How a Professional Stuntwoman Stays in Shape
Turns out, you’ve got to work hard to make jumping off buildings look easy.
Jumping off a speeding train, punching and kicking her way free from the bad guy, scaling a giant Ferris wheel—it’s all in a day’s work for Chicago stuntwoman April Sutton. With big-name TV and movie credits filling her resume, Sutton’s no stranger to hard work on a set. But mad skills like that don’t come easy, and when she’s not leaping from moving vehicles, Sutton spends a large chunk of time in the gym where she is also certified as a personal trainer.
It’s a dream career for someone who thrives on the physical and mental benefits of working out. But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
Like any good Hollywood story, Sutton’s journey began with its fair share of challenges. After getting laid off from her job at a national gym chain, she struggled to make ends meet for several months, even living in her car when she couldn’t afford her house payments. It was time for a major change.
“I was jaded about the whole fitness business,” she explains of her decision to pursue a digital film and production degree at the Illinois Institute of Art. That move put her in the right place at the right time: As an intern for a regional film studio, she was there when a major production company announced it was holding a casting call for its drama series. Sutton auditioned, and out of thousands of hopeful extras, she was one of about 20 to land a coveted “full featured extra” position, meaning she’d be on set several times a week for recurring work. Her role, fittingly enough, was as a member of a faction known for being fearless, athletic and ridiculously strong.
An Impromptu Audition
Once selected, the extras were brought in for what was termed a “pre-production bootcamp,” although Sutton quickly realized the producers were really looking for something else.
“It was like a passive-aggressive stunt audition,” she laughs, remembering how the stunt coordinator showed up in combat boots, military apparel and an eye patch—clearly setting the tone for a challenging day. “We went through parkour drills and tumbling drills, then we were asked, one by one, to show off our hidden talent.”
Sutton had no stunt background, but she was in great physical shape from her years of working out and it showed. She continued her work as an extra, until she was approached one day by the show’s fight coordinator for an on-the-spot “real” audition to join the stunt team. Without any time to prepare (but fortunately already dressed in athletic apparel), Sutton nailed the audition. Her life as a professional stunt person began.
To prepare for her new career, Sutton packed her schedule with a blend of martial arts, tumbling and dance classes, doing as much as her budget and busy schedule allowed. “The team that trained the show’s stunt crew was in town for a while, and they really took me under their wing,” she says. “I trained with them for about a year, at least one or two nights a week, for three hours or more at a time.”
Sutton also signed up for stunt person school, learning all the techniques she’d need to know to make fights and other physical moves look good on camera. “You do all the movements very exaggerated,” Sutton explains. “For example, you throw boxing punches way wider and way over the top so the camera can catch it, which looks a lot better on film. Technique matters, but you’ve got to overact everything.”
The intense sessions meshed fight choreography, conditioning, CrossFit, tumbling, and a little bit of parkour. “It was a very humbling experience,” Sutton says. “I thought I was in great shape before, but I was waking up sore and bruised after these classes.”
As part of the school, Sutton would watch herself on film to analyze what movements she did well and what needed improving. “I had the ultimate feeling of gratification and satisfaction that I was training to fulfill this dream I’d taken on,” she says.
Keeping in Peak Form
Now several years into her stunt career, Sutton shows no signs of easing up on her training, even when she’s between gigs. “You’ve always got to be ready,” she emphasizes. “You never know when you’ll get a call for a role.” The nature of the entertainment business is fast-paced, and casting directors often ask for a current headshot—leaving no time for 30-day programs to drop weight or quick fixes to show off a six-pack.
Week to week, Sutton’s gym routine features a mix of athletic performance drills and conditioning. “I strength train regularly, but I don’t do isolated bodybuilding moves,” she says. “I always do full body workouts,” hitting a combination of upper body, core and lower body with free weights and kettlebells.
Along with these sessions, Sutton practices mixed martial arts and jiu jitsu to enhance her agility and aerobic conditioning. She works with a trainer to practice difficult punching and kicking combinations, perfecting her technique while punching into her trainer’s pads.
Sutton’s dedication to her fitness has a dual purpose: not only does she stay in fighting shape, but she stays mentally sharp and emotionally balanced as well. “Sticking to a good workout regimen helps me prevent any fear on set,” she says. “It truly does keep me cool, calm and collected.”
Whether on set or at the gym, Sutton makes sure to finish each day with a recovery session for her aching muscles. “I take a hot bath with Epsom salts at night,” she says. “That eases any leftover soreness I have from the day’s work—so I’m ready to go hard again tomorrow.”