A Day in the Life of a Stunt Performer: Ashley Pynn

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Photo Source: Courtesy Ashley Pynn stunt reel

For Ashley Pynn, being a stunt performer has always been a family affair. Introduced to the work by her aunt, a stunt performer herself, Pynn has gone on to work on projects ranging from “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” to “Little Women” and the upcoming “West Side Story.”

Talking to Backstage, Pynn articulates the benefits of having a varied skill set, the unpredictable schedules that come with being a stunt performer, and how crucial building trust is to making sure everyone stays safe on set. 

What does a stunt performer do?
[A stunt performer] is a trained individual hired by a [stunt] coordinator to perform a specific action or multiple actions that tend to be more athletically specific while holding the standards for crew and [cast] alike.

How did you become a stunt performer?
My aunt has been doing stunts for 23 years now and she and I have been very close since I was a kid. I asked her what she did, and she said stunts. She told me what it entailed and I was like, “I fall all the time, I think I’d be really great at that!” I went to school for acting—I really wanted to change the world on a broader scale by doing creative projects that would help push humanity in a forward direction. That took a little longer to hit, so I started to bartend and just went down the rabbit hole that is paying rent in New York and barely getting by. 

I saved up a bunch of money, got my headshots done, and I kind of just went to sets and started passing out my headshots, talked to PAs, saying, “I’m here to see (whoever the stunt coordinator was on a project). My name’s Ashley, I’m trying to get into stunts.” If you get a good PA, hopefully, they’ll point you in the right direction. But it’s literally hustling. Half the time it works: some people like it, some people don’t. It’s a grassroots way to build yourself up. 

Cort Hessler, the stunt coordinator of “The Blacklist,” got a hold of my headshot and called my aunt and was like, “are you related to this person? Is she ready?” My aunt said, “This is her thing, she wants to do it on her own.” And he said, “can you at least bring her to set so I can meet her because she looks exactly like our lead.” So she brought me in and I met Cort, the producers came down and immediately looked at a PA and said, “get her paperwork, she’s working today.” So I got tapped on the spot, which is a Cinderella story. There was actually already a stunt girl there but because I looked so much like the lead, they threw me in and she was gracious enough to share her harness. At the time I didn’t realize I was stealing her job but she was so gracious about it. I was asking all these stupid, elementary questions and was overly excited. 

What does a day in the life of a stunt performer look like?
I try to get to set an hour in advance just in case. It’s good to be early! If you’re on time, you’re late. I always try to find a PA right away to find out where I need to be. If you’re there at call time, you can get breakfast. Sometimes we have to run to do a fitting if we didn’t have the chance to do one before. Then I immediately put my outfit on so I can see what pads will fit underneath. 

A lot of the time you’re kind of sitting down and socializing with other people because there’s a lot of down-time on set. [For] the actual performing of the stunt, they film the scene just prior with the actor and then you’re stepping in where they left off to perform the stunt—they call it the “Cowboy Switch.” You’re driving a car but need to do a 180 to get close to a cameraman, so you do that and then they say, “everybody pause!” You open the door, the actor gets in, and then they continue the scene and cut out the switch to keep continuity. You hide by the tire while the actor gets out of the car as if she’s the one who pulled in. 

What’s the process like for getting a stunt performer job?
You are your own agent and you have to constantly be out there exposing yourself, whether it’s via the internet or posting videos of you training. I would get a call like, “Hey, can you work tomorrow?” And half the time they don’t tell you what you’re going to do. And then I may not have something for a week, two weeks, and then I’ll work five days in one week. It’s very sporadic, very unpredictable. We never really know, honestly. You just have to keep working, keep training, keep putting yourself out there so people don’t forget about you.

Eventually, someone will vouch for you after you’ve done your research and trained and met people. You have your credits and get your SAG card. Sometimes people do background work for that and hope to get a couple of credits. Some people go the stand-in route. But most of the time to get a coordinator to  hire you, you need somebody who’s going to vouch for you, to say, “I think this person has got it, I think they have it in them, I believe in them.” Because it’s such a dangerous job, people do get hurt and you never know who’s going to be on the other end of your line, you want to trust that person. You have to be very present and do the job correctly. Always listen, always learn. You can’t choke. 

What skills do you need to be a stunt performer?
Everyone’s different. A lot of people have specific skills: you have the gym people, you have the parkour people. I’m more all-around; I don’t have a background in gymnastics of anything like that. I do taekwondo, martial arts, that type of stuff. I used to race when I was growing up, I’ve always been on motors, so I’m a big driver. I’m also a “ground pounder”: basically you get hit and try to do it as safely as possible so you’re able to get back up and do it again if they didn’t catch the shot or need a different angle. 

What’s the training like for a stunt performer? 
There are driving schools, like Drivers East. You go for a two-and-a-half-day course and learn how to do Reverse 180’s, etc. in these cars and do it safely. There’s Brooklyn Zoo which is a training facility based in Brooklyn where they do parkour classes, trampoline classes. Those are really great tools. Learning how to surf—anything and everything that might be athletic that you can put toward any kind of stunt you might need. Take a few gymnastics classes; maybe you're not amazing at it but can you do a backflip? Awesome. 

But everyone’s different. A lot of people have specific skills: you have the gym people, you have the parkour people. I’m more all-around; I don’t have a background in gymnastics of anything like that. I do taekwondo, martial arts, that type of stuff. I used to race when I was growing up, I’ve always been on motors, so I’m a big driver. I’m also a “ground pounder”: basically you get hit and try to do it as safely as possible so you’re able to get back up and do it again if they didn’t catch the shot or need a different angle. 

What advice would you give an aspiring stunt performer?
You can’t get cocky because it will be shut down quickly. Always be aware, always be learning. Pay attention; you need to make sure you’re safe. If something feels wrong, it’s probably wrong, and don’t be afraid to say so. A lot of people will just keep going because there’s a lot of pressure but sometimes you could get hurt [or] somebody else could get hurt if you don’t say something. 

Are there any stunts you’re particularly inspired by?
A couple of the Marvel [shows] have stunts that are really beautiful and amazing for fighters. They go on for three, four minutes. All that stuff is beautiful. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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