how i get it done

How I Get It Done: April Sutton, Professional Stuntwoman Who Works on Empire

Illustration: Rebecca Clarke

April Sutton is a professional trainer and stuntwoman. She lives in Chicago and has worked on shows like Empire, Chicago P.D., The Exorcist TV series, and more. She would never do a swimming scene because she can’t swim, but she loves doing fight choreography. She has a dog and no desire to move to L.A. She takes a lot of baths to help heal her bruises and she most recently body-doubled for Nia Long. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On a day in the life of a professional stuntwoman and trainer:
On a recent shoot that I did for Empire, my call time was 4 p.m., so it was a night shoot. During the day, I train my clients. I wake up, make a healthy breakfast: Egg whites, turkey sausage, and avocado. I walk my dog and hop in an Uber to train my clients. About two o’clock, I squeeze in a workout. If a stunt feels like it’s going to be strenuous, I won’t do a super intense workout. I’ll do regular strength training or a lot of stretching or maybe go for a run.

I double Nia Long in this season of Empire. Recently, we shot a helicopter scene. Sometimes actresses are just not comfortable with heights, so they use me. Before we get into any stunt scene, the crew and production is always called in for a safety meeting. Everyone has to know what safety precautions to take. For example, you might not have any idea how dangerous a helicopter can be. You don’t want to get your head chopped off.

Before you know it, everything is rolling. There are extras outside. When we shot that helicopter scene, it was freezing cold, so the extras are the real winners. That night was one of the easier nights because we got to fly around the city of Chicago. We do a stunt several times. Something like that can take three hours. For that scene, we were on set for a total of ten hours. Then, we landed and they replaced us with the actors. Sometimes you’re literally just the body. And sometimes you’re doing a lot more.

On what kind of training a stuntwoman needs to to do to stay in shape for her job:
I normally do athletic-performance training. That’s geared toward my line of work, so I combine it with a lot of power lifting, agility, biometrics, calisthenics, track-type workout with a fusion of martial arts, kicking, body weights stuff for parkour, animalistic movement, then normally a cooldown and stretch. I’ll run a sprint, anything that I know that would be useful on set.

On why it’s never a good idea to say you can do a stunt when you really can’t:
If a stunt is super technical — like a high fall — the stunt coordinator will check in with me about what the highest fall I’m comfortable doing is. You’d be surprised how many people will lie and say they can do something and then once they go on set, they can’t do it. Like swimming. I heard that someone submitted for a stunt gig where they had to do a dive into the water and swim out. Well, the stunt coordinator had to find out the hard way that she couldn’t swim. Then it’s like, “Well, why did you say you could do it?” and she’s like, “Because I wanted to get the job!”

On why male stunt actors have it easier:
The clothes we wear are not adjusted to be spandex-y or stretchy. Empire is known for its fashion. They’re known for these extravagant styles and costumes, and sometimes I have to work with it and do the stunt in it. I’ve done several stunts where I had to wear a really skimpy, tight dress in heels in the freezing-cold temperatures of Chicago in the winter and do a stunt and fall on concrete. Men have it easier. For stuntwomen, it’s all about looking pretty and attractive compared to the actress. When we have to come in and do the stunt, we can’t even fit the padding into our clothes.

On how stuntpeople train to avoid actually getting hurt:
I worked for several months to learn how to train my body to deal with hitting the floor without getting hurt without any padding. A big foundation of that comes from Brazilian jiu jitsu. I had to learn how to pick up people and flip them down in a way where they could hit the ground comfortably. I know that doesn’t sound right. It’s all about your core. You’d be surprised how your body will adjust and train for that, it’s crazy.

On Empire, I was thrown on the pool table for their season finale. It’s very gritty stunt work. But at the same time, the actresses can’t do that stuff. We’re not going to tell Taraji Henson to take a gunshot and fall on her back. Stuntwomen are supposed to step in and do that.

On why she loves doing fight scenes:
I love fight choreography. It’s so cool. It’s very empowering. You get to look like a badass and feel like a badass. Even if you’re not the winner in that fight, you still look pretty cool. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV or in a movie. When I started training, I trained with a stunt group whose speciality was fight choreography. It’s all about martial arts, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bruce Lee, that type of movement and training. It’s very exhausting because it’s a lot of cardio. Your memory capacity has to increase in order to understand a fight scene. Fight scenes are very artistic, even when there are fight scenes of eight or ten people in a scene. You think it’s going to be easy because it’s in a small room with all these small movements, but it’s not.

On how she handles having a body covered in bruises and weird marks:
If I’m coming home from a day of falls, I’m definitely coming home with bruises. They’re rewarding. Bruises are a sign of hard work. I take hot baths with bath salts and do a lot of stretching, so that way I don’t tighten up or get super stressed. There are times where they’ll put a lot of makeup on us, or a lot of makeup to match the skin tone of the actress. They’ve put body makeup on me because I’m lighter skinned, and sometimes I’ll double an actress who is two tones darker than me, and I’ll do all these bruises and falls and hits, and maybe it’s dirty, so at the end of the day, I’m moreso concerned with taking several showers because I feel so gross.

For the Exorcist TV series, I had to take all these stab wounds, I got sliced and gashed with a crazy murder scene. I had special-effects blood all over me. Special-effects blood is syrup, that is the base, so it’s sweet. This was in the middle of summer, so it’s really hot, and I had mosquito bites all over my body, everything was sticky, and every take, they had to put more blood on me. The guy who was slicing my neck, even though it was a fake knife, it was plastic, he still had to get a little bit of my neck every time, so I had this weird mark in the middle of my neck for a week.

On the most dangerous stunt she’s ever done:
The most dangerous stunt that I’ve done so far is probably a car-driving scene in APB. I wasn’t even the one driving, that’s even scarier. I was in the passenger seat with a stuntman named Jimmy Fierro, who is very well-known for his stunt driving. Even though I have faith in his ability, you just never know. The car he’s driving is extremely fast. We’re cutting corners and going around these cars. His goal was to hit a 360 and park. He did it and landed it perfectly. He had to do a 360 into an alley, and he pulled it off. I almost crapped in my pants.

What It’s Like to Be a Stuntwoman on Empire