Somersault to Success: Stunts!

Welcome to the third in a series of blogs where I highlight some of the greatest opportunities British gymnasts should be looking out for! Gymnasts are not only some of the most flexible, tough, and fit athletic performers, but also tend to be the kind of hard working, passionate and dedicated individuals that are perfect for many other highly sought after roles.

Former U.S. / UCLA Gymnast Vanessa Zamarripa now works as a stuntwoman
Former U.S. / UCLA Gymnast Vanessa Zamarripa now works as a stuntwoman

So you’ve popped the popcorn, dimmed the lights, and settled down to watch James Bond, or the Avengers, or whatever action-packed title you’re feeling like watching this evening. It’s half way through and looking promising, until suddenly the movie star gets hit by an almighty punch and thrown down six flights of stairs! You almost choke on your popcorn, but don’t worry they’re fine, and with a smooth recovery roll they leap out the window onto the roof of a car, before grabbing the underneath of a bridge and somersaulting into a river to escape. Phew. You can’t help your feelings of admiration as you watch that A-list actor gaze into the distance, reflecting on their stylish getaway. But who were you really watching? You don’t actually know. That uber-cool A-lister (who you’re hoping to imitate in your own life) wasn’t actually diving from above with daring athleticism. “It could be computer effects” you think to yourself, “but it seemed very real…” You’ve probably been watching a stunt double.

Stunt performers are the unsung heroes of the film industry, responsible for a great deal of the wow-factor in big name hits, but with unrecognisable faces and names. And it’s not just action films where they are needed. It could be a chick flick, a musical, or any other genre where they are called in to do the moves the actors can’t- or won’t- do. Although it can be risky, stunt performers come from highly skilled backgrounds where they have been trained to control their bodies in incredible ways. Backgrounds like gymnastics! I caught up with gymnast-turned-stuntwoman Vanessa Zamarripa to find out what it’s like to live a life doubling the stars…

Hi! How are you today? 

I’m doing great! Thanks for asking 🙂

Thanks for answering some questions for The Zone. First of all, when and where did you start gymnastics?

I started gymnastics in O’Fallon, Illinois, in a small gym called Midwest Twisters when I was 7 years old

What is it that you loved about gymnastics?

I loved seeing what new skills I could learn, competing in front of a big crowd, creating new friendships and memories, and travelling.

You had an incredible gymnastics career, competing for the U.S.A and the UCLA Bruins. At what point did you realise you may want to work doing stunts? What made you decide to go for it?

I was inspired by Heidi Moneymaker, who was also a UCLA gymnast. She stunt doubles Scarlett Johanssen in all the Marvel Movies now. I thought it would be a good way to transition from gymnastics and use my abilities to get into stunts.

How did gymnastics help you get into stunt work?

I was able to get Taft-Hartley into SAG* because there was a TV show that needed gymnasts and the person helping coordinate that show also used to be a UCLA gymnast, Natalie Padilla. She helped me get into the business and gave me my first couple stunt jobs.

(*The Taft-Hartley Act was created in 1947 by the U.S. Congress; in the case of SAG (the Screen Actor’s Guild), it allows producers to hire non-union actors as long as those actors possess “a quality or skill essential to the role” and “an available union performer” with the same skills cannot be found. In other words, Taft-Hartley enables gymnasts to get hired into the film industry more easily, because gymnastics skills are special and rare. Source: backstage.com)

What would you say are the most important skills to have to do stunt work?

Other people that have been in the business a long time tell me it’s good to be well rounded, so from a foundation of gymnastics skills the next stage is to develop your other skills like wire work, precision driving, training fights, reactions, falls, good air awareness, etc. I’m a certified PADI scuba diver now, and I’m training on becoming a better stunt driver and fighter.

Is stunt work what you expected?

Yes, as I expected the difficult parts from stories I had heard. I knew it was going to be difficult both trying to get jobs and doing the stunt work itself. It’s hard getting into the business when you are new and you really have to prove yourself. Then when you get the job and you have to do the stunt, you have to be prepared for anything. You may be asked to do the stunt over and over again several times, or the stunt could change at the last minute.

What is your daily schedule like?

It changes a lot. When you book a gig, it can be a short day or a 15 hour + long shift. And sometimes you can work for 6 months straight and then be off for 3 months.

What’s the worst part of doing stunt work?

That it can be painful and dangerous. They of course try to make the stunt as safe as possible but there are always risks. (A bit like gymnastics!)

And the best parts?

Learning everything and anything I can on set, creating new friendships and memories, and being able to travel.

What would you say to other gymnasts wanting to go into stunt work?

Know you have to have a thick skin in the business. Also from what other veterans have told me you should try and train with other people that are also trying to get into the business, hustle sets, stay in shape, learn as many new skills as you can, network at stunt events, and create a reel and resume (CV) so you can send it to coordinators.

Should we look out for you in any particular movies?

Yes… but I am not sure if I am allowed to say it at this time! 🙂

We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for you then!

Thank you so much and good luck with your future endeavors.

Hope you enjoyed this edition of Somersault to Success. Are you considering stunt work? Is there a particular career path you’d like me to investigate next time? Let me know your thoughts- @zonegymnastics or @jempin515 on Twitter!

All the best until then,

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