Jessie Luck: My Interview With Stuntwoman And Producer, JESSIE GRAFF
A competitive athlete multifaceted in such sports as track and field, coupled with years of martial arts training, trapeze artistry, and a drive to become an entertainer, Graff has gone well on her way, becoming a full-fledged professional stuntwoman for TV and film, and recently, the first female contestant in the history of television's American Ninja Warrior to win the qualifying round.
Moreover, although her strengths mainly lie in professional stuntwork, Graff is also leaving little gems for online action fans, most recently bringing filmmaker Leo Kei Angelos on board for her latest, highly acclaimed, live-action Family Guy spin off shortfilm, Epic Chicken Fight, with fellow stuntwoman Tree O'Toole.
I wasn't planning on being a stuntwoman. I didn't really know it was a job. My mom had told me that if I wanted to be Xena, I had to be an actress. That sounded good to me! So, I majored in theatre in college, and continued my athletic training. I had always been a little dare devil. I was always practicing various circus disciplines, jumping around in trees and off cliffs, climbing buildings, faking falls and accidents...I started circus training when I was 7, and competed in gymnastics for 7 years up to level 9. I got a scholarship to University of Nebraska for pole vaulting, but I always snuck into the gymnastics room after track practice.
JG: I heard they were making a Wonder Woman movie, and I decided I wanted to be a part of it. I took a train to see an agent in DC (near where I was living at the time), and brought the wrong resume (the one I made for the circus when I was in high school). She took one look at it, and told me "I don't even know why you're here. Do you even act? You should be a stuntwoman. Call this guy." She handed me a paper, and shoved me out the door. She didn't give me time to say a word, but it didn't matter. My mind was spinning "stuntwoman, huh? Of course!" It all just clicked, and I knew what I wanted to do. It seemed so obvious. I walked out of the building, and called the guy on the card-Johnny Becker. He happened to be towing a car from 3 blocks away to my home town. How random!? My friends and family call it "Jessie luck". Things just seem to fall into place.
Anyway, he gave me a ride home, had dinner with my family, and told me all about being a stunt man. I read all of the books, magazines, and web sites he told me about-got headshots made, my stunt resume, and started writing cover letters & submitting for every project I heard about. And that was just the first day!
When I have a specific goal, I get hyper motivated, and pursue it like nothing else exists. I spent my last year of college preparing for my new life in LA as a stuntwoman. I studied all of the maps, lined up a job coaching gymnastics at a gym known to be a training mecca for stunt people, signed up for TKD classes with Simon Rhee, and took 3 field trips to LA on our major breaks. I went to the world stunt awards, and absolutely fell in love with the industry. I trained at Bob Yerkes' and was hooked! I kept a binder listing all the stunt contacts I'd made, and what we'd talked about so that I could keep up with them while I was back in school.
I don't have fear right before a stunt. Butterflies, maybe, but that just keeps me alert and focused. If I'm afraid, I ask myself why, and think through all the worst case scenarios to make sure that I've prepared thoroughly, taken all safety precautions, and am focused on what I need to do. There's no space for fear when you're focused on the solutions. Of course, if there are a bunch of safety hazards that haven't been addressed, then you shouldn't be doing the stunt.
So, with the train stunt, we stood on the bridge, and dropped sand bags onto the boxcars as they passed to get the timing of when to jump. If we missed, and landed between the box cars, we'd be dead-run over by the train. It was weird, because we had to jump off right when the gap between trains was passing under us in order to land safely in the middle. It was creepy, but so exciting!
JG: I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a black sash in northern eagle claw kung fu. I've had extensive instruction in wushu, XMA, capoeira, boxing, and I went to Thailand last year to study muay thai & muay boran. The majority of my training, however, has been in film fighting with all the stunt guys. I switch up my training as much as possible so that I can adapt to whatever role I'm playing...or doubling. I also just really like learning new things. Frequently, I'll watch my favorite fight scenes, and pick out favorite moves. Then I play it in slow motion over and over until I can replicate it.
JG: Growing up, I liked doing back flips on the peak of the roof, jumping of the roof onto the trampoline, building tree houses, swimming, sailing, rope swings, canoeing, bicycling, roller blading, and directing/performing in circuses and plays on my stage (garage) for the neighbors.
Now, i'm really into long distance paddle boarding, cliff diving, flying trapeze, rock climbing, and running on the beach. When I have time, I like building tree houses and rafting down rivers. I loved doing survival training in the jungle in Thailand. and obviously the muay thai training. I think my favorite parts are when random opportunities come up and I just fly by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I bite off a little more than I can chew and find myself paddling around an island in the dark for 2 hours trying to make it back to my hotel. But those are the best memories!
|From L to R: Actress and Youtube personality Hailey Bright, filmmaker Leo Kei Angelos and stuntwoman Jessie Graff|
JG: Leo is awesome to work with, because he really knows how to shoot action, and make it look awesome. The camera movement can make or break a fight scene, and few directors spend enough time shooting fights to really get it. Leo is like one of the stunt guys- he likes climbing things, flying in wires, and jumping right into the middle of the action, yet he has the eye of a cinematographer. It makes him uniquely qualified to be an incredible action director.
JG: As stunt people, creating action sequences was the easy part! All of our friends were eager to hurl themselves through the air in the office scene. Lane Leavitt & Debbie Evans were quick to offer up their long driveway for the asian driver scene, and their son Daniel was delighted to throw sliding 90's with us strapped to the roof of my car. They have a facility there called "Stunt Lab" which includes a green screen, wires, truss, and all the rigging equipment you could imagine. Bill Leaman and the rigging team built a 25 foot arch out of truss over the driveway so that Tree and I could go flying off the roof of the car. And all the cars! Getting the location was the hardest part, but I had my heart set on that scene because it looks so spectacularly dangerous to see that many cars sliding that close to us.
You'd expect it to be done with CGI, but I knew we had the talent to do it safely. Debbie Evans and Jim Wilkey are famous for being 2 of the BEST stunt drivers in the industry. They can do crazy spins, and skid to the same spot every time. Harry Wowchuck, Olivia Summers, Jeremy Timmins, and Daniel Leavitt are all just exceptional drivers, and I knew that Tree and I could focus on our fight, and trust them to get inches away from us, but never hit us. It was serious trust.
JG: I originally chose Tree because she and I both specialize in high falls, and she was the one girl I'd really trust to wrestle with in the middle of a high fall. She's tough as nails, and game for anything. Of course she's a great fighter (she was a 6-time national champion boxer). She was just perfect for this part, because her face is so expressive and cartoony. She's a natural actress (even if she doesn't know it).
JG: Yes. Our friend, Ryan Happy is his stunt double. He showed it to him a couple of days ago, and it turned out, he had already seen it! I heard he got a kick out of it, but that's all I know at the moment.
Ninja Warrior was fun, because it gave me a fun new goal to train for. I like obstacle courses and competitions, so it was a blast. I'll definitely compete again.FCSyndicate: Some stunt professionals I have shared a dialogue with have varying opinions on whether or not they see acting and stunt performing as one and the same. Considering the work you continue to do, do you see yourself as an actress or is there a line you draw between being an "actress" as opposed to a "stuntwoman"?
JG: Acting and stunting have a lot of crossover, but they are distinctly different career paths. You have to network with completely different crowds. Casting directors don't believe that stunt people can act, and stunt coordinators aren't going to hire someone who's just doing stunts as a way to get into acting. It's very hard to market yourself as 2 different things in 2 different jobs while training for both. So I chose stunts...but continued training for both. Now that I'm fairly established and working steadily in stunts, I can put a little more time into marketing myself as an actress as well. I'll always be a stuntwoman 1st. but I'm also an actress.
JG: Directing is not my priority at the moment, but I'm at some point, I'm sure I'll get inspired with some crazy idea that I have to bring to life.
JG: Jackie Chan! I want to be just like him and work with him.
JG: Most definitely, and the stunts will be bigger. We won't start production until we have the budget to step it up significantly. We'd have to get really creative with our funding, but I'd love to get a helicopter and a ferris wheel.
JG: My next fight scene is called "Gupjengi" directed by Michael Thompson. I'll be playing a bounty hunter chasing down a mentally unstable Korean super soldier, played by Noah Fleder.
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