When we see people that look like us in amazing stories, it pushes our boundaries to know what we are capable of. I feel like I watch Moana so consistently because her drive to her calling spoke deeply to my heart. She did not look like me, but it reminded me that girls can achieve amazing things and make an impact on our world. I don’t remember girls on TV growing up that made me feel I could DO ANYTHING. If we are going to tell our children that they can be anything they want to be, we have to mean it and back it up with representation in entertainment but also on a political level. As an adult, I feel I was told I could do anything, but the glass ceiling is extremely oppressive. Let’s tell our youth these stories. Let them be able to see gender fluidity. Let them see that being smart is so cool and amazing. Let them see that we can survive hard things. And then let them come into a world that those things are indeed true and attainable.
Asa part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jessica Bennett. She is a working stunt woman, stunt coordinator, and Certified Intimacy Coordinator through Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (FKA as Intimacy Director’s International). You can see Jessica’s upcoming work on the upcoming HBO’s Lovecraft Country, as well as Independent Friday the 13th Never Hike Alone and Never Hike in the Snow, and Netflix’s Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters. Jessica is married to composer husband Jordan Bennett, and lives with daughter Willa and rescue dogs in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Igrew up in Nashville, TN. I had the great privilege of learning to ride horses from a very young age; it was also my mother’s passion. My mother worked in cardiac surgery, and my father went from being a drug rep to building his own successful business from the ground up. My parents put a huge priority on education, and I loved learning. Although my high school was in a rural area, we lived in a wealthy county, so my school offered me a lot of opportunity. I kept riding horses and competing as a show jumper until I went to college. But it was my love of riding that led me to stunt work.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I vividly remember watching Fellowship of the Ring in theatres, and the chase scene with the Nazgul forever stuck with me. It was so exciting. I sat in my college dorm room my first year of college, not truly happy with the program that I was in, not really wanting to pursue the biology degree I was considering, so I starting to google and learned that it was stunt performers who did work like that. From there, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think magic happens in the little moments plus living in Los Angeles where you do work that you never dreamed would pay you. Among the productions I have been a part of, big and small, it was creating my own crew of filmmakers that I create with, push me, and really believe in me. Story-wise, I could go on for days about the 48 Hour Film Projects that we did. The very first one I did, I jumped in knowing almost no one and stunt coordinated it. They wrote some really bananas stuff in there! As I read the script there was a car hit written — my response — no way. I did have an idea on how to do it with no one getting hit. So we all jumped in an SUV, the actress (with some fight training) ran towards the car and I tapped the breaks to cause the camera operator to jolt enough forward and she fell onto a pad on the ground. Tah-dah. Budget car hit.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
For stunt work you send out hundreds and hundreds of hustle emails. While I was teaching at the Zimmer Children’s Museum, Mondays were my day off. So I would clean my house and sit down to send these emails. I got in such a hustle of copy and pasting my information, that I copy and pasted an entire email and sent it to the wrong coordinator. He responded (apparently joking), in ALL CAPS, screaming that I had royally messed up. I saw him at an event a couple of days later. Thank goodness he was dying laughing. That was 9 years ago; he still remembers me for it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are two people in my life that really pushed me towards a life in the arts, and moreover, to go into a niche specialty. The first person was Brian Webb-Russell; a working theatre actor. I was his understudy at Nashville Shakespeare Festival in The Comedy of Errors. He was a tremendous mentor to me. That summer he passionately told me that I needed to go to acting school. At the time I was considering the sciences. He really saw something in me. We are friends to this day.
The second is my friend Sarah Pitard. When I got the DePaul University, the first thing I wanted to do was learn to sword fight. Sarah was the assistant to the Fight Director at that time. We were instant friends and she really fed the fire in me. She helped me get into my first stage combat class outside of school, helped me get into programs, never let me feel left out, and eventually I took over her job at the university when she graduated.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
Pivot. Always pivot. We all come into our careers with an idea of how it will look. Honestly, if I had fought for what I thought I was supposed to do, my resume would not be as diverse, I would not have gotten to work in the places I have been able to, and I would be missing a great deal of joy.
I also encourage folks to break down why you love your current career path. For me, I loved storytelling and I love people. Those skills individually help me find other avenues that fulfilled me and gave me successes because I didn’t keep knocking at the one door and missing all the windows that were open to me.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
I am invigorated by the stories and people that we are illuminating in storytelling. In stunts, my favorite projects are in the independent world as it makes you think very creatively and not solve problems with money. As an Intimacy Coordinator, I am excited for a more inclusive future. Not just diversely speaking, but also making a world where the work that we do does not have to be trauma inducing. I believe we are heading to a place where we can make edgy, risky art, without sacrificing our personal safety, boundaries, and general well being. More artists deserve to be respected, and we do not need the martyr system in art that we have built it to be thus far.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
My last two projects were Intimacy Coordinating for The Russo Brother’s and for HBO. The intimacy work brings more specificity to intimate scenes, and allows for more communication in the building of those scenes. Lovecraft Country, with Showrunner Misha Green at the helm, really pushes boundaries in storytelling and will take us all on an exciting journey. I also worked on Never Hike in the Snow when I was 8.5 months pregnant. It is a short subject as a prequel to Never Hike Alone.
We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?
When we see people that look like us in amazing stories, it pushes our boundaries to know what we are capable of. I feel like I watch Moana so consistently because her drive to her calling spoke deeply to my heart. She did not look like me, but it reminded me that girls can achieve amazing things and make an impact on our world. I don’t remember girls on TV growing up that made me feel I could DO ANYTHING.
If we are going to tell our children that they can be anything they want to be, we have to mean it and back it up with representation in entertainment but also on a political level. As an adult, I feel I was told I could do anything, but the glass ceiling is extremely oppressive.
Let’s tell our youth these stories. Let them be able to see gender fluidity. Let them see that being smart is so cool and amazing. Let them see that we can survive hard things. And then let them come into a world that those things are indeed true and attainable.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
A friend and I just spoke about being a ‘career performer” as opposed to “famous.” A career performer will lead you to people and places you never imagined. Going for famous or the course of least resistance is noble and valid, but you may miss some valuable adventure along the way. I would have never become a puppeteer like I have had the privilege of being if I had not taken the course of turns that I chose.
Go on the vacation. Go see your grandmother. When you enter the arts you are often told, you’ll miss this wedding. You’ll miss funerals. And they were right. However, 15 years in, those moments with the people that set my heart ablaze are fundamentally more important.
Learn to say no. We are taught to say yes all the time. “Yes and…” While a very valuable tool, and often essential, I know more deeply understand as an Intimacy Coordinator that this is a disservice. We deserve the right of our no’s as well as our yes’s.
Your nutrition is important. We all know we need a roof over our head, and to afford to eat, and generally stay alive. However, I have learned personally the importance of good nutrition. Sure, you can live off of hot pockets, but at the end of the day, things that don’t make you operate optimally harm you physically and mentally. Find ways to buy the nicer food. Learn to cook. Enjoy nutrition. Get to know how to eat colorfully. It will enrich your life.
There is zero shame in the daytime job game. I have loathed over the years the shaming over the side hustle. Some of my most helpful attributes, skills, and stories have come from the myriad of jobs I have had over the years. They have never, ever taken away from my main career as a tv and film artist. Moreover, they have made me vastly more hirable. Every time I dive into something new, I find it increases the depth of my artist resume
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Ann Baryliski came to my senior audition class while I was at DePaul. She told us, “work begets work.” It has never, ever left me. Anything I had to up my “day job” game, it always led to bigger and better opportunities in my career. Get to work. Any work. It will make you more rounded, get to know more people. In that I have also learned that when you are able to keep your lights on & have creative outlets, you’ll be amazed at the things you will start to book and the projects you create and finish because you already have forward motion.
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The Black Lives Matter Movement and the Marsha P Johnson Foundation need our attention and our voices right now. Black Trans Women are currently the most subjugated people in our nation. If we can lift up our sisters of the most oppressed, we will all rise.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I worked on a show with Dolly Parton, but did not have the guts to introduce myself. She is an amazing person, artist, activist, and leader; I want to be her when I grow up.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!