Jénel Stevens on Stuntperforming, the MCU and Viola Davis’ Girl King

There are two issues Jénel Stevens stated she wouldn’t do as a stunt performer. In addition they occur to be her two largest accomplishments. There’s getting hit by a automotive whereas doubling for Gabrielle Union in 2018’s Breaking In, which — whereas confidence-boosting — “wasn’t my most proud stunt,” she says. That title goes as an alternative to a swan dive on the scrapped pilot for the Get Christie Love reboot, from atop a yacht greater than 30 ft within the air and into the ocean in thigh-high-heeled snakeskin boots. She nailed it in a single take.

It was a stunt Stevens solely realized about midway by the four-week job. Fortunately, certainly one of her coworkers knew a dive teacher. Quickly after they related, the stunt performer and martial artist wrangled up simply six hours of instruction throughout two days at an Olympic platform diving pool. “I’m speaking to the coach and the very first thing he says is, ‘Alright, are you snug with this? Since you’re getting into the water at 44 miles an hour and at that peak, in case you enter improper, you possibly can break your again and never floor,’” Stevens remembers.

Regardless of its difficult nature, she’d work her means as much as a single 10-meter dive earlier than being requested to rehearse the leap on set. “After we did that, the director comes over and is like, ‘Oh, my God — I believed you guys had been gonna leap in ft first!’ I used to be like, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Stevens says, breaking into laughter. “However that’s what we do with stunts. We practice onerous and, after all, security first. So we be sure we now have the pads and we ease our means as much as issues.” 

The expertise captures how Stevens — most lately a stunt double for Viola Davis in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historic actioner The Girl King — has navigated her whole profession: with a wholesome understanding of hazard and absolute refusal to give up to worry.

“Lots of people suppose, ‘Oh, you’re only a daredevil. You’re fearless.’ No, I actually function in worry more often than not. So my largest motivation and my drive in my profession is to beat worry,” says the stunt performer, who counts Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the Fallout adaptation as amongst her upcoming credit. “If you find yourself too scared otherwise you’re actually nervous and also you go right into a stunt like that, that’s whenever you get damage. So you need to give it your all.”

Whereas stuntwork is one thing Stevens says “was by no means on my radar,” a lot of her life factors to it being a pure selection. The film lover was an athlete by her younger maturity rising up on Lengthy Island along with her mother and father and brother. She performed on groups for softball, bowling, basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis when she wasn’t coaching as a martial artist — Karate and Taekwondo in childhood, after which later, kinds like Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. By means of her early athleticism, she constructed the type of bodily and psychological agility mandatory for her present calling.

Regardless of these quite a few bodily and psychological trials, her senior yr of undergraduate at Canisius School, the place she attended on a basketball scholarship, supplied certainly one of her truest checks. “I couldn’t straighten my leg out for 4 days,” she remembers of an damage she developed throughout “one of many hardest years of my life.” Coupled with feelings across the finish of a four-year relationship and the commencement of many pals, getting back from it all that final yr “solid the particular person I’m now.”

See also  Netflix Buys Sarah Snook Film

After incomes each a bachelor’s in enterprise administration and grasp’s in sport administration, she was employed as a coach earlier than occurring to work at an Equinox fitness center in New York. It was now 2009, and Anderson’s Martial Arts Academy — a spot she now calls dwelling — had relocated close to her then-workplace. “I used to be there all day, every single day,” she says of the fitness center the place she apprenticed and finally helped run lessons alongside its husband-and-wife homeowners. Then, by one other coincidence, the New York stunt group began coming in. After watching them any likelihood she obtained, Stevens lastly expressed curiosity in making an attempt it out, and a good friend advised her to get a headshot and résumé collectively.

“I’m sitting there pondering, ‘Résumé? I don’t have a résumé for stunts.’ However one other stunt good friend got here alongside, and he’s like, ‘Simply write down all the things that you simply do for enjoyable.’ So I began writing down skydiving, scuba diving, common driving, horseback driving, my martial arts background,” she says. “It was like, wow, I’ve been coaching for this profession my whole life with out even figuring out it.”

Early work on Madam Secretary, Bull and Orange Is the New Black led into certainly one of her earliest high-profile productions, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. It was on that set in December 2015 that she heard whispers of a brand new, thrilling challenge: Black Panther. “In my head, I stated to myself, ‘I’m new on this business and that feels like a cool factor, however I most likely received’t get that,’” she remembers. “That’s one thing to aspire to in my profession. My day will come.”

Unbeknownst to her, a number of colleagues had submitted her, resulting in a name from stunt coordinator Andy Gill, who requested if she might audition in Atlanta. As it’s for all who be part of the Marvel universe, the studio was secretive concerning the gig, which almost led to her turning it down. However as soon as there, Stevens confronted a sequence of occasions acquainted to Black girls working in Hollywood stunts.

“After we had been doing the audition, the coordinators are like, ‘Wait, you’re from New York? Folks such as you exist?’ It was like, ‘Yeah, we exist,’” she says. “I used to be in a room filled with Black feminine martial artists and gymnasts and pro-this, pro-that. Doing that film, all people began realizing that there are Black performers — Black feminine performers. Then all people began going loopy as a result of there have been no different performers for the opposite exhibits that had been filming on the identical time.”

Stevens had skilled an analogous factor on Luke Cage, the place she says the physique depend of the motion collection meant the manufacturing was “burning by” stunt performers. It additionally meant that like Black Panther, the billion-dollar field workplace hit that confirmed Hollywood Black performers might promote out theaters within the motion style, it was producing new alternatives for Black and brown stunt staff.

These shortages weren’t essentially the fault of the productions themselves, however that of leisure’s stunt performer pipeline, which has seen Black girls go underrepresented resulting from a mixture of few onscreen alternatives and traditionally exclusionary insurance policies. Based on Stevens, it has left at the least one feminine veteran she is aware of hesitant to retire, involved that nobody will be capable of change her particular ability set.

See also  Sarah Snook-Starrer “Run Rabbit Run” Lands at Netflix, Daina Reid Directs

To handle these hiring gaps, stunt work has relied on practices like “wigging” and “portray down,” or the usage of wigs on stuntpeople to resemble actresses and the darkening of a stuntperson’s pores and skin tone to match their actor’s. “Stunts are an attention-grabbing beast as a result of security, clearly, is the primary factor, however there are occasions when the search isn’t large enough to discover a Black lady to do a selected factor — both they’re booked up or they’ll’t discover the particular person,” says Stevens.

Stevens acknowledges that it’s a controversial topic and one she’s been in the midst of at occasions as a light-skinned Black Hispanic performer who “might be 5 totally different shades.” However extra coaching and job alternatives — whereas making certain somebody is on set so actors are skilled effectively and secure, within the meantime — might be the right way to tackle it. “Colorism is a giant piece of this dialog and it has began shifting for the higher with folks now extra assured to talk up about it, nevertheless it’s not 100%,” Stevens says. “A dialog must be had to verify coordinators know that Black girls exist and you may name greater than the 5 you do know.”

Again on the set of Black Panther, the place she appeared as a member of Wakanda’s elite female-fighting power the Dora Milaje, she labored on her first predominantly Black stunt ensemble from 2016 to 2017, and there was no being one of many solely. It was additionally a job that catapulted her profession, opening doorways within the busy superhero style at-large. (Stevens’ comedian e book credit embody doubling for Danai Gurira in Avengers: Endgame, Simone Missick in Luke Cage, in addition to Tatiana Maslany and Jameela Jamil in She-Hulk, alongside engaged on Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy and DC’s Joker and Black Lightening.)

It’s a nook of the business Stevens says has supplied probably the most work to stuntwomen of coloration. “Marvel is likely one of the largest action-producing firms on the planet,” she tells THR. “They’re those giving the alternatives for Black actresses to come back alongside.”

And alternative would strike once more in September 2021, however this time, with a challenge exterior of the MCU: The Girl King. With it, Stevens discovered herself making a 180-degree flip from a few of her earlier experiences, like being the one woman on a co-ed baseball workforce in center faculty and spending 2014 and 2015 in Muay Thai combat coaching sparring towards solely males on the behest of her coach. Now, she was engaged on a set predominantly made up of and led by Black girls. After prepping in Los Angeles for a month, she flew out to South Africa, the place stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez put Stevens in positions of authority amid the ensemble’s eight to 10-hour coaching days.

That included main the movie’s South African stunt performers, most of whom hadn’t completed stunts earlier than. It additionally noticed her representing the stunt division within the video village, the place director Prince-Bythewood would flip to Stevens for her opinions.

However even earlier than she was giving a seasoned director her ideas on scenes, Stevens says, the manufacturing’s first rehearsal revealed the “unbelievable” gravity of what they had been doing. “I stepped into the room, they usually checked out me with a lot respect. They regarded as much as me — I used to be shocked,” she remembers. “I felt this sense of accountability in educating the lessons as a result of that they had been led by white males your entire time.”

See also  Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston Crew Up for Physique Swap Comedy

On set, everybody was pushed to “work their asses off,” with a number one ensemble that did “98 p.c” of their stunts — a extra practical, straight-to-the-kill strategy to preventing versus the extra elaborate strikes of the MCU. Attending to work earlier than their name time and hanging round after rehearsals, the expertise resulted in private development and bonding among the many performers. It additionally delivered a uncommon second on this scale for Black girls working in Hollywood, and was one thing star Davis performed a key function in shaping.

Describing the Oscar winner as a humble powerhouse who doesn’t “disguise behind a curtain,” Stevens says she was made to really feel as an equal to Davis, who spoke brazenly and freely. “The respect she had for me as a martial artist — she had seen my work. She knew what I might do. She needed to approve me, so she trusted me,” Stevens explains.

And may Davis have moments of doubts, the actress’ double would be sure to return that grace. With Davis watching “like a hawk” throughout rehearsals, Stevens and the Girl King star went over combat strikes repeatedly, not solely bonding however constructing the actress’ confidence in her personal talents. “She didn’t actually suppose that she may very well be this particular person on digital camera,” Stevens explains. “However she was so pushed — all these girls had been — that each one ego went out the window.”

At one level throughout filming, that dedication turned clear because the solid discovered themselves in boats pretending that they had simply come out of the water. “They needed to dump water on their our bodies they usually began complaining,” Stevens remembers of the onscreen ensemble. “Impulsively, Viola — doesn’t say something — takes a bucket of water and pours it on herself. Then they began throwing water on themselves.”

“With Viola main that cost,” she continues, “it was like iron sharpens iron.”

Simply as Black Panther paved the best way for her expertise in South Africa, The Girl King has now primed Stevens for her subsequent massive film: Kerry Washington’s Shadow Drive. Due to a name from one of many film’s govt producers, whom she additionally labored with on Breaking In, the stunt performer labored but once more this late summer time and early fall with certainly one of Hollywood’s Black feminine energy gamers.

Solely this time, it sees her enterprise into new territory along with her first main performing function. Supplied with out an audition, the half nonetheless sees Stevens preventing, however with just a few extra hair and wardrobe modifications. It’s onscreen work that made her really feel “empowered” and one that can, in its personal means, take a look at her capability to deal with the worry that may include one more surprising profession flip.

“That is the job I signed up for. That is what I like to do. That is what I’m going to do,” she says. “So I’m going to arrange for it to the perfect of my capability after which once they name motion, I’m gonna go for it.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top