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New Yorkers Share Insights into the World of Stunt Performers

Local stunt performers and coordinators share their stories about their "Made in NY" careers. Photo courtesy of MOME.
November 7, 2011 - The “Made in NY” Industry Series started off its new line-up of behind-the-scenes panel discussions with a lively conversation featuring stunt performers and coordinators at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens on November 5. Chris Wisniewski, deputy director for education at the Museum, welcomed the audience to the free discussion, which was moderated by Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment’s deputy commissioner John Battista.

Deputy Commissioner Battista introduced the panelists, who have had diverse careers working on numerous sets in New York City. Jodi Pynn is a stunt woman who’s worked on Sherlock Holmes and I Am Legend, among many other productions. Cort Hessler and Stephen Pope are stunt coordinators. “A stunt coordinator is someone who designs a stunt, hires the stunt person and works with the production to make sure it’s safe,” said Hessler. A stunt, the panelists explained, can be anything from crashing a car to tripping over a shoelace. In New York, most stunts involve driving cars and staging fights.

The career trajectory for a stunt performer is to eventually become a stunt coordinator. Stunt coordinators are like casting directors; they’re the ones who hire the performers for the stunt. “We have to trust who we’re hiring,” said Hessler, who’s currently the stunt coordinator on “Blue Bloods.”

The bigger stuff – crashing cars, jumping buildings – takes years of experience. “It took me five years to make a living [doing stunts],” said Pynn. “I had three other jobs.”

“The stunt industry is a physical business,” said Pope whose credits include Premium Rush. “You can’t really be a bartending stunt performer. It can take five to ten years to become a working stunt performer, so in the meantime, take a job that keeps you physical like at a rock climbing facility or a ski resort.”

Deputy Commissioner Battista noted that safety is a top concern for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Officers from the NYPD Movie/TV Unit are on set for all stunts that take place in the City to ensure safety. “We’ve been very successful,” said Battista.

“We do everything we can to be safe but make it look violent,” said Hessler. A lot of rehearsal goes into each stunt, and the performers have years of experience. For one stunt in which Pynn performed a descender fall from 180 feet off a dam, there was a month’s worth of prep time involved.

When asked what she loves about her job, Pynn responded, “You get to go to work every day and do something different.”

Hessler spoke about the creativity that goes into being a stunt coordinator. On “Third Watch,” the script would sometimes read, “Action sequence TBD by Cort,” and he’d be able to design the sequence. On “Blue Bloods,” he gets to direct the second unit.

For Pope, one of his most memorable experiences was working as the assistant stunt coordinator on American Gangster. It was his first big movie, and he got to prep the entire shoot, work out the budget and hire everyone.

Pynn had two equally memorable moments from her varied career. The first was doubling for Christina Applegate at the Tonys where she took a spill on stage in front of thousands present at Radio City Music Hall. The second was riding on a white horse in Central Park, doubling for Meg Ryan.

From left to right: Jodi Pynn, Stephen Pope, MOME Deputy Commissioner John Battista and Cort Hessler. Photo courtesy of MOME.
When Pynn was first starting out and looking for advice on whether she should go to New York or LA to pursue a career in stunts, she was told to go to New York. In LA, there can be as many as 5,000 stunt performers to compete with; in New York, the panelists estimate that there are less than a hundred. “There’s space for everybody here,” said Pope. “I can do a movie, a commercial, then a TV show. That would never happen anywhere else.”

“The best move I ever made was to come to New York,” said Hessler.

The panelists also shared their advice for how to get started as a stunt performer: Figure out what you’re good at, whether it’s martial arts, bike riding, gymnastics. Introduce yourself to stunt coordinators. Carry a picture with you, listing your sizes, height and weight and your skills, even if you don’t have any credits. (“You’re not going to get a job at first,” said Hessler. “Don’t get discouraged.”) And don’t like about your skills.

“Anybody can do it,” said Hessler, “but it’s not for everybody. Your body is not going to want you to do some of this stuff. It will want you to slam on the brakes as you’re approaching the wall.”

“If you truly know in your heart that this is what you want to do, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t,” said Pynn.
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