Hit the Ground Running: How CrossFit Plays an Integral Role in the Stunt Work Industry
The intersection of CrossFit and stunt work is complicated, filled with high falls and fire burns, and one rep max snatches and metcons.
But what came first, the stuntperson or the CrossFit athlete? Whichever way it happens, CrossFit is vital in who stunt people are and how they do what they do.
How it Begins
Some stunt people find CrossFit after working in the industry for a while. Kara Peterson is one of them. If you passed the 4’11”, 100-pound woman on the street, you probably wouldn’t even blink twice, but once you get her on screen, it’s eyes wide open.
- Peterson: “I did competitive gymnastics growing up, and my parents were super active. In my teens, I was driving around with my mom and saw a car with a bumper sticker that said stuntkids.com. I was about 14 then, and the guy that ran it was Michael Keaton’s stunt double, and the day I met him, they were doing high falls.”
Peterson was in awe and signed up to learn immediately. She spent a month learning the basic stunt moves and the ins and outs of getting employment. To become a working stunt person, individuals must get a SAG card, do background work, get headshots, make connections, and more–it is far from easy.
Peterson was trying to put the work in, but it was difficult. Luck struck when she was 19 and got a call from her instructor saying they needed a cheerleader for a Disney show.
- “I realized that being small, a kid double is a perfect niche. So being 4”11” I used to hate it, but now I’m the big one. It still takes a while; it’s like with any business where you have to build clientele or relationships, but early on, I got lucky and met another coordinator doing Disney shows, and he put my name out there, and it just snowballed into where I am today. I will double small women or older ladies, but most of my bread and butter is being a kid double, primarily boys since the girls tend to be a little smaller.”
The Struggle Exists
It is not all lights and glamor. Stunt doubles have to be the same size as the actor they are doubling, and because she was mainly doubling kids, it meant that Peterson had to be mindful of her size. This was difficult.
- “I’ve always been small, but finding something that works for me to maintain size–I have hit some bumps in the road. The entertainment industry is competitive. It’s tough when your weight is something that every time you get hired, you’re trying to match someone, and in my case, I’m trying to match a 12-year-old, so most people, even if you’re not overweight, are not the same size as a 12-year-old.”
- “So then getting called by the wardrobe department or the coordinator, and being told you’re too thick, or you’re too big–those little comments would be hard to hear. Not getting a job because you’re too big or ending up doubling the chubby kid; that stuff weighs on you and gets in your head.”
At one point, Peterson got to a dark place trying to stay the right size for her job, and then a friend from high school reached out and told her about CrossFit.
- “She had this beautiful lean body, strong and toned, and that’s what I wanted. I don’t want to be like a stick with no muscle because muscles keep our bones strong, and I don’t want to hit the ground and break. I needed to be strong, but I also needed to be lean.”
Peterson checked out her local affiliate, CrossFit SCV, in 2018 and has been there ever since. The CrossFit methodology, coupled with nutrition coaching, helped her manage her diet and her body size, so she was always ready size-wise to match her actors or at least can quickly get to that point.
The ever-changing programming of CrossFit also kept Peterson on her toes, and she could translate it perfectly to her job on set.
- “It’s easy to do a stunt on a spring floor in a gym, but when you’re in these huge boots, a jetpack, and a helmet where you can’t see, you need to be over the level you would think. Everything is leveled up on set, you can train the baseline of something, but you add in all these other factors, and it makes it harder. So we always say you need to be an expert at whatever you’re getting hired to do. Because when you throw in all the other layers, it makes everything so much harder.”
As she clocked more hours in CrossFit, Peterson was able to draw more parallels between the two things she now loved.
- “You can be crazy tired, or maybe you have a director that just doesn’t get what they want or doesn’t know how to explain what they want. Maybe it’s not even something that hard, but they are having you do 25 takes, so it’s the stamina of that or the mental toughness of that. I feel like it translates well to a workout.”
- “In CrossFit, sometimes you feel like you cannot pick up the barbell; you’re dying, but you do it and finish it. And that’s the same thing–when the director asks if you are good for another one, you can say yes. I feel like it saved me to stay in shape and to be prepared for whatever obstacles I come across on set.”
A Different Route:
Whereas Peterson’s stunting led her to Crossfit, some stunt people have the opposite story. For Hayley and Josh Murillo, CrossFit led them to stunts.
Josh started his fitness career as an amateur boxer and was training several stunt people who suggested he give it a go. Josh tried a few smaller stunt gigs, enjoyed himself, and signed up for an audition for a live stunt show the day after a CrossFit competition. Post-comp, he was tired and sore and wanted to skip the audition, but his wife Hayley pushed him to go.
- Josh Murillo: “I ended up going to it and did pretty well, and I ended up getting offered that live show. But it required that I use jumping stilts, which I had never been on before. So I bought the cheapest jumping stilts and had them overnighted and paid a local stunt guy to teach me how to use them. Hayley and I filmed a little demo video and sent that the next day.”
- “I will say that my experience with CrossFit and adapting to all these different skill sets allowed me to pick it up super fast. And on top of that, I had all the endurance and leg strength I needed to pull it off. So I ended up sending this video, and I said this is me using these stilts; this is my second day ever touching them, but if you give me time, I’ll become great at it. So they took me on, and I was the understudy for the Hulk for Marvel Universe Live, which is a touring arena show.”
CrossFit continued to aid Josh in his stunt career.
- “I was the understudy for Hulk, and I was supposed to learn how to use the Hulk suit, which is this massive suit that was cumbersome and hard to work. But I knew how linear progression worked, so I knew how to structure a decent training program. I created a training program for myself to get better at using the Hulk, and that went so well that when they started rehearsals, I outperformed the guy who was originally supposed to do it. So they bumped me up to the primary role instead of the understudy. CrossFit played a pretty big role there.”
Josh wasn’t kidding. The Hulk was truly the Hulk.
- “I weighed about 185 at that time, and I weighed over 400 pounds with the Hulk suit on. It was a big metal frame with animatronics, and the suit itself was 10 feet tall. And he is in the middle of the arena during the show’s climax. So that was the other benefit to having competed in CrossFit and having a sports background–it’s like when it’s go time; you can’t screw up; you just have to go and do it.”
At this time, Hayley had been competing at a high level in CrossFit, making it to Regionals for the first time in 2014, and saw how much fun Josh was having getting paid to travel and do stunts that she decided to make the transition as well. Hayley picked up some fighting skills, and again, thanks to CrossFit, she learned it quickly and got cast as the understudy to Captain Marvel in the same show.
- Josh: “We know not only would we never have had the physical ability to do it, I don’t think we would have the connections. I feel like CrossFit has expanded our network more than anything else that we’ve ever done.”
The married Murillos traveled the world for almost three years with the Marvel show, performing and showing off their fitness in many ways. The two continued to hone their stunt skills as they traveled and managed to CrossFit along the way. Hayley was dead set on making it back to Regionals in 2016, but she had to train while on tour.
- “Hayley was basically training either at these drop-in gyms, or we would have this traveling gym setup, and she would just do snatches in the bowels of the arena. We used to hang rings from this giant forklift platform thing that the motorcycle riders used to use. They would do this big stunt on it, and we would hang rings from it. So we’d be backstage in the dark doing ring muscle-ups,” Josh said.
Adaptation at its Finest
The Murillos used CrossFit in their next pivot in the stunt world, training actors and stunt people for the screen. During their time on the Marvel tour, Josh had been meticulously studying programming and nutrition, and once they returned back to Los Angeles, he was recommended by the Stunt Coordinator of Avatar for a job training an actor.
- Josh: “We had a bunch of interviews, and I came up with a training plan because they told me the deadline for when this actor would have to be ready. I wrote a plan based on a younger athlete who had zero training experience, and I showed them what I would do. They had a bunch of questions, but thanks to CrossFit and our experience, I didn’t feel like there was a ton of cramming that we needed to do for those. I knew what to say.”
Josh had one more interview with James Cameron, and then he was hired to train and prep young actor Jack Champion. He credits CrossFit with giving him the tools to get the extremely coveted job.
- “It helped that our experience with CrossFit was not just the physical part, but also being able to see and empathize with somebody when they’re coming in, and they’re having a rough day, and they still have to get their training done. And you’re the coach, and you have to help them get into the right headspace. You’re talking about a billion-dollar movie, and he’s the only live-action character amongst the sea of blue people.”
The marriage of CrossFit and stunts has given so much to Hayley Murillo, now a new mom to 6-month-old Rogue.
- Hayley: “I love the fact that I bond most of my CrossFit career with something else; I have done all this cool stuff and stunts. And I did all this while achieving all that I have in the CrossFit space, and I think that balance has just made me really happy and fulfilled. So when something goes wrong, or something doesn’t go right in the CrossFit space, I’m always okay. I think the balance has taught me how to handle myself in those situations.”
The relationship between stunt work and CrossFit will always exist, with one always aiding the athlete in appreciation of the other.
Hayley recognizes it: “And further down the road, you look back on your life. Like, I’ve done so many fire burns and cool stunts thanks to CrossFit, and I think to myself, that’s freaking badass.”