Being lit on fire or getting in a knife fight in the kitchen is just another day in the office for Kristen Sawatzky. But don’t worry about her, it’s all safe and legal when you’re doing it on camera as a member of the stunt department.
Kristen is a graduate of Ryerson University (Theatre-Dance), trained in advanced stage combat at the University of Winnipeg (Rick Skene/Skene Stunts), and a three-time ACTRA Manitoba award nominee for Best Stunt Performance.
She’s performed on stages across North America and Internationally with over 80 credits in film and television as a stunt woman, stunt coordinator, dancer, actor, and puppeteer.
Most recent credits include Orphan: First Kill, Blood, and Burden of Truth. Other selected credits include Choreographer In Residence – (Rainbow Stage); Fight Director: Women of the Fur Trade (RMTC), and The Whipping Man (WJT).
When and how did you start in the media production industry?
My first job on set was as a dancer in the movie Inside The Osmonds. From there I worked as a puppeteer on the series Tipi Tales while taking film acting classes (including those provided by FTM) so I could start auditioning.
During that time, I gained more experience by working as a background performer and stand-in (substituting for the actor before filming for lighting and camera setup).
Being a stand-in was one of the best things I did to get a better understanding of the film industry… I still consider it paid education, and I think anyone interested in film should do it at least once.
What area of the film industry do you work in now and why?
For me, an average day at work might involve being lit on fire, jumping out of a window, crashing a car, and having epic kitchen fights.
In case you didn’t already guess, I work primarily in the stunt department. How you ask? I guess you could say I fell into it. (No, I am not a comedian, but I like to pretend that I play one on TV).
After working with Jan Skene on a few productions, she introduced me to her husband, Rick. At the time, Skene Stunts was looking to add a female of my specific height to their team. I immediately started taking stage combat classes with Rick when I discovered there was an opportunity for work and I haven’t looked back since.
It’s the perfect fit for my particular skill set. You need to be physically fit, have good body awareness, and be able to act — even though I’m actually a little on the shy side, so I love that most of the time you don’t even know it’s me on camera.
On top of that, working in stunts teaches you the value of being a team player, how to think critically, solve problems, and work with grace under pressure.
What’s a substantial change in the industry you’ve seen since you started?
How much the industry has grown in this city over the years. Not only are the productions getting bigger, there are more of them. Every time I work on set there are more and more new faces. It’s a sign of the continued growth of the industry in Manitoba.
I’ve also noticed more females working in the industry is growing. Every time I see a female grip my heart does a little happy dance — and I fully support any women who want to learn more about the industry.
Although we’re not at gender parity yet, I think it’s important to celebrate steps (like #MeToo) that are moving us in the direction of giving women’s voices and stories an equal opportunity to be heard.
If you could give your past self advice, what would it be?
I think I’d tell my past self to relax, ask more questions, ask for help when I needed it, and always leave the house 15 minutes earlier than you think you should.
You learn so much by just being inquisitive and listening to other people’s stories, mistakes, and advice. I’m continually surprised and amazed at how people in this community are willing to go out of their way to help if you just ask.
The easiest way to make a bad impression is by being late, and there are too many trains and traffic problems in this city for you to take that chance. Just be on time. Better yet, be early so you can be in a relaxed state of mind when you start your workday.
What advice would you give to someone just starting off in the film and media production industry?
Be nice, be trustworthy, and be a helper because word of mouth travels fast. If you’re someone who is a joy to work with and can make yourself useful, you’ll be an asset to your team. The hours on set are long and conditions aren’t always ideal, so your attitude (positive or negative) can have a real impact on those around you.
Why is learning and training important?
The more skills you have in your tool kit, the better prepared you’ll be when opportunities arise. Plus, it’s just fun learning new things!
For example, I got my scuba certification and motorcycle license and that helped get me more opportunities for work — on top of just increasing my enjoyment of life!
I’ve taken numerous workshops and classes with FTM and elsewhere in other industry-related fields like lighting and camera — and even taxes. It puts me in a better place to help a coordinator, director, or cinematographer if needed.
What are some of the films, TV series, or even books that have inspired you? How about anything new you’ve been into?
Watching movies like Wonder Woman that have such female-heavy stunt scenes is always inspiring, but I absolutely loved the fight choreography in Atomic Blonde. I love the blend of fantastic cinematography that complements the choreography, plus a strong emphasis on storytelling through action. If you haven’t seen it just watch the stairwell fight, and you’ll see what I mean.
What’s your hidden skill?
I also love photography, especially taking pictures of actors and dancers (big surprise, I know). I have yet to take a photograph while doing a stunt… but I’ll put that on my bucket list. You can check out my work here: kristensawatzky.zenfolio.com, or @lightshedcreative on Instagram.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I try not to look too far into the future — staying present is where it’s at. Becoming a stunt woman was never in any 10-year plan of mine, but I think it’s way more exciting than whatever I could have planned anyhow.
That being said, I am looking forward to new opportunities in the world of stunt coordinating. I’ve had amazing training and mentorship from the Skene Stunts family and I’m so proud of the team we’ve built in Manitoba. I also want to keep exploring the world of storytelling through imagery — moving or stills.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I am so proud of the film community here in Manitoba and am very thankful for the workshops and training that FTM has provided me over the years. If you ever spot me on set, please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself!
I am always happy to meet new people… if I look intimidating it’s just because I either finished a stunt or I’m getting my game face on for the next, so don’t be afraid to say hi!