“There’s a strange bond when you’ve done some crazy stuff together that ordinarily might get another maimed, and you’ve gotten each other out of it unscathed… you sort of just ‘get each other’. That is everywhere.”
As a stunt performer for film and TV, Joanne Lamstein has been set on fire, fallen backwards through windows, been attacked by guard dogs, and doubled for Isabella Rossellini and Meryl Streep – and we’ve never even known it was her.
Stunt performers are the hidden stars – without them, TV and movies would lose so much in terms of edge-of-seat tension and excitement. There are more and more women moving into film and TV stunt work now – and as if the stunts they do aren’t impressive enough, remember they may be doing them in heels too.
Jo has worked on a huge number of TV and film productions, including The Other Guys, Orange Is The New Black, The Blacklist, Sneaky Pete, The Manchurian Candidate, Michael Clayton, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Zoolander.
Raised just outside of New York City, as a child Jo excelled at athletics and gymnastics, and regularly terrified her parents by appearing on their roof. After University she decided to break into stunt work and after a stint on the action sports TV show Nickelodeon GUTS, Jo met stunt coordinator and stunt performer Danny Aeillo III at a wrap party in New York – a week later he called, offering her first stunt job and a way in to the Screen Actors Guild. Check out my Q&A with Jo below.
1, The dinner party question! Are there any misconceptions people have had when you’ve first told them what you do?
Absolutely! In my experience when I’ve told people what I do, many believe stunt people are fearless daredevils that would do almost anything for a paycheck. That “I have no concept of danger”. I have even been asked to perform “party tricks” of sorts for those who still don’t get it. I can easily forgive this misunderstanding, but people fail to realize that a huge amount of training goes into what stunt performers do – either on a daily basis maintaining physical strength, flexibility and all-around skills, or those times when a stunt calls for a more specialized training you can’t get in a gym or at home in the backyard.
Many stunt people today train like elite athletes and deserve to be thought of as such. Others can manipulate a vehicle that no CGI can compete with, or prove gravity doesn’t exist on a wire during explosions or a fight sequence.
Speaking for myself and many people I know, we are not reckless and don’t behave in a careless manner with our bodies or our lives. We DO have a healthy respect for danger – we only negotiate it with well thought-out planning, knowing our own abilities in how to conquer it. And we have great respect and trust in those we work with who do the same.
2, Do you have a favourite stunt… and are there any stunts that when you hear they want you to perform them your heart sinks? (Mine would be being set on fire). Following on from that what is it like to be set on fire!
It is funny that you mention being set on fire. For a long period of time, I was rather apprehensive at the thought of performing a burn. I was talking to my boyfriend at the time (also a stunt performer), about stunts that we both were less than enthused about having to perform and I couldn’t stress enough that at that time, I did not want to be set on fire. Without exaggeration, less than a half an hour after out conversation ended on that subject, I received a phone call to do a partial burn for a show in NYC.
Of course, I agreed to do the job. The day of the gig arrived and I was nervous, but well prepared with a great coordinator and safety crew, so the burn went off without an issue and I only needed to perform it once. Then oddly enough, I was disappointed I couldn’t do it again.
I had some opportunities to practice some small burns and participate as safety for others until my next call came in for a full burn on a TV series. This time around however, I was looking forward to the stunt.
Again, I can not stress enough how for me, the teamwork between the coordinator, stunt safety and special effects personnel are so important to making this type of work not only safe, but thoroughly enjoyable. I cannot wait until I get asked to perform another burn.
3, Do you still get scared before performing a stunt?
“Scared” probably isn’t the best way to describe things. If I was scared to do something, I’d say there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be doing it, but there is still an excited anticipation to most things I get to do, that rush of adrenaline before “ACTION” is called. I can still be very calm and at ease – I’ve even found myself laughing on occasion right up to that call, but if I don’t have that little bit of pump helping me to focus or react, I should probably be working in another business.
I don’t ever want to become nonchalant about a stunt, there is nothing routine about what stunt people do or we wouldn’t have our jobs. If we fail to recognize this, people can make mistakes and that is when things can go wrong.
4, Has a stunt ever not gone according to plan? What did you do?
I was hired to portray an FBI agent who gets shot. The stunt called for a “hand pull”, which typically utilizes a few strong men to pull a line, attached to your body by means of a specialized vest or harness. The result simulates a type of force or reaction, usually pulling you backwards through the air, that for the purpose of effect, will display a more exciting visual than if you were to rely upon your own manpower.
As happens on some days, we were the last shot up and although we weren’t terribly rushed, we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot the scene. In addition, we had one take to get it right – the set was going to be pretty much ruined after we finished the scene, so we could not reset for a “take 2”.
We had a fantastic stunt coordinator, who ensured everyone was comfortable and well rehearsed before shooting. The many stunt performers in the sequence were all well acquainted with each other and had been working with one another for years. Everyone knew what to do, and where each of us was to be, during what would be approximately 20 to 30 seconds of action – shot with a master camera and a few additional cameras getting close-ups or other details.
It was a big sequence for me, and knowing we had one take was an additional pressure. After our last looks and checks making sure everyone was ready before going to a hot set, I was hooked onto my line and got into position, rethinking my action and the shots that would cue the four guys to pull and yank me backwards about six to eight feet and to the ground. Not anything crazy, but more than what I could do on my own.
Action was called, the other stunt performers began their moves around the set and when it got to my part, I felt a slight tug at my back and then nothing. In fractions of a second understood I had to jump backwards as high and as far back as I could, hit the ground and play dead, continuing the shot.
When they cut, everyone knew that something did not go as planned in my zone and then we all realized the line I was on had snapped. We were all very concerned that the line breaking was going to be seen on camera, such as there being too long a pause in my reaction to being shot, or the fall not looking dramatic enough, but after reviewing the playback, they determined it was usable and the shot was not lost.
If I am going to be truthful about that experience, I surprised myself in realizing how quickly I was able to understand the need to react to a situation that I did not fully understand, as the line obviously broke behind me, unbeknownst to me and luckily it worked out for everyone.
So many things can happen in a well choreographed, planned and rehearsed stunt – with equipment, cameras, or another stunt performer that can force people to make split second calculations or actions in order to save a shot or a life. My example is negligible compared to what countless others experience, but on that day, it was a heart pounder for me.
5, When I first saw you I thought you looked really familiar, then I read that you’d been a body double for Isabella Rossellini and I realised that’s who you reminded me of! Is it a big help to look like the actress you’re working with or would they always book for skills first, then put you in a long red wig and shoot from a different angle if, say, you got a job working with Amy Adams?
I did have the opportunity to work as Isabella Rossellini’s stunt double for a few days on a TV Series we shot in NYC. At the time, I didn’t look much like her at all other than my general build – my height and basic measurements. I had long red hair and she her short, dark cut. Once I am wigged and I am wearing the same clothing that she is wearing in the scene, I am able to pass well enough for her in a quick action shot and hopefully the audience cannot distinguish between the two of us. Of course, they know, but when things are done correctly, they don’t see the illusion.
Sadly, I have never had the pleasure of being booked as a double for an actress because I look like them. It has been my experience that doubles are booked more for the body type and skills they need, than resemblance. Of course, to look like an actress or actor couldn’t hurt if you’re doubling them, but I’ve always been wigged, and if the camera catches my face, I’m doing something wrong.
6, There seem to be more stunt women now but not enough female stunt coordinators yet. Is that something you’d like to move into, or have you done any coordinator gigs already?
How does someone define “enough female stunt coordinators”? I personally don’t feel that there needs to be a quota on how many woman coordinate versus how many men coordinate, I hope to work for the right coordinator regardless of their gender. Fortunately though, I have had the opportunity to work with some AMAZING women coordinators over the years and I have had a few opportunities to coordinate a few projects myself, although I still prefer being the stunt performer.
In the meantime though, stunt work is very obviously a male-dominated industry and it has taken some time for women to grow in numbers. When I began in New York City, I was perhaps one in 7 or 8 women that I could recall working. Now, I couldn’t tell you how many stunt women we have in NYC. I meet someone new on nearly every job, and I’m new to them as well.
That being said, there are still so many more stuntmen than stuntwomen, so it’s likely we will always have more male coordinators. On the plus side, there are many more females submitting themselves for the position of stunt coordinator these days and they are seen as capable, talented individuals, NOT “girls” struggling to compete in a man’s world.
Stick around after the show and you’ll be seeing more women coordinators in the credits.
7, Do you mix much with the actors on film sets or is there a bit of a actor / stunt performer split?
Interaction with actors on set is almost always when they are involved in a stunt with you. Scenes that need discussion and planning with one another would obviously need mixing of a sort. To go over the scene and ensure the actor involved in it with you feels safe and is comfortable with what stunts are about to happen is of the utmost importance, and this cannot be left up to other people when you are also involved in the scene. The actor needs to know that you are aware of their concerns if any, and how you will work together should these concerns come up.
Otherwise, when I am not involved with actors in my stunt, I don’t interfere with them, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to do so. They are there with a job to do, as am I.
Doubling people is a very different experience though. We must interact with our doubles: from studying how they move, asking them questions about their character, to even assisting with performing a stunt themselves. Many of the actresses I have doubled have been nothing but warm to me and are very grateful for either my assistance to them, or for my work for them on the days I am performing a stunt.
8, In Steve Koepfer and Matthew Kaplowitz’s film Concrete & Crashpads – Stunts in New York, there was a real affection for the city among the performers – do you notice a different vibe there to, say, the west coast for filming?
I don’t work on the West Coast, so I can’t say with any authority, but I have many friends there and I can say from knowing them, that I believe affection for one another is strong no matter where you are located in this business. I may go many years without seeing some of my West Coast friends, but there is no difference in any vibe between them and my NYC friends. There’s no love lost because of time or distance.
There’s a strange bond when you’ve done some crazy stuff together that ordinarily might get another maimed, and you’ve gotten each other out of it unscathed and probably with some cool photos of it – you sort of just ‘get each other’. That is everywhere.
9, Working in the film and TV industries, can you still watch a film or TV show and just sit back and enjoy it for the experience or do you find it hard to view it from the perspective of an “average viewer”?
Oh, I can absolutely enjoy a movie and TV show up until the part when I recognize a friend! Once I recognize someone I know in a movie or on a TV show, I’m out of the zone and I’m back into thinking mode about how they shot it, where they filmed it, what pads didn’t I see and OH WOW! That looked really good! And it’s just over.
In truth, I try not to pay attention when my friends announce when their work is airing on TV or what they did in a film for that reason. If I can get through something, not have that illusion broken and then go back to see who did the work on it, I tend to find I can enjoy myself much more.
10, Unlike actors who may have months to get fit or put on/lose weight for a role, I imagine you always have to be ready for any job, so how do you keep fit?
Depending where I am during the year, I keep most of my training in the gym. Cardio, weights, etc. I also practice Yoga a few times a week and on rare occasion, when I feel like torturing myself, I have been convinced to join some friends in a crossfit class.
When I’m in the South, I add gymnastics, open water swimming sports, kayaking and biking to the mix as well as other outdoor activities I don’t get to enjoy up North.
11, How do you relax after a day on set? Is the adrenalin still pumping or are you desperate to lie on the couch, eat chocolate and watch TV?
It’s a rare day when I’m not on set for more than 10 hours now. So with my driving time added into the mix, I’m usually away – door to door – for 12-16 hours. Relaxing for me consists of a hot shower and bed. When the unusual 4 hour day of work does pop up, once wrapped, I may head home to do what any other person might do with a half day of work – laundry, food shopping, catch up with friends, nap…
Thanks so much to Jo for answering my questions (and my many follow-up emails…) about this amazing world in such depth, and for bringing to life the job of a stuntwoman with such clarity for me.
You can follow Jo on:
LinkedIn: Joanne Lamstein
Want to know more? Check out my interview with Steve Koepfer, rookie stuntman and co-director (with Matthew Kaplowitz) of NYC stunt documentary “Concrete & Crashpads – Stunts in New York”, for more, and to see my reviews of his film and view the trailer.