Nowadays, Jennifer Garner is probably best known for her roles in romantic comedies like 13 Going on 30 and coming-of-age dramas like Love, Simon and The Tribes of Palos Verdes. However, to genre fans, she will be forever adored as the butt-kicking superspy Sidney Bristow on the hit ABC show, Alias. Back in those days, she also co-starred in the pre-MCU Daredevil film, as the leather-clad assassin, Elektra.
It had been a long time since Garner had starred in an action project, so fans were surprised and delighted when it was announced she would star in Peppermint, a vigilante thriller from Pierre Morel, the director of Taken and District B13. Garner stars as Riley North; after her family is murdered by a cartel and the corrupt justice system fails her, she disappears for five years, acquires a particular set of skills, and returns to reap righteous revenge on anyone and everyone who deserves it.
With the December 11 Blu ray release now here, we spoke to Don Lee, esteemed stuntman and fight coordinator on the film. Lee told us about working with Garner back in her Alias and Daredevil days, as well her dedication to her character and how they worked together to craft Riley North's brutal fighting style. He also shared some of his insight as a stunt performer, including his thoughts on whether or not the stunt community deserves recognition at the Academy Awards.
First off, the movie is awesome, with some great shootouts and fight scenes, so thanks for that!
Oh, awesome, man, glad you enjoyed it!
Tell me about Jennifer Garner. She has an action pedigree from Alias, but this was her first action movie in a long time.
Speaking of Alias, Jen and I actually go way back to those Alias days, and also the Daredevil days. Actually, the first time I trained her was on using sai for the film back then. Yeah, it was definitely really cool, because I've done a lot with Jen, action-wise, and it was really cool to reconnect with her. Jen was cool. It had been well over ten years since I'd seen or trained with her, but she was the same Jen. She was dedicated. She was doing three a day workouts, she was getting fit, she was in shape. She has a dancer's background, so she definitely has the discipline of an athlete. She's ambidextrous. One of the things she likes to do... She'll box in regular stance, and then she'll box southpaw, just to even it out, just to make sure both sides workout. That's one of the things we'd do when we'd train.
You mentioned Jen's dancing past. From my understanding of stuntwork and fighting, especially, in the movies, having a dance background really helps with that because these fight scenes, even if they look like brutal brawls, are like a dance. Is that correct?
A lot of times, you'll have actors who will train very heavily, and they're like, "Hey, I just went to an MMA gym and I'm ready to kick some a**!" One thing I always tell people we work with is, "I know we're stunt guys, but we're still human beings! I'm not your opponent, I'm your partner." We always treat it like a dance. Having a dance background is huge because of the timing, the choreography, knowing the beats. And it's not about doing it one time, it's about doing it all day. You might end up having to do four or five beats, three to five takes, depending on the angle. The director, the camera, something happens, something's out of focus, you have to keep going, you've got to be able to keep the energy up.
Speaking of getting into the ring, so to speak, you've been a stunt performer for decades, and you've kicked a lot of a** over the years.
And I've definitely gotten my a** kicked as well!
Have you ever been seriously injured on the job?
You know, luckily, nothing too bad. Definitely not from a fight sequence, but doing stunts and things, I've gotten my fair share of injuries. You get what you sign up for. You know you're gonna get hurt, so it's not "if," but "when."
Are there any stunts that you want to do that you haven't been able to do yet in a movie or a show?
That's a good question... Is there anything I haven't done already? I think I've done everything I want to do over the last eighteen years, so I think I'm good!
The other side of that, are there any stunts that you're afraid to do? Stunt performers have a reputation of being made of iron and completely fearless, but there's gotta be something that you're just, like, "Nope, I don't wanna do that!"
No, there's nothing I'd say "I wouldn't do that..." I'd say the only thing I wouldn't do is something that's unsafe. Something that I feel, whether we're falling off a building, or even running into glass that people are like, "that's tempered glass," I need to know, who are the special effects people? You have to do your due diligence. There are a lot of people who are coming up in this business, and there's also "runaway productions," but that's a whole other conversation... But, I would say inexperienced coordinators, or someone who sets up a gag and doesn't let you take collaborate with them, anything unsafe, definitely, that always makes me nervous.
Speaking of collaborating, when you're working with someone like Jennifer Garner or another A-list star, how collaborative are you with them when it comes to putting together the beats of a fight? Are they collaborative, or are they, like, on strings for you to puppeteer?
It really depends. For Peppermint, I ask Jen, "There's a lot of fight moves out there; what do you see your style being, in particular?" And she would tell me, "Don, I want something that's efficient, I want something that's real, I want something believable." I say, great. So I immediately go to Krav Maga styles, I go to something that's efficient. It's not so much for show, it's for efficiency, to make it practical, because that's what her character is. I take whatever is supplied in the story, in the script, and I bring whatever martial arts works best in that world. For Peppermint, we would never do something that's Wushu, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in Peppermint. That just wouldn't make sense for this character.
Right, she's there to expose their heads so she can shoot them in it!
Sure! (laughs) You could say that!
There's a lot of great headshots in the movie. Weird to say, but it makes sense in the context of this conversation! Okay, so for years, we've heard stars like Jason Statham and Burt Reynolds trying to get Oscar recognition for your field. Do you have an opinion on that?
You know, it's a very interesting question. People talk about this a lot. You mentioned Burt Reynolds and Jason Statham, who are two different generations of stunts. Stuntmen have been around, obviously, since the start of films, and I've talked with a lot of people who have been around the business, who have been mentors in my field, and the younger crowd, and there's a mix of conversations that go into this. One of the conversations is that, well, it's great to see that stunt people get recognition. But throughout the generations of filmmaking, stuntmen are always the unsung hero. You're never supposed to get the recognition. It's what you sign up for. If you're stunt doubling Keanu Reeves, you know that Keanu Reeves will always be the star. It's not about the stuntman, because Keanu has had a dozen doubles throughout the years. So, I guess to sum this up short, there's two factors. Would it be great to have recognition? Yes, it absolutely would be. But would that go ahead and push the envelope for stunt people to do the most dangerous things to get that recognition? You see what I'm saying? That would up the game so people would go, well... Casino Royale is a great example. That parkour chase scene is one of my favorite sequences that's in a movie. To me, that scene deserves an award. And, knowing Gary Powell, who is a great stunt coordinator, someone who is very creative, not just about action, but about how action is being shot, he did a great job with that film. To me, that's an Academy Award-winning sequence for stunts. Then you would go to something like, the next James Bond, where people may have gotten injured and so forth because they tried to push the envelope. Absolutely they did, they said, "let's not use CGI, let's go practical, why can't we not go practical?" There's so much made about, "what's CG and what's practical," nowadays, so it would definitely push people to go and... The last thing I would want as a performer, as a stunt coordinator, and just as a human being, I would never want to see somebody push themselves so far that they would literally kill themselves to get an Oscar. I have mixed feelings about it.
It's so fascinating to hear from someone like you. We hear from the faces, from the stars, but we don't really get to hear from the stunt performers themselves, from your side. The whole purpose of your job is that we don't know, right? I'm always looking for a stunt double's face. I try not to, but I'm always looking for it in a fight. In Peppermint, actually, I didn't see it. I didn't see Shauna Duggins.
Shauna has been her double since Alias, and she's also a very good friend of mine. She's great. Working with guys like Tom Cruise, and someone like Jennifer Garner, they would absolutely love to do their stunts. They want to do the action, but if you don't see their face, why would they do it? Second of all, in the world of production, if they get hurt, they shut down the production for months on end. Just look at Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. His injury, where he broke his ankle, jumping from one building to the next, that shut down the production for three months. You can imagine what that would cost for the production, for liability, for insurance, and so on. So that's a big reason why a lot of huge studios don't want stars to do big stunts. It can shut down the whole vehicle.
With Jen, in Peppermint, one thing that got so many headlines, and deservedly so, was her arms. Her arms are amazing. They're the best arms Hollywood has ever seen. Can you tell me a little bit about... You mentioned boxing, but can you tell me a bit more about her training?
Jennifer's physique is just so amazing. Every girl who wants to be a badass wants to look like her, and I don't blame them. Jen looks great. For me, being around her for her fight choreography and training her on fight stuff, she was also up early in the morning. Like I said, she would do three-a-days. She worked out with her personal trainer, doing pilates, she would do a lot of other exercises, she was doing it three times a day to get ready for the role. It's a lot of hard work, and she's a super mom, too. She has kids. How does she do it all? She's an animal, to be honest with you! She really is! I don't think she slept very much, but that's what it takes!