Hollywood stuntman opens academy that teaches high flying, acrobatic skills

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KAILUA-KONA — Liam Cunningham leapt onto the trampoline, catapulted through the air and wrapped his arms around a coffee duffel attached to a zip line, his momentum propelling the bag forward to the cushioned landing area where the 10-year-old released his grip and dropped softly to the mat.

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KAILUA-KONA — Liam Cunningham leapt onto the trampoline, catapulted through the air and wrapped his arms around a coffee duffel attached to a zip line, his momentum propelling the bag forward to the cushioned landing area where the 10-year-old released his grip and dropped softly to the mat.

The exercise, a replica of a stunt filmed only Monday on Hawaii Island for “Jo, the Medicine Runner” — a film being directed by Liam’s father, David Cunningham, for the Kona-based Honua Studios — was part of Liam’s ninja training Thursday afternoon at the Hawaii Action Academy.

The academy, opened only four weeks ago by career stuntman and stunt coordinator Adrian Hein — who most recently stunt doubled for Chris Evans’ Captain America character in Marvel’s blockbuster feature “Captain America: Civil War” — offers children ages 4 to 16 the chance to learn a wide array of stunt-based, acrobatic skills.

“Kids love the term ninja training, so we’ve gone with that title,” said Hein, who serves as the stunt coordinator for Cunningham’s upcoming film. “(My vision) is to train up talent for the film industry, so ultimately these kids, whether they’re aspiring extreme sports enthusiasts or want to break into the film industry, it’s something attainable.”

Hein said the film industry is growing in Hawaii, and he and Cunningham are loosely partnered in an endeavor to grow it specifically on Hawaii Island.

Part of what Hein is offering the island’s youth is a shot at exposure, which may one day land them work in films. But mostly, he’s offering engaging and acrobatic physical activity for kids who want to fly around and have fun — as a group of nearly a dozen of them did Thursday afternoon in the academy’s facilities below Costco.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” said Liam, a self-described enthusiast of anything action or adventure-based. “It’s super fun, and I have no other words to describe it.”

Classes have only been open for around a month, but already they are beginning to fill up, Hein said.

Instruction at the action academy is broad, ranging from free running to parkour to Ninja Warrior obstacles. Acrobatics and trampoline skills are also incorporated, and a climbing program as well as a ropes program are set to arrive in short order.

Brian Breaux, a 21-year-old instructor at the academy, took a little time off from running up and flipping off walls to explain the activities offered in a little more depth.

“Free running is about going from point A to point B in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible — just moving the way you want to move through your environment. Sort of like a form of self-expression,” he explained. “That’s what I do. I like to flip through my environment.”

While instruction is structured to an extent, the whole point is to allow students the sense of freedom Breaux described in a safe environment.

“Kids can go on YouTube, bring in a video and say, ‘I want to learn this trick,’” Hein said. “We give them the opportunity to express themselves and show what they can do. Then we work progressively from there.”

Judy Cunningham, Liam’s mother, said that’s exactly what attracted her son to the program. She’d tried to interest him in gymnastics as an outlet for his interest in parkour, but at least for Liam, gymnastics couldn’t compete with what Hein, one of his heroes, is offering.

Another of Liam’s heroes, Judy said, is survivalist television star Bear Grylls. One day she walked out to her yard and saw Liam spitting something into the grass. He’d eaten a worm, she laughed.

“Mom, it’s a good source of protein,” he told her.

She decided then she ought to direct her son to an appropriate outlet for his adventure-seeking personality rather than leave him solely to his own devices.

“Liam is interested in the freestyle aspect of being able to negotiate your body however you feel,” she said. “You can roll and tumble, and there’s the ability to jump off walls and use elements around you to get a different affect in your movement. He loves it.”

As to the issue of safety, Hein said he’s cognizant of the concern in parents, and takes a gradual approach to instruction. He has a background as a gymnast in Canada, where he trained for the Olympics back in the mid-1990s before moving onto the film industry as a stuntman.

Hein builds up the foundational elements of each move, starting with footwork and finishing with the landing. His analogy of choice is “start on the low dive before moving to the high dive.”

He added that in his decade and a half working as a stuntman, he’s never broken a bone on a movie set.

The academy isn’t just for kids, either. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30-8:30 p.m., Hein offers a $20 open gym for adults interested in testing and developing their ninja training.

He added he’s also developing a morning program, which he envisions as a mash-up between ninja elements and a Crossfit-style workout, complete with elements of self-defense and weapons training.

“Most of my work is fighting in movies, and my passion is Filipino martial arts, so I can teach some weapons … and empty hands and kickboxing,” Hein said. “It’s a good workout in combination with the Ninja Warrior element.”

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Hein is also looking to add to his staff, which currently numbers at only three, including himself. He said he’s on the hunt for instructors with background training in trampoline and gymnastics, who also understand technique and love working with children.

“The kids, they kind of go crazy for this stuff,” Breaux said. “In a way, you have to keep control. You have to make rules, but you have to let the kids come and play around, learn and have something to do. It builds self-confidence. That’s what we’re here for.”

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