Skylee Murray is hoping to do more punching than painting in her future.
The West Vancouver woman has been a scenic painter for TV/film productions for five years, but the dust and the chemical fumes that go with that job do not go well with her asthma and allergies. So, she decided to start training to be a stunt person.
“Stunts, I get to be active, train all the time and be in a healthier challenging and fun environment. Yes, there is always the chance of getting hurt. But that exists in life, period,” said Murray, who is also pursuing an education in herbal medicine. “The industry plans and practices safety along with proper training.”
In search of more training, Murray, who began her pursuit of stunt work at the end of 2019, joined 17 other First Nations people in February for a new program that offers stunt hopefuls a lot more than tips on how not to hit the talent in the face when filming a fight scene.
The Indigenous Action Artist Mentorship Program (I.A.A.M.P.) offers First Nations men and women a chance to learn stunt skills. They were taught basic stunt skills, given a glimpse into the wide variety of on-set jobs that exist and they were coached on what it is like to be on a film set and what is expected if you do land a job in the industry that generates almost $4 billion a year in B.C.
There, they were also introduced to top-tier stunt professionals to act as mentors for the students as they pursue a career in stunts. It’s that latter support that Murray, who moved west from Toronto in 2014, says really makes the I.A.A.M.P. program appealing.
“It was phenomenal,” said Murray, who worked as a stunt person most recently on Netflix’s Midnight Mass. “Usually, people are struggling to get their name out there and to even reach the coordinators. Here we had that opportunity given to us.”
“My friend Nick Marinos put it this way and I like it: It’s like a golden ticket,” said Murray, dropping a Willy Wonka reference. “That is what this kind of is for stunts. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you get the chance to be a part of it, then take it.”
One of the course’s co-founders, A-list stunt professional Lauro Chartrand-DelValle, hired Murray for the Netflix show and said that she should have a bright career in front of her.
“She’s a very skilled martial artist and she’s also an instructor. She’s what we would call set ready,” said Chartrand-DelValle. “She has the skills to come and do fight scenes. She was on it right away.”
Murray was happy her martial arts skills, which runs in her family, translated well to stunt work. She then added boxing to her skill set making her a great candidate for a good fight scene.
“From what I’ve learned, I think a large per cent of stunt work involves fight skills, it’s just like learning a dance and I’ve always loved to dance,” said Murray, who trains regularly with Marinos.
Murray was one of six women to enrol in the first I.A.A.M.P. and Chartrand-DelValle said he was happy to see that number. But he still hopes more women will sign up for the next course on May 29 and 30 at the Ancient Fire Dojo in Vancouver.
“That is the ratio in our world of stunts. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. We’re pushing hard,” said Chartrand-DelValle. “As a coordinator I try to hire 50-50 as much as I can.”
Chartrand-DelValle founded I.A.A.M.P. with fellow stuntman and coordinator Bruce Crawford.
Through decades-long careers, both Crawford and Chartrand-DelValle, who are white, have wondered why more First Nations people have not been in their industry.
Chartrand-DelValle said early in his career, the lack of Indigenous representation led to more work for him, but that, in turn led, to bigger questions.
“One of the jobs I got a lot when I first started in the film industry was playing a Native American on horseback. I spent a lot of time in a loincloth on a horse,” said Chartrand-DelValle, who is not Indigenous. “I am very dark skinned, but I also saw so many other Caucasians getting painted and playing those rolls, playing Native Americans. I wondered why? I wondered where are the Indigenous people that could be doing this?”
What he learned was that the door wasn’t even open to Indigenous people.
“I thought it was so wrong. You know, here we are on a reserve making a movie about their heritage and their stories and they’re not here. What the heck is going on? This doesn’t make sense. That struck me from the very start of my career 30 years ago,” said Chartrand-DelValle, whose TV/film credits as a stunt performer and coordinator are wide and noteworthy and include working on projects with names like Tom Cruise, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris.
Now, all these later, Chartrand-DelValle, along with 20-year industry veteran Crawford, is helping to right a long wrong by joining forces with fellow veteran stunt guy Bruce Crawford to create the new I.A.A.M.P.
“Now I am in a position to help and to give back and do something and our industry is now on board so it is just a win-win,” said Chartrand-DelValle.
Crawford and Chartrand-DelValle first started talking about a program like this a decade ago.
“I have been living on the Musqueam reserve for the last 30 years and during that time I have witnessed a lot of great talent, raw talent, athletically and also artistically in the community,” said Crawford, who is married to Musqueam Nation member Johnna Sparrow-Crawford.
While the program didn’t go anywhere back then it is going somewhere now as it comes off of a successful opening seminar that got the full financial support of the Musqueam Employment Training Department.
“The film industry is one of the hottest industries here and I thought it would be the right time to dip our feet into this type of training,” said Terry Sparrow, manager of the Musqueam Employment Training Department. “It went well.”
While Musqueam bankrolled the first program this time out it will fund any Nation members that wish to take part. Those from other Nations should apply to their own band for support to cover the $1,000 cost.
The second edition of the program is scheduled for May 29 and 30 at the Ancient Fire Dojo in Vancouver.
Victoria’s Marco Caffiero, a health and wellness coordinator for the Coast Salish Health Directors on the South Island, heard about the February program through friends already in the stunt business.
“I jumped on the opportunity and it was amazing,” said Caffiero whose family is from the Rainy River Nation in Emo, Ont. “It was so eye-opening. It was like the door was opened to a career path that I really never thought about that would be perfect for my skill set from my martial arts background.
“It’s an exciting career, being in film and getting paid to play-fight,” added Caffiero, who has already worked on a Hollywood production but can’t say which one. “It’s an exciting career and one I can actually look at as being financially stable.”
A handful of the students from the first seminar are currently working in the business, said Chartrand-DelValle.
“It couldn’t be a better time,” said Chartrand-DelValle. “There is a need for performers in general and Indigenous performers don’t need to just be hired as Indigenous performers. They can bring skill sets as good as anyone.”
To find out more about the program and to register contact Jesse Blue at firstname.lastname@example.org.