Crash course aims to help women of colour break into B.C. stunt driving industry

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BIPOC women invited to train at B.C. stunt school

Rochelle Okoye has been doing stunts for film and television for a decade, racking up credits on big name productions like Planet of the Apes, the X-Men and Deadpool.

But on Thursday, Okoye — who describes herself as an adrenaline junkie — was at the Mission Raceway, stepping outside of her comfort zone and getting a taste of the need for speed.

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“I have a gymnastics and martial arts background, so I usually play the super heroes and flip around on set and fly off buildings,” she told Global News.

“Stunt driving is a new thing for me, it’s a new realm in the stunt world I’m touching on… It’s one I’m super excited to dive into.”

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Okoye was one of more than a dozen women of colour taking part in an introduction to stunt driving course. Industry organized the class in the hopes of rectifying a glaring lack of diversity in the local industry’s stunt driving pool.

“We don’t have any women of colour that are working at a high level as stunt drivers in Vancouver,” said Zandara Kennedy, a Vancouver-based stunt coordinator and driver.

Kennedy said the fight for representation in the stunt world has been long, and never easy.

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As a woman, she had to out-compete male drivers for opportunities to double female actors.

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“Traditionally it was something called wigging, and they would just throw a wig on a guy and have him do the job,” she said.

“A lot of women would never develop those skills because they would never get a chance. That same limitation is doubly so for women of colour.”

Kennedy said thanks to donated vehicles and track time, organizers were able to offer the course to participants for just $200, when a typical stunt driving class might cost as much as $2,000.

Participants worked on high speed maneuvers and braking — and learned the basics about the expectations they’ll meet on set.

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For some it was the first time in the professional driver’s seat. For others with significant hours behind the wheel, it was a chance to show their skills to industry decision-makers and potentially land their first gig.

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Gaston Morrison, another stunt performer leading the class, said women of colour are finally being given exciting, leading roles in action movies — which is creating a demand for stunt performers who can accurately double them.

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Morrison knows first-hand. He’s been cast for gender-flipped stunts in the past.

“I’ve done scenes in wigs… I one time doubled Halle Berry on a motorcycle, where they just (shot) the bottom of my calves, and I wore heels,” he said.

Morrison said there are plenty of women of colour working stunts in B.C., but most with athletic and gymnastic backgrounds.

When it comes to driving, he said, performers need thousands of hours of experience and an razor sharp instincts — meaning they need somewhere to start.

“Once you start thinking about what you need to do for reaction in the (driver’s) seat, it’s too late. It needs to be reflex,” he said.

“If we can just get a small handful of women that we ignite the fire, we get the juices flowing, like, ‘This is awesome, lets go do this,’ that’s what it takes.”

Thursday’s course was just a taste of stunt driving, but Morrison hopes some of the participants will find develop the motorsports obsession he says is crucial to making it as a professional.

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If Okoye’s reaction to a few hours on the track was any indication, it appears Morrison may have his first convert.

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“To step into a car and get behind that wheel, it’s a new sense of adrenaline for me,” she said.

“I’m loving it.”

— With files from Paul Johnson