A twist of fate got Atiba Wade his first stunt performance job last year, but it was his unique combination of skills that kept him on set for longer than he ever imagined.
After working as a stunt double for renowned villain Giancarlo Esposito on the new Netflix series, “Kaleidoscope,” Wade flew straight to Atlanta to help the crew of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” finish filming. What was initially supposed to be two weeks on set turned into two months of shooting for the former NCAA All-American swimmer with a background in gymnastics and fitness coaching. Unknowingly, he had actually spent decades preparing for his role as a sailor in Wakanda’s navy.
“I was just surrounded by a bunch of legends,” Wade said, comparing his work with stunt coordinator Andy Gill (the Fast and Furious movies) and underwater cinematographer Pete Zuccarini (Avatar 2) to being coached by Bob Bowman and Eddie Reese. “To be able to contribute in the way I was asked to contribute, it was an honor. I don’t have years and years of experience in stunts. However, the skill sets that I already have in gymnastics, in body weight strength training, just being involved with movement culture in general — all of my skill sets, I was able to use on set and it was fantastic.”
Wade trained with some of the top free divers in the world to improve his breath-holding abilities in preparation for scenes that required him to be underwater for 2 ½ minutes at a time. It was an exchange of lessons as he also offered the divers assistance dolphin kicking without their fins. Some scenes involved 90 seconds of action in costumes that made swimming incredibly difficult.
“As swimmers, you’re super mentally tough and just being able to adapt on the fly, that’s where it kicked in,” said Wade, who swam collegiately at the University of Georgia in the late 1990s.
Colombian free diver Alex Llinas worked extensively with co-star Tenoch Huerta, who plays Namor. Huerta only started swimming lessons a few months before filming began, but by the end of it, he was a natural.
“When Namor is rallying up the crowd and having this whole forum and promising his people they will never be dominated, that was all underwater and he had to mouth those words underwater,” Llinas said of Huerta. “One time he was able to do back-to-back takes. A static breath hold is different than a breath hold while performing; it takes more energy and concentration. You have to be so comfortable in the water that you’re not seeing the discomfort, because it can show in a face.”
Wade couldn’t help but get a little starstruck when Lupita Nyong’o used his goggles during a rehearsal. But watching the level of focus that his fellow actors brought to each scene reminded him of the ready room during his days as a Bulldog competing at SEC and NCAA Championships, and it inspired him to elevate his performance under the bright lights.
“When we were doing some of the fight scene stuff on the boat, being right next to these movie stars right before they yell action — they’re just so down to earth, and their focus is similar to athletics,” Wade said. “You’re in the ready room, you’re not really talking too much, you’re in the moment. But to be involved in that process right next to these superstar actors, you do get kind of starstruck, but in the best way possible. It makes you step your game up, at least for me. I’m like, ‘I’m next to these legends, let me step up my game and show them what I can do.’”
The experience left Wade wanting more. Not only is he now registered in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), but he also became a certified free diver after learning more about the extreme sport. Looking back, he wishes he would have known about this line of work sooner.
“If I had known this career path was available after graduating from college, I would have definitely gone into this line of work,” said Wade, who stays busy as a swimming clinician with Fitter & Faster, creator of H2Go Fitness, and Invictus Games coach.
Wade grew up swimming for legendary coach Jim Ellis with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) swim squad, which was founded as the first Black team in the country back in 1971. Notably, he’s not the only PDR swimmer to achieve success in the entertainment industry — former teammate Kevin Hart has been doing it for years.
“It’s funny that two swimmers from the PDR swim team made it to the big screen,” Wade said. “He was always that funny. Now he just gets paid millions of dollars to do what he was doing in the locker room.”
Hart may have established himself as one of the most well-known comedians of his generation, but Wade could be able to claim bragging rights over him in one awards category if “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” beats out four other nominees for the 2023 SAG Award honoring the Best Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture next month.
A swimmer turned stuntman being directed by Andy Gill – which is also the name of an All-American swimmer and Olympic trials finalist from UT – has twisted my mind into a 🥨 and maybe bent the fabric of space-time.
Wow. Multiple examples of being coached to be willing to be unique as a youth supporting the idea of being unique in another life stage. “Bravo” to all. Especially coach Ellis who first lead others into the unknown.
Thanks for sharing this story
This guy was destroying everyone at meets in NJ in the mid 90’s. Wade, Michael Norment, and I forget the other guy. I never was good enough to see how they did at National/International meets.
Wade, Norment, Webb, Goodner, Bagley, Walters, Bell, Fletcher, Small, and even Kevin Hart swam with them for a while! PDR was awesome. Great group to grow up swimming with and against. I remember watching Fletcher on Double Dare! He did end up losing in the last Obstacle Round, though.