San Francisco area native Kurt Yaeger made his first big splash in life by becoming an accomplished professional BMX rider. Kurt would use his talents on the bike to land what he thought was a stunt role on the travelling live action theater tour, Rocket Power Live. To his surprise, Kurt actually landed one of the lead roles in the production and was thrown headlong into an unexpected acting career.
In 2006, Kurt’s blossoming career in the entertainment industry came to an unexpected halt. While riding his motorcycle, Yager was involved in a brutal crash that left him with life threatening injuries and resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee. He would make a full recovery, but he faced the unknown and the challenge of being disabled.
Kurt eventually ended up using his disability to his advantage and began landing numerous roles in both television and feature films. With an upcoming slate of appearances including HBO/Cinemax’s adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ “Quarry” novels, Kurt shows no signs of slowing down. Steve Johnson of Icon vs. Icon recently sat down with Kurt to discuss the influence of his father on his career, his recovery from a devastating motorcycle crash, his experience on the set of Sons of Anarchy, and what we can expect from the forthcoming “Quarry.”
How did you get started on your journey into the entertainment industry and what made you know acting was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I rode BMX professionally for many years and I started doing stunt work and things like that for different shows. I always loved acting. I don’t mean quote, unquote being a character. I mean the creation of a character. The artistic choices that you are allowed to take. I always thought, “I could never be an actor. I could never do that.” I ended up going out for an audition for what I thought was a stunt role in a live action theater tour, called Rocket Power Live, which was based off of an animated TV show called “Rocket Power.” I went out for that role and showed up for the first day thinking it was a stunt role and it turned out to be one of the lead roles. I was thrown into the deep end and honestly that is where I do my best work. When I’m forced into full pressure and I have to do it.
Who or what would you consider the biggest influence on your career as a performer?
I don’t know if there’s a specific person. Well … I would have to say my dad. I think what I do as a performer is raw truthfulness. That’s actually how I am in real life. That’s because of my dad. My dad’s yes is his yes and his no is his no. If he has to be somewhere at 9:00, he’d be there at 8:59 ready to go. It was that kind of thing that I grew up with. He was never like, “I’m going to prove it to people.” It just was that. He didn’t lie. If I got in trouble or did something bad in school, he’d go, “Hey. Why did you do that?” I’d go, “I don’t know?” He’d say, “I don’t know is not an answer. Give me an answer.”
That sounds very familiar … [laughs]
Yeah! You know what I mean! It made me get to this place of truthfulness and somehow or another I learned how not to feel shame. As an actor when you try to be like, “I want to look good in this scene,” once you let go of that and realize you want to look like a murderer or a bad person … If you just go with it and you have the honesty and truthfulness behind it, then it’s better. That part of my acting is the biggest piece of my career and my dad was the main influence of that.
Right in the beginning of your acting career you got into a bad motorcycle accident, which resulted in a massive amount of injuries and the loss of your leg below the knee. What were the biggest challenges to getting back to normal life and what kept you inspired during that time?
The hardest part was dealing with the unknown. Who’s going to make a prosthetic leg for you? How much does it cost? Do you know a good mechanic or is it a bad one? [laughs] Who do you call? It was literally raw unknown. Will I be able to walk or run? Will it hurt? Are there better companies? Are there worse companies? Oh my gosh! That was really the biggest thing. Then came the fighting and getting some sense of control back in your life. You learn as much as you can about the unknown. So if you did know, then it was just a part of it. Waking up and putting my leg on in the morning is really like putting on shoes now. It’s still not quite normal, but it’s pretty close. The other part was, I thought women would think I was disgusting. I really did. I thought they would hate it. I’m gross … blah, blah, blah … Turns out the opposite is true! [laughs] If you can come back from something like this, what really in life can’t you do?
You mentioned your professional BMX career. Was it difficult to return to that after the accident and do you still find time to get on the bike and ride around a bit?
After the accident I had to discover ways of being able to ride a bike. You can’t feel your foot. It doesn’t exist anymore. So, where is your foot on the pedal? I had to invent a magnetic pedal so I could be clipped in without being permanently clipped in when I crash. It was pretty hard. Then I had to invent a brace with CTI, which is a brace company. I had to invent a system that worked with my prosthetic leg. Once I got through those things, I started being able to ride. I was the first amputee in the world to pull a backflip over anything. I try to ride BMX as often as I can, but it is challenging. You can’t get hurt if you have a role. You’ve got a job. You’re like, “Do I go out and kill myself on my bike and lose this job or quit the job and ride my bike?” [laughs] I want to quit the job and ride my bike, but maybe someday!
Speaking of riding, namely motorcycles, you appeared on “Sons of Anarchy” as Greg the Peg. What about that character appealed to you and drew you to that project?
Well I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 4 years old. I wanted to be on the show as bad as possible. I was like, “This is my world. I know these guys. I grew up with them. I know everything about them.” It was really inspirational for me to do it. I got to relive a world I grew up in. Being a motorcycle aficionado, what better show could you possibly get on? I kind of forced the issue. I went to parties. I met people. I did everything I could to make everyone know I was around and eventually it worked! laughs]
Hey! I give you credit! That’s a smart approach!
It seemed like there was a real brotherhood on that set. What was the vibe like and what did you take away from that experience?
The main cast are really tight brothers now. They had to live in that world and they got a taste of what it was like to live in that mentality. These are your brothers no matter what. I think it made a big difference. They are brothers no matter what. Ryan Hurst’s character Opie dies and they are saying goodbye to him. There’s a scene where they are at a funeral. People weren’t crying because they were acting. They were crying because their friend Ryan Hurst wasn’t going to be on set anymore. It had a huge impact to see and watch. It’s pretty impactful to see that. It’s nice to see the camaraderie of a group like that.
Have you shied away from riding motorcycles in your personal life since the accident?
No. Not at all. I’ve ridden in Africa. I’ve ridden through the Canadian Rockies. I’ll be riding in Thailand coming up in the next six months.
One of your next projects is an adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ “Quarry” novels for HBO/Cinemax. How did you get involved and what attracted you to the show?
In that project, specifically, I auditioned for the producers. Just like a normal actor, doing his own thing. It was pretty interesting because I didn’t know anything about the project. Once I booked it, they told me it was based on Max Allan Collins’ books. So, I read every single book. I was blown away. I was like, “I want this character to be even more.” The character is really hard to play. It’s the worst character I can possibly imagine as a human being. [laughs] I had to do a lot of background work on that character. This guy is at the bottom of the barrel. At the end of his rope. He treats everyone pretty darn bad. [laughs] I can’t really go into it without giving away the story. Let’s just say there’s a lot of sexual innuendo with my character. [laughs]
Other than reading the books, did you do any other special preparation? What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the page?
The cool thing is that we did incorporate a prosthetic leg into the character’s storyline. So that was really cool. These guys are all in Vietnam and bad things happen to them. The interesting thing about that was, I had to find out how one becomes a murderous, evil character. What is the motivation? You never play a character straight. Like, you’re going to play a murderer. Grrr! That’s stupid. You don’t do that. What I thought about … I guess the short answer for it is the difference between a kitten that kills a mouse and an adult cat that kills a mouse. When a kitten kills a mouse, it chomps into it and rips its guts out. The older cat plays with the mouse. It bats it around. It stomps on it just enough so it can’t get away. Then it lets it try to get away and then pounces on it. Again and again and again. Then it kills it. So, I applied that to this character, [laughs]
What was it like working with the team over at HBO/Cinemax? Specifically the director and the producers.
Man, they’re total assholes. Fuck them. [laughs] It’s actually the best group of people I have ever worked with. Greg Yaitanes ran and directed the episodes. He’s the nicest guy and is really good at collaborating. The writers were amazing. When I was like, “How does this character say this? Why did he say that?” They had an answer for everything. They had it so built out. I got to meet Max Allan Collins. He’s a fantastic guy. He’s a good dude. Solid. The cast, the crew, everyone was amazing. Logan, he’s the lead character Quarry, he’s super nice and added elements. Getting into the crew … Greg Yaitanes’ assistant director was on top of everything. Scheduling, talking, helping us out. She’s was top of it. The PA’s were on top of it. Bud Kremp is a cameraman on it. He was awesome. We would joke around on set between takes. It wasn’t this hardcore thing like, “We’re making a film.” Yeah we were, but we’re all professional and it’s fun too. Everyone got along. The DP, Pepe Avila del Pino, he was awesome too. He was like, “Stand here in this light.” I was like, “You want me to look pretty in this shot.” He was like, “Yes! I want you to look pretty in this shot!” I’m like, “But I’m not a pretty man.” [laughs] It was that kind of a set. Everyone was having fun. There were times when we had to go on location. I guess I can tell you this … I actually was in a swamp with alligators. So, think about that as an actor and what you have to go through. You’re actually in the water and these aren’t trained alligators. They were like, “You need to go in this swamp with alligators and moccasins.” I’m like, “Well … Are they ours?” They’re like, “No. They’re natures.” I was like, “Isn’t this a horrible idea?” They were like, “Yeah … You’ll be fine. We’ll have people in the water. We’ll have everything.” Of course I get there and there’s nobody in the water except me. I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait …”
There’s no way I would do it. [laughs]
Well, you do what you do.
You just finished filming “The Ultimate Legacy” for The Hallmark Channel. What can you tell us about that project and the character you portrayed?
“The Ultimate Legacy” is the third film in a series of three. It’s based off of Jim Stovall’s books. It’s about a young man that essentially gets a massive inheritance. HIs grandmother wants him to continue her legacy. He’s kind of a little bit of a spoiled jerk. So, through a series of events he has to learn if he should continue these selfish things or does he do this thing that is going to build a legacy. That requires him working at it every day. With every person you talk to in life, you are building your legacy. You and I may never talk again, but what I am doing with you right now is building my legacy. To you it might be, “That Kurt, He’s a total jerk!” [laughs] You’re like, “I hate that guy! One leggers are such huge assholes!” [laughs] So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It’s teaching a lesson. You build your legacy every day. You don’t want to get to the end of your life and be like, “I want to do something with my money.” Who cares. Money doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s about time.
Very true. You acted in both television and feature film. Is there a format you prefer and are there challenges or rewards to either one of them?
It depends on the role. A week-and-a-half ago I shot for “Shameless” on Showtime. I had a guest star spot. So, it was a little role. I didn’t get to hang out with anybody. I met two of the actors and worked with them. I met a couple of the crew and then it was like, “OK! Goodbye Kurt!” [laughs] When you play a small role you don’t get the family growth experience. You don’t get to hang out. You just come in, do your week of work, and leave. You’re just basically a contract hire. In a show like “Quarry” you come in and you get to play a bigger character. Then all of a sudden you do get to have that experience. You’re in New Orleans for three-and-a-half months. That’s a pretty good place to be posted up for three-and-a-half months. You’re getting to hang out and spend time. I would think that there’s not that much different between television and film per se. I think there’s a difference between large roles and smaller roles. Not in terms of acting, but in terms of the totality of the experience you get. Because I’ve been on both sides of the aisle, I try to make it a point to hang out with all of the people that aren’t going to get to hang out long.
That’s very cool of you.
Yeah. It’s not like me being, “Let me help you little people.” I’m a little person too. I’ve booked the little roles on a regular basis. I do book big roles, but I do book little ones too. I know what it feels like. Why wouldn’t I want someone to feel special? I try to be cool.
Where do you see yourself headed as an actor in the near future?
I’ve got a couple of projects that I’ve been pitching around town. I’m really trying to position myself into a large series regular role for multiple seasons. I’m going to use every advantage that I think I have. I’m going to use my strengths and what I look like. I’m going to use my leg. I’m going to use anything to try to land that kind of a role. I would like to do that not only to make a decent paycheck, but to also do more of the stuff I enjoy. Stuff like charity motorcycle rides with small outlets that actually raise 100% of the money that goes 100% to the people that need it, instead of all of these crap charities and organizations where 14 to 20% actually go to the people who need it. I would love to do a long term show where I am just outing these charities that are bad. [laughs] So, just tackle them and be like, “No. Don’t give to those people. They’re bad.”
I think you have something there. That would probably go over pretty well.
I would totally do it. Reality at my level could ruin an acting career. You try to stay out of reality. You get offered a lot. I’m not going to go get naked and lost in the woods. [laughs] They’re like, “We’ll give you this much money.” I’m like, “Wait … How much? No, I can’t do that. Wait … How much more?” [laughs] To say the least, it’s very hard to say no to the zeros. It’s short lived, but you try to maintain your integrity. As an actor that’s where I’d like to see myself go. I don’t even care about being a star of feature films. Like being as big as Tom Cruise or whoever. Whatever … I want to be able to be a character actor. Play different people, dress up, and wear different facial hair. On “Quarry” I have a crazy fumanchu and chops. People were like, “Oh my gosh! That doesn’t even look like you!” There were people who knew me at a restaurant that were like, “How can we help you sir?” I was like, “It’s me … Kurt. I’ve been coming here for the past five years.” They’re like, “Oh crap! Look at you! You look like a felon!” I’m like, “Uh huh!” [laughs] So, playing a character and being a character actor really allows one to walk around in a mall or be in a restaurant without being hounded. I don’t want people trying to take pictures of my baby. Ugh … That would be horrible. That’s not something I want to do. If someone said, “Here’s $100 million, but you have to be in these 12 ‘X-Men’ movies.” You’re dumb to say no, but you need to know what you’re walking into.
We see it time and time again when people get that kind of fame and can’t handle it. It can be a nightmare.
You have experience in the world of writing, directing and producing. Is that something you would like to pursue further or does it parallel your acting career?
I think it’s parallel. I think that they are complimentary. The better material I write, the better I understand well-written material as an actor. The more things that I direct, the better I understand direction when I’m an actor. The more I act, the more I understand how to direct. So they are really complementary. It looks like we’ve probably raised our budget for our second feature film. My company is ArtistFilm, along with my business partner Josh Gillick. We’re as close as we can be. All we basically have to do is sign on the dotted line. So, we’re on that. We have three features right behind it. I have an idea, I’m not sure I can say this to you. I guess I don’t have to give you any details. [laughs] How’s that for a setup? I’m not going to tell you anything, but here let me tell you something. [laughs] We have a long term vision for creating a small studio in a state that is not California. We’ve got people that are willing to come in and, once we prove what we can do, they will more or less make it happen. It doesn’t mean I won’t act in them. I don’t write myself into projects. If there is a character that I happen to believe I can play, I’ll play him because I know that my rate is zero. I’m producing it. I’ll work for free. I’m very picky about my casting. One thing that I really want to do is to get disabled actors in my films. That’s what I really want to do. I don’t write a disabled character into my film. I write the characters I want into the film and then I go, “OK. Can any of these characters be in a wheelchair and it doesn’t matter? Yep! These five! Great! I want to see people who are in wheelchairs for these five roles.” I’m also like, “This character over here, I’ve always pictured him as a black guy. Can he be an asian dude? Yeah! OK!” I want to see people who fit that character type, not based off of my potential racial bias, or my bias of what a wheelchair user can do, or someone that is blind, or has missing limbs. If you told me, “Hey Kurt. I want you to find an actor who’s experienced, has a lot of credit, can act well, can ride motorcycles, is around 35 years old, and is an amputee, but you can’t play him.” I would say, “Nah. You can’t find that guy. He doesn’t exist.” So, if I’m even doubting that there are other actors out there, what do you think the industry does? So, I’m trying to get into a position where I can actually make that difference. I would love to do what the filmmakers in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s did for the advancement of racial cohesion. I would love to be the guy that does it for disability awareness and cohesion. I would love to put my stamp on that. So, I guess, coming full circle, I would love it if that were my legacy.
What is the best lesson people can learn from your journey so far in the entertainment industry?
Oh man! That’s a good question! [laughs] Don’t suck! [laughs] Just kidding. Don’t let your fear stop you from trying to do something, but be prepared for an extremely hard battle. It’s not easy. What’s easier, coming out into the industry and having a hard time at it or never trying at all and living with regret? I think coming out here is easier. I guess the tagline for me has been that failure is only the process of success. Failure is not the end point. You know how many auditions that I have done that I have not booked? It’s pretty normal. It’s just the process. I still feel bad about losing roles. I guess the lesson to people is to just try or cut your leg off and maybe you’ll get a little extra help. [laughs]
You really do fully embrace your disability, I have to give you credit. [laughs]
Hey man … What are you going to do? [laughs]
You mentioned charities previously. Do you have any charities we can help spread the word about?
There’s a charity event I am doing right now. It’s called Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon. As the name suggests, I’m going to be in this triathlon. It raises money for people who have some kind of a disability and they are low income, so they can’t afford these expensive pieces of equipment. If you break your back, how do you get a road-cycle that’s $40,000? How do you do it? One, you can’t even work. So, like an idiot I said, “Yes! I’ll do the race!” They were like, “Do you want to do all three parts?” I was like, “Yes! I’ll do all three parts!” They were like, “That’s amazing! Kurt’s going to do all three parts! Not many people are!” I’m like, “Wait! You can choose?” They’re like, “Yeah. You could have just done the run, the swim or the bike.” I was like, “I could have?” [laughs] They were like, “Yeah!” I was like, “Oh crap! What did I do?” I guess I’m going to be swimming a full mile, riding 44 miles on a bike, and then running 10 miles after all of that for charity.
I may pass out just thinking about it.
You know. I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I think this charity is going to do just fine without my help. [laughs] If you can spread the word that would be great. You can go to my Facebook fan page or Twitter page. The information is on that. It’s a really easy donation. I think I set the bar at 600 bucks. I think we should be able to reach that pretty easy, but I want to see how far we can blow that out of the water. It’s a good charity. It’s a good organization. They do a lot of good work. Robin Williams was one of their main supporters. He was tied to the organization for about 12 years. He didn’t put his name to almost anything. This is a good group of people. The money goes where it is supposed to go.
Thanks for taking out time from your busy schedule to talk to me Kurt. I really appreciate it. Best of luck out there.
I appreciate your time too. Have a good one brother.