Stunt men and women are an integral part of the entertainment industry, but they very rarely get the praise they deserve. They bring characters and heroes to life by showcasing the gritty action scenes that make these characters who they are. Jessie is just one of those brilliant stuntpeople and she is only just getting started. Belt yourself in and get ready for a ride of a lifetime with real life Wonder Woman, Jessie Graff.
Tell our readers a little bit about your background. What do you do as a stunt woman and how did you get into it?
I've wanted to be a super hero on tv since I was twelve years old, watching Buffy and Xena. My hobbies were perfectly in line with stunt training. I was a gymnast, circus girl, pole vaulter, diver, climber...I loved heights, falls, and physically acting out fights and chases. It wasn't until three years into my college career as a Theatre major that I found out actors don't get to do many stunts. I wanted to act AND do my own stunts, but if I had to choose, it was stunts all the way. I finished my degree, and dove head first into stunt training.
I researched what gyms were popular among stunt people, and joined all of them. I coached kids at a gymnastics club that had open stunt workouts 4 nights/wk, so that I could use their facilities free of charge. I copied everything I saw the stunt guys doing. The first, and most important was reactions- whipping my head or body in different directions as if I've been punched or kicked in the face, chest, stomach, had my knee kicked, or had a leg swept out from under me. It's also vital to be comfortable performing different kinds of falls-- from different heights, with spins or flips, and when ricocheting off of walls or furniture. We practiced every version of taking a hit, and making it look violent, without actually get hurt doing it. Then there was boxing, kick boxing, tae kwon do, kung fu, capoeira, XMA--all different fighting styles and weapons training, learning high falls up to 50 ft high and wire work, understanding fire safety & rigging, cars, motorcycles… These are all standard skills for a stuntwoman, and I crammed like crazy to become proficient in all of them. It was hard work, but all of it was fascinating and inspiring, and I'm still learning. A huge part of it is about being alert and ready to react to sudden changes on set: restrictive wardrobe, weather, mobile set pieces, fighting an actor who hasn't had time to learn the choreography, instead of the stunt double with whom you've been practicing the choreography. It's always fun and exciting, and keeps you on your toes!
What do you love most about your job?
I love the athleticism and the physical challenge of it most, but beyond what I'd get to do in other sports, we get to tell a story, and make a finished product that can last forever.
Were there any setbacks that you have had that turned into positive movements in your career?
I love this question. Setbacks can feel crushing, but the more you can evaluate the positive things that have come from previous setbacks, the more manageable the current challenges feel. One of the worst and best meetings of my life was with an agent in DC, where I accidentally brought the wrong resume. Instead of the theatrical resume with all of my acting experience & theatre credits, I brought the one I had made for the circus in high school, before all of my acting classes. She barely looked at it, before brusquely asking “What is this? Why are you here? Do you even act?", and began escorting me out of the office, before I could even answer. But she jotted down a number, and said “here. Call this guy. You should do stunts", and closed the door in my face, while i stood, jaw dropped, head spinning...but the loudest thought drowning out the regret of a silly mistakes and explanations, and what I should have said or done was “...a stuntwoman...of course!"
Blowing out my knee right before season 6 of "American Ninja Warrior" may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I would never have trained for it the way I did, if I hadn't been on crutches, ripped away from the martial arts and stunt training I loved. I wouldn't have started my personal pullup challenge and rock climbing regimen that made me one of the top female ninjas. And after that healed, I was even more motivated to build comparable strength in my legs, which made me the top woman, and one of the top 10 overall competitors this season! The knee injury was a devastating blow, because it tore me away from what I loved, but forced me to find a new love, which has opened so many new doors, I could never have imagined before my setback.
What is the best piece of career advice you have heard? Do you have any advice for our readers on finding their ideal career or dream job/ or creating their own opportunities? (this can be specific to stunts or just in general)
When I first moved to LA, a lot of people asked “how long are you going to give yourself to 'make it'?" Like, if you can't find work as a stuntwoman after a year or 2 years, how long would it take for you to call it quits, and go back? My highest goal is to be an action hero, but if I never got a stunt job in my life, as long as I could work enough hours coaching gymnastics to support myself, and still have time to train with all these amazing stunt people, and learn martial arts, flips, high falls...If I could spend my life training with stunt people, what more could I ask for? That's what I loved then, and still love today! Why would i ever leave? Getting to put those skills to use in scenes that can last forever on film, is just above and beyond. And I'm grateful that I have been able to work enough as a stuntwoman to fully support my training habits 😉
So my best advice is to do what you love. Find something that inspires you so much, that you'd do it for free. And then find a way to make a living at it. There will probably be no cookie-cutter path laid out for you. You'll have to think harder, work harder, and be more creative in your plan and problem solving. But if you can do it, it won't feel like work.
What is your goal for your career in the future?
Act. I'm in class 2-3 days/week, meeting with my manager, agents, auditioning, reading scripts, prepping short films. If an opportunity arises, I will be ready, and if it doesn't, I will create my own opportunities.
To follow this rising star's career find her on Twitter @JESSIEgraffPWR.