his thoughts and input.

'We design the action to fit the character'

It's funny, even when the show reminds you of Stallone's age, you laugh because he's still got such a youthful quality about him. How do you take into account his age for the stunts?

Well, 76, that's where we're at. 76 doesn't move like 36. We have to take into account with the physicality of what Dwight, the character that Stallone plays, is doing and realistically capable of. I don't feel we're going to ever see these long foot chase sequences or something like that because, as great of shape as he is in or anyone in their seventies is in; those are just unrealistic. We design the action to fit the character. It's not a character I could ever see chasing someone, except for the car chase.

Which is a lot of fun, especially because it's not a typical location for a car chase. How did you pull that sequence off?

Well, that took a lot of planning, a lot of prep, because there were so many moving parts, not just vehicles, but we had special effects. We had picture cars. We had to tie in our sets with what we shot on green screen with our actors to what we shot on location with our actors to what we shot on second unit on location with our stunt doubles. I can't tell you how many times I went with crew, with my stunt team, by myself, with our special effects department, to walk through every block and intersection, so that we knew exactly what we wanted to capture on the day.

All these different aspects and components that took quite a bit of time, which we were up against because we're doing episodic. We have a certain timeframe which we're allotted to shoot and capture everything we need. One other thing to add to that, sort of another roadblock, was the fact that when we were shooting our second unit, we were shut down for three hours because of a lightning delay. It really put us up against the clock in order to get what we needed.

Again, a lot of planning. I even brought my stunt team in and I had production secure a big wide open lot. We set up cones and almost did a little mini pre-vis of some of our driving pieces, which I think saved us because if we didn't have that planning and prep in place and we showed up on the day and tried to map all this out on the day, we wouldn't have gotten what we did. I thought what we shot was great. Everyone seemed to love it. The T-bone I thought was magnificent. 

For the fight sequence between Dwight's team and the bikers, what are the little things that make those hits and punches believable?

Such a massive amount of people. Every piece, and if we go back and watch that fight, we have the overlay, we have the lead up with Dwight and his crew and the bats, and then that opening moment where he takes a swipe and hits one of the guys loading tanks in the van, and then we move into a nice tracking shot. It's where the two sides almost on the battlefield just emerge and all hell breaks loose. The important thing for us was to make sure we capture certain story points, because as action designers, that's our job. As directors and actors, their job is to bring the dialogue on the page to life. We do the same thing as action storytellers.

We take what's written on the page, bring it to life, and there are key story elements we don't want to miss. We want to make sure that each character that has their moment, that we capture that. I brought my stunt team in and shot a pre-vis. It was mandatory because it was one of those things that, again, after initial meetings with directors and showrunners, we can't just show up on the day and point fingers and say, "You do that over there and you do this over there." Otherwise, we'd still be trying to shoot it today.

'I started a long time ago on Walker, Texas Ranger with Chuck'

Health is obviously important to your work. Even when you're not on set, how do you keep your mind and body up to the task of the job?

People never ask about that, but that's actually a very important aspect of not just what I do, but just being a stunt performer in general. I am not performing as often as when I first started out or when I was in my twenties, but I follow a pretty regimented exercise program. I've been a lifelong martial artist my whole life, and that's how I got into the business of being a fight guy. I still train when I can, and even when I'm in different cities, I'll go find a jiu-jitsu academy where I can go in my downtime and train or I'll find a gym.

Most of what I do is performance-oriented. It's not just lifting, doing bicep curls, which I still have to do because I'm doubling Sylvester Stallone, but it's all functional type of training, which applies to what I do as a stunt performer. So, that's working out minimum three times a week. If I can get five or six, that's a great week. As for my diet, I eat clean. I don't eat perfectly, but I stay away from alcohol. I'm not a big drinker. I don't eat a lot of sugar or high sugar foods. I think if someone does that and pays attention to those kinds of things, you're definitely looking at some longevity in your career. 

So many stunt artists started out in martial arts. Obviously, there's the physical capabilities that it gives you, but what about the mental strength training? To prepare you to get hit by a car or thrown around?

Well, you're under duress, first of all, because obviously they're trying to tie you up, you're trying to tie them up. So, that's the thing. It's just you and them, and it doesn't matter where you come from, what social class, you're on the same playing field at that point. I don't have someone to my right or left to save me. It's all up to me. You're going to go through some trials and tribulations at every level, because there's always someone who is either a higher rank or more skilled. It takes a lot of mental focus and awareness. Now, the translation to stunts is exactly what I just said. It takes a lot of focus and mental awareness where my body is in space. The focus aspect is what translates from martial arts to performing stunts. There's such a mental thing, and it's hard to express and explain until you do it.

What was your first stunt gig?

I started a long time ago on "Walker, Texas Ranger" with Chuck [Norris]. I was enamored. You have to understand, I started martial arts when I was seven years old. The reason I started was because of Chuck Norris and watching Chuck Norris movies. I met him when I was nine years old and got an autograph. My dad gave me a dollar bill and had me sign this walk up to Chuck, and he signed this dollar bill that I still have to this day.

Fast forward to 21 years old, and somehow, I got lucky. Someone took a liking to me and I ended up working on "Walker." It was minimal work. It was basically Chuck walks into a room, there's five guys and he takes everyone out quickly. It was a great experience for me. At the time, I didn't realize that 25 plus years later that I'd be sitting here doing an interview with you, or anyone else, for that matter.

The Norris family are very, very dear to me. I'm close with them. I worked with them for seven years on their shows, not just "Walker," but any spinoff series or pilot or TV movie of the week, they would always include me. Eric Norris, his son, is a mentor and a good friend, and he's given me some great advice and guidance over the years. I owe that family a lot, especially for my career and where I am today.

'Man, I really need to work out'

I imagine, like any creative career, there's a lot of uncertainty involved. When did you realize this career was working for you?

You definitely go through some lean times and not working as often as you would like to. I've had that over the years. Fortunately, I had a fallback because of my martial arts background. I taught and trained people in martial arts, which got me through some of the leaner times. Once I started coordinating over a decade ago, things changed. Let's say I have a feature, which could be two to six months. When you're a stunt double on a show, you're going job to job for a few days here and there for maybe two weeks or a month. As you start coordinating, you're there for the majority of the time during production. 

Once I start doing that more and going from one job to the next, your mind starts to settle a bit. I was like, "Okay, I think we're going to be all right." I purposely took time off. My last project was "The Bikeriders" with Tom Hardy and Austin Butler. After that show, I said, "I'm not going to take anything for a minute. I'm just going to calm down and relax and wait," as opposed to jumping right into the next project, which I've done for a long time. At this point, I'm just hanging out, and it's good for the mind. You've got to take some time off.

I can't wait for that movie. Jeff Nichols has talked about telling that story for years. How was your experience on that one?

Jeff is just such a talented human being. I really enjoyed watching his process as a director. I went straight from "Tulsa King" to "Bikeriders." I literally wrapped "Tulsa King" at 2:00 AM on a Saturday morning and then at 9:00 AM on Monday, I was in Cincinnati, Ohio starting prep on "The Bikeriders." What an experience, because I obviously got to work with Austin Butler, who's just been nominated for all these awards, and Tom Hardy, who I, because of his huge interest in jiu-jitsu, we became close friends and training partners. We were both sitting around going, "Man, I really need to work out, so why don't we work out together?" 

We had a lot of fights to shoot. Again, another big biker brawl to accomplish. Of course, someone like Tom, he's done this for a long time and knows what things that he likes to do. It's one of those things where I'd been through that process already and have done it so many times, so it just came second nature to me. But again, I was glad to meet Jeff and work with him, and I really enjoyed my time on the show.

How was it to roll with Tom Hardy?

We have a lot of fun. I'm a black belt in jiu-jitsu. Tom is a blue belt. Obviously, I've got a little more experience than he does. When I did roll with him, it was one of those things where I was like, okay, he's definitely skilled. I can see why he's winning the competitions. When he does compete, he's such a student and the intensity and the focus that he has I think is just a part of him.

I noticed when we were drilling or going over techniques or even if we were going to one of the local academies, the amount of intent that he would utilize and just take everything in and apply. Obviously, he's a very successful actor. I can see that's how he is in his life. Everything is very focused and it's done well for him. I'm happy to see him enjoying something I've enjoyed my whole life. I obviously wish him the best and continued success in any competitions that he does do.

'I don't know anyone that says, 'Man, I love working nights''

I want to throw a few past titles at you and hear what comes to mind. Cool with you?

Let's do it.

For a movie like "Logan," what does "uncredited work" mean?

Yeah, it's weird. It's one of those odd things when I see uncredited on IMDb or something like that because the check cleared. I don't know why. Anyway, it was just a sequence where I worked with friends of mine, Garrett Warren and Steve Brown, and we were going through a little military sequence. Everyone's getting taken out by the young girl in the show. I remember Garrett going over and over about our military maneuvers. That was his big thing, making it as authentic as possible. It was a brief time on "Logan," but I still had a lot of fun just because again, I get to work with and for my friends.

How about "The Suicide Squad"?

There was a big, big sequence, which was the opening sequence from "The Suicide Squad." Really, I don't want to sound negative, but I just remember we worked many nights in a row, and I don't know anyone that says, "Man, I love working nights." Your body just never really adjusts. I think it was two or three weeks of nights that we did. It was a big battle sequence with all the stars. Margot Robbie, and it was my first experience working with her. It was a lot of fun. At the same time, well, we were going home and that sun's coming up. We're having a great time, but when that sun hits you at seven in the morning, reality sets in there.

What about "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"?

I actually had a torn ACL, not from the film, but somehow I was able to move and I wore a brace and it gave me stability. We did a lot of running, just a lot of running on that one. I remember thinking in the back of my mind, is this brace or my knee ever going to give out? It never did, fortunately. I felt very fortunate and very lucky to get through that one and a couple others before I eventually did have surgery to repair it, because it wasn't something that I could just live with the rest of my life if I were going to continue working in the field.

How did you fight through the pain of a torn ACL and keep working?

It was just an awkward thing. I didn't tear it working. It was just a little freak accident where I was at a party and a friend picked me up. He's bigger than I am, and it was a friendly bear hug. When he set me down, my knee just went. The first thing I went in the back of my head was, oh gosh, how's this going to affect me working? I went to the doctor and he gave me this brace and he said, "Wear this. You're walking. It's not like you don't have movement."

I wore the brace and I said, "Wow, I actually have freedom of movement here." So again, I was able to go through a couple projects wearing this brace, but after that, the doctor said, "Look, you could continue doing this or have surgery and then be at a hundred percent." I never really was fully a hundred percent. I opted for the surgery.

So out of all the stunts you've done, a friend giving you a hug was what tore your ACL?

I've had my fair share of injuries on set, but to have something like that happen, it's such a strange moment to be sitting there going, "I can't believe this just happened when I'm falling off buildings and getting set on fire, hit by cars for a living, and my buddy kind of bumps into me and I tear my ACL."

'You can only be set on fire for so long'

What do you have to keep in mind when you're being set on fire or hit by a car?

Well, the safety aspect, of course, timing. The thing is when you do a car hit, if your timing is off just by a little bit, that's when things can really go wrong. Your fire burns, you can only be set on fire for so long. We take all the necessary precautions with the prep, right? We're wearing the nomex or the CarbonX and the fire gel, but it's still fire and it burns at a very high temperature and you will start to feel the heat. I've been fortunate to coordinate a lot of really interesting fire burns. We have our cues basically to say, "Okay, I'm ready to be put out." Everyone's got to be dialed in. Again, goes back to that focus, you have to be extremely focused in order to accomplish the stunt. Otherwise, that's when the accidents can happen.

What are some stunts and days on the job that were especially memorable or left you deeply fulfilled?

I have four children, but I have two older children that are in the business. Going back to a fire burn, we did a gnarly fire burn in a little horror film that I coordinated called "The Seventh Day" with Guy Pearce. It was an exorcism scene and I lit my daughter on fire.


And not your conventional fire burn, but a lot of fire burns. You see your performers have freedom of movement, which is actually helpful and beneficial. Well, she's chained to a bed, so that changes the dynamic big time, because she doesn't have that movement that you normally would. It was a big, big thing. I think that was probably the most nervous I've ever felt in my career. And so, I would say that is one that sticks out in my mind.

The T-bone on "Tulsa King" is a big one that was all hands on deck. I can't take a hundred percent credit for that. I'll never take a hundred percent credit because our performers, those are the guys behind the wheel at the end of the day. Their timing, special effects, picture cars, everyone that had a hand in that sequence. To accomplish what we did and in the manner that we did and the time that we did, that was a very proud moment.

After that "Seventh Day" stunt was done, you were a proud dad, right?

Oh yeah. I mean, it was one of those things where our executive producer was behind the monitor and he looked at me and said, "Well, we don't need to do that again." It was a huge sigh of relief, because I agreed with him. We got it in one shot. It was amazing. When I show that clip to different people in the industry, they're just amazed. Amazed.

"Tulsa King" season 1 is now available to stream on Paramount+.