Jessie Graff exploded onto the scene when she took part in the television phenomenon “American Ninja Warrior.” As one of the top competitors amongst males and females on ANW, she holds her own in strength, agility and endurance through her dedication to training and conditioning. She is multi-faceted with a skill set including a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a black sash in Kung Fu and training in five other styles of martial arts, high falls, wipeouts, skydiving, motorcycles, stunt driving, fire, wirework and the flying trapeze!
She made national headlines in June 2016 during the Los Angeles qualifier when she became the first woman to make it up the new, higher 14-and-a-half-foot Warped Wall, while donning a Wonder Woman costume. Graff then had a history-making season seven, becoming the second woman to qualify outright for the Las Vegas finals, and placing higher in city finals than a woman ever placed. She broke that record again in season 8, when she placed second in city finals and became the only woman to qualify for Las Vegas twice. In 2017, Graff will be the first woman selected to compete in “ANW’s USA Vs. The World,” which will air June 4th. This ANW Special takes top competitors from the United States American Ninja Warrior, Japan Ninja Warrior [Sasuke] and European All-Stars to compete for the highest title for ninjas. In addition, Graff will also return to ANW season 9 to compete after becoming the first women to finish Stage 1 in the Las Vegas National Finals last season. ANW Season 9 will premiere June 12th with the finals airing in late August.
While her accomplishments on “American Ninja Warrior” are remarkable, it’s her day job as a professional where she excels. With credits ranging from the “G.I. Joe,” “Transformers,” “Die Hard” and “The Dark Knight” franchises, as well as being a recurring double on “Supergirl,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” “Future Man,” “Leverage” and more, when it comes to her career, she is just getting warmed up! Her hard work in the industry has not gone unnoticed as she was awarded the Action Icon Award for Stuntwoman of the Year. Her record-breaking performances on ANW and as a stunt professional earned her legions of dedicated fans and inspired countless people of every shape, size, color and creed to explore their limits and follow their dreams. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jessie Graff to discuss her unique career path, her work as a professional stuntwoman, the challenges she faced along the way and what the future may hold for her in Hollywood.
You made a name for yourself in the past few years with your unique skillset. How did you get involved in sports and physical fitness early on?
Originally, I lived in New York City and my mom was a Broadway dancer. She was always active, not necessarily in sports, but we would always ride our bikes to school, rollerblade or walk. We would go climb trees or swim in the lake. I wasn’t thinking about sports or physical fitness; it was just how we played. I was a painfully shy kid; that’s how my parents would always put it. I was 4 years old when my parents took me to the Big Apple Circus. When I saw the people on the flying trapeze, I said, “I want to do that right now!” Knowing that I wouldn’t speak to an adult, they said, “Well, if you want to try it, you will have to go ask the ringmaster yourself.” I marched down the stairs, asked him, he said no and I cried! [laughs] They found circus classes for me as soon as they could and I fell in love with it! [laughs]
I’m sure you crossed paths with many special people. Who impacted you along the way?
Obviously, my mom had a big impact on me. Both of my parents were the follow-your-dreams type of people, even if their dreams weren’t the same type of dreams as mine. They would identify what my serious passion was and set me on the right path to follow. The first human I met and thought, “Oh man, when I grew up, I want to be just like her,” was Dreya Weber. She was involved in the circus and acting. She actually coaches Pink now for all the aerial stuff she does. I thought she was the coolest human I had ever met! I wanted to be just like her … and Xena, Buffy and Jackie Chan.
At what point did you decide to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I was 10 years old! I wrote letters to Ringling Brothers and every other circus I could think of trying to get them to accept me as a 10-year-old, so that I could run away and join the circus as a 10-year-old! I had a bag packed! [laughs] Ringling Brothers was the only one that wrote back and told me that I should finish school! I reluctantly did! Since I was stuck there, I decided to try to make use of it. I studied really hard, got straight A’s and majored in aerospace engineering but, the whole time, I was thinking, “As soon as I’m allowed, I’m going to be a superhero on TV!” It really started at the circus but the one thing that was always missing from the circus was story. They were doing all these amazing physical feats but if only they could have a full story like a play or something woven into the circus. When I realized that’s what acting and stunts in an action movie was, I was like, “Oh, okay! This is what I was looking for all along!”
How did you transition into the world of stunt work? Is there a clear path to take when you start?
There are so many different ways to get involved and all of the online stuff has really opened up more pathways for people to get into it. The path is different for everyone. I think it is that way for most creative fields. There isn’t a cookie cutter path. It’s much harder to figure it out on your own but, in my opinion, it is more satisfying to find your own way. For me, I was majoring in theater and planning on acting and doing my own stuff. I wasn’t making the connection that most actors don’t get to do very many stunts. It was right before my senior year in college when I met a stunt guy in Maryland. He explained to me how the whole system worked and I immediately fell in love with the idea of stunt work. I started training my butt off for that and studying maps of Los Angeles, all the gyms that stunt people trained in and what area I wanted to live in. My senior year in college, I was still finishing up my theater major while studying equally hard about how you get started in LA. I was studying how you make a demo reel, martial arts and stuff like that, so when I did move here I was able to plug right into the life I had been studying all year.
What can you tell us about your first job as a stunt professional?
Most of my jobs for the first year were very simple things because, at that point, the stunt coordinators are just feeling you out to determine what your attitude is like and what you are capable of. I was here in LA on a scouting trip during my Christmas break. I took three scouting trips out here to get the lay of the land during my senior year. The people that I met on my Christmas break ended up calling me to see if I was available to do a job that fell right in the middle of my spring break. They couldn’t find a non-union stunt woman who could do a 50 ft. high fall. Most of the time, by the time you get to the level where you are doing a 50 ft. high fall, you have been pursuing stunts long enough that you are union. I hadn’t even moved out here yet but my background includes flying trapeze, cliff diving and high diving. When I came here on one of those scouting trips, I was able to train high falls in Bob Yerkes’ backyard, who trains a lot of stunt people there. They had seen me do probably up to 30 or 40 ft. high falls there. I was the only one they could find who had that skill and was non-union. My first job was falling backwards off of a 50 ft. building in the dark during my spring break! [laughs]
Wow! Talk about go big or go home! That’s one of the most unique spring break stories!
Oh, my gosh! I was so excited! [laughs]
I’m sure it goes without saying you evolved as a stunt performer over the years. What do you consider your expertise and where do you see yourself headed in the future?
I’m trying to take more acting classes because I still would like to get back to the dream I had as a kid of playing the action hero and doing my own stunts like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung. I just think they are so cool! That’s the direction I want to move-in but I always say I don’t want to move away from stunts. I’m so every bit in love with stunts as I have been in the past but I also want to move toward trying the acting as well. I love doing fights and it’s one of my favorite things. I think the cool part about being a stunt person and a Ninja Warrior is that I take on so many different things that it makes me be able to adapt to the weird new things that get thrown at me, rather than being an expert at just one thing.
Are there milestones for you when it comes to your body of work as a stunt person?
The high fall was a big one as it was the first thing. Another big one for me wasn’t a big show but the stunt was pretty exciting. I was on “Make It or Break It,” which is a gymnastics show. They needed a girl to double one of the main characters and do a vault where it looks like she breaks her back. It was the first job I had where I got involved with the creative process with the stunt coordinator to determine how it would happen, what it would look like, how we do it safely so I don’t break my back but make the audience believe that I did. We tried seven different variations of things that got progressively more violent looking! It was such a cool process and really validating because, at the end, the video editor demanded from the stunt coordinator that I call him and prove that I was OK! He was like, “She can’t possibly be OK after that!” I started working a lot more after that because when you do a big fall and then you have it on your reel, it helps you earn your place. There was another big turning point for me as well. I had been doing fights for about six years and I had fallen in love with martial arts. I really go head over heels for different athletic activities! [laughs] I was really into martial arts and had been training super hard for six years but I still wasn’t getting hired to do many fights. I was trying to figure out what I could do to get it out there into the stunt community that I want to do more fights and I am proficient at it. We basically decided to do a live-action parody of the epic chicken fight from “Family Guy.” I play the chicken and my friend Tree O’Toole plays the Peter character but we call her Petra. The idea was to try to make it go as viral as possible so people were sharing not just as a fight reel or a stunt demo but sharing because it’s funny and they like it. It became such a bigger project than we expected! It was so much fun and became so popular that we actually got 1 million views in the first six weeks. Since then, I have worked way, way more in fights! That was such a big step that I wanted to take in my career!
I’m sure you take away from every project. Is there a project that impacted you in regard to the skills you learned?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. I think “The 9 Lives of Chloe King” was an interesting one. I was doubling the lead on the series, so they carried me for the whole ride. On the days that I wasn’t doing stunts, I was kind of like an assistant to the stunt coordinator. That allowed me to learn a lot more about what he does and what his responsibilities are. He would sometimes let me help look over the breakdowns of what stunts were coming up and give suggestions on who would be good doubles for other characters. We also did a ton of fights on that project!
Do you see yourself doing stunt coordination at some point in the future?
In the long term I’m maybe interested in it. It’s not something I’m feeling a strong desire to do right now. However, whenever I’m on set I’m always paying attention, listening to what’s going on and absorbing all the information I need in case one day I do want to move in that direction. I think it’s a really cool job but right now I’m so hooked on the performing part of it that it’s not a priority at the moment but I am making sure I have all the tools in place should I decide to pursue it in the future.
A lot of people became familiar with you from your incredible performances on “American Ninja Warrior.” How has being a part of the show impacted you and your outlook?
It’s been huge. I think because I have always lived in my own little world where all the people I hang out and interact with are doing amazing things. Most of my friends are National Champions or World Champions at every style of martial arts, gymnastics, motocross or come from circus backgrounds. We’re used to the concept of, “Here is an impossible task. How are we going to get it done? Great! Good job! Done. Moving on!” Whereas on “American Ninja Warrior,” the hard work and performance is so publicized and celebrated. You kind of get to feel like a hero for something that is typically part of a day’s work. That is really cool to see because normally stunt people don’t get that kind of publicity or interaction. Through “American Ninja Warrior” I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet all of these people who didn’t know what was possible for them as human beings when it comes to testing limits. Now they are sharing with me all the new things they are trying and how exciting it is for them to learn new things and gain strength. I get to be a part of that journey, so it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me through meeting these other people. I’m very grateful for that!
We will see you test yourself again on “ANW’s USA Vs. The World.” What is your approach for taking on this round of competition?
It’s kind of the same as always. I still think of myself as an underdog as opposed to coming in after such a successful season. I’m just always trying to stay aware of what my biggest weaknesses may be, how I can overcome them and become stronger in those areas and then use the strength that I have to do the best that I can. Most of it’s about strategy! You can also look for my new Spider-Man inspired suit on this next season!
People can see the hard work you put into your training through your social media accounts. There is plenty of good stuff there and it inspires a lot of people. It got me thinking about my vices. What do you consider your biggest vice?
I would say that used to be sugar. I spent a really long time trying to figure out how to stop having sugar. I was eating too much sugar and I wanted to be healthier. The more I try to fight it the harder it became. I think I’ve gotten really good at changing my mentality around it so that I have it in moderation and it stops being a vice. It’s one of those things where I think, “Life would be better if I didn’t want sugar … ” but now I can eat small amounts of it and be reasonable, so it’s no longer an issue! [laughs]
People of all ages can look to you as an inspiration. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
I think the lesson to be learned is that you have to expect things to feel hard and impossible and be inspired by that. A lot of people look at what I do and say, “It’s easy for her. It comes naturally.” I have learned to enjoy the process of trying and failing and viewing it as, “Oh, wow! This is exciting! It’s going to be really hard and take a lot of work!” I enjoy the hard work, trying, failing and then trying again. I have tried and fallen for years only to realize that trying and failing at one thing has made me really good at another thing. I think it is important to enjoy the process, getting better and always trying something harder, even though it’s harder and you may fail. The more you do that, the more skills you gain. All of a sudden you will realize how far you have come. That process of trying and failing is what has helped me become better all the way around.
I know you lend your voice to charity from time to time. What can we help you shine a light on?
Wolfpack Ninja Tour! (www.wolfpackninjas.com) A bunch of the top Ninjas have banded together and we just did our first event. We have two competitions for the top Ninjas and anyone from any age group who wants to can compete in the competition. There are also classes for kids which includes a health fair. Part of the proceeds go to the Children’s Hospital of Denver. The overall goal of the project is to help fight childhood obesity.
That’s awesome! I know you have to get to it, Jessie. Thanks so much for your time today and I wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.