It’s 1996. I’m 7 years old, and my slightly older cousin, Gary, has me in a headlock in my dad’s living room and is about to superplex me onto the sofa. We’ve just finished watching wrestling on TV and are stupidly ignoring all of the warnings about leaving the stunts to the professionals. We’re practising for our next martial arts action movie which we’ll film using my dad’s old camcorder, a bunch of Halloween masks, and a lot of enthusiasm.
Now it’s today. I’m glancing down at my toes hovering over a ledge that I am about to leap from to hopefully reach the other side. Churchill has challenged me to undertake the leap from their latest TV ad under the supervision of professional stuntwoman Jessica Hooker. As Jessica watches on, I start to rock back and forth, mustering up the courage to take on the leap. The last six hours have all been working up to this moment. I start to countdown in my mind: 3, 2, 1…
I’ve adored action films since forever. I spent hours of my childhood staring at my TV screen in awe and wonder of the flying kicks, explosions, and death-defying leaps I saw before me. It took me a while to understand that I never actually wanted to be one of the characters on screen – the tomb-raiding heroine, the billionaire in a bat suit, the sword-wielding Amazon – instead, I’ve always wanted to be the person playing those characters: the stunt performers who can actually do these amazing things with their bodies, often putting their safety at risk in order to make those characters look so awesome.
Imagine it: being able to physically do the things that action heroes can do.
Jessica Hooker is a woman who can do just that. Trained in gymnastics and martial arts, she has been working as a professional stuntwoman for two years. Her accomplishments include performing in the new Tomb Raider movie and playing the part of an Amazon in the upcoming Justice League movie – she’s basically living my dream! Her latest role? Making a death-defying leap from one convertible to another at high speed in Churchill’s latest TV ad.
Needless to say, when I found out that I would be training with Jessica for the day, I was excited and overwhelmed. The aim of the day? Train me in various stunt techniques and then attempt the leap. Wow.
To start our day, we spent a good 20 minutes going through a variety of dynamic movements based on different animals such as a bear crawl (not so bad), the crab walk (oh dear), and the chameleon crawl (you are having a laugh). Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of warming up, and I spent a lot of time rolling around flapping in a manoeuvre I've named the “Inverted Tortoise™”.
Jessica explained that a lot of the fight reaction movements involve quick, snappy turns of the head and neck that can often lead to the feeling of whiplash, so plenty of time was taken stretching and mobilising our necks in order to prevent injury. Eek.
By this point, I'm already feeling the burn, but while I take a quick break, Jessica proves she's only just starting by performing some quick flips, flag-poling off equipment, and even hanging upside down.
I’ve trained in karate and other martial arts on and off since I was 6. (I remember my mum having a meltdown as I was relentlessly jumping around on her new sofa, doing flying kicks across the room after watching Power Rangers.) With that background in mind, I came into this thinking the fight choreography would be easy, and I’d sail through. This was not the case. Jessica started me off as the attacker and her as the defender with a simple four-punch combination: front jab, right hook, straight, cross. Jessica blocked and parried the first two punches, then pretended to get hit with the last two. I was inches from her face with the straight and the cross, yet she made it look like I had gone full-blown Chuck Norris.
“Less speed, more energy,” she told me.
What? Isn’t that the same thing? We repeated the sequence over and over again: front jab, right hook, straight, cross. “Less speed, more energy.” I naturally sped up the movements; I couldn’t understand how speed and energy were mutually exclusive. Then Jessica showed me: In a slower tempo, her arms swung out, her shoulders twisted, and she leaned through the punches, with facial expressions to match. She looked powerful, strong, and, yes, more energetic.
The penny dropped: In karate, you are taught to make the quickest, most effective strike possible. But, for the big screen, everything has to be more dramatic to be seen and believed on camera. That’s when I realised that this is acting – but with your whole body, not just your facial expressions. We started the sequence again. Jab, hook, straight, cross. I exaggerated every punch and twist, and we finished with a powerful-looking cross where Jessica fell back, making it look even more epic. And that’s our take.
Then it was my turn to defend Jessica’s attack: parry, block, head snap back, drop. Now I understand why we needed to warm up our necks earlier! The amount of sharp, snappy neck movements that I needed to repeat to make it look like I was getting hit in the face really took its toll. For the drop, Jessica taught me how to realistically fall to the floor. We repeated the sequence over and over again, and I felt like a real action hero.
Since the leap was my ultimate goal, it was a good time to teach me how to actually fall in case things were to go a little awry. Without any hint of a hesitation, Jessica stepped up onto the platform and flung herself off onto the crash mats below then looked to me.
“OK, your turn!”
What the… I stepped up on the platform.
Although Jessica had taken the time to explain how each piece of equipment had been set up to be the safest it can be earlier in the day, I still found myself shaking with nerves.
“Turn around and just fall back. You’ll be fine; I promise.” I trusted Jessica.
Eventually, I closed my eyes and just let my body fall back. In the mere seconds it took for me to fall, my stomach felt like it was in my mouth, and my mind raced with regret. Then I landed with a soft thud on the mats.
I immediately jumped up and climbed back onto the platform, and flung myself off again. This. Was. So. Much. Fun.
Jessica took me through various other jumps and falls, from pretending that I’ve tripped, to acting as if there has just been an explosion, and then building up to my first-ever front flip. I started with a roll onto my back off the ledge, and then increased the vigour by using my legs more and more to boost myself off – remember, this is film, and it’s all about the energy after all!
This was it. The whole day had been building up to this: a two-metre leap from one platform to another. (Of course, I wasn’t going to actually leap from one car to another like Jessica does in the Churchill ad. This was my first day on the job!) The previous night, my colleagues and I had been trying to jump two metres on the floor of the office, and, even with a hearty run-up, it didn’t go well for any of us, particularly me.
Jessica took me through step-up exercises on boxes and bounding across the floor to get my legs used to the explosive movements that I would be performing to hopefully project myself over the two-metre line. And then my stage was set: two 1-by-0.5-metre boxes at 1-metre high set at a 1.5-metre distance from each other, a load of crash mats, and a white line taped up at the two-metre mark.
Now, you’re probably looking at the photos and thinking “pfft, that doesn’t look high and far”, but when you have a family history of vertigo (thanks, Grandad) and aren’t a professionally trained stunt person (thanks, school careers adviser), then it is pretty high and pretty far. I’ve never been a graceful or agile person, and I placed my chances of missing that gap and scraping my shins down the platform as quite high.
Jessica jumped up onto the platform to show me how it’s done. With one foot on the edge and the other behind, she started rocking back and forth to build up momentum, and, with one effortless-looking bound, she leapt across the gap and way over the two-metre line.
I stepped onto the platform with Jessica cheering me on. I placed my foot at the edge and started rocking, not only trying to muster up the momentum but the courage too. I breathed deeply: 3, 2, 1… I leapt across and landed both feet on the opposite ledge – I made it! But I was nowhere near that two-metre mark. I was both elated that I got across and annoyed with myself that it wasn’t far enough. Over and over again, I stood at the edge rocking back and forth and then leaping across, getting closer and closer to that white line. I lost my balance and fell off the side too many times to count. All the while, I kept repeating Jessica’s advice: swing your arms, bring your legs up, look ahead. On my next leap, my left toe was slightly over the line – surely that counts?
“Well, you would have probably just about fallen into the car and landed somewhere inside?” Jessica said.
I could imagine the convertible driving along with my head on a seat, my legs hanging over the side and my bum in the air. No, this was my moment to do a proper stunt. I needed to complete the jump.
I straight away got back on the other side. “You know you can do this,” I told myself, “just a couple more centimetres.” I did all the proper steps; I jumped my final leap. I flew through the air, and – incredibly! – saw my feet land firmly over that two-metre mark. Jessica cheered confirming that I made it. Not all heroes wear capes, and not all actors playing heroes can make a two-metre leap. But I can!
By the end of the day, I was exhausted both physically and mentally. How Jessica and other stunt professionals are able to do this day in and day out will never cease to amaze me. You have to have so much trust in who you are working with. But I must admit: The positivity and motivation is infectious, and I came away feeling like I learned so much through Jessica’s teaching. But my biggest takeaway was that there is no such thing as impossible. Keep working hard and never give up.
Maybe there is a career for me in film stunts one day, but for now I’m going to leave it to the professionals. One thing is for sure though: There are real-life action heroes walking among us.