“In the Advanced Portion of the Class, We’ll Set You on Fire”: Stunt School at Age 33
I have a Master’s degree, but my return to school as a 33-year-old wasn’t to chase a Ph.D. In my re-entry to so-called academia, I didn’t even crack a book open. The extent of my reading came in the form of reviewing consent waivers that outlined how I couldn’t take legal action against anyone who set me on fire or threw me off of scaffolding.
I told acquaintances that I was leaving town for a couple of weeks for some continuing education, which was partially true. The detail I left out was that I was learning how to become a stuntwoman.
It was July and I was sitting in a blistering warehouse in Buford, Georgia, a town 40 miles northeast of Atlanta that houses not only the largest mall in the state and every chain restaurant ever created, but also one of the top stunt training centers in America.
“Don’t ever let a car hit you going 20 mph,” one instructor said in a lengthy welcome speech.
Duh, I thought.
“15 mph is okay, but you should never be struck by anything more than that,” she continued. “Directors try to take the speed up all the time, but don’t let them. Special effects can enhance the visuals so it looks like you’re being struck faster. Depending on how you progress this week, we’ll take some of you up to 10 mph.”
I eyed the old padded Buick in the corner of the warehouse with a soft gaze as if we’d met before, hoping it would go a little easier on me than my classmates. However, based on the well-established dents on the car, I could tell it didn’t play favorites.
”You’ll be riding an air ram. We use it to launch stunt performers into the air for explosion scenes,” she said. “One misstep on that thing, even by an inch, and it will snap your legs in two, maybe three pieces.”
Great. A human mousetrap.
“In the advanced portion of the class, we’ll set you on fire,” she said while holding up a fire extinguisher designed specifically for an industrial sized kitchen rather than a Hollywood explosion victim.
Commence my two weeks in stunt school. Some friends called me crazy for enrolling. Some labeled me badass. I settled on batshit renegade.
Going to stunt school wasn’t some quarter-life crisis where I had to fulfill a lifelong dream before settling down. Growing up, I never had aspirations of being a stuntwoman, though my behavior as a blonde curly-haired little girl might suggest otherwise. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, where—once you look beyond LDS wards, Mormon missionaries and weird drinking laws—you see majestic mountains, high-adventure aficionados and endless outdoor opportunities for a feral child like myself.
Attracted to both nature and risk straight out of the womb, domesticating me wasn’t an option. My parents learned that quickly. At six years old, I once found rope in the garage, tied one end to the banister of the backyard deck and lassoed the other end around my waist. With the recurring childhood belief that I could in fact fly rather than die, I plunged off the deck like a first-grade bungee jumper. The result: No recoil on my makeshift bungee cord, a bloody lip and a sense of urgency to unravel myself before my mother or father found me hanging like a piñata.
Not long after that, I snowboarded off the roof for the first time in front of a large group of supportive neighborhood friends as well as my unsuspecting parents who were wondering why all the kids on the block were standing in the front yard, mouths agape, pointing to their chimney. My punishment for that high-flying decision was an early bedtime that night, where my parents enforced a 30-minute lesson plan: I had to lie perfectly still on my bed to simulate what life would be like if I suffered a spinal cord injury and lost the use of everything below my neck. If my nose itched, I had to call out for my parents to come scratch it for me. Although one heck of a creative way to drive a point home, the lesson’s impact was short-lived.
As for warmer weather activities, my summer afternoons were often spent riding a Radio Flyer red wagon down the steepest of hills, convincing my younger brother to “just get in!” and hold on tight. He did because, you know, 10-year-old sisters know everything, especially how to steer with a plastic handle.
By the time I was 12, I took things up a notch and began using the power of electricity. I set the family’s treadmill to 12 MPH, only because that was the fastest it would go, and fixed couch cushions at the end of the belt and along the walls. After all, my mom hated when we made holes in the wall, especially human-sized ones.
I used my arms to suspend myself on the safety rails over the electric joy ride I was about to drop onto. I slowly lowered myself down as my two younger brothers looked on wide-eyed, fearful that I would end up being hauled out of the basement on a stretcher. Then, with my shoes about an inch above the buzzing belt, I released. My rubber soles hit dead on, I kept my balance and gleefully sailed onto the cushions. It was the thrill ride I had hoped for and, more than that, it was another self-created physical and mental test I conquered, which really was the whole point of my dangerous antics.
Surprisingly, I never broke a bone during my childhood. Sure, there were plenty of trips to the emergency room for sprains and gaping wounds, but had YouTube been around at the time to provide me with more elaborate ideas, I probably would have entered a body bag long before college. The benefits of an internet-free childhood, I guess.
In addition to the body parts I entered this world with, I’ve gained a few necessary pieces along the way. Namely, a cadaver bone and a titanium plate in my neck, and a screw tethering a ligament in my thumb, both the result of snowboarding accidents. Yes, I realize I wasn’t exactly the ideal candidate to run through two weeks of stunt training, but with a green light from my surgeons and another tempting physical and mental challenge awaiting, I was off to Georgia to ignore the standard Hollywood disclaimer and actually “try this at home.”
As one might imagine, stunt school is full of characters. Fittingly, one of them actually worked at Disney World.
Of the eight students in my class, I was one of three women. Aside from the character actress who had the Magic Kingdom gig, there was the Navy veteran/former gymnast, two actors who had accrued plenty time on sets working as extras, a 40-something college professor, another former gymnast and two rambunctious teenage boys whose parents probably just needed somewhere to send them that summer to burn off energy.
Thanks to some rapidly developing bruises, I quickly learned what my strengths and weaknesses were. I excelled at high falls and, oddly enough, riding the human mousetrap. Car hits and fight sequences were a different story. I attribute my trouble in those areas to both timing and realizing that my fate was partially in someone else’s hands.
The eight-hour days at stunt school were long, at least according to my muscles and joints. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about my age at all. The full body ice baths back in my hotel room were an absolute necessity. I sat there shivering each evening, realizing why so many pro football players retire by their late 20s or early 30s. And those guys wear pads.
My post-class beverage of choice wasn’t wine, beer or anything else that would alleviate the beating my body took. It was coconut water, with a Tylenol chaser, to replenish the gallons of sweat I’d lost during the day from moving pads around, running through fight sequences and hitting the mini-trampoline to launch myself up and over cardboard boxes with a faux weapon in hand. With just giant fans to mitigate the greenhouse effect in the warehouse, I determined that the only thing heat that stifling was good for was resurrecting an old grudge. I was three sheets to the coconut most nights.
It might sound like I had a miserable time at stunt school but, rest assured, I did not. It was the experience I had hoped for, fire and all. I was challenged, I learned new skills, I got my adrenaline fix, and now whenever I see a large crowd in a movie scene, I think “Wow, I can’t believe all these people have headshots.”
In fact, upon returning to Denver, I began training once a week with a Jack-of-all-trades filmmaker/stunt coordinator/author/marital artist, just so I wouldn’t lose my newly acquired skills.
To no one’s surprise, Colorado isn’t a hotbed for acting gigs. But, I was on the lookout for roles anyway. In an industry where the consensus is “do whatever it takes to break in and earn your SAG card,” I was up for almost anything when my chance came along. And it did come along, about six months after I completed stunt school, in the form of an audition over the phone for an allergy commercial.
I know what you’re thinking. Is a stuntwoman really needed for this? Let me tell you firsthand, sneezing is dangerous business.
The call came midday on a Friday. I was told by the agency representing me that the casting director, who was hired by a pharmaceutical company, wanted to learn more about me beyond my headshot and résumé. Easy enough, I thought. Let’s do this.
I, however, had no idea that I’d have to perform right then and there.
“Now, please. Give me your best sneeze,” he directed.
Caught off guard, I hesitated and then made the customary “UAAAH, UAAAH, UAAAH” sounds before an explosive “CHOO!!”
“Okay,” the director said with a hint of noticeable disappointment in his voice. “Do you have access to some ground pepper?”
“Seriously?” I countered.
“Yes, we always have our actors either put a little pepper up there or tickle the inside of their nostrils with a paperclip to get them to really sneeze.”
I dismissed the paperclip option, and peered into my kitchen only to see the broken pepper grinder that I continually forgot to replace.
“Well…uh… okay,” I said as I rummaged through my spice cabinet to find another suitable nostril seasoning. “Just a second. Almost there.”
Cinnamon? No. Ginger? Don’t think it will work. Thyme? Not strong enough. Cayenne pepper? Bingo. This will get the job done, I thought.
I poured the cayenne pepper into a paper towel as I questioned my dignity, and then rationalized my impending move.
Well, it’s not like I’m snorting a line of coke off a toilet seat.
It’s not like this director is asking me to eat seafood from a bodega just so he could hear how I sounded when I threw up.
I gazed down at the dash of pepper and, with the director patiently waiting, up it went into the great abyss. My eyes watered immediately, my throat itched and my nose felt like it had inhaled an entire beach.
Surely, a sneeze would come. So, I waited…and waited…and waited. Nothing.
“You can try snorting some more,” the director offered, fully aware of what was going on.
The damage was already done, so why not? I poured more pepper into the towel while wondering if this was the gateway to shoving legumes up the nose.
Round two was a dud, too. Same with rounds three and four. Now with tears streaming down my face and a rapidly developing heart rate and headache, I threw in the towel. I gave my best fabricated “UAAAH, UAAAH, UAAAH, CHOO!!” one more time and called it a day.
The director thanked me for playing, err, I mean auditioning, and hung up.
I shamefully looked back at my kitchen, and it was as if a 1970s drug-loving Studio 54 crowd danced their way into a time machine and reappeared on the set of Food Network’s Chopped. As I cleaned up, I realized it wasn’t one of my finer moments in life. Thankfully, the only witness to the disturbing scene was my dog. The perks of living alone.
But I pressed on. I continued with my weekly stunt training despite fading hope that I’d ever land a role. I spent Saturday mornings throwing myself to the ground, taking the occasional inadvertent weapon to the face and springing into the air to contort my body in every way you can imagine.
However, as the weeks went by, I noticed my body wasn’t recovering as quickly. I’d wake up, five body parts would crack at the same time and, for a second, I’d wonder if I’d accidentally slept into my eighth decade of life. That’s why, as far as formal stunt training, I hung it up and, with allergy-sufferers everywhere rejoicing, officially retired my on-screen sneeze.
I’m glad I ended my stunt career before it ended me. Less than a year after abandoning the profession, I had back surgery, the second procedure to my spine in my short 35 years. I didn’t sustain a specific injury to warrant the surgery. It was more wear and tear damage, likely accelerated by my high-flying tricks.
When the hospital staff started referring to me as their “cute pediatric patient,” I knew it was time to dial it back. Who wants to throw their back out picking up a kitchen sponge at the age of 50, anyway?
The fire burns, high falls and human mousetrap were all fun while they lasted, but I’m content to sidestep the industry.
I prefer to live life on the edge off screen, where I can season food with pepper rather than my nostrils. Call me just another person with a headshot.