Money Makeover:  Preparing for his next leap — from stunt work to cooking ventures

Stephen Tartalia worked as a stuntman for franchises such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Now he wants to explore a second career built around Asian cuisine.

Stephen Tartalia worked as a stuntman for franchises such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Now he wants to explore a second career built around Asian cuisine.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Like many Americans in their 50s, Stephen Tartalia wants to begin a second career. He figures it won’t be simple, but it might be a lot less painful.

Tartalia worked as a Hollywood stuntman in film and television franchises such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Tartalia’s stunt reel shows him jumping from buildings, crashing through windows and embroiled in other mayhem.

Now, rather than taking a fall for Hollywood stars, he’d like to cook for them.


“Like an athlete, you need to get out while you can still walk,” Tartalia said.

During a few years in Asia, doing stunts or playing roles in martial arts films, Tartalia learned to cook. He wants to parlay that expertise “into this exotic Indo-Asian chef world of cooking — but I’m a little late in getting there.”

Tartalia is contending with more than physical limitations; film and television productions continue to move out of Southern California to take advantage of state and municipal incentives that often require them to tap the local workforce.

Tartalia’s income has always fluctuated, from lows in the middle $20,000s to more than $130,000. But last year was a catalyst for change, he said. He made just $16,500 in residuals and unemployment.

“How much squeaky wheeling does a man with a semblance of pride do?” Tartalia said. “They don’t call people from Los Angeles to work for them; it’s all contingent on them making hires locally, where it’s shot.”

The scenario is familiar to fee-only financial planner Delia Fernandez, who reviewed Tartalia’s finances.


“Steve is facing what has happened to a lot of Angelenos,” Fernandez said. “Industries and jobs are moving out of California, and when it happens 10 to 15 years before retirement, it can be devastating.”

Clues to Tartalia’s future occupation came early.

“When I was a kid, I used to race around the family pool in my red pedal firetruck, fast enough to swing around the rear end on the turns,” Tartalia said.

To make the route to school in South Florida more interesting, he and a friend fashioned vines and ropes so that “we could try to swing along without touching the ground.”

A steady diet of martial arts movie matinees every Saturday inspired Tartalia to learn Northern Shaolin Eagle Claw Kung Fu. His first big break, as an uncredited stunt double in 1985’s “The Last Dragon,” wasn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece, but Tartalia was hooked.

The years he spent as a stuntman and actor in films in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Morocco were a mixed bag. The income earned on a series of tourist visas didn’t boost his pay into the U.S. Social Security system, but the experience inspired his interest in cooking.

Tartalia’s friends are his test audience, receiving messages that say things like: “We’re going to Indonesia today. Surabuya boneless fragrant chicken curry and/or baby back ribs, water spinach ‘ong choy’ pickled cucumber.”

Tartalia has big dreams, sometimes envisioning his own “hip, comfy Indonesian-centric restaurant.” He’s even imagined a kind of travel show in which he revisits the places that have inspired his cooking. He’d like to develop other food-related ventures, such as a line of spices that would sell at Whole Foods Markets.

When he ratchets down the high-octane enthusiasm, he sees himself cooking at farmers markets or using the restaurant-quality kitchens of friends during off hours.

“I’ve found through extensive potlucks, demonstrations and farmers market food-court booths that there is an incredible enduring excitement that comes from discovering an unknown cuisine,” Tartalia said.

Fernandez said Tartalia could be successful if he summons the same zeal he used in his film and TV stunt work.

“Steve needs to start small,” Fernandez said. “It’s very typical of a lot of people at this stage of their lives to want to pick up on a passion, which, for Steve, is cooking.”

If he can leverage his past career and entertainment-industry contacts, Fernandez said, “he can succeed, but it won’t be easy.”

Tartalia lacks the capital he would need to make a splashy entrance into the food business, Fernandez cautioned. That’s partly the result of a business partnership in a Web magazine that went under, taking about $40,000 in savings with it.

If another investment comes along that requires Tartalia to put in a lot of money, Fernandez wants to make sure he avoids it.

“You only gamble with discretionary money that is over and above what you need,” Fernandez said. To that end, Tartalia needs to build up an emergency fund of at least $1,000.

Then there’s the additional problem of $12,000 in credit card debt Tartalia ran up over the last year to help make ends meet.

Fernandez suggested that Tartalia turn to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling for help in managing his money and making arrangements with his creditors to limit or lower the debt. He might also need to consult a bankruptcy attorney, she said.

His other expenses are modest, including a $1,000-a-month rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. To get around in the neighborhood, Tartalia frequently uses an old motorcycle, which saves on fuel costs.

To jump-start his food business, Fernandez recommended that Tartalia consult with SCORE, formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, to get advice on a business plan and financing.

The most likely routes for Tartalia, Fernandez said, “might be something like becoming a home chef or cook that will come to your home and make dinner during a social event, leaving the hosts free to relax and interact with their guests.”

Other options, Fernandez said, would be obtaining the necessary licensing to cook at farmers markets or for a food truck, but both of those options would require raising money, perhaps through a Kickstarter or other crowd-funding campaign.

“He’s going to have to start on one or more of those three things and build a clientele base out from there,” Fernandez said. “I think those things can build off one another.”

Fernandez suggested Tartalia should still try to keep a hand in the stunt world, although in a less physically rigorous way. For instance, Tartalia said he had been asked to “break down fight scenes for a cowboy movie” shot in Spain. That could provide another source of income.

Also on Tartalia’s to-do list, Fernandez said, is to update his website,, to show that he is still actively pursuing the business.

“We are talking about layering,” Fernandez said, “just like how a corporate job search would be run. You want to make sure that those personal, word-of-mouth connections are made.

“If I’ve invited guests to my home and had a really good meal cooked for me, I’m going to tell people about it,” Fernandez said. “That’s the kind of thing Tartalia needs to do and that’s build a base of happy customers.”

Despite the obstacles ahead in transitioning to a second career, a decent retirement is achievable, Fernandez said.

Tartalia spent enough years being flung through windows, kicked down stairs and knocked off rooftops to have earned a Screen Actors Guild pension of $25,800 a year.

In an otherwise undistinguished financial situation, the pension is like an oasis in a desert.

“Pensions are incredibly valuable,” Fernandez said. “To match that amount of annual income, one would have to have saved somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000.”

Tartalia’s main goal will be to work until he is 67 to build up a modest emergency fund and some savings to complement his pension and Social Security benefits, which should provide an additional $1,500 a month.

Fernandez said there was one caveat — only the Social Security money, not the pension, will have cost-of-living increases.

She wants Tartalia to wait until age 67 to retire. If he retired at 62, Tartalia would get less than $1,000 a month from Social Security.

Twitter: @RonWLATimes