An Interview with Professional Stuntwoman Jessica Harbeck

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Jessica Harbeck grew up in Dallas, Texas and as a child loved jumping out of trees, wearing costumes and playing multi sports. During college she played softball for Illinois State University for two years then transferred to the University of Colorado where she competed on the track team, heptathlon, as well as playing fullback for the rugby team. After college Harbeck moved to Los Angeles to break into the business of stunt work. Some of her television work includes, CSI: NY, True Blood, Revenge and American Horror Story. Her film credits include, Bridesmaids, Battle Los Angeles, Get Him to the Greek, Star Trek into Darkness.

Today Harbeck continues to participate in stunt work but has branched out with her business partner, Timothy Eulich and started En Pointe Action Designs a stunt coordinator company that designs and executes action sequences for the entertainment industry. Most recently she just wrapped up her first feature film stunt coordinating job, Swiss Army Man starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano.

Susan Zaro: I read that you began your career in 2005. How did your career as a stuntwoman take off?

Jessica Harbeck: I wish I could say my career as a stuntwoman “took off” from the day I stepped foot in Los Angeles. In reality and in the moment, it felt more like a slow crawl through peanut butter. After graduating from The University of Colorado where I was a member of the Track & Field team (heptathlete) and played fullback for the women’s rugby team I moved to Orange County. I was lucky enough to have an amazing Aunt and Uncle who let me live with them while I found a job and got on my feet. If it weren’t for them and their support, things could have gone very differently for me so I thank them daily and plan to pay their goodness going forward. I worked at Starbucks in the morning, drove to Los Angeles in the afternoons to hustle stunt work and train, then drove back to OC in the evenings to work at Trader Joe’s. There was a great amount of luck involved in what happened next, I met an actor on a movie in which I was doing background work and we struck up a conversation about what we really wanted in life. I explained I was doing background work to get my SAG card and hopefully someday become a stunt performer. He told me he knew a stuntman from one of his acting classes and offered to hook me up with him. He came through and put me in touch with stunt coordinator Banzai Vitale who turned out to be one of my greatest mentors. Banzai sacrificed his time and energy for years teaching myself and a small group of buddies what we needed to know if we wanted to become real stunt performers. He trained us in all of the basics (fights, falls, set etiquette, etc.) and was always there to answer a question or lend a hand and also put us in for work when he thought we were ready. I then met a stunt coordinator named Charlie Brewer who at the time was the stunt coordinator on the TV show Monk. Charlie gave me a huge boost in my career because he put me into some hard hitting spots and helped me build the confidence I needed to keep getting work from others. Charlie would do his best to give me a day of work if he could, he didn’t owe me anything and did it out of the goodness of his heart which to this day I can’t thank him enough for doing.

SZ: I have to say the work looks like fun but obviously dangerous in most if not all situations. What is the typical length of time it takes to learn the choreography of the stunt and the training behind it? How much improvising comes into play during a take?

JH: Stunt work is one of those professions which keep your body and brain on their toes because the learning and training never stop. The business is constantly changing and the only way to survive is to be as prepared as possible while staying open and flexible to the changes. The way I physically train my body to be prepared is through massive amounts of yoga mixed with as much ocean time as possible. I call this my happiness workout, because being in a gym is just too stuffy and being happy when I workout matters to me. I love to be in nature when I’m breaking a sweat. I surf, body surf, stand up paddle, etc. rock climb, and spend time training in martial arts at The Inosanto Academy which was founded by renowned authority on Jeet Kune Do, Dan Inosanto. I try to mix it up while not over doing it because at this point it is the work which will take a toll on my body over time so I consider training to be upkeep rather than tearing myself apart like I did when I was twenty.

As far as improving stunts during a take is concerned, we typically do not do this. Our goal is to make something look spontaneous, dangerous or nasty then get up and do it again and again and again. The timing of stunts becomes a huge safety issue therefore we map out and rehearse our stuff until each player has it burned into their mind. If a stunt performer decides to take a chance and change something about their performance without communicating it to the team it could lead to disaster, injury and even death. Because we work as a team any changes must be communicated to all players involved in the action sequence. Communication is a huge part of our job and the only person who should ever change anything about the action is the stunt coordinator, or the director, and when a change happens it is important to make sure everyone is on the same page and ready to go with it.

SZ: Most people have no concept of how grueling doing stunt work can be and the athleticism involved. What do you do to prepare yourself mentally for a difficult stunt scene?

JH: It depends on the stunt I’m about to perform, but as far as mental preparation I definitely use visualization techniques when it comes to things like choreography, stair falls, driving etc. If it’s a hard hit I tell myself over and over how much I will destroy the object I’m going to run into/break though/be thrown through. I will say, “Jess, you are going to destroy that floor. You are going to show that floor just what it means to be broken, and when you’re through with it no other floor will ever want to be in the same room as you again. Knock it out. Kill it. Break it where it counts.” I typically go to mental Viking mode and psych myself up as much as possible for the upcoming destruction. I thank my rugby days and my former marine of a father for this mental edge.

SZ: You started En Pointe Action Designs and now work as a stunt coordinator as well as a stuntwoman. What is the role of a stunt coordinator? How and where do you discover talent? What temperament and other qualities are useful to make it in this profession?

JH: I started En Pointe Action Designs with my business partner Timothy Eulich who just so happens to be one of the most talented and thoughtful stuntmen I have ever encountered in the business. He is definitely the yin to my yang, which is why we have been able to work together for so many years creating quality action with directors and producers we love. The role of a stunt coordinator is to create and design action sequences which support the directors’ vision while holding safety of the performers and any crew involved in the shot to the highest priority. Most stunt coordinators were once stunt people themselves so they know the talent pool well. I am lucky enough to perform stunts and have personally worked with a large amount of the incredibly talented stunt performers who are working today. If someone I know thinks they are the right fit for a job I’m coordinating they will usually shoot me a text or an email letting me know. If it’s a newer person or someone I haven’t met they typically email or mail in their resume and headshot introducing themselves. The business has changed a lot since I started, specifically concerning social media. Facebook has helped many new stunt people connect and get in touch with stunt coordinators we once found to be unreachable.

Diving out of the way of an explosion

If someone wants to make it as a stunt person having a very diverse physical background and a positive attitude are very helpful traits. It is important to be in control and to not come off as reckless because we are expected to create controlled chaos, get up and repeat. I find having a team sports background has helped me a lot as far as connecting with others and keeping my ego in check. At the end of the day we are all just a team creating a piece of art we can safely walk away from and hopefully feel proud to have contributed. It’s imperative to check egos at the door. It doesn’t matter if you’re the lead double or doing a non-descript fight in the background, our work ends up in the same piece of artistic entertainment. Our relationships and connections with the humans we have worked with are what matter most. That relationship of trust and communication without ego is what translates best to the end product, which then creates connection with the audience.

SZ: If you were to make a movie that involved action that would require stunt work what type of action scenes would you include in the movie and why would it be fun or interesting for you to create this?

JH: If I were making a movie involving action, I would care more right now about being part of something in which the female archetypes kick ass rather than having their asses kicked by the patriarchy. I’m so bored with the same old story line in which men are the hero’s. These old stories hold us down and stifle evolution of society by teaching children from a young age women are victims that need saving and men are hero’s. I want to see more stories of women who are doing amazing things and are smashing the glass ceiling left and right. I think it is this type of visual which will empower the young women of the future. I just read about the two females who were the first to graduate from Army Ranger school 1st Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest. Becky Hammond is tearing it up in the NBA as the first female assistant coach. We are witnessing the inroads of change by Jen Welter the first female to coach an NFL game, and Sarah Thomas, the first female NFL referee. These women are making their mark in history right now. Those would be killer stories to tell and being part of the team creating the action to support those stories would be an honor.

Jessica Harbeck in Action!

SZ: You hold a distinguished position being a member of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, an invitation only organization for Hollywood’s top stuntwomen. Besides the honor of being selected to this association for your professional contributions what are the benefits of being on the inside of this organization?

JH: Being invited into the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures was one of the biggest honors in my career. My two mentors, Lisa Hoyle and Heidi Pascoe took me under their wing in a big way and helped me become part of the team. I am thankful to them both for life for their commitment to helping me grow. Being a part of the group has benefits on many levels. First, it is a statement to the stunt community, which says “I am taken seriously by my peers and get along with my coworkers.” It’s a badge of honor and pride to be counted among the most hard working, hard hustling, and talented women in the business. Some of the insider perks of this are:

*Being in the direct company of other women who coordinate and a few who second unit direct. We are comprised of 28 different women, many of whom carry with them expertise in areas I am not as familiar as they are. They help answer any question I have about a job and have also given me coordinating jobs on shows they run in town.

*We keep each other working so if things are slow I can email or text one of my sisters who is running a show and say “Hey, have anything for me?” This is not something you can just ask a coordinator normally so being pulled into the club and being given the keys to the network is a huge deal.

*I have a pool of 28 talented, experienced, stuntwomen with wide ranging backgrounds to pull from if I need to hire someone for a job. It is incredibly uplifting to have a team of badass women on your side night and day who are there through thick and thin when you need them.

SZ: Let’s say someone starts out their career as a stuntwoman what doors open by being in and around the business if they wish to transition at some point? You have expanded into a stunt coordinator business. What other transitions do people make?

JH: Transitioning from one department to another in Hollywood can be a challenge or can happen over night if you’re lucky. Most people work incredibly hard to break into their chosen career path, if it ends up happening transitioning can be scary because you know how much work it took to get to that point and the idea of doing it all over again can be daunting. It is also difficult to break out of the role you worked so hard to pigeonhole yourself into. Moving from stunt performer to stunt coordinator means you have to make connections with directors and producers which can feel like a career restart after spending the last however many years of your life making connections with stunt coordinators. It is a delicate dance with social politics playing a huge part. Luckily, the transition from performer to coordinator is a more natural one and the stunt coordinators in your life who understand that difficulty and are in a position to help will do so if it’s deserved and they have the resources.

I’ve seen stunt people move up from stunt coordinator to 2nd unit director, which is an awesome and huge career jump. 2nd unit directors are in charge of shooting most of the action footage and are found mostly in the feature film world. One of our group members is a stunt coordinator and also a writer. I’m not sure how tough that transition is because I have never tried it. Again, it can be tough to move from one part of the business to another because everyone you’ve worked with for years has only viewed you as a “stunt coordinator” or “stunt performer” and you have to make it known you have other talents and interests. It helps to be in the business because then you have access to people in other departments who know their stuff. But it can hurt because everyone views you as the one thing you do well.

SZ: Do you have any favorite stories from work you’ve done as a stuntwoman?

JH: One of my favorite days of work ever in the world occurred on the show “Grace and Frankie.” I was there to double Jane Fonda in an episode where she slips on yogurt and falls to the ground during a fantasy sequence. The director was a hilarious and legendary woman who sensed my aversion to hair and makeup and was teasing me about wearing false eyelashes on the job, which I loved. My boss, Jill Brown, is a woman who also happens to be a great friend, and I was in the presence of two of the most legendary actresses of all time, Jane and Lily Tomlin. After I performed my stunt and the nerves had worn off, I realized just how incredible this moment was and thanked Jill and my lucky stars for the opportunity to be surrounded by matriarchy. It is so rare in a male dominated business and it is days like this one which fuel my feminist fire to burn brighter and stronger than ever.

Another cool story, I am lucky enough to get called to double an incredible woman on NCIS: LA named Daniela Ruah.  The first day I started doubling her I was climbing over a fence and running after a bad guy during a foot chase.  I performed my action for camera a few times before Dani arrived to set and once she was there she jumped in to do hers. Dani is an incredible athlete and can do most of her stuff.  I’m usually there as insurance and to do the redundant work so the repetitive nature doesn’t make it difficult for her to come to work the next day and do it all again. (She is the lead actress and works many many many more hours than I do making her job physically and mentally exhausting.  I typically come in for a day or two per episode giving me more time to rest up and prep for the next one).  That day, right before they were ready to roll, she looked at the director and my boss and said, “Wait wait wait, did Jess get camera time yet?”  I fell head over heels in respectful love with her in that moment because it was proof of just how much the woman cares to understand her on-set family.  On TV we are paid residuals if we make it on camera and because Dani takes the time to understand what it’s like for others, she wanted to be sure I was on camera.  I find her selfless nature to be incredibly refreshing and also the definition of feminism because we are a team, not competitors.  I’m there to support the character she has created and we are no threat to each other, if she wins I win and vice versa.  To steal a term from my gardening muse Travis Nuckolls, it is Hollywood symbiosis at it’s finest.

SZ: Is there anything you would like to add?

JH: I just wrapped up my first feature film stunt coordinating job.  The film is called Swiss Army Man and stars Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano.  Go out and see it and prepare to be blown away by what The Daniels (genius directing team) have created, it will be more than worth it.

SZ: Jess, congratulations on your success. Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. I have a whole new understanding of the world of stunt work.

Interview by Susan Zaro

Susan Zaro provides customized Sport Psychology programs and services to individuals, families, coaches and sport organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her clientele include professional, collegiate, high school and athletes participating on a competitive/recreational level, including senior athletes.

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Women In Stunts
Women In Stunts is dedicated to women in action, the stunt performers who make action films and TV so exciting. Women stunt performers train to be the best they can be and we support and promote each and every woman in the Entertainment industry.