17 Jan The Hardest Hit
“What has been your hardest hit?”
This is at least one of the top 5 questions asked when I meet someone for the first time that is unfamiliar with the stunt profession. Along with “who have you doubled?” and “have you been in anything I’ve ever seen?”. Honestly, I would rather talk about my own personal experiences than the people I’ve worked with or shows that I’ve been on.
There is a category for The Hardest Hit, at the Taurus World Stunt Awards, and although I have never been nominated, I’ve definitely taken some hits hard enough to share a story. These are the kinds of stories I share all the time in conversation when asked about my stunts. I feel fortunate that I’m able to clearly remember some of the biggest stunts in my career and thought I might as well write about while I can.
When I think of my hardest hit I think of the hardest hit I ever wanna take on my body knowing exactly what I’m in for and that I could do it again if I had to. My hardest hit isn’t about my worst injury or proving how much pain I can endure without complaining. Stunts are about getting the shot and telling the story in the safest possible way for everyone involved.
I call it the “Superman Syndrome” when I see stunt performers trying so hard to prove they are invincible and one-up each other with kamikaze-like courage. Then they end up getting hurt and pretend they are so tough they don’t feel the pain. I think it’s important to know your limits and to communicate those to your team so that nobody is expected to do something they are not capable of doing safely.
It’s not uncommon to see inexperienced performers push past their own limits simply because they haven’t had an opportunity to establish them for themselves, never mind prove them to coordinators they are trying to impress. This can be a very bad thing when they fail to come thru with the performance as promised. It makes the coordinator look bad and puts everyone in danger.
On occasion, with skill and confidence a performer can agree to perform a stunt they have never done before and with proper preparation and commitment to the performance they can pull thru successfully, safely and to everyone’s satisfaction. This is how experience is gained, personal limitations are narrowed and we get to learn for ourselves what we are truly capable of.
My Hardest Hit
My hardest hit was getting T-boned by a Mack Truck while I was speeding thru an intersection. I can honestly say to my hungover friends when they declare the next morning that they feel like they were “hit by a Mack Truck”, I actually know what that feels like! I also happened to find my own personal physical limit the 3rd time it happened. This stunt was my opportunity to crash out of my comfort zone and determine for myself what I’m willing to do for money in my career and what my body is capable of enduring. And when I felt I had taken a hard enough hit in the name of entertainment, I said so.
It was on Season 2 of Rogue and I was stunt doubling Thandie Newton. The stunt coordinator was one of the best Stunt Driving Professionals in the business and a friend. The guy driving the Mack Truck was equally legendary in the stunt community, and also a friend. I was working with the best, I was in good hands and I had a lot to learn from this team. For me, it was a great opportunity to prove I could take directions as part of a team, drive precisely in timing and marks under pressure, mentally prepare to take a direct hit by what felt like an oncoming freight train, crash hard and do it all again if needed.
The mustang picture car was set up for the crash scenario. I had my 5 point harness installed, a roll cage, gas tank removed and all the other necessary preparations were made to execute this stunt professionally and safely. This was the first T-Bone crash for me and while I tried to learn as much as possible, I was definitely putting my life in the hands and expertise of the stunt team around me. I was stoked and felt privileged to be there and to be a part of the stunt design and preparation.
The First Take
It was late in the evening by the time we got to the scene after we had finished all the preparation and rehearsed the action. The very first take was unexpected, to say the least. When the Stunt Coordinator called “Action”, I drove thru the intersection, at the right speed, as planned, ready and anticipating a hit hard on the right. Nothing happened as I cruised thru to the other side of the intersection and the Mack Truck passed half a second behind me. The timing was off between the two of us and the Mack truck driver made the right call and backed off.
The Second Take
Reset, back to ones, let’s go again. Again, I drove the Mustang thru the intersection and was hit perfectly on the passenger side rear quarter panel, as planned. However, the car took the hit and spun out backing into a telephone pole in the direction I was heading. That was not planned. What they storyboard specifically called for was the Mustang spinning out and hitting a parked car to the left of the intersection it was passing thru. So we go again.
The Third Take
Now the car has already been hit hard and destroyed on the rear right quarter panel. There is a huge indent and the car no longer runs. So we decide to place the car in the middle of the intersection and shoot from the driver side angle so we can’t see the Mack Truck impacting the huge dented area again. This time we decided that in order to get the car to spin out as desired, the Mack Truck would have to come harder and faster to impact the Mustang with enough force. Since we were hitting the exact same dented spot already hit, there was no crumple zone to absorb impact and the hit would be a lot harder than the first.
I was a sitting duck, in the middle of the intersection watching as the bright headlights of a full-size truck came straight for me. Unless you are a Stunt Performer or heaven forbid, a crash test dummy (kinda same thing), I hope you never have had or will have this feeling!
As the truck hit I remember wondering what it would be like without the 5 point harness to hold me in place, or the roll cage to prevent complete vehicle annihilation or the extra padding I wore on my legs so I didn’t get too banged up. I remember thinking, this kind of a car accident could actually kill someone with the impact alone in a real-life scenario. And that is why it’s called a stunt. And I was there because I am a Professional Stuntwoman. What I love most about my job is the feeling I get doing things most people will never and would never want to experience. So surreal!
As I took the impact, every muscle in my body tensed, vibrating from the shock, held in place from 5 points. After a deafening crash, breaking glass and tires sliding across the pavement, I took a deep breath and shook myself present. The car spun out in the direction that we wanted, but not all the way to crash into the targeted parked car. I remember the coordinator asking me if I was good to go again and I immediately said yes because I felt okay full of adrenaline and I wanted to get the job done. I believed I had another one in me and that one more take would be enough.
The Fourth Take
The fourth take on camera, third hit to the Mustang, second impact as a sitting duck. This time we put shuffleboard wax all over the ground on the drivers’ side to encourage the car to spin out with enough force in the direction of the parked car. We also decided, again, that in order to get the car to spin out as desired, the Mack Truck would have to come harder and faster than the previous takes to impact the Mustang with enough force. Because the hit target on the Mustang had already been impacted twice, the frame of the vehicle was now taking the full impact with no crumple zone. Since my harness was attached to the frame, I was in for the hardest hit yet.
When it comes to these kinds of hard impacting stunts, there is a lot of mental preparation that goes into the performance. There are many ways of getting yourself into the right mindset and individual process is not something a lot of performers tend to share or talk about. It’s kinda personal. Some people are religious and say a little prayer. Some people block everything out and try to remain present. Some people just black out and hope for the best. I’m more of a spiritual person and along with focusing on my breathing, what I need to do and being present, I believe that I’m never really alone when I do big stunts like this. Just like when I’m heartbroken, when I’m depressed, devastated or lonely, my mother’s spirit is always there with me. On this third impact, she was sitting in the passenger seat and she told me everything would be fine, so I was good to go. One of the guys also suggested that if I turned my head to face the oncoming truck and the impact, I would have less whiplash on my neck. I don’t know if that was true, but I gave it a try.
So there I was in the middle of the intersection, strapped into the driver’s seat of an immobile Mustang staring at the headlights down the street of a Mack Truck, now a block away. The coordinator calls “Action” and I start reigning in my mental chatter with calm deep breaths, encouragement to be brave and not look away. The headlights approach, faster than before, and as the roar of the engine gets louder and louder, I don’t look away. For a second I thought, this is the way a deer must feel caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, unsure which way to flee and paralyzed with fear. Except I wasn’t a deer, I put myself in this situation, this was my job, I couldn’t run if I tried to, and I wasn’t afraid, not in the least.
The impact was right on target, louder than the first two and harder than anything I had ever felt in my life up until that moment. My entire body tensed once again absorbing the full concussive force of a Mack Truck on a mission. My harness held me firmly in place as the car flew across the intersection, sliding along the shuffle waxed pavement, spinning out hitting the desired parked car. We got the shot! No one was hurt. That’s the name of the game after all.
When I climbed out of the car that night, there was applause from the entire onset crew as they always do in appreciation of a good and safe performance. I felt exuberant, successful and most of all grateful for having pulled off a really cool stunt for my demo reel. Now I could brag about being hit by a Mack Truck, three times!
And this is what you don’t hear a lot of performers admit to.
Parts of my body were numb from the body concussion when I got out of the car. I was moving slowly and stiffly and when asked if I was ok I answered honestly, full of adrenaline, that I was good and that was as hard as I ever wanted to be hit. Even after the half-hour drive home that night I was almost too sore to get out of my truck as the lactic acid stiffened in my back and my neck. The following week was full of chiropractor, massage, acupuncture, self-care and rest bringing my body, mind and spirit back to good. All except an uncomfortable and consistent feeling of pinching unalignment in my neck.
Three months later I was hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. Three days into a 4-day trek to Macchu Picchu, I slept restlessly in my tent, on the hard rocky ground. I had lost my pillow in the middle of the night trying to find comfort. I woke to the sound of a loud crack in my neck. Unable to pick my head up I felt like my neck was broken. After the endorphins were released from the crack, I carefully lifted my head up and realized that something, had somehow, fallen back into place and that all was well, once again.