Fights, Fires & Falls: Stuntwoman has the Drive to Dodge Danger

 

Preparing for a photo shoot backstage at Waterman Theatre, Hollywood stuntwoman Joanna Shelmidine ’89 starts pulling gear out of her stunt bag — fireproof clothing, hip and back pads, body harness … and a little box, like a child’s pencil case, full of matchbox cars. There are a sports car, ambulance, motorcycle, three tiny cop cars and more, stashed alongside a few pieces of colored chalk. “Oh those?” she says with grin. “We use them when planning out a driving stunt.” The stunt coordinator and stunt drivers get on hands and knees with the director to chalk out the scene on the pavement (or more often now, using a printout from Google maps), simulating the action with the miniature vehicles — over and over again — to be sure that everyone understands the shot so they can be in the right place at the right time and execute the stunt safely and precisely, she explains. “We want to be all on the same page, no surprises,” she says.

The planning, the tiny cars and the protective gear in that duffel bag sum up the stunt world according to Shelmidine. “It’s not about being a daredevil. It’s not about facing down fear,” she says emphatically. “It’s about precision and safety.”

As she dons those gloves – which she wears in honor of the famous stuntman who previously owned them – along with the pads and harnesses, we watch a magical transformation. Petite and lovely, with flowing dark locks, a dazzling smile and the body of an athlete, here Shelmidine is in her comfort zone and her comfort zone is action. She slips in protective pads under her clothing to cushion the falls, dive rolls and even car hits. She laces up the stiff leather ankle boots with traction soles that help her run, dodge and land on her feet.

One look at her IMDB entry and you know why she needs the gear. Her resume bullets include crashing a Jeep Wagoneer into an RV, getting chased by bulls, driving as a

Joanna Shelmidine ’89 takes a car hit as the young Rosanne Barr in a TV biopic of the comedienne’s life.

NYC cop and falling into a hole. For the HBO series “The Sopranos,” she performed fire stunts, fights and a near miss with a car.

Her most recent work was in CBS’s “Blue Bloods” and Fox’s “The Following” starring Kevin Bacon. She took a hit directly from Bacon in the seventh episode of this season, “Let Me Go,” and has a close encounter with him in the upcoming episode, “The End is Near.”

Anonymous Athlete

Unlike the stars of the movies she works on, it’s never “about” Shelmidine. She’s hesitant to have the camera focus on her face today, because in the movies, it rarely does. As a stunt double for famous actresses like America Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Hilary Duff in “Greta” and Cathy Cahlin Ryan in the FX show “Justified,” Shelmidine is anonymous. A shape-shifter, she was transformed into an Afghani woman for “Charlie Wilson’s War”, an Asian lady for Jet Li’s “The One” and a young boy for “Rocket Science.”

Even as she performs the most intricate stunts, simulating death-defying action, she must be careful to obscure her face from the lens. She may have to snap her head away from the camera at a key moment, or flip her shoulder-length brunette hair across her face at just the right time.

Her resume includes her height, weight, inseam, and shoe and dress sizes, so stunt coordinators and directors can pair her with actresses of similar size and shape. The wardrobe department prepares identical clothing for the star and Shelmidine, and in her case, multiple sets of the same outfit since they often get dirty, torn or burned in the course of performing multiple takes of the action.

There’s a lot of acting included with the action. “My whole goal is to get my body, whether in a fire, fight or punch, in the way an actress would do it, not an athlete,” Shelmidine explains. “So that it will look like the actress did it, not Joanna Shelmidine, the stuntwoman.”

In the editing, the footage of the stunt gets chopped up, and scenes with the actress’s face added, thereby adding to the anonymity of the stunt performer.

But that’s all OK. She’s not in it for the glory, Shelmidine assures us. “[Stunt work] is a lot less about bravery or being bold,” she says. “It’s more about being precise, professional, showing up the right size and on time. Make sure your pads don’t show, your face isn’t revealed in the frame and you hit your mark.”

A stunt person may have to do a stunt several times in a scene where five cameras are getting the shot from four different angles plus a master. “You have to land in the right spot for all five cameras to capture the stunt. If you fall out of your frame line, they can’t use that footage any more, costing production time and money.”

Today, backstage at Waterman, this Hollywood fixture seems a little star-struck herself. Shelmidine hasn’t been back in Tyler Hall since graduating more than 20 years ago, and for her, this is where it all began. A visit as a high schooler to the Theatre Festival in April of her junior year convinced Shelmidine the theatre was her world and Oswego was the place to launch herself into it.

Standing on stage, looking out upon the rows of red theatre seats, she executes a small dance step. “That’s what I did in ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ directed by [the late Professor Emerita] Rosemary Nesbitt,” she says with a shy smile. She fingers the curtain, points out rigging she climbed on as a student and reminisces for a moment about playing a role in “The Mikado” the summer after graduation, directed by Professor Emeritus Ron Medici and the late Professor Emeritus Jim Soluri. Professor of Theatre Mark Cole ’73 and Costume Shop Director Kitty Macey stop by for hugs and memories. “These Oswego professors prepared me for the realization of life in the entertainment industry — which can be tough. The things they said and did encouraged me on,” says Shelmidine.

Then the moment is over and it’s down to work for Shelmidine.

1 and 2 doubling Aleksa Palladino in “The Huntress,”3 doubling Ellyse Deanna in a SOBE energy drink commercial, 4 doubling Pamela Adlon in “Wedding Bells,” 5 doubling, Anna Belknap in “Medical Investigations” doubling Annabella Sciorra in “The Sopranos” 7 doubling Reece Thompson in “Rocket Science” and 8 doubling Hillary Duff in “Greta.”

Precision is Key

Even as the photographer readies the lighting and the art director positions props, Shelmidine is talking animatedly about the stunt we will simulate for the photo. “Where do you want me?” She calls out to the photographer. “What do you think of this move?” as she kicks one jeans-clad leg above her head while hanging onto the rigging ropes, a ballerina with biceps.

She’s in her element now. In her world, the director tells the stunt coordinator precisely where the action has to land, to fit into the shot he or she envisions for the movie or TV show under production.

Shelmidine tells of one memorable stunt for the television show, “Mercy.” “There was a fight scene with another woman in a hospital,” she recalls. “They said to break everything in the room. I happened to catch a stuffed frog; it flew over the bed and landed in front of the camera. They asked me if I could do it again. So there I was, smashing a glass picture frame with my head, and I had to scoop up the frog without looking like I was doing it and have it land the same way it did when I did it by accident.”

Shelmidine specializes in fights, fires and falls, as well as driving. Her gear bag also includes a set of tools, a shop rag and some sandpaper. She is so committed to safety and precision, Shelmidine likes to set up her own cars for stunts. She makes sure the brakes are in working order, tests the vehicle to get a feel for how it performs in the maneuvers she will make. The sandpaper? That’s to clean the dust from the brakes so they can lock up when she takes the car into a slide.

A theatre and psychology major at Oswego, she auditioned at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., shortly after graduation. Her first big break came unexpectedly. The theme park needed an actress to fire a gun. “Growing up in Lorraine, N.Y., I knew a lot about shooting. My dad went hunting; I wasn’t afraid of it,” she recalls. “At least I didn’t break a fingernail like the other girl.” She got the job and spent her days working the Dynamitic Nights Lagoon Show, riding around in a boat and shooting the bad guys. “On off days, I’d be the bad guy,” she says with laugh. She hid in a trawler while shots and flames exploded around her. Later they asked if she would leap off the top of the exploding trawler into the lagoon. Of course, she said yes, and the rest is history.

She snagged a gig in Tampa performing a stunt with Burt Reynolds, earned her Screen Actors Guild card and headed for Hollywood.

Making of a Stuntwoman

There she spent time learning the stunt trade from other stunt performers and coordinators, studying martial arts like Hap ki do and Tae kwon do and practicing rock climbing, rappelling, fire stunts and jumping from high fall towers.

One of her biggest loves is cars, and she honed her skills by working at the Rick Seamans Motion Picture Driving Clinic, two seasons on the pit crew at Scott Brothers Racing Team, a season building cars for the TV reality show “Fear Factor” and currently aligns herself with the Drivers East stunt team in New York City. Her motorcycle skills helped her land two national commercials for Suzuki and a doubling gig as America Ferrera in “Ugly Betty.”

She does credit Oswego with some of her driving skills, though. “I had lots of practice driving my Ford LTD on the snow,” she says with a laugh.

Shelmidine explains that fire is a “mind game,” which slows down time for her. “On the outside you are acting like a crazy woman, and inside [you are] Zen with the world,” is how she explains it.

She recalls her favorite class, although she didn’t know at the time it would serve her so well in her career: “Bodily Movement” with Theatre Professor Emeritus Ron Medici. “We memorized movement, and in our last final, I memorized movement around the dance studio,” she says. “If anything, that class is what my career became.

“Now, I look at an actress and right away start imitating her movement, so when I’m in the middle of my stunt my body emulates hers.”

In addition to her mentors in the theatre department, psychology professor Dave Sargent, Shelmidine’s adviser, helped her through trying times and gave her a lot of confidence in her choices.

Another Oswego influence was her work-study job in the Alumni Relations Office. Shelmidine credits the alumni staff for teaching her to be a professional, independent woman, advice that helped her in temp jobs when just starting out and now in organizing her stunt career. She fondly recalls being the Reunion coordinator, appropriately organizing the Road Rally, and helping with alumni programs, which instilled in her the value of giving back. She is looking forward to returning to campus to lecture in classes and workshops for current students.

It’s Shelmidine’s way of repaying Oswego for the start to her career. Looking out from the stage in Waterman Theatre, the no-nonsense, athletic stuntwoman gets a bit of a wistful look in her eye. “I’m just so thrilled to have it come full circle,” she says.

 - Michele Reed

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