My Interesting Job: Stunt Performer

My Interesting Job: Stunt Performer

Whether it’s working alongside Margot Robbie, doing stunts on a speedboat in San Francisco Bay or donning a Jedi costume, being a stuntwoman has never looked so cool. We sat down with professional badass Tara Macken to find out how she got started and what the job entails...

When I was young I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew that whatever it was, I wanted to be happy. I remember when I graduated from university, my dad asked me what my plan was, and my response was, “It’s going to be a surprise.” 

It isn’t necessary to have a degree to be a stunt performer. I have a double degree in theatre and political science, which has helped me become a better-rounded filmmaker, performer and artist. But most performers come from a specialist background, for example racing-car drivers or elite, Olympic-level athletes. Since the job is skill based, it’s more important to focus on those necessary for the job.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I started out dancing, acting and modelling. Just whatever would pay the bills. When I was introduced to the stunt community, it was an eye-opening experience. That’s when I decided to fully commit.

Two of my main inspirations are Zoe Bell and Shauna Duggins. Zoe doubled on one of my favourite shows as a kid growing up, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Shauna Duggins is a legend. She was Jennifer Gardner’s stunt double on Alias, but she’s also a member of the Directors Guild of America and the stunt coordinator for the Netflix show Glow. She’s won multiple Emmys and a Taurus award. I’ve worked with her on many projects and she’s so down to earth – it’s a great reminder that you can be sweet, thoughtful and still get to the top. 

It took me two years of working and training to get my first proper paid stunt job. It was on the TV show Community, and I got to be a roller-skating villain.

One of the most important skills to have is the ability to pick up and learn choreography. If you happen to have a background in martial arts, it’s often a great advantage. Also, learn how to drive, ride a motorcycle, a horse, and scuba dive. Essentially, be a well-rounded athlete with a diverse skill set. Oh, and acting – know how to act. The minute you’re on camera, you have to sell the stunt. Finally, as with any job, have a good work ethic. Show up early, stay positive and generally learn to get along with others. 

Every job comes with different demands, so you always have to train for new possibilities.

Every stunt job is different because every movie is different. One day, I’ll be out in the desert in Utah dressed as an alien, and the next day I’m a ninja fighting off 20 guards. Sometimes I’ll work a four-hour day on a TV show, and others I might work for 17 hours. 

In this job, you’re never not training. Every job comes with different demands, so you always have to train for new possibilities. You can train with swords, for fights or falls – you basically become a student for life. I try to incorporate something physical – training wise – into each of my days since I don’t have a typical work routine. It’s my way of finding balance and implementing some sort of system. 

The best day I’ve had at work was on the movie San Andreas. I was shooting in San Francisco, doubling Carla Guigino in a speedboat with Dwayne Johnson’s stunt double, Tanoai Reed. We were on speedboats going under the golden gate bridge getting chased by helicopter and other boats. I remember thinking, “Damn, this is pretty freaking cool.” I had so much fun ripping around in that boat. As for the worst day, it would probably be on a low-budget movie, getting buried alive. Then I had to wrestle this wolf dog. Yeah, it was a rough day…

The most stressful part of the job is when things are rushed on set. But the most rewarding part is always watching finished product. I love watching the movies and shows I’m in and seeing how the scenes come together. Also, going to a premiere is pretty fun. 

The craziest thing that ever happened to me would be either be getting hit by a car in a mini dress and heels or being set on fire. I’ve never had any major accidents – knock on wood – but I take protection seriously. I have volleyball pads, motorcycle pads and ice-skating pads. Anything that’s low profile and fits under my costume. 

I turn jobs down if I don’t have enough experience for what’s required. Career progression, for me, is whatever you make of it. I personally want to direct in the future, so I’m taking the necessary steps for that trajectory.

The most important thing I’ve learned along the way, as cheesy as it sounds, is to believe in yourself.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, this is no longer a man’s world. There are plenty of women kicking ass right now behind, and in front of, the camera. It’s a great time to be a woman.

For anyone getting into this career, my advice would be don’t rush it. Take the time to train, get into the union and understand that nothing comes easy. Stay focused and persevere. 

It’s important to have a life outside of work. See your friends, go out and do things that make you happy. If you just work, go home, sleep and repeat, you’re going to burn out. I like to wind down by going for a long beach walk. There’s also nothing like an Epson salt bath and a TV show to kick back.

The most important thing I’ve learned along the way, as cheesy as it sounds, is to believe in yourself. You should be your own cheerleader; know yourself and be confident in your abilities. The industry will always cut you down and tell you why you didn’t book the job: you were too old, short, fat, tall… whatever it may be, don’t let rejection – or praise for that matter – get to you. 

I’ve been in this job for over ten years now, and I don’t plan on leaving it any time soon. I’ll be stunt coordinating and directing in the future. I love being creative on set and getting to work with all my friends and role models. Also, being in a superhero costume is so much fun – I geek out every time. I love what I’m doing and wouldn’t want to do anything else. 

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