ACTION, LIGHTS, CAMERA: INTERVIEW WITH STUNT PERFORMER/COORDINATOR INGRID KLEINIG
By Jedd Jong
Getting set on fire, crashing motorcycles into vans, dangling from the side of a skyscraper, driving a big rig across the Namibian desert, duelling with Vin Diesel and shooting arrows into oncoming orcs – it’s all in a day’s work for stunt performer/coordinator Ingrid Kleinig.
Kleinig grew up in Australia in a family of professional stunt drivers. Her career kicked off in a dramatic way, when she performed suspended in mid-air 42 metres above the arena at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Kleinig was a member of the physical theatre troupe Legs on the Wall, performing acrobatics on the side of tall buildings.
In Australia, Kleinig worked on TV shows including Rescue Ops and Cops LAC, before going on to work in Hollywood. She has been a stunt double for Evangeline Lilly in the Hobbit films and Ant-Man and the Wasp, Margot Robbie’s stunt double in The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad and Brie Larson’s stunt double in Kong: Skull Island and Captain Marvel.
As was one of only two female stunt drivers on Mad Max: Fury Road, she was part of the team that won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture. Kleinig’s other credits include The Last Witch Hunter, Ghost in the Shell, Justice League and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Kleinig was in Singapore as one of the invited guests at the Disney Storytelling Plus bootcamp, joining people working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry to share her experiences with young aspiring filmmakers. I had brought action figures of Harley Quinn, the Wasp and Captain Marvel along to the interview – noticing the Harley Quinn figure, Kleinig chuckled and said “this brings back memories”.
In this interview, she told me about the role that stunt coordinators and performers have in storytelling, why she doesn’t like to use the term ‘accident’, and a competition between her and Margot Robbie that made producers very nervous.
JEDD: Looking through your filmography, it’s so impressive. In the Hollywood Reporter video about women in stunts, you said that you would rather be a stunt performer than an actress because you get to do all the fun stuff.
INGRID KLEINIG: Absolutely.
What ranks as among the most fun of all the stuff you’ve done, give us the greatest hits!
KLEINIG: The greatest hits – I rode a motorcycle and crashed head-on into a van that was on fire, then flew threw the flames and landed on the road on the other side.
KLEINIG: No biggie. I’ve crashed a Lamborghini into a lake and gone head-first through the windshield. I’ve made out with Jared Leto, in a sense [laughs] – on camera, that was as Harley Quinn. I’ve done so many great things, it’s hard to narrow it down.
In your bio, it says you have a background in physical theatre. I looked it up, and that involved literally hanging off the side of skyscrapers.
KLEINIG: Indeed! You did your research. I spent about ten years working with a company called Legs on the Wall, and we did the festival circuits around the world doing acrobatics on the side of skyscrapers.
Recently, we’ve seen several second unit directors and stunt coordinators become directors, the most prominent examples probably being Chad Stahelski and David Leitch of 87eleven. What are the unique insights that someone with a background in stunts can bring to the table as filmmakers and storytellers?
KLEINIG: A lot of directors of action films don’t necessarily have experience shooting action, so coming from that background obviously Chad and Dave now with the John Wick films and everything that they’re doing, Hobbs & Shaw, they’re very much action-based films. It centres around the physicality and stunts and so what they can do is enhance that side of it. There are so many other people coming to the table with the acting side of things and have got their bases covered.
From our point of view, what we do when we’re doing pre-production for a film is stunt pre-viz, which is basically creating a film. We’ll get a script and everything is scripted except for this scene which might be a five-minute fight scene. All it says is – I quote – “they fight”. Or “the biggest finale fight ever of a film” and again I’m quoting, it says “an all-or-nothing battle ensues.” That’s it. We have to fill in the blanks and come on board three months before the actors come on board, before we start shooting, and we play around with ideas and come up with concepts. Go to the director, give us their notes, it’s a back-and-forth. We’re brainstorming and creating and filming from the ground up. That leads directly into second unit direction and of course direction.
Leading on from that, what is something a director says or does that gives you confidence in them and lets you know that they understand how to work with a stunt team?
KLEINIG: Good question! I think the best thing that a director can do is show faith in their stunt coordinator and their stunt team. You can see it very early on. I particular enjoy working with a director that knows what they want. They’ll come into a room, you show them a scene that you’ve worked [on] thus far, and it’s immediate. “Yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no.” The “no’s” are generally because of their own story points that they have in their head that haven’t been communicated yet or hasn’t been [worked] out with the rest of the cast and crew. Not stylistically, but more in terms of character arcs and plots and that kind of thing. “She can’t do this here because the scene after this is such and such”. Someone who has all that information in their head and who can see the overall picture, it’s a real privilege to see that at work.
They have all the pieces on the board, moving them around, and it hasn’t all been fitted together yet.
KLEINIG: Yeah, absolutely. They’ve got the overall picture. We’ve got the script and the pre-viz and what have you, but we are concentrating so explicitly on the action scenes that often we can lose sight of what’s come before and after…
The connective tissue.
KLEINIG: The connective tissue, absolutely. That’s where…working with a director that can be like Rain Man and keep all the balls in the air is a privilege.
While every safety precaution is taken, stunts are inherently dangerous and sometimes tragic accidents happen. Olivia Jackson was very badly injured doing Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Joe Watts is in a coma after an accident on the set of Fast & Furious 9, and Joi “SJ” Harris died on the set of Deadpool 2. How do such incidents affect the stunt community, and what is it like trying to maintain standards of safety and prevent accidents from happening?
KLEINIG: First of all, I don’t believe in the word ‘accident’. There is no such thing as an accident. There is always human error at play in those instances, so there has been a mistake somewhere along the way. In every one of those instances, obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing, but you can see the point or the moment where something could’ve been done to prevent what happened. Unfortunately, that’s hindsight speaking, and beforehand there were checks and balances that weren’t put in place or an extra step wasn’t put in place.
A lot of the time, I think it’s because it’s not necessarily a difficult stunt. It’s often not the most difficult stunts when people are getting injured. Because it’s not seen as a difficult stunt, perhaps not all the safety measures are put in place.
Perhaps it’s a complacency? That’s too strong a word.
KLEINIG: It is…I think because as a community we do amazing, crazy things all the time, so you can get a little casual with it, especially when you’ve been doing it for a very long time. The global stunt community is very small. We all know each other or there’s one degree of separation so any of these things hit us all very hard. All we can do is learn from them and maintain diligence, and just be aware that every day, not to become casual about it. Maintain the checks, have multiple eyes, multiple heads and multiple hands on every single set-up.
Andy Horwitz, a producer on Suicide Squad, said of Margot Robbie “Her double is always on set, most of the time [she] just stands there and watches. She keeps thinking she’s going to have to go in.” I understand that a lot of times producers say things like that to hype the movie up, and I don’t want to take anything away from Margot Robbie, but I wanted to know, how did you feel hearing that?
KLEINIG: [Laughs] You know what, Margot Robbie absolutely earned everything that everybody always says about her. She’s one of the most physically talented performers I’ve ever worked with. She’s unbelievable. She trained as a classical dancer very strongly growing up, which means that especially when it comes fight choreography, we can do anything we want with her. She’s Australian and we tend to be very outdoorsy, very capable with those kinds of things and very competitive. She and I had this great sort of constructive competitiveness that brings out the best in each other.
There’s actually an anecdote where we were doing breath-hold training for Suicide Squad. I would get to four minutes and she would get to four-and-a-half, she went to five and I got to five-ten, and she got to five-and-a-half. We kept trying to up each other and trying to up each other, and the producers were like “Stop. You have gone above and beyond, no one needs to overdo this, we don’t need anything more. We don’t need five minutes. We only need one minute. Stop.” It’s great and it brings out the best in each other for the film and the character when we’re working so hard.
Everyone has days when they don’t particularly feel like going to work. Broadway actress Amber Gray calls it the ‘I Don’t Wannas’. What happens when you get a case of the I Don’t Wannas, how do you get yourself through the day?
KLEINIG: Caffeine! [Laughs] There are days when I wake up and I just go “ugh, I don’t want to go to school today!” but I think it comes down to the fact that I love my job. The hardest part of my job is the pre-production, because sometimes it feels like you’re going round and round in circles. You do a fight scene, you perfect it, you film it, it’s edited and put together, everything’s there, it feels like a complete work of art, you hand it over and it comes back in pieces. You have to do that over and over again. I think for Ant-Man and the Wasp, we did 30 pre-vizes for the restaurant fight scene. It just kept coming back. We sent it out there into the world thinking it’s a work of art. Each time it comes back in pieces, we rebuild it and it just gets better and better. While it’s exhausting, you have to look back and go “we’re doing this because it’s going to get better.”
Watch Ingrid Kleinig’s stunt reel here: