SAMOAN / CHINESE / EUROPEAN
I was born and raised in Auckland and grew up in Avondale. I’m Samoan, Chinese, English and German. My mum raised me on her own, it was a struggle from time to time as shes had rheumatoid arthritis for 30 yrs which is a joint disease that makes the easiest tasks very painful to do. Shes always had a never give up attitude and was determined to deal with the pain and work full time to look after me the best she could. Lucky we had a big extended family, I was always around my cousins who were like my siblings and my fondest memories were being brought up with them and my Nana. My nana was very traditional, she brought the discipline, made sure we kept our culture, made us sing in Samoan, yell at us in Samoan and say prayers before school etc but she passed when I was 11 and things haven’t been the same since, something I miss a lot in my life.
What were the pathways that led you into doing stunt work?
As a child I was drawn to watching action movies with martial arts/fighting in it. I’d go to the video store every weekend and hire out; all the Karate Kid films, Three little Ninjas, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, or anything with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee in it. I found out quite young I was the black sheep of the family and a bit of a tomboy. My family were very sporty and played team sports such as, Touch, Netball, Rugby and Basketball. My Dad went to the Olympics in 1985 for Samoa and competed in hurdles and mum was quite the athlete before she got sick. So I guess I had the athletic gene, I just didn’t know it would lead me into something like this.
I joined the local Karate club when I was 8, but the martial art I really fell in love with was Taekwondo. Which is a Korean martial art with predominantly kicking. I competed through out my teenage yrs fighting in national/international competitions and got my black belt when I was 17. From there I naturally gravitated towards combat sports like kickboxing, grappling arts and Filipino martial arts.
I also have worked in the fitness industry for 10 yrs as a personal trainer and have a Bachelor of Sports and Recreation. I’ve always been a physical person and couldn’t picture it any other way. In 2009 a friend referred me onto auditions for a TV show where they needed new stunt girls. I got past a few auditions to get my first on set opportunity. And here I am 10 yrs later.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite experiences working as a stunt woman as well as any accidents you've suffered?
I’ve been lucky to avoid major injuries, each job is different. I’ve had plenty of bruises and cuts from fight scenes, falls to the ground, wire work, smashing through glass per say. I’m not sure if you can call these favourite experiences but I’ll give you an insight to a few things I’ve done. Hanging off a building 12m high and falling onto cables, having to practice free diving to hold my breath while I get dragged underwater with a full costume of armour on, fighting with swords dressed as a soldier in 2m deep trenches covered in mud at night with a helmet on (I hardly could see anything!) falling or getting thrown off of horses, getting choke slammed with a halter dress on to the ground, getting thrown up in the air and into water by a wire with a bikini on, having to fight in heavy costumes with heavy weapons and uncomfortable wigs on, getting smashed onto and into different surfaces, the list goes on!
Stunt Performers are made up of martial artists, gymnasts, dancers, horse riders, ex army guys and extreme sports athletes. But having a high pain tolerance and handling being uncomfortable is an essential skill to have.
With that being said, stunts is a profession where you take calculated risks. Preserving your body by training properly, recovering adequately and wearing the right protective gear when needed is how you will last. It’s not just about being a daredevil. Its bringing skill sets to the table that will help with the creative side of stunts. Like making up fight choreography, assisting your actor if you are their stunt double by getting them comfortable with their action on screen or working with your stunt team to design action, rehearse it, test it and to make sure its safe to perform on set. The preparation definitely is my favourite thing, making something from scratch and seeing it come to life on screen is rewarding. It’s not just about doing fancy moves for the camera, its understanding what a character has to embody and how you can physically tell a story by keeping within the parameters of the story line.
What have been some of the biggest challenges or lessons you've learned throughout your career?
Just like any artist you may not get what you worked hard for and getting used to set backs and rejection can be hard to deal with. It’s teaching yourself how to deal with it to come back stronger and reminding yourself why you are passionate and what keeps the flame burning for you to keep chasing what you want. Telling yourself that you are not the only one who faces these challenges and that it is a universal experience.
How has being a Pacific Islander impacted your life and work?
It is a unique position to be in and since I’ve been in this profession I haven’t come across another Samoan stunt woman? Some times people don’t even recognise me as a pacific islander which has made me question my identity of where I belong a lot – the curses of being mixed. I have a diverse look and I usually get asked to double the ethnic actresses if they need a stunt double. I’ve been in the position of not being brown enough or white enough or Asian enough so I’ve had to break through stereo types a lot to prove that you can’t just pigeon hole someone into one thing. You can bring a whole lot more to the table being ethnically ambiguous.
Now I see a shift in the industry and there are more Polynesians and ethnic performers getting cast for lead roles which is brilliant to see, and not just in NZ but worldwide. There are also more Polynesian creatives coming to the fore front to write, direct and produce their own films. It is so refreshing to see this uprising - hopefully it’s here to stay!
What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
Don’t take things too personally. Not everyone is going to like you no matter how hard you work or do your best. It is not a glamorous job and a lot of hard work and sacrifice goes into trying to get the next job or to be considered for an opportunity. Remaining humble in your pursuits with just the right amount of confidence is important no matter what you choose to do. Somewhere along the way the right people will want to give you a chance for who you are and what you represent, you just got to have faith and keep pushing.
Who or what has inspired you in your stunt career?
Cynthia Rothrock (80s martial artist and action actress)
Gina Carano (ex muay thai/MMA fighter turned actress)
Michelle Waterson (UFC fighter and Karate black belt)
Zoe Bell (NZ stunt woman who is killing it in Hollywood)
Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais (if you know, you know.)
Did I mention Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee? Haha. And any Mana Wahine who is fearless in her pursuits!
What else do you have coming up & are there any future goals you're looking to smash?
There are a few things that are in post production that I can’t say. One of them is a blockbuster with a few martial arts legends that I grew up watching. Was very fortunate to do stunts on that. I'm considering acting a lot more as that's something we do anyway as stunt performers. I've taken an acting role with a lot of action on a local project so that is something in the works at the moment. In the mean time you can check out my work below in the links.
Ashlee's Stunt Highlight reel