Earning

Weapons specialist from 'Deadpool,' 'Arrow,' on what it takes to be a stunt performer

Stephen Parkhurst
Stunt performer Michelle C. Smith
Stephen Parkhurst

Michelle C. Smith is a professional stunt performer in Vancouver, BC, with credits on "Supernatural," "The Magicians," "Arrow," and "Deadpool," among numerous other shows and films. Her responsibilities on these projects vary: In "Deadpool," she was a stunt double for Gina Carano, who played Angel Dust, while on "The Magicians," she has served as an assistant fight coordinator.

Smith specializes in weapons manipulation, which means she performs choreographed fights using swords, knives, poles, nunchucks, sticks, and virtually anything else that can be used to hurt someone.

Her specialties include fictional weapons, too: A recent Instagram video showing her skill at wielding a lightsaber went viral. Over 280,000 people watched the original video, and millions more have watched versions shared on other platforms by media outlets.

Many viewers mistakenly assumed Smith must be "Star Wars" actor Daisy Ridley's stunt double, though Smith has never worked on a Lucasfilm project. Over 1 million people watched a follow-up video of Ridley watching Smith. "That's impressive, Michelle, wherever you may be!" says Ridley in the reaction video.

And Ridley's costar Mark Hamill posted his reaction on Twitter.

"Generally my peers and community don't care" when videos go viral, Smith tells Grow, "which I like, because it keeps me grounded." But, she adds, she's "very grateful and appreciative that...people are interested in me, and it's brought in a lot more eyes and ears into what I do, which is cool because I want to teach people what I do. So it's a win-win situation all around."

Side gigs are essential in the film and TV industry

Smith began performing in a Vancouver circus company before transitioning to stunt work about 11 years ago. While Smith's talent and skill keeps her busy in film and TV, she's also working hard to build and expand her side hustles in education and training so that she will eventually be able to teach full time.

A big part of Smith's decision to diversify her income is due to the inconsistent nature of the entertainment industry. "It ebbs and flows," Smith says. "Sometimes there's lots of work, sometimes there isn't. And I woke up five or six years ago and had this realization that I would always be in the space of desperation for work if I didn't create something of my own."

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What it takes to be a professional stunt performer

That uncertainty led Smith to begin teaching courses and filming training videos for her website Online Bad Ass Academy. Smith also truly enjoys helping other people learn how to perform stunts. "When I leave teaching, my heart is full," she says. "When I wrap from set I'm like, 'Good job, I did it,' but I'm not fulfilled like I am when I'm teaching."

Although Smith wasn't comfortable disclosing details of her income, she said it can be broken down to 60% production stunt work, 30% teaching, and 10% miscellaneous gigs.

A dream job takes a lot of time and effort

While stunt performance seems like a dream job, it requires an enormous amount of work and energy. When she's not working on a set, Smith trains nearly every day while also teaching courses and giving one-on-one lessons with actors.

Along with her day-to-day work, Smith spends a great deal of time maintaining her presence on social media. With 99,000 followers on Instagram and 74,000 subscribers on YouTube, Smith uses the platforms to advertise herself and her training programs.

Weapons specialist Michelle C. Smith
CNBC

For now, Smith's main income continues to come from film and TV stunt work. Stunt performers make an average day rate of $1,005 U.S., according to SAG-AFTRA, though rates fluctuate based on the danger of the stunts, the amount of overtime required, and the required skills.

Nearly all stunt performers are freelance, meaning they are required to calculate and pay their own taxes. Many performers, like Smith, incorporate as a corporation (often an LLC or S-Corp in the United States) which requires additional time and expense to do properly and legally.

"At any moment we could all be looking for work," Smith says. "So that's why it's important for me to build my business on the other side of that, so I have that comfort and security."

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