Women Behind Canadian TV: Alicia Turner

AliciaTurner1

Making strides in diversity and representation isn’t just one person’s job. It’s a responsibility that filters down to everyone involved in the production of a TV series. For stunt coordinator Alicia Turner, that’s a lesson she learned during her work on Killjoys and now tries to apply to every job she takes. Thanks to a background in both athletics and musical theater that led her to stunts, Turner has now worked on a variety of shows across Canadian TV such as Frankie Drake Mysteries, The Expanse, Warehouse 13, and Nikita.

Turner joined our Women Behind Canadian TV series to provide deeper insight into what it’s like working as a female stunt coordinator and the judgement she still feels in the industry. She walks us through the process of taking what stunts and action are on the page and bringing them to life on screen. Turner also discusses what she will miss most about working on Killjoys, and how the sci-fi series attempted to hire diverse performers at all levels. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: A career in stunts can be exciting but also dangerous. How did you become interested in them and get into the industry?

Alicia Turner: Like everything else, it was a long road that started out heavily rooted in athletics. I was a gymnast for a long time, and then a springboard and platform diver, and from there, I ended up getting a scholarship in the U.S. I was also heavily involved in musical theater when I was younger, and I thought I wanted to be an actress for a long time. When I was younger, I realized that the part of acting I was most interested in was being the person that did cartwheels and acrobatics on stage. I didn’t realize that was actually a possible career so I kept telling people I wanted to be an actress. It didn’t suit me, though, and as I got heavier into athletics, I realized a career in stunts was something that was viable.

I went to university in Arkansas and spent four years doing platform diving, which is a good sport for stunts because it involves gymnastics, physicality, and heights. When I finished school, instead of getting a job in the industry, I got a job doing professional high diving shows, like the ones you see at amusement parks. My initial job was in Indiana, and then they moved me to Taiwan, Japan, and China. At some point in that circus, one of my friends alerted me to the fact that they were shooting movies in Montreal, which is where I’m from. I finished off the contracts I was on, made a video, and went back to Montreal and got into stunts. Of course at that point, I applied to everything and everyone, but it still took a few years until I got my first job.

TTVJ: When you’re working as a stunt coordinator on a series, what does a typical day on set look like for you?

AT: It’s totally different with every show. There’s days where you’re doing actor action, which means some days maybe an actor slaps another actor, and that’s your only thing to do on set. That day you show up, the actor carves out some time and you walk through techniques of slapping someone, camera angles, and safe distances. You work on that for a bit, and then you shoot it later, and that’s the whole day on set.

Another bigger day on set might be people falling off a roof onto a box rig or air bag. You’ll have had a day of rehearsal on that same site, and you’ll come in to shoot. This question is honestly so huge because you could have days with driving sequences, or a burn on set, or just a fight scene where you want to use the actors as much as you can so they look like they are a part of it. It’s honestly really hard to say because there’s such a variety.

TTVJ: Well then what about when you get the scripts? How do you take what’s in there and figure out what stunts will be needed?

AT: You read the script and highlight everything that looks like they’ll need me there on the day. It sounds like a really exciting job, but there’s a really boring end of it. I’ll give you an example, a script may say “the actor has to push the motorcycle into the garage.” So I highlight that and start asking ‘how big is the motorcycle? Is there an incline to the garage?’ Then I keep reading, and it’s like ‘oh look! There’s a massive fight scene on Page 17.’ I paste and copy all those little bits into a document and go into the stunt/special effects meeting. I go through all the items I flagged in the script and ask the director how they see it. Based on what they say, I give them options and ask questions like ‘have you thought of doing it this way?’ We go through it so I get what their vision is for the stunts.

From there, I go away and do research and make an initial budget. Then the producers can look at what it’s going to cost, go talk to the director, and then loop me back into it. It’s a bit of a funneling process that starts big and exciting, but then based on what we’re expecting financially, it can get narrowed down.

@BridgetOnTV
@BridgetOnTV

TTVJ: Speaking of budgets, I’m sure working in Canadian TV that’s something you run up against a lot. What kind of challenges has working in the industry here brought about for you?

AT: On Killjoys specifically, we did keep a lot of the action. I think the action was really good action, and we kept it because Hannah [John-Kamen] was an amazing fighter. She was a dancer and picked that stuff up quite easily, so we were able to keep a ton of fight action. There was certainly bigger stuff that I’d read and see and think, ‘Oh that’s so much fun!’

TTVJ: The flamethrower stayed in!

AT: We were so glad when that stayed in! Often when there was really big stuff, especially in Season 5, it was nice when things stuck. The choices that everyone made kept in the really fun action that we wanted to see. Some of the stuff that went away, it may have been action, but it was action that wasn’t needed or eye-candy. I think we made a lot of really good decisions in those last two seasons of Killjoys in regards to action, especially considering the budget was tight.

TTVJ: It was really fun as a viewer because you could tell they had really saved their money to go all out the last few episodes. 

AT: The last episode was one of those ones I read and thought ‘really?’ The executive producer, Stefan [Pleszczynski], directed it, and so he had a lot of dealings in it and was holding on to money for the grand finale. Action-wise, Stefan has such a keen eye for action and such good judgement.

TTVJ: You’ve worked on a wide variety of shows from sci-fi like Killjoys and The Expanse to then more procedural type shows like Frankie Drake and Saving Hope. What’s the difference about working on different genres of series and do you have a preference?

AT: I noticed a juxtaposition when I was filming Killjoys in the winter and then Frankie Drake in the summer. I would go from Killjoys where you could make stuff up in the future like weapons or fight styles, and then to Frankie Drake where it was specific weapons that actually existed. Everything there was researched and actual, specific weapons, which was different from “mystery weapon 3”. [laughs] Frankie Drake was a period of time that existed and we had to make correct reference to historical items.

TTVJ: Then you didn’t work on Season 3 of Frankie Drake because of another opportunity, correct? 

AT: I started on Season 3 but ended up on a Disney show called Secret Society of Second Born Royals. It’s essentially a kids’ action show where the first born in a royal family gets everything, so the second born are brats and get nothing and misbehave. But then, the second born ones discover they get a superpower and have to go to this superhero school to control their powers. Their powers are all like super hearing, super sight, or super smelling, and they have to figure out how to save the kingdom with these obscure powers. When that came up instead of Frankie Drake they were nice enough to let me take that opportunity. It was a very challenging and interesting show.

TTVJ: Do you ever find that people are surprised that you, a woman, are stunt coordinator? Are there any other big misconceptions about what you do?

AT: It’s getting better now, and maybe I’m less tolerant and a little snappier. Initially, when I first started stunt coordinating, I remember this guy showing me what the actors were going to do on the scaffolding. I remember standing there baffled thinking, ‘Wait! You’re the art director. What are you doing telling me how things are going to go?’ It was just funny to hear people tell me that somehow they don’t think I’m capable of coming up with a plan. At that time it was me and like 30 guys. Early on you don’t get rude and just find ways to bypass and do your own thing.

I had another funny day where I was doing a location scout for a fast-moving river in Niagara Falls. I called my safety diver to go look at the river with me, and it was a really slushy, horrible day so I asked my significant other, who works in film as a grip, to go along with me as well. We drove down and the RCMP was down there looking at it as well. One of the cops kept talking to my boyfriend about what the plans are, as he’s this huge 6’3” guy. I kept asking the cops questions and they’d answer to my boyfriend. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he can’t even talk to me about stuff. He just keeps looking at the biggest guy in our group and answering him.’ I just realized that some people have trouble swallowing it. I said, ‘Just so you know, I’m the one actually in charge of this today,’ and my boyfriend was like, ‘I don’t even know why he’s talking to me. I’m just here to have lunch.’

There’s a lot of instances like that, and I’ve been challenged a couple of times. Fortunately, in Toronto, I’ve done stunts for a really long time so a lot of people know me and have seen me perform in that past. With people I know I don’t have to fight for respect, but when you get new people who don’t know you, they kind of question everyone.

AliciaTurner2

TTVJ: You mentioned the Disney series already, but are there any other upcoming projects you worked on that you’d like to share?

AT: I did a movie called Falling with Viggo Mortensen. There wasn’t a ton of action, but it was a project that he wrote, and there’s a lot of references to his own life. It’s quite complicated and pretty sad, and it’s about his aging dad who has dementia. A lot of the movie is his flashbacks, but it’s very interesting, and he was super hands on. He was quite inspirational.

I also finished working on a show called Madam C.J. Walker with Octavia Spencer. She’s also an inspiration and a great actress. It really wasn’t an action show, but instead things like someone throwing a pail of water on another person.

I had a conversation with John Stead [director and stunt coordinator] last year about this, but there’s these stretches where you think, ‘Is this all people think I’m capable of?’ Then you get a great job and think, ‘I guess not!’ You get too inside your own head, but have to realize that it’s really phasey. You’ll get a bunch of non-action shows, but then you can get a massive action show where they need you every day for lots of stuff. I try to just be thankful that I’m needed even when there’s little action.

TTVJ: You can’t go shoot the flamethrower every day. [laughs]

AT: There’s not a flamethrower every day. That’s a great way to put it.

TTVJ: Well, I feel like all of us, even us TV viewers, were spoiled by Killjoys

AT: One of the things I loved about Killjoys was that one of the mandates was if you had to hire non-descript stunt players who are in a fight, or background performers, it was always minorities and females that got hired first. It was very rare that that was the case on other shows. It’s getting better, but it was very rare. Diverse performers were very happy that show was around because it opened so many possibilities for doubling, or getting an acting role, or any role.

TTVJ: I’ve heard of shows trying to take nondescript roles in scripts and flipping them from like male to female characters, or trying to cast more diversely, but it’s nice to hear that filters down to you as well. 

AT: When the stunt coordinators were always white males and there would be a nondescript stunt roles then they’d hire a white guy. So it’d be a bunch of white guys, but I started thinking ‘if they are cops and there’s five of them, why can’t we have some women and more diversity?’ It came down from Michelle Lovretta [Killjoys creator], who said, ‘Let’s get lots of women and lots of color.’

TTVJ: This is just further proof of what I’m always saying, which is Michelle Lovretta needs to rule all of TV! I know she’d like a nap or two, but we need her!

AT: She can nap, but then she needs to wake up and let’s go. [laughs] I was talking to her towards the end of Season 5, and I said to her, ‘Thank you so much for allowing this show to have such a female presence and bringing me on.’ She spoke about how the way you get it done is to write it yourself. She said she wrote what she wanted, got it made and that’s how that all happened. She’s pretty off the charts.

 

Thoughts? Sound off below!