The director of ''The Expendables 2'' (as well as ''Con Air,'' ''Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,'' and ''The Mechanic''), shares his secrets for working with Hollywood's biggest, baddest butt-kickers

By Keith Staskiewicz
August 10, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

1. Remember that sometimes the best action stars are not action stars
We’ve watched Angelina Jolie unload plenty of ammunition by now, but when West directed her in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, she was a newbie. Ditto Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich in Con Air. For West, the lack of experience can be exciting for both him and the audience. ”I mean, John Malkovich wielding a pump-action shotgun,” he says. ”How often do you see that?”

2. Double-check the résumé
Like any job applicant, actors will occasionally list skills that they don’t necessarily have. But that can get you into trouble during the actual shoot, as when a ”very well-known” actor told West he could ride a motorcycle. ”So I tested it,” he says. ”The stunt coordinator came back and said, ‘The motorbike shot out from between their legs and nearly took out three of my guys!”’

3. Don’t make the characters invincible
”Look vulnerable,” West tells his stars. This goes for even the beefiest of action heroes in The Expendables 2. ”If you look like you can fail at any moment, the audience will be on the edge of their seats rooting for you.”

4. If something goes wrong, for goodness’ sake keep going!
For The Expendables 2, West had to shoot a complex sequence in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis drive a car inside a real, functioning airport. Because of location restrictions, they had only two takes to get it right. ”The first take was no good because Bruce’s sound mic fell off and he drove straight over it with the car,” the director says. ”So now I have only one take, and Arnold’s gun jams right in the middle of it. But he just kept going because he knows that all of this would be too much to restage. That only comes from the experience of someone who has done this a lot.”

5. Act like the Queen
Making a high-octane movie is a long, tiring process, so stars should remember to keep calm and carry on — much like the U.K.’s reigning monarch, Elizabeth II. ”Pace yourself,” says the British director. ”Even the Queen of England has three to four hundred engagements a year, and she’s 86.” She also recently demonstrated another Hollywood golden rule during the Olympic opening ceremony when she ”jumped” out of a helicopter: ”She knows when you should hand the job over to the stuntman!”