The bicycle messenger thriller Premium Rush from Columbia Pictures opens Aug. 24. My interview with NYC bicycle messenger Austin Horse, who appears in the film as a stunt double (above) for the star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also appears in Momentum Magazine.

At a rack on West 56th Street in Manhattan, Austin Horse, 30, unlocks his bike with the split-second precision of a seasoned New York City bicycle messenger. Blink and you might miss it.

We’ve met at one of the Midtown West locations where Horse shot stunt scenes for the bike messenger thriller Premium Rush, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Horse, a fixture on the NYC bicycle messenger scene since 2005, is the guy you’ll be seeing from behind as Gordon-Levitt’s character, Wilee, dodges and weaves onscreen through traffic in the heart-pounding chase on Manhattan streets, from Columbia University down to Chinatown, that’s central to the film’s action. The two-time winner of the North American Cycle Courier Championship spent 2 1/2 months on the film set during the summer of 2010. He took a week off to snag second place in the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Guatemala.

“It was the perfect Hollywood experience,” said Horse, who previously appeared in independent films and commercials. “I had this fun role and I was valued by the people on the set. They appreciated what I was bringing to the movie. That feels extremely rewarding.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, an NYC bike messenger under fire.

“Plus,” he said with a smile, “there was the money.”

The only downside: Getting up at 5 a.m. to ride his bike from Fort Green in Brooklyn to 140th Street in Manhattan for early calls.

Although Gordon-Levitt did much of the cycling himself, four stunt riders, each with a special expertise – crashing or tricks, for example – filled in. For his part, Horse covered riding in traffic, as well as the “sweet skids” that enable experienced fixed-gear riders to slow down and maneuver quickly in traffic.

Horse learned of the film production via the website Messenger Media. But a more circuitous route led to an introduction to the film’s producers, who eventually signed him on. The film’s prop stylist, on the hunt for authentic-looking messenger bikes, visited Brooklyn Machine Works, one of Horse’s sponsors. The shop’s owner told her about Horse, who fit the casting bill: messenger, fast and height and build similar to Gordon-Levitt’s.

Today, Horse is back to doing what he loves most: riding a bicycle for up to eight hours per day as a messenger and food delivery person and continuing his cycling advocacy work as a board member of the environmental action group Time’s Up! He’s also wrapping up plans for the 2012 edition of the seven-day, multi-city East Coast Messenger Stage Race that he launched last year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Austin Horse and director David Koepp on the set.

Keeping It Real

Beyond stunt riding, Horse was consulted on technical details by the film crew of Premium Rush. “My feedback was valued and often incorporated,” he said. Specifically?

Bag It: Horse provided advice on how real messengers wear and handle their all-important bags. Straps flapping in the wind from a bag with a Velcro closure? Looks sloppy. Horse advised the filmmakers to cut them off.

Drive Like a New Yorker: “Stunt car drivers are really careful – they’re not like NYC drivers,” Horse said of the vehicles with which he shared the road during filming. “I told them to drive closer to me. That makes the film more authentic and exciting.”

Get Out of the Door Zone: In a scene in which Gordon-Levitt nearly gets doored, Horse suggested moving the action over one lane to get the star out of the “door zone,” which messengers know to avoid.

Still, said Horse. “There will always be things that bike people will pick apart; it’s Hollywood, not cinema verité.”

At ease: Horse on Manhattan’s West Side at the end of a working day. Photo: velojoy

Film set photos: Sarah Shatz

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