Women Behind the Canadian TV: Leslie McMichael

Photo courtesy of Leslie McMichael
Photo courtesy of Leslie McMichael

Working in stunts can be a dangerous choice of occupation, especially for women. Like many other positions behind the scenes, a majority of stunt coordinators and stunt performers are men. Things are slowly changing and safety measures are being introduced to make the job much safer for all involved, says veteran stunt performer Leslie McMichael. Along with her husband Steve, McMichael works out of Alberta and has coordinated stunts for and performed on series such as Wynonna Earp, Damnation, Tin Star and Dark Angel. She’s also done stunts on movies like X Men: The Last Stand and Fantastic Four.

McMichael recently discussed this in a conversation she had with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series. She recalled how, despite planning a career in psychology, she found herself working as a stunt performer. McMichael also discussed the differences of working on stunts for shows like Wynonna Earp versus the big blockbuster films she’s been a part of. We also discussed with her the challenges involved in coordinating stunts for a pregnant lead, as Leslie and Steve had to do for Melanie Scrofano during Season 2 of Wynonna.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: A career in stunts can be exciting but also dangerous. Can you share a little about your background and how you got involved in stunts?

Leslie McMichael: Well, I didn’t plan on getting into stunts. That’s the funny thing, and it’s usually disappointing to people who are like ‘I’ve always wanted to be a stunt person my whole life.’ I just fell into it. I was a martial artist first, was very competitive and always going to tournaments. I had a lot of fun doing it, and I loved the camaraderie because even though you’re competing against each other, there was still the honor, respect, talking after and I loved that. I had people approach me saying I should think about getting into the film industry, but I was getting my masters in psychology and I was going to be a psychologist. If you had told me I was going to start falling on my head for a living I would’ve told you that you were crazy.

I eventually sat down with a colleague’s agent who said I could still go to school and just do this on the side. She sent me on several auditions and I started getting commercials as an actor. That was fun, different and the money was good while not being a big time commitment. I then did extra work on Viper where they needed people to fill up a bar and ended up meeting the stunt people. The stunt coordinator ended up being the coordinator of the Ninja Turtles series in Vancouver. After auditioning, it went really well and I ended up being the double for the girl turtle Venus. She was only on that series, but that was the most fun job ever because you were jumping around in a Halloween costume kicking, punching and having the best time in the world.

From that I met people, they saw how I worked and my abilities and that helped me the most. Being new, I was not well received by the stunt community in B.C. because I came from Alberta, was brand new, hadn’t paid my dues, but just started working a lot and they just had to accept it. It can be catty with backstabbing, so you just have to be tough and think ‘I don’t care what they think. I’m here to do my job and do it well. If they don’t like it then it’s too bad.’

TTVJ: That was almost 20 years ago now, so do you think it’s changed at all? Was there anyone while you were coming up that you looked to as a mentor?

LM: There were some people who skill-wise I looked up to. There weren’t a whole lot of female martial artists though so it was more men, like my now husband. I would watch him perform and was amazed. He could run up the wall and do a backflip any time of day. I don’t know these days what the industry is like in B.C. because I’m so far removed here in Alberta. I keep in touch with a lot of people, and they are hurting because there’s been accidents like the Deadpool one. That affected all of us because I ride a motorcycle on Damnation.

Here in Alberta there’s only 10-15 female stunt performers. Everyone gets along and they are all horse people. We’re trying to get them into doing other things like driving, throwing a punch and stuff like that because it’s not just horses anymore.

Photo courtesy of Leslie McMichael
Photo courtesy of Leslie McMichael

TTVJ: I’ve heard how it’s much dangerous for female stunt performers as well because you’re wearing less clothing and have less protection.

LM: Yep! Absolutely. You just have to suck it up and say ‘OK, it’s a tube top and a mini skirt, awesome! Better get this right so I only have to do it once!’

TTVJ: Now, since you and Steve are in charge of hiring stunt performers for a show like Wynonna, do you try to hire more women in roles, especially ones that are nondescript and not gender specific?

LM: We do, but on something like Damnation there were hardly any women. We thought we could hire more people, but it was mostly guys that they needed all the time. It wasn’t very kind to women, but that’s what the story wanted. On Wynonna, when we get the script and go through it’s usually very specific as to what’s happening. There’s a bar scene early in Season 1 and it was scripted that there were a lot of blonde women. Then it’s very obvious that you need to hire women. However, Wynonna has Dominique [Provost-Chalkley], Kat [Barrell], Melanie [Scrofano] and then this season both Widows. We actually had to groom a couple of new people that were pretty new to film from theater, and they did a great job.

TTVJ: On a show like Wynonna Earp then what are your specific responsibilities? I know you doubled for Dominique.

LM: I also doubled for one of the Widows depending on what they were doing. Steve and I then tag team whether or not we want to be on set versus meetings. So if he feels like he needs to be on set, then I’ll go to meetings for the next block. Every day there’s stunts, the day before I have to do a risk assessment. It’s a relatively new thing that most stunt coordinators do not do, but I think it is absolutely brilliant. I think if everyone did it that it’d reduce a lot of injuries and close calls where people are not prepared. It makes you sit down and go ‘what do we need for tomorrow exactly? Who are the people and what are they doing?’ It also helps every other department know what’s going on — costumes, makeup, special effects — because it’s on the call sheet and they have to read through it. Whereas if everyone isn’t on the same page then something might get missed or not properly prepared.

Surprisingly, wardrobe is a huge factor in safety of stunts. For instance, I had a long coat on Damnation but was going to have to ride a motorcycle. So I had to have a meeting with wardrobe about shortening it, tacking it down and making sure it didn’t get caught in the chain. There’s little things like that that can cause something catastrophic, and if you just have these meetings beforehand then it’s fine. So I would do risk assessments daily and think it’s something more people should do.

If I’m on set and Steve is in meetings, then it’s just going over our exact game plan and making sure everyone is prepared. One of my favorite days on Season 2 [of Wynonna Earp] was when we drove the truck through the barn. Melanie’s stunt double Andrea [Ross] hasn’t done a ton of driving for film, but we had her practice and set it up properly, talked about everything we had to do to be successful, and we only had to do it once. We also had Afton [Rentz] who was doubling Widow Mercedes (Dani Kind) do a wire pull into the wall because the truck hits her in the scene. She did a great job and had never done anything like that before. She was turning a bit white before but did really great. I was really proud of her.

The training sequence [Episode 209] with Mel pregnant was a fun one too. Mel came to me and said ‘it feels like I’m not doing anything anymore. Can I do something cool?’ I said ‘absolutely!’ So in the next meeting I told them Andrea can do a back handspring like nothing and I looked it up, but pregnant women actually can backflip if they already do it. So if you’re a gymnast and do it all the time, get pregnant and want to attempt a backflip, you can. I wouldn’t do that, but it’s possible. ‘This is a TV show so let’s have some fun,’ is how I sold it.

@bridgetontv
@bridgetontv

TTVJ: That was one thing I really wanted to discuss with you, how Melanie Scrofano’s pregnancy affected the stunts. How did you and Steve approach that challenge?

LM: The real fun was when we actually embraced it. She would shoot people and punch them in the face which is all well and good, but she wasn’t having fun with that. She thought that her character, being a strong woman with some superpowers, wouldn’t she do something cool? Mel talked to me about that and said ‘wouldn’t you be fierce and able to do stuff when you’re pregnant and have this kind of thing?’ I said ‘absolutely! We have a double that’s a dead ringer for you and can do all this stuff. Let’s have fun!’ That was great because we were hiding it for so long, and we were afraid to have her do anything really cool. So I think they were happy with the result. It’s just about sticking to what’s in the script, working with the dialog and the beats, but then coming up with ‘we can enhance it by adding this.’

TTVJ: You’ve worked on a lot of televisions series, but also films as well. Are there any big differences in working on TV series versus films? Do you have a preference?

LM: Not really. Feature films that I’ve worked on have just massive budgets and move a lot slower. I’ve not coordinated a bunch of features, but working as a performer it’s great fun. You get to do the same type of thing, but there’s more time to put into it. You get more rehearsal time, like on X-Men: The Last Stand we rehearsed a bridge fight scene for weeks. So money-wise you do really well because you’re getting paid your rehearsal rate for 2 weeks, instead of one or two days on a series. In the feature world you rarely get to everything in one day, so you get three or four days out of it. Financially it ends up being better for people, but it’s a shorter span of time since on a series you have six months of work or longer. As stunt people, you don’t really know what’s going on from year to year so you’re going to do what’s in front of you, enjoy it, do a good job and then see what’s down the pipe.

TTVJ: What advice do you have for other women looking to get into stunts?

LM: Something that may seem small is that women should get headshots that are not sexy. No half tops or showing cleavage. Portray yourself as a strong woman who is serious about stunts and not someone who is going to use their sexuality to get work. It’s something that’s always bothered me. Portraying yourself in a strong, professional manner will get you further, especially when a woman is in the mix hiring people.

 

What did you think of pregnant Wynonna’s moves in Season 2 of Wynonna Earp? Add thoughts on that and more below!

Wynonna Earp will return to Syfy and Space for Season 3 in 2018. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.