When Vee got into a “car accident” on Orange Is The New Black, it was stunt performer Cheryl Lewis who actually took the hit. Cheryl, a martial artist, filmmaker and a visual storyteller has an approach to movement and stunts that has made her a much sought after performer. Her skill and focus has gotten her gigs on Luke Cage, Wonder Woman 1984, and Shameless to name just a few. We asked her about how she came to work in one of the most dangerous departments on set.
How did you get into stunt performance?
Becoming a stunt performer was the progression for me as an athlete and a performer. Skill sets from one discipline can service other disciplines. For me, I transitioned as a gymnast, to dancer, to musical theater performer, to circus aerialist into stunts.
What has been your most memorable stunt experience to date?
Jumping out of the back of a moving ambulance, straight into a car hit on “Shameless”.
Who are your favorite actors to double for and why?
- Anjaune Ellis, wonderful, talented performer. Aunjaune was one of my first roommates in NYC all those years ago. A friend, and someone who is wonderful to work with.
- Alfre Woodard, a great actor. You can learn so much by watching her work. Just love being with her on set, great conversations. She is such a talented, intelligent, beautiful person!
How do you balance the disciplines of stunts and dancing?
Being a performer whether it’s dancing, gymnastics or an aerial act, it’s all storytelling. I am a visual storyteller and that is what I am as a filmmaker.
I am either a stunt performer, action design/coordinating or directing. I will create, produce and yes…direct my own works. I am working towards doing more directing (action directing) of other people’s works as well. And sometimes that will come into play as a collaboration during a stunt or fight coordination. You must work with the director in order to tell the story.
Can you share insight into the preparation that goes on behind stunt performance and storytelling?
It starts with the script. What is the writer saying and how does the director want to express what is written. From there, it is the character I am portraying, be it as a stunt double for the actor or a character in the scene. Just like that old Meisner technique exercise, 100 ways to say “blue”, there are different ways to perform an action/stunt that is best suited to telling the story. The character can get hit in the head by a flying object. ‘Is this a comedy, a drama, a horror story?’… will determine how my body reacts, falls and hits the ground. ‘Does this character give up or is the character a fighter?’… will determine my reaction, if and how I get back up.
As diversity & inclusion is bubbling up across the industry, what does the value of diversity and inclusion (D & I) personally mean for you?
Representation matters and it is long overdue. With advancement in technology the world is smaller, people from all over can communicate with each other. It makes no sense not to see the various people that make up the world reflected on TV and Film.
It is important as progression of human beings, to be aware, learn, respect and care for one another. People have to see it, and see it in the same light (the good and the bad). Make it the norm not a novelty.
How is the industry facilitating these discussions around D&I?
Right now the industry is being ‘called out’ and held accountable for lack of D&I. Changes, in procedure and mind set, are being made. It is a slow process with some backslide, but stepping forward into real change is always slow.
How hard is it to take those hits, such as the one on OITNB?
The hits are always hard to take. I do not take any of it for granted. Training! I train my air awareness, alinement and I condition my body for impact. It can take the smallest element to be incorrect and you can get seriously hurt.
Remember, sleeping is easy, you do it every night. But if one night you just ‘slept on your arm wrong’, that one little thing can mess up your whole day.
How do you deal with injuries and how do you keep yourself mentally and physically prepared?
Be prepared. The upkeep of your body by training, conditioning, stretching and eating properly. If an injury happens, be smart ( see the doctor) and be patient (do those small steps you need to do and give yourself time to heal). To keep myself up mentally, knowledge is key. The knowledge that I have trained my skill set for, the task at hand is there and ready. “To train hard is to win easy”.
What are you upcoming projects and who are you doubling/playing for on those shows?
“NOS4A2” on AMC this summer. I am the stunt double for Jahkara Smith.
“21 Bridges” in theaters July 12th, where I’ll be a stunt performer.
“Wonder Woman 1984” is out in 2020, where I’ll be a stunt performer.
Who are your personal and professional role models?
Mom & Dad. Gordon Parks, Jwaundace Candece
What’s on your bedside table?
A Sudoku puzzle
Find out more about Cheryl Lewis by going to her WiM Crew List Profile.