Stunt Woman Kylie Furneaux Discuss Her Work on THOR, PUSH, X-MEN 3 and Many Other Projects
Published: November 25, 2010 - 8:25am
Exclusive: She has fought, fallen and sliced her way through tons of action films and TV shows, and more than likely, you didn't even notice it was her.
Kylie was kind enough to take a break from her relentless schedule of training, filming and choreographing to speak with me about the globe-trotting experiences that has given her one of the most respectable resumes in the stunt industry. If you're not familiar with how important stunt acting is, pay attention; Kylie also gives us a break down of how stunt work fits into the the grand scheme of modern film making.
Pietro Filipponi: The majority of our audience may not be familiar with the importance of the stunt industry in Hollywood, especially with so many actors and actresses saying that they do their own stunt work. How would you best describe the role the average stunt person has on set in various scenarios such as body doubling and stunt acting?
Kylie Furneaux: Pretty much anytime an actor has anything that may in any way result in them getting physically damaged in some way they generally have a stunt coordinator and a stunt double on set. If it is something easy like simply getting slapped across the face, it may just be the coordinator who is present to assist the director in making sure the shot looks as genuine as possible. If the slap results in the actor falling backwards over a chair, then the stunt double steps in.
Basically it comes down to the fact that an actor is very hard to replace if they get injured. Especially when filming huge movies, the production would grind to a halt and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if a star was hurt. It is much easier to find someone of the same height and weight as the actor, throw a wig on them, throw them down a flight of stairs and if they get hurt, find someone else of the same height and weight and put the wig on them.
Many stars these days claim that they do all their own stunts. There are some very talented action actors out there who are more than capable of doing a majority of their own stunts and indeed, sometimes do. This statement does however negate the fact that a very talented athlete spent hours or sometimes days rehearsing the moves and testing the wires and taking the bumps and bruises that come along with finding the best way to do a stunt. Once the moves are completely tested and rehearsed to the point that everyone has made the stunt as safe as it can possibly be, the actor may step in and do the stunt, if production approves the level of risk involved. Sometimes the star may do a toned down version of the stunt and then the stunt double steps in and does a much more violent version. In the edit, production will merge the two versions.
As for body doubling, in most movies there will also be a photo double who comes in to do insert shots. Insert shots are shots of just a hand or foot or something that doesn't require the actual actor being there. Unless the wardrobe is very hard or expensive to duplicate, like in superhero movies, then the stunt double may step in to do photo doubling.
Stunt acting is different from stunt doubling. Although I always say that a good stunt double has to be a good physical actor too. There is nothing worse than being able to tell the difference between the way an actor moves and the way the stunt double moves. A good stunt double will mimic the mannerisms of their actor so it is hard to tell that it is not the actor doing the stunt. A stunt actor is a stunt person who has at least one line or plays themselves in a show. An example is a cop that yells "Freeze or I'll shoot" and then gets shot off a roof.
Long explanation, sorry but that is a complex question.
PF: How long have you been active in this industry and how did you manage to break into it?
KF: I have been in this industry 8 years. I broke into the industry in Vancouver, Canada. I trained really hard in martial arts and weapons, did extra work to gain set experience, got a set of headshots, told anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a stunt performer and finally got very lucky.
PF: Was there a specific role you had that made you realize that this was the job for you?
KF: No. I was simply tired of being an outdoor guide and was looking for an equally as active job.
PF: How do the selection process and work schedule differ for stunt persons compared to actors? Is it similar in both television and film?
KF: Selection process is different depending on the job that you are going for. If it is a skill based job (i.e. Martial arts), there may be an audition of all the fighting women of a certain height and the most talented girl of that height will get the job. If it is just general stunts like falling down or jumping out of the way of something, a person may be chosen because they look most like the actor. This can include approval by both the director and the actor involved. It is similar for both tv and film.
Work schedule is different from actors in that generally a stunt performer will only be brought in for days that there is action required. This especially happens on tv. An actor may work 5 days on an episode but only have action on one day. The stunt performer will be brought in for this day only.
On big budget action movies, a stunt performer may be brought in for the entire filming of the show as there is generally a second action unit going for big action sequences, rehearsals, and a first unit that involves working with the actors.
PF: It looks like your first comic book movie was as Sharon Stone's double in Catwoman, did you work with her personally?
KF: I was the second unit double on ‘Catwoman’. The talented New Zealand stunt performer Zoe Bell was the first unit double and so most of the action sequences I did just involved stunt doubles rather than actors. She seemed nice though.
PF: You also did stunt work for Jennifer Garner on her spin-off film Elektra. She's been known to do many of her own fight scenes, where did you come into play for that film?
KF: I was the second unit double on ‘Elektra’, but this meant that I tested all of the wire stunts to get them ready and safe for both the first unit double and Jennifer. I also rehearsed most of the fight sequences, sometimes with the other actors. Most memorable was my training with Bob Sapp – he is huge and looks so scary but is such a nice man. Jennifer is such a dedicated, talented and hard working actress that she did indeed do much of her own fighting but there were a lot of wire stunts in that film that were way too dangerous for her and so they were done by doubles.
PF: Did you get a chance to travel to Europe to work on Blood Rayne as Kristanna Loken’s stunt double? What was your favorite part of working on that film?
KF: Unfortunately I was just brought in for the re-shoots for that movie so I didn’t end up working on it in Europe. The most memorable part, although I wouldn’t call it a favorite, was that damn weapon that they wanted us to use.
I was brought in as the training sequences in the movie when she was learning weapons skills needed some beefing up. That weapon was so heavy, completely unbalanced and incredibly unpractical. It had a sharp blade on the end that just cut up my biceps and was so hard to make it look good. I could hardly even lift my arms to scratch my nose at the end of that day.
PF: To date, which director do you have the most affinity for and would like to work with again?
KF: I don’t know whether it is just because it is fresh in my mind but I would have to say Kenneth Branagh [the ‘Thor’ director]. A lot of the time stunt performers don’t work very closely with directors. We take our instruction from the Stunt Coordinator who works closely with the director but Kenneth just seemed to have a lot of respect for stunt performers and often would ask our opinion on how best a move would look.
He has a great sense of humor and such a passion and enthusiasm for the movie making process that it was awesome to watch and be a part of.
PF: How was your time on the Fantastic Four movie set?
KF: It was fun. I did some stuff that involved The Thing and that suit was really cool to see in action.
PF: In television, you've had some experience working on two very popular series, Supernatural and Smallville; and you doubled for the lead actresses in both, Taylor Cole and Erica Durance respectively. How would you describe the change in scale when adapting from feature film to TV? Were there any moments from either of those shows that became memorable to you?
KF: The main difference between working on tv and working on film is the speed at which a scene is filmed. A large action sequence on tv can be filmed in a day whereas the same sequence would be covered in much more detail on film and could take up to a month to shoot.
One of my more memorable moments on Supernatural was filming a sequence for Taylor Cole. It still makes me laugh. The stunt was to run and jump off a mini tramp and slam into a wall sideways as high as I could and then smash down onto the hardwood floor. I just remember standing there before the jump thinking, “I am about to jump off a mini tramp and smash into a concrete wall as hard as I can by choice. How stupid am I?!?!” Of course I did it but sometimes I think that you have to be pretty stupid to choose a job that you intentionally hurt yourself as a living.
PF: While we're on the subject of TV, you met Jaimie Alexander while working with her on Kyle XY. Did you two hit it off right from the start?
KF: Kyle XY was an awesome experience. I met Jaimie when the stunt coordinator brought almost every girl in Vancouver out for a fight audition to double the new female lead in Kyle XY. Jaimie sat in during the auditions and then was given the difficult task of choosing her own double. I was so lucky that she chose me.
Kyle was a great show to work on because it was essentially a super hero show and Jaimie was the villain. I got to do so much cool stuff on that show as Jessie XX was always fighting or getting beaten up or generally causing trouble. And Jaimie is such a great person to work with that it was kind of like getting to do adventurous escapades with a good friend.
PF: Practical action over CGI seems to be more desirable now even though the technology currently available would lead to the contrary. What are your thoughts how the stunt industry is changing in Hollywood?
KF: No matter how great the CGI is, there is always something about the movement of it that doesn’t fool the brain into thinking it is real. I think that as the audiences are getting more sophisticated with their understanding of what is going on behind the scenes there has been a movement back into the realism of practical stunts. Most movies I am working on now are choosing for a combination of the two. The stunt is done by a real person first, and then if any CGI is added, it is merely a painting over of what was already there. Even things that are not human but that move that way (i.e. Robots), start their action in a motion capture environment using actors to help with the realism of their movements.
The stunt industry is always evolving as the audience expects bigger, better, more violent and more realistic. I don’t know where this will take the industry in the future but it is certainly requiring a much higher level of skill from stunt performers ie the best parkour (free runner) or Olympic level gymnasts rather than just someone who can hit the ground hard.
PF: Have you had any serious injuries performing any of your work and, if so, on which projects?
KF: I have been very fortunate in my career and not had any really serious injuries. The worst injury I had was on Push where I shattered the head of my arm bone in the shoulder socket. Fortunately it was on the last day of work. I had to do 6 more takes on a shattered shoulder and the stunt never made it into the movie.
PF: You're an experienced rappelling instructor, which is a skill I have a lot of interest in. Most people don't realize just how dangerous it can be on even low-level climbs and descents. How much emphasis on safety have you seen stressed when putting actors and stunt persons literally ‘on the ropes’?
KF: Interestingly enough, the more extreme the industry gets, the more safety conscious it gets. I always have such respect for the stunt people before my time. These days we have low profile pads that we can fit under almost any wardrobe whereas they had none. There is high-density foam that can be painted to look like concrete or wood that can coat the stairs for a stair fall or the ground for a car hit. There are computer whizzes that can paint out pads in post-production (although it is expensive and rare) and there are unions looking after our rights. We have stunt coordinators that are the buffer between performers and directors. It is their job to pull the plug on a shot if it is getting too dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a dangerous job, there are just measures put in place to ensure longevity in the career rather than needless injuries.
PF: Most of our readers are very aware that Jaimie Alexander has a major role in Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Did your past experience with her help you get selected to double for her in this film?
KF: Yes. She called me the day she found out she had the job and asked me to send my stuff to production. The stunt coordinator, Andy Armstrong, was so nice and really willing to have the actors choose doubles that they had enjoyed working with in the past. I was also fortunate that my strengths are fighting and wirework as that was most of the job.
PF: How long were you working on Thor?
KF: 7 months
PF: Everyone who's talked about Thor has mentioned how immense a production it is and how focuses it's director is on giving it an epic feel. How was it like for you?
KF: It was my favorite show I have ever worked on. I have a personal theory that the flavor of the show is dictated from the top down. Kenneth was such an awesome person and refused to work with people that may cause conflict. This resulted in everyone in every department being so amazingly lovely to work with. He had such a clear vision for this movie and it always felt like we were all striving for the same goal. I truly believe it will be an epic movie. I really looking forward to it coming out.
PF: Did you work exclusively with the other actor's stunt doubles (i.e. Chris Hemsworth, Ray Stevenson) on Thor or did the actors themselves step in and take a few beatings from a sword-wielding Kylie?
KF: I often got to work with the actors on Thor and they were all fantastic people. An awesome cast who were all very gutsy and into doing as much of their action as possible. They all learned to fight and spent many hours in rehearsal for some of the scenes. I was however never fighting them as we were all on the same team [laughed].
PF: What's a bigger pain in the ass combination to wear for fight scenes: makeup and prosthesis or armor and a helmet?
KF: It depends on the level of prosthesis and make-up. On X-Men 3, I just had a prosthetic jaw so it didn't impede vision or movement, I just couldn't eat or talk. When you have full face prosthetics, it is kind of claustrophobic and sometimes means you can't see who you are fighting, let alone land a good hit.
Armor certainly restricts movement but costumers generally keep in mind the level of action required for the character and try to allow for that in costume design. Helmets throw off all kinds of balance, especially large ornate ones so it is always good to rehearse with things like that so you can change your body movements to suit.
The biggest pain in the ass to wear for fight scenes is actually high heels. Of course no super woman looks good without 5 inch heels! Just try walking in them, let alone running, jumping and spin hook kicks.
PF: Do you find yourself usually working with the same stunt persons repeatedly? How large is the industry?
KF: In Vancouver, where I first started out, the industry was much smaller and I knew everyone by face and name. I always ended up working with the same people.
In LA, the industry is massive. I hardly ever work with the same people twice.
PF: How did you split your time doubling for two different actresses on the TV series Blade?
KF: When the pilot of Blade was being filmed, the coordinator called me up to see if I could double Jill Wagner but I was busy filming X Men 3 so a talented performer called Ashley Earle became Jill Wagner’s main double. But as mentioned, usually with series it is only a day’s work here and there when action is required so I was brought in when Ashley was busy doing something else. Facially I made such a great double for Jill that I was then brought in if they wanted to shoot the stunt from a front angle or close-up. Jessica Gower also had a regular double but she wasn’t a fighter or a wire work performer so when Jessica had stunts that required these skills, I was brought in to do them.
PF: You also did some work for Camilla Bell on PUSH, which was very heavy handed on action. How large of a role did you play in it?
KF: I was in Hong Kong for 6 weeks filming Push. The bathroom fight was the longest sequence I did there but I also did a lot of stuff in the warehouse at the end. It’s such a busy sequence mainly filled with Neil Jackson, who played Victor Budarin, throwing Chris Evans and a bunch of stunt people around the room that my action stuff was either cut out or lost in the background. Camilla was an absolute sweetheart to work with and very gutsy when it came to doing her own action stuff.
PF: Regarding video games, you' did motion capture work on the G.I.Joe adaptation. What can you tell us about the amount of work that goes into a game like that?
KF: I have to say motion capture days are some of the most exhausting days a stunt performer can do. There are positives to it and there are negatives. Starting with the positives… You get to put on what equates to a pair of really tight pajamas and comfortable sneakers all day rather than some of the more awful wardrobe choices we generally have. Also, we generally get to use pads instead of hitting the ground as they are going to CGI everything anyway. It usually involves a lot of physical acting and you can play multiple characters as they are never going to see your face anyway. My most memorable one was playing a monkey because apparently you can turn your character into a monkey. I was laughing so hard making monkey noises and scratching my armpits.
The negatives are that you get hardly any breaks. The lighting and camera set-ups are constantly the same so you are required to do move after move for sometimes10 hours a day. Whereas on film you may get 10 set-ups in a day, with mocap, you do hundreds. I rarely get as exhausted on set as I do during a motion capture session. I may be less injured because of the pads but I can hardly move from muscle stiffness.
They generally tend to be a lot of fun though because for some reason all the mocap crews I have ever worked with laugh a lot, have a lot of imagination and are always extremely encouraging of the effort you are putting in.
PF: You have some other interesting video games roles under your belt, one in particular that caught my eye was as Ms. Marvel for EA Games. Which game was it?
KF: So this Marvel game was never released to my knowledge. It was a funny experience. If it comes out, I would recommend that you pick Spiderman or some other cool character to play with instead of Ms Marvel. She was all about hips and boobs (like any good female super hero). The director had me walk with such an exaggerated hip action I thought I was going to dislocate them. She doesn’t really do any cool moves like Spidey. Her biggest move was a huge right hook but she sure does a killer giggle and simper if you lose against her. It was a fun shoot and we laughed the whole time. I’m gonna say that Ms Marvel was there for teenage boys only.
PF: What roles do you have on the horizon? Are there any projects out there you'd like the opportunity to work on?
KF: I am slated to work on Pirates of the Caribbean 4, which should be really fun. Playing my own character this time.
I am trying to convince Bear Grylls that he needs to do an episode of his show with a female but I think he’s too scared. I was an outdoor guide for 10 years and I think I can give him a run for his money.
PF: If you had a few pieces of advice to offer anyone who wished to pursue stunt acting, what would they be?
KF: There is no easy way to break into this industry. On average, unless you are the best in the world at what you do, it takes 3 – 5 years to begin to make a living at this career. If you decide that this is what you want to do, do it with all your might. It is not something that you can pursue half-heartedly. When I was getting into the industry, I made sure I did 2 things every day that would contribute to me getting work whether it was training, dropping by sets, making phone calls or sending out resumes. Be prepared to work hard. I can’t remember the last time, and I’m talking years, that I didn’t hurt somewhere. Some of them are good hurts like the feeling of stiff muscles from training hard and some are just hurts from constant bruises. Be humble. Even if you are amazing at what you do and feel like you know everything, listen to all advice given to you even if you don’t choose to take it.
Train every day to get in the best physical shape you can be in – you will likely need it. Work on your skill set, the more stuff you have in your bag of tricks, the more likely you will be to work and continue working. Then cross your fingers and hope with all your might that you get that lucky break.
Don’t be discouraged though. When I was starting in this industry I was an outdoor guide from a small town in outback Australia. People told me I was too old and didn’t really have what it took to be a stunt performer. 9 years on I think I proved them wrong. So if it’s what you really want, go for it. If you believe in it enough, it will happen.
Kylie can next be seen playing a Mermaid in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. You can follow her updates on Twitter HERE as well as her personal website Aussie in Action