© Leo Francis
Behind the scenes of Pasha Petkuns' Human Pinball
Freerunner Pasha Petkuns sees the world as one big playground, and now he’s literally built it as one. But then this is an athlete who calls his fantasies by another name: plans.
Everyone has a childhood dream of what they want to be when they grow up: an athlete, a musician, or perhaps a teacher or a vet. Pavel 'Pasha' Petkuns wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Like so many kids in the 1990s, the youngster from Daugavpils, Latvia, was a fan of the sewer-dwelling superheroes. “I used to play Ninja Turtles with my friends, doing all the moves,” he recalls. “And every day at four o’clock we’d run back to our houses to watch the show.” But there was one of the ‘heroes in a half-shell’ he particularly identified with: “I was always [hot-headed rebel] Raphael. He was my favourite.”
Unsurprisingly, Petkuns didn’t grow up to become a Ninja Turtle. But he did follow the example of his antihero hero in other regards. Today, at 28, Petkuns is a real-life daredevil, one of the world’s foremost freerunners – a sport that blends gymnastics, martial arts and breakdance moves to turn cities into urban playgrounds. The release of a self-made showreel in 2009 brought him recognition on the scene, but what followed made him a superstar. After three consecutive wins (once in 2011, twice in 2012) at Red Bull Art of Motion – a global competition of freerunning and parkour (the antecedent of freerunning) – came two victories at the Parkour World Cup. This success earned him the nickname ‘The Boss’, and his mind-blowing tricking videos on TikTok have attracted more than 5.2 million followers. A rebel? Undoubtedly. Hot-headed? Not so much. For all his showmanship, Petkuns is still that dreamer. And a few years ago a new dream formed…
It begins with the Latvian waking inside a giant pinball machine. Suddenly, the plunger launches him forward – Petkuns is the ball. Disorientated, the tiny freerunner scrabbles to work out what’s going on as he’s bounced around by the bumpers. Like all pinball tables, this one has a theme: world landmarks. Petkuns grabs hold of the Eiffel Tower before dropping from it, sliding down the Great Wall of China and landing on a Mayan pyramid. Each time he falls past the flippers, he’s launched back into the game, quickly adapting to sliding, flipping and spinning himself around the obstacles. “Cut!” shouts director Mike Christie, and an exhausted Petkuns drops past the large mechanical flippers – each operated by two burly men – and lands on a safety mat.
“This has been my dream for a long time,” says Petkuns of this absurd vision. But whereas once it was just the work of his overactive imagination, today it’s a physical reality. It’s May 2021, and inside a cavernous hangar in north-west London, bathed in floodlights, stands this monument to the Latvian’s musings. Mere words – or even the pictures that accompanying this feature – can’t do it justice. A wall, five storeys high and angled at 45°, rises to the ceiling. The back is a lattice of scaffolding, the front a fully realised pinball table with backlit bumpers, rails and those giant flippers. Weighing 23,000kg, it’s so heavy that once constructed it had to be sawn in half due to fears it might pull the roof in. A camera operator sits atop an extended cherry picker, while a camera drone hovers overhead. It’s a film project over a decade in the making.
“The biggest challenge was the engineering,” says Christie, who also produced trial-bike legend Danny MacAskill’s equally surreal 2013 toy-based movie, Imaginate. “It took eight months to figure out how to build it. Most companies we approached thought it sounded fun but said we were mad.”
On the first day, I thought, ‘What have I done?’ It was unreal
It’s difficult to convey the steepness of that tilt – a log-flume drop would be a close approximation. Petkuns explains that when you’re on the wall, it feels like you’re standing and lying down at the same time. On the monitors, we watch Petkuns stop mid-take to pour a can of Red Bull, but the way gravity affects the liquid, it seems to fall sideways.
“I play with gravity,” he says. “On the first day, I thought, ‘What have I done?’ The wall was massive, unreal. The builders said, ‘This looks like a fun toy,’ but then they winched it up to the ceiling and said, ‘It’s not a toy, it’s a killing machine.’ I had to think, ‘I’m ready. I’ve practised, and I know I’ll enjoy it. I know what I’m doing.’ After four weeks, I can control my speed. But it’s not jumping on a wall, it’s riding it.”
During his teens, Petkuns’ fascination for Ninja Turtles was replaced by new role models: Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and stars of the silent-movie era such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. “I’d try to repeat their jumps and moves,” he says. “As an adult, I realised there’s so much to learn – they were the ones who started experimenting with movement. Rewatching those silent movies now, I feel like an archaeologist discovering and working out how they did the moves.”
The comedy aspect of these films is something Petkuns brought to his freerunning; together with his gift for acrobatics, this helped build his massive social-media following. “Movement is more than just movement,” he says. “It’s in everything, including the way you talk to people, because, unlike language, movement is the same everywhere. That’s what we’re doing: storytelling through movement, which is a limitless area for me to explore.”
In the mid-2000s, as Petkuns’ interest in physical art forms grew, he gravitated towards early parkour videos on YouTube. One proved to be an epiphany: a 2006 clip titled The Russian Jumper, featuring Latvian parkour pioneer Oleg Vorslav. Petkuns says he watched it “maybe 1,000 times”. He set himself the target of learning how to do a ‘gainer’ – a backflip performed moving forwards – while building a bank of tricks. “Tricks were my currency. I didn’t want to be a regular freerunner, I wanted to be different.”
Petkuns believes his propensity for risk-taking runs in the family. He recalls the time his mum leapt from a second-floor balcony when she locked herself out of her flat. “She just hung on the balcony and jumped. When she landed, she kneed herself in her eye. She gets what I’m doing – she always said that if she were younger she would try it with me. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Soon, Petkuns began entering competitions, but it was only when he stopped following the rules of freerunning that his work was noticed. “People told me I had to learn things a certain way. But if I want to slide on my face, I’ll slide on my face. Who says I can’t? Only you are limited by saying you have to land on your legs. The body is an instrument and you are playing it.” Victories at global competitions came thick and fast, and before long this fan of the stars of the silver screen was being courted by Hollywood himself. Moving to LA, he worked as a stuntman on the 2019 Michael Bay actioner 6 Underground and last year’s Wonder Woman 1984. He also appeared in Cirque de Soleil. It was only a matter of time before Petkuns would star in his own movie.
When we began the project, I related pinball to life – it shoots us here and there and we just have to bounce [with it]
The origins of Petkuns’ pinball project can be traced back to 2010, after a new bridge was constructed in Daugavpils. “The bridge had slanted walls,” he recalls. “We started sliding under it, and there were columns you could bounce off. Then something clicked in my head: what if you had rails and obstacles and you slid into them and did flips? I called it ‘freesliding’. I thought it would be sick to build a huge wall with obstacles on it.”
The idea took root, but it required something more for the shoots to grow. That thing was a Nokia 3200 mobile phone. “It had a pinball game on it, and I realised freesliding is similar,” Petkuns says. “I loved that pinball is so random. When we began the project, I related pinball to life – it shoots us here and there and we just have to bounce [with it].” But it wasn’t until he shared his vision with Red Bull Art of Motion’s sports director, Nico Martell, that Petkuns found a kindred spirit. “I said, ‘A slanted wall as a pinball machine? Let’s make it happen,’” laughs Martell. “It’s taken three years of design and testing to get here. From the top looking down, it’s insane.”
As Petkuns loads himself back onto the pinball set and the crew position themselves for another take, paramedic Chris Hewitt is ready with ice packs. “I have to think about all the nasty things that could happen, like [Petkuns] breaking a leg, getting a head injury or paralysing himself,” he says. “He’s constantly putting his body under huge pressure and making it look easy.” But Petkuns’ career has had its moments. In 2013, while performing a flip with four twists, he dislocated his elbow landing on a trampoline. An Instagram clip, viewed more than 500,000 times, shows Petkuns crying out in agony as his forearm pops back at a right angle.
“It was pretty terrible,” he recalls. “One of those times where I said, ‘I’ll just do one more.’ You have to respect the danger of the sport and be responsible. You can’t mess around and think you’ve mastered everything. You learn some tricks are not for you and you just move on.” But today on set there’s a close call. While performing a seemingly innocuous grab, he feels something painful give in his hand. The crew take no chances and halt filming.
Eight hours later, Petkuns exits an orthopaedic surgery in north London. “It’s not broken,” he beams, holding up his injured thumb. The doctor, following behind, corrects him: “There’s a tiny fracture.” “I didn’t want any drama,” Petkuns says, sheepishly. “I always feel happy I lived through an injury. It means I know what can happen, and how to deal with it.”
Why would I even bother about what people think of what I’m doing?
Dealing with drama is something Petkuns has also experienced outside sport. In December 2020, he posted a collaborative Instagram video with US porn actress Riley Reid, showing him performing a flip off her back, accompanied by the text: “The true story of how the pimp flip got its name.” It sparked an online debate about sexism in the parkour community. “Posts like this, in the context of our sport, make many women like me feel uncomfortable and/or disrespected,” said Dominican parkour athlete Lorena Abreu. “If women are the butt of your joke, your joke probably sucks,” posted Detroit freerunner Dan Dye. Parkour magazine MÜV ran an article noting that “the actions have been labelled by women in and outside of parkour both as ‘objectifying’ and ‘empowering’”, and opened a Discord panel to debate the issue. Petkuns and Reid, whose real name is Ashley Matthews, stayed silent. Six months later (and just weeks after completing filming of the pinball project), they got married. “I can’t wait spend the rest of my life with you @pashatheboss,” Matthews posted to her one million followers.
“We found each other through Instagram DMs,” Petkuns explains. “I fell in love with her pretty quickly because she has an amazing personality. She’s the sweetest girl I’ve ever met.” Now, he says, he can’t wait to be a dad, “doing fun stuff, sliding everywhere together with my kid”. Of any negativity that surrounds his personal life, he thinks it’s nobody else’s business. “Sometimes, people don’t believe in what I’m doing and question me, but the more I consider it, the more I think, ‘Why would I even bother about what people think of what I’m doing?’ I don’t want to change my life for this few seconds of someone thinking badly about me.”
Being flipped around inside a giant pinball machine seems a handy metaphor for the challenges the universe has hurled at Petkuns; regardless, the Latvian retains a simple take on life. “Don’t be afraid to talk about your dreams,” he says. “If you want to be a kid, be a kid. If you want to build a 20m-high pinball wall, you can do it. Do whatever makes you happy. I don’t have to listen to anyone, I just have to do what I’m doing. You have this moment – enjoy it.”