Friday, November 8, 2013

Jessie Luck: My Interview With Stuntwoman And Producer, JESSIE GRAFF

My journey here as a writer has been quite fruitful, as seeing and watching, and just observing the online action community has allowed me to talk to, and share insight a lot of talented and gorgeous stuntwomen who can do incredible things. Jessie Graff is one of them.

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 wrote about about it in this article as it stands out as one of the most entertaining things I have seen. And I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share some dialogue with Graff about her career, and what lies in the months and years ahead.

I hope Jackie Chan sees this. And for good reason!

Film Combat Syndicate: What were some of your favorite TV shows and movies growing up?
Jessie Graff: I had always planned on being an action hero (or villain) on tv. Of course I loved the Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles and 3 Ninjas. But it was really all Xena and Buffy that inspired me.  I'd watch the show, and then run out in the woods and practice knocking down dead trees with flying side kicks, and doing wall flips on the sides of trees.   
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. 
FCSyndicate: What inspired you to become a stuntwoman?
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.
FCSyndicate: What was the biggest stunt you have ever had to perform? And how do you go about overcoming your fears right before a stunt?
JG: Had to perform? haha! The bigger and scarier, the more I want to do it. The biggest stunt so far was jumping off a 35 foot bridge onto a moving train. 
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! 
FCSyndicate: What goes into your level of martial arts training? I've seen you kick an entire tree down, which I think is awesome!
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.
FCSyndicate: I also notice you're an adventurer who takes up a lot of outdoor sports and activities What were some of your favorite hobbies growing up? And what do you enjoy most on your travels?
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!
FCSyndicate: You have also been busy working with Leo Kei Angelos on a few projects, including First Impressions and the live-action interpretation of the classic Epic Chicken Fight from Family Guy. How did you and Leo meet? And what are some of the things you enjoy about working with him?
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.
FCSyndicate: Having served as producer for your latest Epic Chicken Fight with Michael David Thompson, what were some of the challenges you guys faced in how to create such a sick action scene on an epic scale? 
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.
FCSyndicate: And what was it like working with Simon Rhee?
JG: Simon's so cool! I was so excited that he was willing to help us out with this project. I would write out the fight choreography, and then bring it to a rehearsal with Tree and Simon (or straight to set most days). He was our coach and our eyes behind the camera. He told us which punches were selling, where we had form breaks, when we weren't reacting big enough, and helped us work our camera angles.   I should also add that the 300-style action sequence in the office was pretty much all Michael Thompson's idea. He came up with the concept and choreography, placed the workers, arranged the cubicles, and built the dolly track and camera mount. We wanted nonstop chaos, and he gave it to us.
FCSyndicate: What was it like working with your fellow co-star, Tree O'Toole?
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).
FCSyndicate: Do you know if Seth MacFarlane or anyone at Fox Entertainment had a chance to see it yet?
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.
FCSyndicate: You've been a stuntwoman for a couple of decades now. These days you've come into your own as an actress, and even stepping into the role of producer. Looking back on how far you have come, what do you love most about stunt performing and screenfighting?
JG: I've always wanted to be a ninja. And a spy, pirate, astronaut, and super hero. As an actress, I can be anything. As a stuntwoman, I can do anything. I used to wait around for someone else to create those roles for me, but as a producer, I can make them myself.  Once I had a project, it was amazing to see how the people and resources came together.  Everyone was so generous & eager to contribute.
FCSyndicate: You also competed on American Ninja Warrior and became the first woman in the show's history to beat the qualifying round. What was that experience like? Are you a fan of the show? And will you be back again to compete?
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.
FCSyndicate: Do you see yourself directing anytime soon?
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.
FCSyndicate: If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?
JG: Jackie Chan! I want to be just like him and work with him.
FCSyndicate: Will there be another Epic Chick Fight? And if so, are there any other ideas about how to take it a step up?
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.  
FCSyndicate: What are some other projects you have lined up? Anyone you look forward to working with in the near future?
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.
At Leo's request, I had to make a few changes to this article since Jessie's upcoming projects have to remain anonymous for now. I guess in part, that's how her business functions, so whatever Leo and Jessie have planned, I'm sure that it will be a blast.

In parting, I want to thank Jessie for taking some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me, and for investing herself on my site. I certainly hope her career continues to blossom, and I absolutely look forward to Gupjengi and her future projects... and if all works out, maybe even as Wonder Woman or Xena, or whatever dream role that comes her way.

I'm very humbled and very happy to share some of her story on my platform. Jessie is strong-willed, and a charm to watch on screen, and I'm sure her closest friends and loved ones can think of even more reasons why anyone would be lucky to work with her. She's one of the sharpest screenfighters I have ever seen, and like all in her field, she represents everything I love about martial arts and action movies as a whole.

People like Jessie are the reason why we love action so much, so take note, folks!

Follow Jessie Graff  and Leo Kei Angelos on Twitter to keep up to date on her happenings, and journey to her IMDb page for more info. And subscribe to the official Facebook page for Epic Chicken Fight to keep up with the latest!

Take care Jessie. And keep flying!

If you enjoyed this interview, feel free to share it with friends with the hashtag, #WingIt.
Jessie Luck: My Interview With Stuntwoman And Producer, JESSIE GRAFF
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