Melissa Stubbs may not be a household name or familiar face, but on Monday night over ten million viewers watched her on the debut of Fox's new TV drama Alcatraz -- and this summer she'll thrill millions more in the guaranteed blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. She's been mistaken for Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, and Jessica Alba (to name a few), been directed by Steven Spielberg, and walked the Oscar red carpet. But as a veteran Hollywood stunt driver, she's more used to taking calculated risks than counting her accolades.
Stubbs spoke to IBTimes from Vancouver--where she serves as Stunt Coordinator for Alcatraz--about her unusual career trajectory, her work on The Dark Knight Rises, and her Academy Award predictions. Anyone with money in an Oscar pool would be wise to take notice.
IBTimes: How did you get to where you are today?
Stubbs: I started at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, near San Francisco. I stole my dad's van and drove to San Francisco to go to the school. I was 18, and I wasn't old enough to rent a car. I had to get one of the instructors to rent the car for me. I called my dad and told him what I'd done (he was away in Mexico at the time). He's a really understanding guy.
When I would get a stunt job, I would take the money I earned from that job and invest it back into my career. A school, a workshop, or a piece of equipment. People used to try to discourage me and suggest I quit or find a safer, more secure career. I have never been very good at listening to anyone.
Just how risky is your business?
In 24 years, I've broken my leg three times, I've broken my left shoulder, collar bone, my left hand...I've had head injuries, a broken nose, things like that. I've never been in a coma, but a lot of my friends have.
[In response to a query about this scene, for Fringe, where Stubbs has visible cuts on her face and body. She thinks some of that might have been makeup.]
Whenever you go through glass, you're gonna get cut. I've never been through a window and not gotten cut. Usually what I do is cover my face with my arms.
What makes for a good stunt driver?
They key to being a good stunt driver is being versatile. Being able to jump into any vehicle and make it do what you want. Be it a stock Ferrari, an ATV, a Bat Pod or an old Toyota that will barely run long enough to make it through a shot. You have to be able to overcome any glitches with a vehicle and drive it like you stole it.
What are your favorite cars to drive?
As a stunt driver, the 68 Mustang Bullit is the ultimate car-chase car. The Crown Vic and larger luxury cars like Lincoln town car are great for stunt driving.
But, if I had money to burn, I would own an Aston Martin.
Most stuntmen and women retire fairly young, whether they want to or not. Is the work getting harder?
Stunt driving offers more career longevity because your mental aptitude is just as important as your physical abilities. Other stunts have a shelf life. But the older you get, the more experience you have, the better you become as a driver.
I've doubled everybody under the sun. I've done every stunt there is to do. But I feel like I'm just kind of getting it. When you're younger you just want to prove yourself...when you're older you come from a different place. You don't bring your ego into it.
I'm 41 now. As you get older you mellow. When I was younger I was a terrible driver...now it's more zen- like being a driver. It's not crazy...It's about calculated risk, it's about being calm, it's about understanding your vehicle. Good stunt drivers are not daredevils.
What are some of the rookie mistakes that amateur stunt drivers make?
They push beyond their comfort zone. They go too fast to impress. They do the 'Kodak courage' thing -- you put a camera in front of someone, it's surprising what they'll do. They go too big, too fast, or they just get nervous that they have an audience and they just plain F- up... Rookies get nervous, and suddenly screw up simple things they can usually do easily. Their brain just freezes up.
You must have to work with some of these young hotshots from time to time. How do you handle it?
You just stand by and watch them and eventually they make a mistake. They have an accident, and hopefully no one gets hurt, but it humbles them. Life has a way of doing that to people.
Have you been able to get a glimpse of The Dark Knight Rises?
I have seen some stuff. It looks amazing. Christopher Nolan is brilliant. What I like about Nolan is that he doesn't rely on visual effects. If it can be done for real, he will do it.
So an action sequence in The Dark Knight Rises is actual action?
Yes. Audiences want to know that people are doing it for real.
Is it true that you cut your time short on The Dark Knight Rises to film Alcatraz?
We still had a bunch of sequences to do in Los Angeles and New York; I didn't really want to be on the road. I was just a performer on the film, which was great, but I had the opportunity to come onto a brand new show as a Stunt Coordinator. For me, more creatively fulfilling. I'm not just the person crashing the car, I'm involved in the creative process.
Do you have any preference for TV work versus feature films?
Commercials are the most financially rewarding. TV is fast and furious. You get to do a lot of things in a short amount of time. The pace is crazy and chaotic. Too much work with not enough time. It's challenging.
Films are probably my preference. You have time to create new and exciting sequences. You have time to execute and shoot them the way you envisioned it. You can spend more time and make your action sequences good.
Are some directors simply better with stunt scenes than others?
I work with a lot of first time directors or directors that are just not experienced or comfortable with action. The Second Unit Director shoots the action sequences. Main unit shoots the dialogue and a separate unit goes out and shoots the action.
Stunt work is heavily referral-based, and the process is much different than casting the actors. Have you ever had to audition for a job?
It is very much word of mouth and reputation. I do have an agent for Second Unit Directing, but they haven't gotten a job for me yet. All my work has come from referrals or producers who I've met and worked with over the years.
I have had to audition, but usually that's for stunt actor rolls -- a part in which you say a few lines and there is some sort of physical action. I have occasionally auditioned for a few driving jobs for people who didn't know me. I am happy to do that.
You've found your way to the red carpet at the Oscars. How often does that happen?
I am a member of the Academy of Motion pictures Arts and Sciences. I did not go for a specific film. I vote for films in various categories for academy awards. I occasionally attend the awards and take a friend or family member so they can experience the red carpet craziness.
Who are your favorites for the Academy Awards this year?
Meryl Streep should win best actress for 'Iron Lady.' I really liked 'The Artist.' I didn't want to see it -- the idea of a silent film didn't appeal to me. Much to my surprise, I thought it was brilliant.
I also really liked the performance from Berenice Bejo in 'The Artist.' Meryl Streep's performance was untouchable, but the members of the Academy tend to vote for a newcomer or underdog.
Leonardo Dicaprio was very good in 'J. Edgar.' He showed great diversity in playing a character whose age spanned 20 to 80.
'War Horse' - I really loved it. I'm a sap for a good animal story, and I love horses. I had to keep telling myself, 'It's only a movie...
A tough girl like you sheds tears at the movies?
Spielberg knows how to do that to people.