Interview With Stunt Woman Maja Aro

By Ruth on July 7, 2016 in Interview, movie, television
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If you’re anything like me, you watch movies and shows all too often without giving much more than a passing thought to the people involved behind the scenes. While I am becoming a more informed viewer as I have been endeavoring to immerse myself within this cosmos of entertainment, I sometimes still forget that there are stunt people, and that without them, movies and TV would be bland, to say the least. When I went to the Artemis Film Festival in April, I was introduced to the world of stunt people, and I had the sensational opportunity to listen to a qualified and conversant panel comprised of notables from the stunt community, and particularly some “rad” women. Maja Aro was one of those dazzling ladies, and not too long ago, she and I had a an educational and informative conversation (and one that was downright awesome) about the stunt world and her work within this fascinating but often-overlooked profession.

Artemis Film festival red carpet 2016

Artemis Film festival red carpet 2016

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RH: It was so good to go to the Artemis Film Festival and see the stunt panel. That was phenomenal. I really enjoyed that.

MA: Good, I’m glad you enjoyed that. It was fun to be on, but I wish it had been longer so we could have gotten the audience involved. We wanted to take questions from the audience, but we were out of time.

I know what you mean. But honestly, I knew nothing about stunt people and definitely knew nothing about stunt women. I just sat there like a sponge, soaking up everything you guys were saying. 

How cool!

It was neat. It was a world that I guess I knew was there, but I never stopped and thought about it. Back in the olden days, they didn’t really talk about it. And now it’s okay to say that you’re a stunt double for so-and-so.

Yeah, there sometimes is still that weird little thing about it because we are behind-the-scenes. But you can say you do the job now, and people know there’s a stunt double behind the scenes. They like to watch that. They like to see how it’s done. They like to understand that it was a stunt person and how that whole process was done and how they seamlessly made that film they enjoyed.

There was a really good response when I asked for questions online. People looked at the list of your credits, and they were like, “Wow! This girl has done a lot!”  They were very impressed.

That’s great.

So what was it that inspired you to get involved with the entertainment industry and become a stunt person?

I grew up in a small town. I grew up really active. I had a horse. I showed horses. I rode English and Western. I road mountain bikes. I raced bikes. I did rock climbing. I was really active. So that was my childhood. I had no idea that stunts was a job. I grew up in Northern B.C. in a small town, so the film industry wasn’t something I knew anything about.

My first exposure to the film industry was a movie called Eaters of the Dead that filmed in my town for a couple weeks, but I still only knew about actors. If you were going to be in a movie, you had to be an actor. That was the only kind of part in movies I knew about. But I didn’t realize there’s like a million other jobs that happen to make it work.

Then we moved to Vancouver, and I went to fashion design school. I had always tried to be a professional athlete, but that was really, really hard in Canada, especially as a woman. I would compete and I would win in the same category as guys, and the guys would make ten to twenty times more when winning the same race. So I figured out I couldn’t be a professional athlete, but I could be a part-time athlete. I can do it for fun. So I did fashion during the week, and I would compete on the weekends.

Then I ended up running across some set guys, and they were like, “You do all these things. You should come train with us. There’s not a lot of girls, and you’re a good size.” So I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I still didn’t really think I’d do it. But I said, “Oh, I’ll come train with you guys.”  I do love training and learning new things. So I went out and trained with them and thought, “Oh man, this is cool!” All the things they were doing, and everyone was so excited. And one guy was talking about the great job he was going to do tomorrow, and he was so excited. And I was like, “Oh, these people are so happy. They are so excited to get a call to go to work.” And everyone was sharing with each other and everyone was excited for everyone. And I thought, “Maybe I do want to do this.” So I started asking questions–What do I need to do? What do I need to learn? I really didn’t think I’d be good enough to do it. So I didn’t send out my resume for a while. Through my fashion design, I already had a clothing company, and I had contacts with the people who make shirts for stunt teams. And this one team needed some shirts, and my buddies said, “You should talk to Maja. She can get them really fast.” So I went down there, and he asked how the guys knew me. I talked about how I wanted to do a movie and I’d been training, and this guy said, “You haven’t sent a resume out. If you don’t send out resumes, no one’s going to know who you are. No one’s going to hire you.”  So he said, “When you drop off the shirts, you have to bring me your resume.” And that was sorta how I started. From that, being told that I had to start sending out resumes, so I did. I listened to him. It wasn’t like I just decided one day to do it. It was definitely a process. I was still working a full-time day job and then stunt-training every night. I really wanted to do stunts, so I spent every moment that I wasn’t working in training.

Photos by Kyle Cassie

Photos by Kyle Cassie

So tell us about the kind of training you do and maybe what your strengths are.

I try to be as well-rounded as possible. I’m definitely not the strongest gymnast. I was never a gymnast as a child, so I don’t have that base as a child growing up doing that. But I do train in gymnastics things now. I have a trampoline in my house. Hard to say what I’m the best at. Probably falling–taking good, hard hits. I’m definitely known as the girl who can ratchet into something super hard and get back up and do it again. I get called for a lot of those–good, hard hits. But over the years, I’ve tried to train in as many things as possible to make myself as well-rounded a performer as possible. I’m actually one of the few stunt women who doesn’t have a gymnastics background. A very high percentage of stunt women have at least a recreational gymnastics background.

I wouldn’t have even thought of that–I probably should have–

No, no, martial arts and gymnastics are thought of as cirque arts, and a lot of people come from having performed gymnastics as a child and then transferred it into a circus skill. Martial arts, gymnastics, and there’s a lot of dancers as well. All those sports have discipline and are big on body awareness. And that really does make a good stunt performer.

Someone did ask if you’re left-handed or right-handed. I don’t know if it makes any difference. 

(laughs) I did see that. And now I can answer. I’m right-handed, but I have doubled like four or five left-handed girls for a lengthy amount of time. So I’ve had to learn how to shoot and hold guns left-hand dominant. And just the direction I would typically cartwheel or flip–you have to learn how to do it both ways.

I never even thought about that. All the little details that the viewers like me would take for granted. My daughter and my dad are both left-handed.

My mom’s left-handed. And it doesn’t really make any difference till you’re drawing a gun, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, this feels weird.” Or even just fighting on your opposite side. Again with your strengths and weaknesses. Your least dominant side is not as strong, and you have to work hard to make it just as strong if you want to make it believable. So yes, I’m right-handed, but I have taught myself how to do many things left-handed because I’ve doubled quite a few left-handed girls.

So how do you do the stunts without getting hurt?

That’s the whole science and secret of being a stunt woman because we obviously want to have long careers. We have to be able to get up and do it often, and we need to be able to do more than one take of a certain stunt. I’ve had days when I have to do a car hit, and I’ve had to do that car hit four times in the same day. Those days you go home and take a bath. (laughs) But the trick is with the training is learning how to take a hit and learning to roll and how to protect your body by falling on soft, meaty parts, not bones. When we’re supposed to break falls, we seem to be breaking our fall, but we’re really going into a roll and slowing ourselves down. A lot of that is a mix of martial arts techniques, which come in handy for keeping yourself safe. They teach you how to fall properly and fall so you’re not going to hurt yourself. But then seaming that in to make it look like a gnarly wreck. That’s the trick and science that’s different than martial arts. With stunts, we want to make it look like a big, gnarly wreck, but you want to walk away from it going, “Hey, I’m okay!” Those are my favorite days when the crew is like, “Oh my gosh, are you okay? That looked horrible.” And then you say, “No, that wasn’t too bad. ” But everyone thinks you should have gotten super hurt doing that, and you’re actually kind of okay. Those are my favorite kind of days because you’re like, “Yes! I did a good job! They thought it was brutal!” That’s what the trick is–seeing what your odds are and protecting yourself and seeing how you can make sure you only land on soft spots.

Photos by Kyle Cassie

Photos by Kyle Cassie

I remember at the stunt panel, they said that you don’t want to ever go into a stunt being scared of doing it. 

If you’re scared of doing a stunt, you shouldn’t do it. And if any of the stunts are making you nervous, I would potentially reevaluate your career choice. For me, it’s kind of like the night before Christmas energy–like you get really excited. There’s that excitement. And turning up the energy in the body, getting it  a bit amped. Turning that on ahead of time ’cause adrenaline actually helps protect your body. So I have little mental checks I use just in a couple seconds to get myself ready to do a stunt. There’s a healthy level of  “you know you could get hurt doing this,” and then turning on that adrenaline to protect yourself, but I think if you’re genuinely terrified or afraid to do a stunt, you shouldn’t do that stunt for sure. And if you are having a few that are truly terrifying you, I think I would reevaluate your career choice of what you’re doing. If it’s constantly scaring you, I don’t think that is something you should continue to do ’cause that’s when you’re going to get hurt. Fear clouds your mind, and you don’t end up thinking clearly.

For me, I’m not going to say I’m not afraid of anything, but I really don’t have that intense fear of what I’m doing. I trust the people I work with. I trust that the riggers have set up everything good. I would say ninety-nine percent of the time, they go off without a hitch–they’re perfect. There are times when you get really close, and you think, “That would have been really bad.” But, you know, I feel like we dodge bullets all the time. We do make it as safe as possible. I feel pretty safe up there, and that makes me not fearful. We are not these big, crazy daredevils or adrenaline junkies. We’re doing dangerous things in an enclosed environment. In a planned environment. I guess we are actually getting hit by cars, but it’s planned. I have pads on. I know I’m getting hit by the car, so I get light on my feet. My knees aren’t getting blown out. So yes, we are actually doing these dangerous things, but you’re doing it in a controlled environment. So it makes it a lot safer.

I know on the stunt panel, for some reason, fear was a hot topic, But you answered it well there and here. I liked that you said having spur of the moment questions are the best way to have interviews.

Well, I think that if you have it planned out ahead of time and typed up, it doesn’t feel very personable. You’re not going to get something that’s going to springboard into something else.

Do you have a favorite stunt to do and/or favorite actress to double for?

I do love doing wire stunts. I love doing vehicle work as well. I think the challenge of wire stunts–there’s sort of a common saying that you’re a “dope on a rope”–which I don’t believe at all. I don’t like that saying at all ’cause we’re not.  As a performer, if you actually work the wire, and you feel like leaning into it and working into it, then there’s a lot performance wise you can do to change the flight of a wire stunt, be it a hand pull or a ratchet. A ratchet is a mechanical power system–it’s a lot more consistent. But sometimes you just don’t need that. It’s a lot more powerful than somebody pulling your line manually. There’s a lot you can do as a performer to make your flight different depending on where it’s put on your harness or your body, or even depending upon whether you’re getting wrapped. There’s so many variables. There are so many things you can do as a performer to make that flight more interesting. It’s different because you’re kind of in this interesting weightlessness ’cause you’re flying through the air. You’re getting pulled by cables. But for me, I like the challenge of that. I like that you actually can do something about it. You’re not just getting pulled on the fly. So I enjoy those just for the challenge. But I don’t know, it just depends on the stunt and the show sometimes. You may get called to do this really cool stunt that you didn’t expect to do. And you’re like, “That’s really awesome!” So I don’t know if there’s necessarily a full-on favorite.

Season 5 ONCE with Ginnifer Goodwin photo by Helga Ugarait

Season 5 ONCE with Ginnifer Goodwin photo by Helga Ugarait

As for actresses–I don’t know, I’ve been so fortunate to double so many lovely, lovely people, so I’d probably say who I’m working with right now. I’ve been Ginnifer Goodwin’s stunt double on Once Upon a Time for five years. She’s one of the sweetest human beings in the world. She’s so kind, and our working relationship together–after doubling someone for so long–there’s just that level of trust. When she’s performing something, she knows I’ll give her an honest answer and not just an “Oh, you look great!” We have that trust, and she knows that I’m genuinely going to tell her and try to make her look as good as possible. So that’s pretty fun. So that’s been a really awesome, awesome relationship. We’re coming back for season six! So we get another year of playing Snow White together. She plays Snow White. I just fall down for her. (laughs) It’s a fun show. Then I also work on The Man From High Castle. It’s such a great show. I double for Alexa Davalos. She is also so lovely and so, so sweet. We get to do training sessions together. She’s just a really kind human being. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to work with a lot of really incredible women.

My daughter is a huge fan of Once Upon a Time, so now I guess I need to get into the show. And I am just getting into The Man From High Castle

I also had a blast doubling Gemma Arterton on Hansel & Gretel. That was a very different sort of relationship ’cause we were all in Berlin. None of us had our friends or family there. You get to bond a little closer when you’re in a situation like that. I think that was sort of a special friendship too ’cause we spent so much time together. We’d go have dinners at her house after work. It was really a good time as well. I think those jobs where you really get to know each other–you know, sometimes you’ll come in on a show, and you literally have a couple of stunt days. And you just say, “We know each other on set, and I’m going to keep you safe, and I’m going to help you do your part.” And that’s sort of the end of it. Not that they’re not awesome people and you don’t have a great time, but that sort of ends up being all there is. I really enjoy my favorites, I guess, because I’ve gotten to spend so much time with them.

With Amy Manson, season 5 ONCE, photo by Craig Clarke

With Amy Manson, season 5 ONCE, photo by Craig Clarke

That makes sense to me. I can see how if you’re only there for a short time, it’s not easy to make those connections.

Yeah, sometimes they are shorter, and sometimes it’s a drama and they just need one stunt that is like the critical piece of the story, and so I’m there for that scene which we shoot, and that’s it. And the rest of the movie, there’s no stunts.

As I went through your credits, even though these are often the smaller credits, I have a lot of friends in the acting community, and it’s neat when I see that you worked on a film with my friends. In fact, I saw that you did two films that starred my friend, Sebastian Spence. The first one I noticed was The Obsession.

That’s the first movie I ever did stunts for! My very first movie!

And then I saw you had also been in Accidental Obsession

Was that the one that changed its name?

Yes, that one changed its name like three different times. 

With those sometimes I’m like, “Which movie was that again?” When the movies change names so many times, I’m like, “I can’t remember which one that was.”  And then I don’t always get to see the films I do because they don’t always air in Canada. I probably haven’t seen fifty to sixty percent of my work. And so I’m like, “I’ve never seen it. I hope it was good.”

And then I have my Hallmark connections too. 

Oh, I’ve worked on lots of Hallmark things. In fact, those are a lot of those movies where there’s literally one stunt in the whole movie.

Oh, I figured because Hallmark is not like the big action movies. 

No, they’re not. But I do have Hallmark credits. I could have a stunt Hallmark postcard. (laughs) I don’t know what a Hallmark stunt greeting card would be like.

And the great thing is that a lot of people who are Hallmark fans are also Once Upon a Time fans.

Yeah, I think that’s a similar audience.  It was actually Ginny, who forced me to get on twitter two years ago. I’m still so old-school when it comes to social media. At the end of season three, she was pregnant–it was her first pregnancy. I was just there a lot. Sometimes I didn’t even stand in. I was there just to be helpful. She’d asked for me to be there, and I was like, “Okay, yes, of course.” And at that point, she was like, “You need to get on twitter.”

Well, it was the Hallmark fans who were truly wowed by your credits. One fan wrote, “All I can say is wow.” 

(laughs) Awwww.

It would not surprise me for a lot of my readers to be like me in that they haven’t thought about stunt people. (pause) From my research on stunt people, I picked up that while you have to be ready as a stunt person to do the stunt, the actor may decide to do it after all. Is that correct?

A lot of times, we rehearse it. We’ll set it up. And if it’s safe and the actor’s comfortable doing it and is going to look great doing it, that’s part of our job, too. Coaching them through it. We tested it, and we’ll coach them through doing it and help them look believable doing it. And it they can, it always looks better on screen seeing the actor’s face doing it. Like with Tom Cruise, he has a stunt double that actually tests everything for him, but pretty much everything on camera, Tom performs. He gets his stunt double to test it and try it out and explain it to him. And then he will perform it on camera. That does happen with girls sometimes. I’ve doubled a lot of girls who are very athletic and capable. Sometimes it’s an insurance thing so the studios won’t let them do it. Tom has that pull where he can do it, but a lot of them have insurance that says they’re not allowed to do certain things for safety’s sake. But if they’re comfortable, if they’re confident doing it, then I’d say, “Why not?” I mean that’s just as much a part of our job as actually performing the stunt. And even if there’s a part of the stunt, like maybe there’s a big huge hit, and I’m going to do that. But if there’s a fight leading up to that and we can seamlessly do that where they’ll do a take of it and we’ll do a take of it and they can cut in wherever they want. It’s quite a mesh of really working together, and I think that’s where having that great bond, that great relationship with an actor you’re doubling, it makes the action better because they trust you that you’re going to move like them. You’re going to make it look like it was them. And then it’s easier for the editors. It’s a lot more seamless putting the scenes together. You’re both doing the parts, but then they mesh it together so it’s only one character.

As I’ve been listening to you, your attitude is really cool, too because it’s like it’s not about you. It’s about making the actor that you’re doubling for look the best. I think some people would struggle to do this job even if they have the skills because they want to get all the glory. 

But that is not what their job is. Stunt people’s job is not to get the glory. We’re not the character, we’re not the actor. We’re not in it to get the glory. We’re in it to make the actors look good really. That is our job. And to make it seamless. If you didn’t know that there was a stunt double, then I’ve done my job immaculately well. I’ve had people ask me, “You were there on that part?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And they say, “I didn’t even notice.” Good! I did my job! (laughs) And you thought it was the actor the whole time. And in my way of approaching it, I have to put myself in the actor’s shoes, too. They’re playing this character and they never want the audience to not believe that they are that character. The actor actually gives up control of that character for a few moments, and there really is that trust that has to be built up between you and the actor. When I’m doubling someone at first, I just sit and watch them walk. I watch how they move. And I try to emulate that. Because everybody moves differently, and everybody moves differently when they’re playing different characters. I’ve doubled some actors multiple times, and they’ll have slight little tweaks that they’ll do that they throw into that character. And as their double, I have to mimic that exactly. I have to walk with the same gait, move the same way so that then the action is also seamless. With body movement, people pick up if something is different. And the audiences will know if something is different. It’s a team effort, and with the stunts, we’re not in it for the glory. For me, I’m just happy when the actor I’m doubling is happy that their action looks good. And that the producers and directors are happy. Ultimately, I’m facilitating their vision and what they want it to look like.

Rehearsal for Afflicted in Italy

Rehearsal for Afflicted in Italy

I appreciate hearing your mindset, and I think that’s commendable. 

Well, thank you. I’ve been fortunate to double amazing people that don’t mind saying, “Hey, that’s my stunt double” when they see me. But again, that’s not what I signed up for. I just think it’s cool that I get to work on some of the biggest and best movies in the world. And nobody knows who I am, so I can walk down the street and not get harassed by photographers. That’s a big plus. (laughs)

I will agree with you on that point. Sometimes you read those horror stories of what other actors have to deal with and–

I know–and the actors are like, “Go away, we’re just trying to have dinner. Leave us alone.”

So where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

That’s a tricky one. I definitely continue to have big, aspiring goals. A lot of them.  I’ve started writing and directing, and I really enjoy that. I definitely would like to be doing more of that in five years. But I love stunts too. I don’t think I’ll never not want to do stunts. I love it–it makes me tick. But that being said, like any professional athlete, you can’t be at your peak forever. So having other outlets that are artistic, I definitely want to pursue that. Which I think directing and writing allows me to do that. My director and I have been making a short film together, so that’s been my weekends. I kind of love my life, so I don’t want to change anything too much. It will obviously grow, but I think if things kind of keep going how they are, I will keep doing the things I enjoy doing, and that’s what I’ll be doing in five years.

I could definitely see you as a director. And of course, we need more women directors. 

That’s right. There’s not enough.

And with writing, I think that’s great, too. You have your first love of stunts, but it’s good to have other pursuits.

Yeah, I like having other outlets for creativity. And I know the body’s not going  to be able to do the hard hits forever. Realistically, I know I’ll have to slow some of those down at some point. Having another artistic pursuit that I enjoy I think is important.

I could definitely see you writing and directing the next great female action film. 

Oh, I’ve written one already. It’s actually getting illustrated right now.

So is there an audience it’s geared towards?

It’s geared towards male and female audiences. Probably more in the late teens to thirties. It’s definitely a more adult graphic novel. It’s about the Amazon women in ancient Greece, and in both content and staying true to the time period, there’s a lot of nudity in it. So it’s definitely an adult graphic novel. But I really hope men enjoy it just as much as women do.

So I guess it would be a historical graphic novel?

Yeah, I mean I’ve taken some creative liberties because there’s not a lot of information. I’ve been researching the Amazons for the last seven years. It’s been a slow process because I’ll get busy on a job, and I have to put it aside, as your creative side projects do. You shelf them for awhile. And then you come back to them, but when you come back to them, it’s almost like getting started from step one again. It’s definitely been time-consuming, but there’s not been a lot of published research on the Amazons. So that’s been tricky. So I’ve been taking creative liberties, but I try to stay true to the research I found as much as possible. I try to keep it accurate, but also incorporate the myths like the Iliad. I really enjoy doing that research and learning about all that. And then you get to make up your own things through writing. Kind of make the story how you want it to be. And hopefully, for me, audiences will fall in love with it, and I hope they will enjoy the arc I put out there as the story.

Well, I’m glad you mentioned it as this is something a little bit different. I think I’ve only heard of the women. I don’t know anything about them.

People know of them, but they don’t know about them because there isn’t that much out there. I’m hoping that this graphic novel will kind of bring that to light a little bit. And just be a fun graphic novel to read. My illustrator truly has an understanding of powerful, interesting women, and she is an incredible artist. It will probably still take a couple years, but it will eventually be out. And eventually, I hope it will be a big, epic movie.

It sounds like you have something that not everyone is doing and people are not going to jump on the bandwagon and beat you to it. 

Because there’s a LOT of research.

Well, Maja this has been a wonderful time, and I have learned so much.

Thanks, Ruth. I have enjoyed chatting with you, too.

Playing at home

Playing at home

I don’t know if you are as impressed as I am, but this is a woman who is as humble and kind as they come. Maja gave me intensive insight into the life of a stunt person, and I am forever grateful for her patience as I asked questions that demonstrated my ignorance of her amazing job. She was a fantastic teacher, and I loved being the student for this time as she delineated so much of what she does on a daily basis. Furthermore, her love for her profession just exuded from her innermost being, and there is no doubt in my mind that Maja will be around for many years to come. She is an expert in her field, but she never loses her focus nor what her responsibility is in each and every role she does. So be sure to check out the links below and follow her on social media as you may be astonished to discover just how many of her works you have seen. I think that the future is wide open for someone as grounded, benevolent, and immeasurably gifted as she is.

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About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
42-year-old single mother of an active 13-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

7 Comments

  1. marthalynn July 8, 2016 Reply

    How cool! What a neat career. I never really think about stunt doubles when I watch television or films. Her interview was a fascinating look behind the scenes!

    • Author
      Ruth July 8, 2016 Reply

      Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. I quite agree.

  2. Erin K. July 8, 2016 Reply

    Your interviews are very interesting! Wouldn’t it be fun to be a stunt woman?

    • Author
      Ruth July 8, 2016 Reply

      Erin, thank you. I appreciate your kind words. It would be fun but a lot of work to be a stunt woman!

  3. Susan P. July 10, 2016 Reply

    I’ve always wondered how you would decide to go into being a stunt double as opposed to being an actor. Thanks for the great interview!

    • Author
      Ruth July 11, 2016 Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it Susan. Look for more stunt people interviews to come.

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