20 On-Screen Injuries That Were Actually Real
There is a long list of people who have gotten hurt– even killed– on movie sets that proves just how real it can be to create such elaborate fiction.
While real-life injuries often come in the way you’d expect – during dangerous action sequences and stuntwork – there are plenty of people who have gotten hurt on movie setsdoing tasks as unassuming as disassembling sets. As a matter of fact, of the many death-defying stunts that action star Jackie Chan has done in his career, the one that came the closest to killing him was actually a fairly simple jump from a wall to a tree branch that resulted in a piece of his skull going into his brain.
When an actor suffers an injury during a scene, the typical course of action is for filming to immediately halt so that the actor can receive medical attention. However, there are times when an actor gets hurt during a scene and they decide to just stay in character and keep right on going with the performance, which can lead to interesting results that take a scene in an unplanned direction.
In other cases, an actor’s on-screen injury does lead to immediate medical attention, but the injury itself didn’t disrupt the scene and it is able to be kept in the movie’s final cut.
Here are 20 On-Screen Injuries That Were Actually Real.
20. BEN AFFLECK – DAZED AND CONFUSED
A lot of people like to take Ben Affleck to task for what they perceive as his lack of acting talent, but they clearly have no idea that the man once completely stayed in character despite badly twisting his ankle.
In Dazed and Confused, one of Affleck’s first theatrical movie roles, he plays a bully named O’Bannion. In a pivotal scene, the teenagers he’d been tormenting for much of the movie finally take sweet revenge on him by dumping paint all over him. After he is unsuccessful at catching them before they flee, O’Bannion throws a frustrated tantrum that resulted in Affleck very visibly twisting his ankle. The actor didn’t break character, and instead just limped over to and got in his car.
It isn’t the most severe injury that can happen to a person, but the fact that Affleck didn’t immediately put a stop to the scene is definitely commendable.
19. STEVE CARELL – THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
Many of the women reading this list are rolling their eyes right now at the implication that being waxed constitutes an “injury” that an actor should be praised for enduring. Still, waxing sessions don’t tend to be captured on film for millions of people to see, and they don’t normally involve the removal of quite as much hair as is on Steve Carell’s chest.
Not only was the waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin completely real, but so were all of Carell’s reactions– down to his iconic shout of “Kelly Clarkson!”
Even while having a sweater’s worth of hair yanked off his chest, Carell’s gift for hilarious ad-libbing was in full effect, and he didn’t waste any of the pain he had to endure with anything less than an A-level take.
18. LINDA HAMILTON AND KEN GIBBEL – TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
Linda Hamilton began to shy away from being a big action star following her excellent turn as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and when you find out what she had to endure for that movie, it’s not hard to see why. Not only did she suffer permanent hearing loss in the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger fires a gun in an elevator, but she also injured her knees from having to repeatedly fall after being struck by Ken Gibbel’s character.
Why did she have to fall so many times? Because Gibbel kept botching the take and everyone had to keep doing the scene over again. After awhile, Gibbel’s failure to nail the take really started to frustrate Hamilton– and both Hamilton’s character and the actress herself ended up getting their revenge.
When Sarah Connor is escaping from the hospital, she attacks Douglas (Ken Gibbel) with a broken broom handle. After the frustration of having to do the falling scene so many times, Hamilton was so angry with Gibbel that she didn’t hold back, and those brutal hits she delivers to him from the broomstick are 100% real.
17. JAMES FRANCO – PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Whether it’s a complex arthouse film or a goofy stoner comedy, James Franco is known to be an actor who gives his all to his performances– except when he co-hosts the Academy Awards, that is.
In the 2008 action comedy Pineapple Express, Franco’s character Saul Silver has to run head-first into a tree. While there are a number of ways to fake such a moment of physical comedy, Franco decided to take his method acting to the extreme and really run into the tree at full force in order to make it as believable as possible. The result was a gash on his head that required stitches.
Because of a head wound that was going to take weeks to heal, it was decided that Saul would just wear a headband all the time, which was able to hide the injury so filming could go on rather than waiting for it to fully heal first. It’s easy to tell which scenes were filmed before and which were filmed after the injury based on whether Franco is wearing the headband or not.
16. HALLE BERRY – GOTHIKA
Released during career slumps for both of its stars, 2003’s Gothika was a forgettable psychological thriller starring Halle Berry and Robert Downey Jr. It was the first attempt at an American film for director Mathieu Kassovitz, who immediately went back to French and European filmmaking after he finished Gothika. Everyone involved in the movie would probably be more than content to forget it ever happened.
However, Berry likely hasn’t been able to put the movie completely out of her mind, as she ended up breaking her arm during filming. In a scene where Downey is restraining her, he accidentally held her down a little too hard and it caused her arm to break. Downey said he actually heard the pop. By everyone’s account, Downey wasn’t doing anything reckless, and it was basically a freak accident.
While the scene ended shortly after anyway, Berry and Downey both remained in character just long enough to save the take so it could be used in the film.
15. ELLEN BURSTYN – THE EXORCIST
The Exorcist is a classic horror movie that has some of the most cringe-inducing scenes in Hollywood history. However, one of the toughest to watch is one that doesn’t involve spinning heads or reverse spider walks– especially if you know the story behind it.
When Ellen Burstyn’s character is pushed to the ground by her possessed daughter, the way she hits the ground looks absolutely brutal. In order to achieve that effect, a wire was attached to Burstyn that a crew member was using to yank her onto the floor. After doing it once, director William Friedkin immediately called for a second take. Burstyn protested, complaining that she was pulled too hard the first time. Friedkin told her that it had to look real, but Burstyn insisted that she could really hurt herself.
According to Burstyn, Friedkin told the man pulling the wire to take it easy, but she believes that the director somehow communicated to the crew member to still go full force anyway, as the pulling seemed to remain just as forceful after that. On the final pull, Burstyn did end up permanently injuring her back, which was the take used in the movie.
14. MALCOLM MCDOWELL – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
The image most associated with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is that of actor Malcolm McDowell having his eyes forced open by metal hooks. It’s a shot that would’ve been incredibly difficult to fake, so it wasn’t– there were actually hooks placed under McDowell’s eyelids and lower eye, and it was every bit as dangerous as it looked.
Not only did McDowell suffer permanent scarring from filming the scene, but in the first attempt at setting up the shot, his eyeball was sliced and he almost lost his vision.
Kubrick wasn’t one to let nearly blinding his actors get in the way of his creative vision, so for the second attempt, an eye doctor was brought in to help ensure that everything went as safely as possible.
In fact, the man in the movie that is standing over McDowell and constantly administering eye drops to him is that real eye doctor, and Kubrick decided not to edit him out of the scene and instead left in the shots of him and of the eye drops being put into McDowell’s eyes.
13. CARY ELWES – THE PRINCESS BRIDE
In The Princess Bride, there is a scene where Carey Elwes’ Westley is hit in the head by the butt of a sword and knocked unconscious, later waking up on a torture table. As it turns out, the reality of the filming of that scene wasn’t much different– only Elwes woke up in a hospital instead.
In a recent interview with Sundance TV, Elwes revealed that he was actually struck in the head with a real sword. With no safe prop swords available, Elwes told co-star Christopher Guest to just go ahead and “tap” him on the head with the handle of his real sword. Guest apparently got a little overzealous, and bopped Elwes so hard that he was knocked out instantly– a moment which was caught on film and used in the movie.
Not unlike the film, Elwes later woke up unsure of where he was or what had happened. In fact, he was at the hospital, in the middle of stitches being sewn into his forehead. Well, at least he wasn’t strapped to a life-sapping torture device.
12. LEONARDO DICAPRIO – DJANGO UNCHAINED
Director Quentin Tarantino has a reputation for demanding a lot of his actors, but the results speak for themselves– he tends to get the best out of pretty much any actor he works with. Even someone like Leonardo DiCaprio, who is already known for giving top caliber performances every time, can get just a little extra talent– and actual blood– squeezed out of him by the legendary filmmaker.
In his character Calvin Candie’s climatic scene in Django Unchained, DiCaprio is delivering a pitch-perfect rant when he slams his hand down onto a table, accidentally shattering some glass. The unflappable actor doesn’t break, continuing his monologue even while he picks shards of the glass out of his hand.
DiCaprio keeps going– and Tarantino keeps rolling– as the very real blood on his hand continues to become more noticeable right alongside the ever-increasing intensity of Candie’s speech. The bloody fist DiCaprio is able to make by the end of the scene to punctuate Candie’s anger is such a perfect visual component to the scene that it’s crazy to think it was the result of an accident.
11. SEAN BEAN – PATRIOT GAMES
It’s becoming a running joke how often a character played by Sean Bean has died. While his tally is still only half that of the reigning king of on-screen deaths– John Hurt– Bean has played about two dozen characters who met their demise, making him one of the most “killed” actors in history. While Bean’s fictional deaths go all the way back to the 1980s, his first death in a major Hollywood production was in 1992’s Patriot Games— the result of a fight that led to a real-life scar that Bean has to this day.
While Harrison Ford is generally most associated with portraying Han Solo and Indiana Jones, he also spent a few years playing iconic action hero Jack Ryan in two Tom Clancy-based films. In the first one, Patriot Games, Ford is duking it out with Sean Bean’s villain character when he accidentally hits Bean with a boat hook, leaving a deep gash above his left eye– a moment that remained in the movie.
25 years later, the scar remains clearly visible.
10. JAKE GYLLENHAAL – NIGHTCRAWLER
Critically-acclaimed 2014 thriller Nightcrawler is seen as one of actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date. He expertly plays a quiet, seemingly unassuming man with a very dark presence lurking just beneath the surface.
At first, his character’s craziness is largely only known to the audience, as only we see him in private moments where he is being himself rather than the false version of himself he puts on for the outside world. In one such moment, the character is frustrated and takes out his anger on his reflection in the bathroom mirror, violently grabbing it and screaming at himself before slamming it shut– which causes the glass to shatter.
As it turns out, it was a real mirror and it wasn’t planned for it to break– so when it did, the broken pieces of the very real glass badly sliced Gyllenhaal’s hand and required a trip to the emergency room.
Gyllenhaal was actually very lucky, as the injury could’ve been much worse given the size of the glass shards that came raining down on his hands and arms.
9. CHANNING TATUM – FOXCATCHER
Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose in Foxcatcher— applied to help him look more John Du Pont, the real-life wrestling “coach” he was portraying– got most of the attention in the promotion of the 2014 biopic. But it was arguably actor Channing Tatum who more fully gave himself to his role in the movie, sustaining two real-life injuries that were captured on film.
The lesser of the two on-screen injuries came when Tatum insisted that co-star Mark Ruffalo not hold back when he had to slap him, and the result was Ruffalo hitting Tatum so hard that he popped his ear drum. However, that was nothing compared to a scene where Tatum had to slam his head into a mirror.
Despite the fact that the mirror had a protective coating that was supposed to protect the actor from its sharp edges when it broke, Tatum hit the mirror so hard– again, with his head— that not only did the coating fail and he got cut, but he broke all the way through the mirror into the wall behind it. Not surprisingly, the resulting bleeding was actually Tatum’s real blood.
8. MARTIN SHEEN – APOCALYPSE NOW
The filming and production of the war epic Apocalypse Now was even crazier than anything depicted on screen. However, much of the movie is so effective precisely because of the behind-the-scenes insanity, and how director Francis Ford Coppola was able to get so much of it on film.
One such instance of art imitating life is in the opening scene, where Martin Sheen’s character is throwing himself around a hotel room while having a breakdown. Reportedly, what we’re seeing when we watch the film is Sheen having an actual breakdown, the result of his serious alcoholism at the time.
Like much of the legend surrounding Apocalypse Now, it’s tough to know how accurate that truly is. That said, what is indisputably true is that the hand injury Sheen sustains in the scene is real, as is the blood he then proceeds to wipe all over himself.
Whether he does so due to deep dedication to his craft, or he’s just being filmed having a real psychotic breakdown, doesn’t make the end result any less compelling to watch.
7. SYLVESTER STALLONE – FIRST BLOOD
One thing you can’t say about Sylvester Stallone is that he doesn’t go all-in for his movies. The actor has sustained serious injuries numerous times over his long career, including a punch to the chest in Rocky IV that caused his heart to swell and nearly kill him.
While filming the first installment in what would become the Rambo franchise, Stallone did many of his own stunts, including some that were extremely dangerous. While he let a stuntman be the one to actually fall from the cliff ledge while being pursued by the helicopter, Stallone himself opted to be the one filmed crashing down into the trees below after the fall.
During one of the falls, he didn’t land as safely as he intended to and his body slammed down hard onto a large tree branch, causing him to break several ribs.
The scream that can be heard following the dangerous fall sounds so realistic because it was the sound of a man screaming from the pain of just having broken his ribs.
6. BRAD PITT – SE7EN
When you are watching a movie and a character gets injured as part of the story, followed by a trip to the doctor and bandages in the ensuing scenes, you assume that it was all part of the original script. However, there are times when that injury– and resulting bandages– are as real as they were unplanned.
While chasing a suspect across rainy car hoods in the movie Se7en, Brad Pitt’s character slips and puts his hand through a car window. He then spends subsequent scenes with the hand bandaged up and his arm in a sling. As it turns out, the slip was entirely accidentally and Pitt smashed through a real window and sliced a tendon in his hand. It had to be written into the movie for his character to have an injured hand that required a bandage in order for the movie to continue filming without a lengthy break while his hand healed.
Coincidentally, it was actually planned for Pitt to hurt himself during that chase and have an on-screen injury for the next portion of the film– it just wasn’t supposed to be his hand. When he actually hurt his hand, that became the injury instead.
5. JIM CAVIEZEL – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
No matter your own personal religious beliefs– or lack thereof– there’s no denying that some pretty strange things happened during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. In addition to getting hypothermia and a separated shoulder, actor Jim Caviezel was actually stuck by lightning while filming the part of Jesus. There is also the matter of Caviezel believing he was largely blacklisted from Hollywood following the controversial role, which is an “injury” of a whole different kind.
The film, which focuses on the torture and eventual crucifixion of Jesus, is an often-unflinching look at what the man supposedly went through at the hands of the Romans. The entire reason the movie got an R rating is in the brutal, bloody violence it depicts. Some of the toughest scenes to watch are the ones where Jesus is getting scourged by Roman soldiers, and unfortunately for Caviezel, those weren’t entirely faked.
To make the whipping look realistic, real whips were used for the wide shots, only they didn’t actually make contact. At least, they weren’t supposed to– Caviezel received a 14-inch gash when one of the actors accidentally landed one of the “pretend” lashings.
4. DARYL HANNAH – BLADE RUNNER
Full disclosure: the above image is not of the real injury that Daryl Hannah sustained while filming the role of Pris in Blade Runner. In reality, the injury in question happened so quickly, so far off camera, and with so little reaction from Hannah that it couldn’t even be effectively captured in a single image. But Hannah probably felt they way her character looks in that picture.
When Hannah’s Pris first meets J.F. Sebastian, she takes off running toward a nearby street where she slips, falls into a vehicle’s window, and ducks behind a corner before re-emerging as if nothing had happened. The truth, however, is that the fall wasn’t planned and it was a real sheet of glass– and what happened was Hannah’s elbow being chipped and her arm sliced in eight different places, an injury she still has scars from.
Once you know all of that, and you watch that moment again and see how Hannah shakes it off and continues right on with the scene, you’ll gain a newfound respect for the often underrated actress.
3. GIANNI RUSSO – THE GODFATHER
There are a lot of brutal moments in the Godfather trilogy, and many of them involving guns, slow motion, and classical music. One of the grittiest moments of the first movie is the street brawl between the characters played by James Caan and Gianni Russo.
After discovering a black eye on his sister, Caan’s Sonny Corleone decides to get his revenge on her abusive husband– played by Russo– by beating him down in the street. At the very beginning of the scuffle, Caan throws Russo over a railing and into some garbage cans, which resulted in real broken ribs and a fractured shoulder for Russo.
The fact that Russo had sustained such painful injuries and still allows Caan to continue to pretend-pummel him for several more moments of the shot is pretty amazing– but he probably also knew that director Francis Ford Coppola would’ve just made him do it again once he healed up anyway.
The ironic thing is that the garbage cans were probably intended to soften Russo’s fall onto the concrete, but those are what he ended up doing him the most damage.
2. DIANE KRUGER – INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
When we mentioned earlier how much Quentin Tarantino asks of his actors, we weren’t even scratching the surface with having Leonardo DiCaprio act through having a cut hand. The director also asked one of his actors to let him literally strangle her until she passed out.
It is certainly possible to pretend to be choked, but in order to make the faces and turn the colors that Diane Kruger makes during her death scene in Inglourious Basterds, she had to be enduring the real thing. Not willing to literally put Kruger’s life into another actor’s hands, Tarantino himself is the one doing the choking in the close-up– those are the director’s hands wrapped tightly around her neck. Conversely, Kruger wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to do the risky act.
And so it went that everyone who watched Bridget von Hammersmark get strangled were watching the real thing– except that Diane Kruger, fortunately, only passed out and was just fine afterwards.
1. GEORGE CLOONEY – SYRIANA
It might seem hard to believe, but George Clooney has only won one acting Oscar in his career. But it’s fitting that the film where he got his sole Academy Award for acting is the film role that almost cost him his life.
Syriana is a very complex political thriller in which Clooney plays an aging CIA operative who is captured and tortured. At one point, the torturer knocks over the chair that Clooney is tied to and sends him crashing to the floor– directly onto his head.
Clooney spent nearly two weeks in the hospital in terrible pain without the doctors knowing exactly what the problem was. It was only after his friend Lisa Kudrow recommended that he see her brother– who happens to be a neurologist– that it was discovered that his spinal fluid was leaking.
The nearly-fatal condition was caught in time and was (mostly) fixed, but Clooney hurt so badly while recovering that he later admitted he considered suicide due to the severity of the pain.
Clooney continues to have back issues to this day, and was hospitalized for lingering problems from the Syriana incident as recently as 2014.