Stunt double Kelly Phelan joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her work on Underwater, her approach to working with actresses, the hardest part of her job, and much more.
Q: You were the stunt double for Kristen Stewart on ‘Underwater’, which is set to be one of the biggest films of the year. How exciting was it to be part of such a huge project and to work with this incredible cast and crew?
A: It was an honor to work with such talent. Everyone from the cast and crew were complete professionals and at the top of their game.
I loved working with Kristen. She is very dedicated to her work and was always willing to try as many stunts as she could. We worked together to make sure “Norah” was portrayed physically tough along with her mental toughness.
Q: I’ve heard director William Eubank and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli talk about how demanding this film was for all of the talent involved. Can you talk about your experience and the challenges you faced working in water?
A: The biggest challenges were the suits. We wanted them to be practical – and they were! They weighed between 90-140 pounds. I would say that was the biggest challenge along with making sure our actions on the dry land attached looked like we were underwater. For example: when you fall down on dry land you fall almost instantly, but underwater the process is slow and gradual.
Q: Am I right in thinking you had to shave your head to match Kristen’s?
A: I did. Honestly, it comes with the job. People can lose their hair for terrible reasons, but I was blessed to have an amazing job that allowed me to shave my head. It was liberating and empowering – it’s just hair! I would definitely do it again.
Q: I recently spoke to special effects expert Adrien Morot about the intense pressure of being on set and hoping everything goes to plan. How do you cope with the pressure of delivering what is needed of you on set?
A: I personally try to take every day by day, every scene by scene, every stunt by stunt. Being confident in your job, staying calm under pressure and being flexible are a huge part of my job.
Q: You worked on one of my favorite films in recent years, ‘Happy Death Day 2U’. It’s packed with action and also has an incredibly memorable montage scene – that alone must have kept you very busy! How did you find the experience of doubling for Jessica Rothe and dying for her hundreds of times?
A: Thank you! Working on the first and second Happy Death Day films were some of may favorite days on set. I had a blast “dying” over 30 times (smiles). It is a stunt person’s dream job.
Furthermore, Jessica is an awesome actress to work with. She loved the stunts. I actually got to train her in some fights and falls so she was able to do some of her own stunts. The director, Chris Landon, is one of my favorite directors I have worked for. He has an amazing vision, but is also open to working as a team. I love working with the Happy Death Day team.
Q: You’ve doubled for the likes of Jenifer Aniston, Kristen Bell, Zooey Deschanel and Kristen Stewart. How – if at all – does your approach change when working with different actors? Are some more hands-on than others?
A: I treat all my actresses the same: I am there for them, but not in their face. If they need anything I am always on set within arm’s reach, but I never overstep my role.
Sometimes things change when you work on the run of a movie or TV show because then you are usually spending more time with your actresses. Between rehearsal, fittings, training, etc. you usually become a little bit closer. I still always approach my job like a professional because, at the end of the day, it’s my job just like everyone who is working on the film.
Q: You have a remarkable background as a Cirque du Soleil performer, elite level gymnast, motorcycle rider, snow-boarder, horse-rider, and the list goes on. When did this journey begin for you?
A: Thank you. I always wanted to be a performer in some way or form. My first job was at Disney when I was 16. I was a character performer.
I also grew up as a gymnast and competed at Louisiana State University (where I also got a minor degree in Theatre). So stunts was the perfect mashup: acting and sports. After getting years of experience in live shows I moved to LA and began my journey… it has been a great ride so far! It’s my dream job to be working in film and television. I cannot wait to further my skill set to other opportunities in the business.
Q: Which of the skills you’ve picked up was the most challenging to master?
A: I honestly would never claim to master anything. There are obviously skills I feel more comfortable with but every discipline can always improve. That’s the beauty of our line of work, you are constantly improving and adding to your skill set.
Q: Are there any skills or disciplines that you would still love to tackle next?
A: I would love to get more proficient with car stunts. It is very dangerous to get confident and skillful. It requires years and years of practice. I look forward to learning as much as I can.
Q: There was a documentary which came out two years ago called ‘Free Solo’. It gave tremendous insight into the fearless mind of a free solo climber. Can you give us any insight into your mentality and what gave you the courage to pursue this career?
A: Being a competitive gymnast taught me how to be mentally tough. And then continuing onto live shows helped even more. I don’t mind having a little pressure on me. I feel like to be safe in this job you have to be confident and know how to thrive under pressure.
Q: Stunt doubles are undoubtably unsung heroes of the film world. Are there any other unsung film heroes who you, as a stunt double, have appreciation for?
A: Everyone has a very important place in film so it’s hard to say one job. It’s a team effort. I do always think about the partners, kids, etc. that are at home when we work crazy hours – sometimes away from home for months. So I would say, if you have a significant other, they would be the hero trying to keep everything together.
Q: This is a profession that must take its toll physically and mentally. What is the most challenging part of being a stunt double?
A: The hardest part is removing yourself from the “movie world” and still having a life of your own. Having hobbies, doing things with family and friends is key to having a healthy mind in this business.
Q: And what is the most rewarding part?
A: At the end of the day it is just making movies – so having fun, completing a job successfully and keeping everyone safe is key for me.
Q: What would be your dream stunt double gig? Is there anyone in particular you’d love to work with?
A: I never thought about that. Honestly, I am so happy for what I have been able to do so far. But I would like to coordinate a gymnastics movie or show. I have been lucky to double some amazing women already and I am hoping to work with them again and work with new actresses too.
Q: You’ve got lots of upcoming projects, including doubling for Noomi Rapace in ‘The Secrets We Keep’ and Jessica Rothe in ‘Valley Girl’. What are you excited for heading into 2020? Any ambitions or plans to share?
A: I just got back from being out of town on a few projects – which I am very excited about – so I am happily working on a few TV shows in town, along with stunt coordinating a TV show with my husband. It’s nice to regroup back at home and hang with my husband and dogs. I have ambitions to continue training, learning, growing and just enjoying opportunities as they come.