For those who train in traditional gymnastics, form and poise are everything. Everything from the way one straightens and sticks a landing to how one curls their fingers during their routine is up for scrutiny. These are how you get higher marks from judges and how you can even win medals at the Olympics. Tarah Paige learned very early on how to perfect all of these things. However, she just as quickly learned that in the world of stunt work for film and television, form must go out the window in order to "ugly it up" and make it more realistic...and interesting.
And though Paige was a gymnast for fifteen years, training with the greats like Nadia Comaneci, she has spent the past decade-- and her entire adult life-- working in front of the camera as a dancer, gymnast, stunt performer and actress in film and television. Currently she is hard at work on season two of ABC Family's Make It or Break It, where she acts, choreographs, and coordinates (see below for more details), but she took some time out of her busy production schedule to chat with My Life, Made Possible by Pop Culture about the crazy little corner of the industry that is stunt work.
Most of the interviews featured here are with actors and writers, so talking about stunts is definitely a first and admittedly not a field I know a whole lot about. Can you walk me through how you decided you wanted to get involved in such a specific facet of the industry?
- My background as an athlete definitely helped in wanting to become a part of the stunt world. I graduated from school early-- I graduated from high school at fifteen and college at nineteen-- and as soon as I graduated high school I moved across the country to Oklahoma to train with some of the best gymnastics coaches in the entire world. From there I traveled all over the country competing.
My whole life all I've ever really wanted to do was be a performer. I knew I eventually wanted to move to LA and do something in the entertainment industry whether it was modeling or acting or-- actually, when I moved to California, I had no idea the stunts world even existed. I never came out to California to do stunts. I came out here to do everything else.
From the stunt people I have worked with, during my short time in production, I found it seemed to be a family business, in a way. And it was definitely all about who you knew. Did you find that helped or hindered you in booking gigs?
- When I got out here and started to model and act and all that other stuff, I was working on Elizabethtown with Orlando Bloom and that was a day role, but there were some really influential people in the stunt world who said 'We know your background is as a gymnast and we think you'd be a great fit in this particular field.'
I said that was perfect, but I didn't know anything about it! They [told me] I should get in touch with particular people, and I got aligned with a lady who just promoted me to no end and got me on a lot of different television and movie sets. Once you get the ball rolling-- once they know who you are and your personality and you work with them-- then it's a lot easier to continue to book work. They call you directly; it's not like acting and all that where you have to go through an agent. You can make your own connections. So because of that one little push in the right direction, it kind of started the whole thing!
Has there ever been a time when you find, even with all of your experience and special skills, you still have to train more specifically for a role?
- When I booked Alice in Wonderland and I was doubling Alice, they told me I'd have to sword-fight, and I said 'I don't know how to [do that].' But they said 'It's okay, we're going to train you on the job.' So I spent two months down at Culver Studios training with a swordsmen who taught me how to use every different kind of sword they were going to use in the movie to kill the dragon and double for this actress. That was really cool!
And a lot of the stuff, too, it's kind of funny, but it's touch and go. They'll say 'Hey, can you jump off an eight-story building?' And you kind of say 'Yeah, I can do that!' And you get there on the day and just sort of figure it out because there's not really a way to to train to jump off an eight-story building! You have to trust the fact that-- well, me because of my background in gymnastics, I have a lot of aerial awareness, and I have the balls to do it. And those are the two most important things.
Would you say then that people who want to get into this field should take speciality classes in things like martial arts or weapons, or is learning on the job more efficient?
- I definitely think it is important to take classes and to always be honing your craft. I do train privately with people. There's a lot of places around town where you can go in with your peers and work on your various skills. I think that's always important because you know, they say it's when opportunity meets preparation that things happen, and I believe that's true.
Now, with the LOST finale the thing on everyone's mind these days, I have to ask how your time doing stunts on that show was!
- I did go out to Hawaii to film the last two episodes, and I was doubling Evangeline Lilly and also Claire [Emile de Ravin]. It was just a lot running up and down cliffs, and half the time we weren't harnessed in, so it was a unique experience. And, you know, being out in Hawaii, it's kind of like a paid vacation! But it was great-- the ending is pretty big, and I think I'll spoil it if I say too much more!
Your main gig these days is ABC Family's Make It or Break It, where you are one of the gymnasts, so you get to perform the routines but also are featured in scenes as an actress, right?
- I actually have a few different jobs on [Make It or Break It]. In addition to acting, I am also choreographing and doing stunts and gymnastics, and I'm also the gymnastics coordinator for the entire show. So I make the transition over to the production side, which is really nice because you get a whole new, fresh take on what it's really about.
Do you find any challenges in trying to teach gymnastics late in life to some actors who may not know anything about the sport?
- It's so cool to be able to step back and take this person who's maybe never done gymnastics before in their life and be able to train them to look like an athlete. They've gotten so much better! I've been working with them and with the girls who do have formal gymnastics training, and we get them in the gym a couple of days a week and they work hard. They swing from the bars and jump off and stick the landing. Even down to their fingertips-- you know the way gymnasts have a flare on the end of their fingers? It's so important to the audience because most of the girls and guys who watch the show are athletes themselves, so they would know if it wasn't real. It's really interesting and fun to take multiple people and turn them into gymnast look-alikes. We're in our second season now, on episode four, but even from season one, they've improved so much. It's really fun to see your ideas and training on them take shape.
You definitely have had an impressive career so far; is there any type of stunt that you somehow still have yet to do? Anything you haven't done that maybe you'd love to try but just haven't had the opportunity yet?
- I'll tell you one thing: I've done pretty much everything stunt-wise that there is to do. The only thing that I don't do is motorcycles. Believe it or not, I can't even ride a bike! I'm a gymnast, I can walk a four-inch balance beam, but I can't even ride a bike! [Laughs] So I can't do motorcycle stunts. And I don't do full-body burns because I feel it's really important for me that I don't hurt my image because I still do other things: I do wire work, I do high falls, aerials, trampolines, gymnastics, pretty much everything.
Can you share a story-- without naming the production, if you don't want to-- about a stunt that went a little haywire and maybe things got a little dicier than was comfortable or expected?
- I have many! This one time I was going to shoot a music video for Ashlee Simpson; I was going to be her stunt driver. And they said 'Well, we're still debating on which car we're going to use, but it will definitely be an automatic.' And I said 'Perfect, because I can't drive a stick!' But just to be proactive, I went out with a friend of mine to try to learn how to drive a stick. And you know, I could kind of do it, but we're talking, like, going from point A to point B; there was nothing stunt-y about it. I was very concerned that when I got on-set it would be a stick-shift car.
But when I got to set it wasn't, but it was manual steering, so I'm sitting there cranking this wheel, and it was just like-- I was flying by the seat of my pants! What it felt like was that I was not in control of that vehicle when I was busting a 180 degree, trying to out-chase the police in the scene, cranking the wheel as hard as I could just to hit my mark. It was a little bit of a dicey situation.
And then, too, I just did the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and I was doubling some of the main characters on there, and they were doing this scene where I was hooked up to about six different wires, and you know, when you do wire work, it can be fun, but when you're doing spins-- when you're twisted up in the wire and you're flipping-- it can be very intricate. In order to get the scene right, they were having me do a double twist, and everybody was pulling on their wire. Timing is everything, and I was doing a double twist up to the ceiling, as if Freddy was throwing me up to the ceiling and then slamming me back down on the bed. I have to tell you: I must have done this thing thirty times, and every time I did it, a different wire would wrap around a part of my body that it was not supposed to be wrapped around, and I just had bruise upon bruise! It can be a test of your will at that point!
So right now you seem to have a pretty even split between your stunt work and your performance as an actor. What is your main goal in going forward in this industry for the next five, ten years?
- I do fifty percent stunts and fifty percent acting, and my goal is to be an action-actress and merge those two fields together. Right now it's cool because just to come out to LA and say 'I want to be an actress' doesn't always work so well because there's a lot of pretty faces, and there's a lot of talented people, but to be able to have that ability to do the action sequences and everything-- There have been so many times when I book a job, like Bones, where they say they need a stunt person but 'Oh by the way, can you do three extra scenes?' with the main actresses. And then people take you more seriously with your ability to do both. It's been a huge opportunity for me to make my own little niche out here, which has been great.
My goal is specifically aimed toward features. Now I'm in TV land, which is fantastic, but my ultimate goal as an action-actress is to do feature film-- sort of like along the lines of Angelina Jolie.
Do you ever showcase what you can do through original videos, like on YouTube, or is your reel all the professional work you have done?
- Up until now my reel has been mostly comprised of all of the great shows that have hired me-- like Bones and CSI-- but one day I would like to collaborate a little bit more with producers to have more of a hand in what I'm doing. Of course, down the road! Everything is a road, but I'm in it for the long haul, and this is what I absolutely love to do it, and I feel so fortunate to be able to actually get to do it.
And if you could offer one piece of advice to other young girls who want to come out to LA to do this, what do you think is most important for them to know?
- I would say persistence pays. The one thing I found is that if you have that 'stick-to-it' [attitude] and you have the drive and the passion, it's not just a cliche, you will will it into existence. A lot of people come out here who want to do this, but there's a difference between just wanting to do something and saying 'I'm gonna do whatever it takes in order to make it happen.' I think that's a very, very, very important mindset to have when somebody comes out here and is serious about what they do.
Paige can also be seen in the new Seth Green/Joan Cusack film Mars Needs Moms! which is a new kids' motion-capture movie due out in 2011.