IT HAD BEEN a good day for Leslie McMichael, who was pretending to be Jessica Alba, who was pretending to be a superhuman. McMichael was Alba’s stunt double on the set of the TV series Dark Angel, an early-2000s show about a person who’s been genetically modified to be athletically awesome. Her task was to dive from a full-on run into the back of an open SUV. The sequence, which had been choreographed down to the inch and tightly rehearsed, called for the car to stop at a mark on the ground, so McMichael knew precisely where to aim her body.

At top speed, she dove toward the predetermined point. But midway through the air, McMichael saw something was wrong: The stunt driver had missed the mark, and she was flying headlong at the vehicle’s roof. Sailing through space-time, she couldn’t alter her course.

Oh, this is bad, she thought.

This, in fact, was a concussion waiting to happen—one of three that McMichael has gotten doing the dangerous physical work stars can’t.

After her head slammed into the SUV, nothing seemed right. “I felt underwater,” she says. She took a couple of weeks off to recover.

She did, but not everyone does. Over 26 years, McMichael has amassed 68 stunt credits—on movies like X-Men: The Last StandFinal Destination 3Fantastic Four, and Freddy vs. Jason and television series like Stargate SG-1AndromedaThe Net, and Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. That experience and seeing her peers get smacked, thrashed, and tossed about have left her concerned about how the work affects performers’ health, particularly their noggins.

All those thwacks can cause cumulative long-term damage, especially if the person doesn’t take time to recover. And neuroscience has repeatedly linked brain injuries to memory problems, sleep disruption, personality shifts, headaches, and depression.

Most productions try to enforce best practices and regulations. Sets must have an identifiable person in charge of safety as well as someone qualified to give emergency medical assistance. Crews also need to know where the nearest hospitals are, have a vehicle that can accommodate a stretcher and first-aid equipment, and make sure performers consent to their daring feats and can inspect all equipment ahead of time. Ultimately, though, it’s often up to them and their stunt coordinators to make sure the conditions are A-OK to, say, fall a few stories or land that motorcycle jump.

The first-aid people or paramedics on hand for particularly risky exploits, however, aren’t always trained to recognize the subtle effects of brain bonks. Meanwhile, the prospect of lost pay or roles encourages workers not to report concussions or take time off. Besides, it’s literally their job to be invisible and let the headliners shine.

Illustration of woman in stunt fight with brain scans around her
Laurie Greasley

Eventually McMichael stepped back from stunting and decided to get a Ph.D. in media psychology, a field that probes the intersection of human behavior and media. During and after her schooling, she has helped conduct some of the few scientific studies of stunt performers, assessing their physical and psychological health—and the factors affecting both.

Through this effort, she wants to illuminate the prevalence of brain injury, its real-world consequences, and the factors that lead to bodily harm and inadequate care. More than 4,300 members of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors, currently identify themselves as stunt performers. McMichael hopes the data she collects can help improve conditions for them in the industry and lead to clearer injury-reporting mechanisms, more time off for recovery, and on-set personnel expressly trained to recognize and treat hurt heads.

MCMICHAEL’S OWN daredevil history began early, perhaps when her father said, “Go learn to drive,” long before she qualified for a license and sent her to their field in rural Alberta, Canada. Maybe it was because he himself competed in demolition derbies, or maybe it was simply that the field and cars existed.

Unsatisfied with simply driving, she and a cousin would take turns blindfolding each other. The masked person would take the wheel, while the one riding shotgun shouted directions to swerve between giant hay bales. “We thought that was the funnest thing ever,” she says. “I would never let my kids do that, but that’s what I did.”

McMichael’s ultimate turn into stunt work, though, began with a karate tournament at her high school, which she’d heard about while working the cash register at a convenience store. She’d seen movies like Bloodsport and The Karate Kid. Wouldn’t it be cool to see those fights in person?

She convinced a friend to go: They might see some cute guys. But the tournament coughed up more than that. “It was kids’ divisions and women’s divisions and older people’s divisions, and all kinds of different people,” she says. And it wasn’t only fighting. Another aspect, called “forms,” lets people show off moves and stances in choreographed sequences. “How do I get into this?” she wondered. “Because this is what I want to do.”

When McMichael threw her first punch, something shifted. Sure, she’d hit her two brothers before. “But to fight an opponent that I didn’t even know and there’s nothing wrong? Why would I punch them?” she recalls thinking. Then she did it, and she understood: strength, power, performance. A test of herself.

She continued to study martial arts into early adulthood. She attended the University of Calgary during the day, taught karate at night, and competed on the weekends.

Then, in 1996, a friend from the martial arts community urged her to talk to her film agent. McMichael soon landed a gig as an extra on Viper, a show about crime fighters who motor around in a sports car that can transmute into an armored vehicle. The series shot one season in Calgary, Alberta. Western Canada is a hotbed of filmmaking: The province of British Columbia—sometimes called Hollywood North—claims to be the third-largest such center in North America, and productions spent more than half a billion dollars in Alberta in 2021. When the Viper stunt coordinator learned McMichael was a tournament-level black belt, he asked for her résumé. Soon enough, he invited her to work on Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, a TV show that would debut in 1997.

IT WAS BAD TIMING. McMichael was in the middle of getting a master’s degree in psychology at Calgary. She spent her days dissecting rat brains to investigate their memory functions. “You can study them and figure out how the tricycle works before you know how the Harley works,” she says—because of course a professional thrill-seeker would compare the human brain to a motorcycle.

She agonized over the decision. But her research supervisor told her to jump. “You don’t want to be 80 years old and go, ‘I wonder what would have happened if I would have done that,’” she recalls him saying. “‘You can always come back to school.’”

McMichael with Freddie Krueger and in a Ninja Turtles suit
McMichael served as fight coordinator for Freddy vs. Jason in 2002 (left), and stunted for Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation TV series in 1997. Courtesy Leslie McMichael

Hong Kong–style martial arts had become popular in mainstream Hollywood partly due to the booming video rental market, according to Lauren Steimer, a film and media scholar at the University of South Carolina who studies the history of stunt work. “The ability to watch films from other places changed things,” she says. “It’s not as though you had a whole bunch of filmmakers going to Hong Kong to study how to do that. They just watched a whole bunch of stuff. And they’re like, ‘I want to do that.’ And so they tried.” The release of The Matrix in 1999 cemented martial arts’ place in movies and, so, in stunt performance.

McMichael soon found herself wearing a half-shell costume. In one scene, the ninja pummeled and kicked the bad guys nonstop while cameras whirled around them. On the set, she also learned to do wirework—being suspended to carry out stunts, which are called gags in industry parlance—and also met her husband, Steven McMichael, one of the series’s stunt villains.

The realization that the job wasn’t benign slammed into her while she was filming the 1998 movie Disturbing Behavior, one of Katie Holmes’ first big breaks. In one scene, an El Camino goes over a cliff near the Cleveland Dam in North Vancouver. The stunt car rode on rails the crew had built to extend down the precipice. McMichael, the other passengers, and the car would look as if they crashed into oblivion. “If something goes wrong, you’re dead,” she says. She called her mother just before the cameras rolled: “Well, Mom, I love you.”

Over the years, McMichael got used to doing things her brain screamed were bad. Her skin was set on fire (for the first time) for 2006’s Final Destination 3, in which two characters are destined to die in a tanning bed. McMichael and another double tried a new protective gel, developed by fire-stunt specialists Dustin Brooks and Colin Decker and still in use today. You could smear it on, add a fuel, and ignite it, rather than wear the standard flameproof suit. McMichael started with small tests—on a finger, then a hand, then an arm, getting more and more comfortable with the goo.

When she felt things reaching the broiling point, she yelled, “Hot!” and the crew sprayed her with a fire extinguisher.

SETTING YOURSELF ABLAZE, as it happens, isn’t the stunt person’s most dangerous feat. Wirework, martial arts, and high falls together resulted in the greatest number of on-the-job injuries, accounting for 37 percent of the total, according to a report published in 2012 by Actsafe, a Canadian nonprofit that provides health and safety guidance to the arts and entertainment industries. “BC Film Stunt Performers and Stunt Related Injuries: A Survey and Review,” published on Actsafe’s website, discovered that mishaps often occurred because there wasn’t enough rehearsal time, and that many people didn’t report bangs, bruises, and burns primarily because they didn’t acknowledge they were a big deal.

In all gags, performers are tricking the camera and the audience into thinking a fall or hit is riskier than it is IRL, explains Mark Grove, a stunt coordinator at Rocky Mountain Stunts, who’s worked on productions ranging from Assassins’ Code to The Ellen DeGeneres Show (yes, really). Such illusions involve a lot of iteration, which often starts with lower-stakes options that look more dangerous on the other side of the lens: a shorter fall, a smaller fire. “We’re daredevils with a plan,” he says. “We really calculate everything.”

If you don’t duck at the right time, you might get clocked. Even a fake knife might jab someone in the eye. Wirework can cause whiplash. Shrapnel from an exploding car can become what Grove calls a “Frisbee of death.” Stunt performers have to try to avoid all of that, in addition to staging a good exploit.

“What you have to think to yourself,” says Grove, “is I want to work again tomorrow.

ONE TOMORROW, McMichael couldn’t work again. In 2002 she got pregnant, which is when she remembered her professor’s words: She could go back to school. “I always had the feeling like I left that hanging,” she says.

So she identified Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, where she could do a Ph.D. online, and focused on her peers—who had become more relevant to her than rat brains. “People were getting messed up,” she says. She’d run into performers she knew from ages ago who had trouble making conversation or couldn’t find their way when driving. They had memory problems, trouble sleeping, depression. “They just seemed not all there.”

She thought she might know why: repeated concussions. “It’s normalized,” she says. “‘Oh, yeah. You had your bell rung.’”

In her doctoral program, she surveyed around 100 stunt workers in the Vancouver area, cataloging their experiences with head injuries. They would come into their union office and take a set of standardized neuro-cognitive tests called ImPACT. The FDA-cleared concussion assessment checks visual and verbal memory, reaction time, and processing speed. The performers took the exams anonymously and included a history of their head injuries. The results, which McMichael wrote up in 2007 for her dissertation, were disturbing, although not scientifically surprising. “As concussions went up, all their scores went down,” she says. Some people had experienced more than 30 of them.

MCMICHAEL’S DISSERTATION was the only study that had looked at stunt performers when Jeff Russell, a newcomer to the academic scene and an associate professor of athletic training at Ohio University (OU), found his way into her inbox.

Russell had started as a trainer for college sports teams, a job focused on preventing, diagnosing, and treating muscle and bone injuries. One day around 2002, as he kicked back in his then-office at Belhaven University, somebody knocked on the door. “Which—you never knock on the door of an athletic training room,” he says. “You just go in.” The visitor, though, didn’t know that, because she wasn’t a typical athlete. She wore a leotard and tights. A dancer with an injured Achilles tendon, she’d tried the campus’s general medical resources, and they hadn’t helped.

Russell did.

A few days later, another hurt dancer showed up. “A trickle turned into a flow,” he recalls.

McMichael walks away from overturned truck
McMichael coordinated stunts for season two of the TV series Wynonna Earp, a spooky romp about the heir of lawman Wyatt Earp. Michelle Faye

Recognizing an unmet need, Russell got permission to set up a clinic for performing artists. Not long after, he left to seek a Ph.D. at the one place that specialized in dance science and medicine: the University of Wolverhampton in England. After finishing in 2010, and a stop at the University of California, Irvine, he joined OU in 2012 and started the Clinic for Science and Health in Artistic Performance, or the SHAPe Clinic.

Russell had also been interested in what his field might do for stunt performers. “Their job is to not look like they’re there,” he says. “That’s kind of how they’re treated by the healthcare system.”

Eventually, he heard about Actsafe. Hoping to make inroads into the stunt industry, he gave a talk at its annual conference in 2018. There, he met Lori Stewart—a stunt performer, Actsafe’s stunt community liaison, and the local union’s health and safety performer advocate. She sent him the 2012 Actsafe report. “The academic literature regarding stunt-related injuries is sparse,” he read, with disappointment. Then excitement: “A single study was located, addressing the effects of concussions in stunt performers.” It was McMichael’s dissertation.

MCMICHAEL WAS WORKING by then in stunt coordination, choreographing scenes and performers, having transitioned into the role after her Ph.D. “All of a sudden, I got this email saying, ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but I’d really love to read your dissertation. Can you send it to me?’” she says, recalling the 2018 ping. Russell’s fervor was contagious, and today, the pair is in the early stages of filling in the research gap he uncovered.

Russell was lead author on his first scientific paper on stunt performers, published in 2021 in the journal Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America. It laid out the state of research on head injuries in their cohort, which was that there was basically none: “We said, ‘Look, this is an issue that needs to be dealt with,’” he recounts.

Then he, McMichael, and collaborators put together a survey to find out how many head impacts performers had suffered, what their symptoms were, the treatment options they’d had on set, and how their physical and mental health were faring. Essentially, it was an updated version of McMichael’s dissertation that gathered more demographic and qualitative information, like indicators of depression. Its findings, currently in peer review at the journal Brain Injury, will appear in the first-ever research journal article on concussions in stunt performers.

Although the results are still in review, Russell gave a preview. First, film sets don’t often host people specifically versed in cranial-impact injuries, just what Russell calls “first aiders,” or paramedics if something particularly risky is scheduled. The survey found that 80 percent of participants had suffered concussions. “You actually think about what stunt performers do, and you go, ‘How was that not 100 percent?’” he says.

The study also learned that people often didn’t report concussions. Stunt historian Steimer says that goes with the job. “The number one thing that it takes beyond the training and the skills is someone who will not complain very much. Because you have to be willing to deal with a lot on set. You have to bounce back from an injury.”

That trait makes sense to someone with a doctorate in media psychology. “There’s money involved,” says McMichael, pointing out the industry pays stunt doubles by the day. If a performer hurts their head on Monday and is scheduled to work the rest of the week, she says, “They don’t want to miss out on those days. It’s not like you’re gonna get paid if you leave. It doesn’t work like that. Somebody else will be brought in.” McMichael says she insists on time off for recovery if something goes wrong on a gag she coordinates. If union members report an injury and file the right paperwork, they can be compensated for missed work—though not necessarily at the same level or with the same glory they would get for staying.

“The number one thing that stunt work takes beyond the training and the skills is someone who will not complain very much. Because you have to be willing to deal with a lot on set. You have to bounce back.”

—Lauren Steimer

To create a culture of safety, the psychological aspect has to be as important as the physical, says Actsafe’s Anand Kanna, manager of motion picture services. Productions must foster an environment where a performer can voice concerns without fear of retaliation and where making sure conditions are right is more important than getting the job done by noon. “If a stunt person is able to truthfully tell their supervisor or employers that they are uneasy with a particular sequence, if they feel that they can speak up without being ostracized, that type of safe space can go a long way in reducing injuries,” he says.

According to union rep Stewart, who also coordinates research with Russell, head injuries are the biggest safety issue facing stunt people, so studying how, how often, and how badly concussions occur is key. “By understanding what they are truly experiencing over the span of their careers,” she says, “we can target supports to optimize safety, health, and wellness.”

McMichael says that might mean requiring a dedicated safety officer on set—something even Hollywood, the Western world’s industry trendsetter, doesn’t currently do. Plans spelling out protections are currently just recommended, not required. And managers like stunt coordinators should keep eagle eyes on their performers and recognize potential injuries even if the invisible heroes themselves don’t.

Ideally, stunt performers have to learn not to fear raising their hands when they can’t go on. But if you’re the kind of person who falls (on purpose) off a tall building or lights yourself on fire, it makes sense that you’d take your knocks and get on with the show. “A lot of what we do in healthcare is protect people from themselves,” says Russell.

BEFORE MCMICHAEL and Russell set up their survey, they had planned something more athletic: an obstacle course in which performers would do various gags—like wearing a harness and getting yanked backward into a pad. Sensors behind their ears would measure their head acceleration to quantify their knock-arounds. “That would have been a nice progression from my dissertation, to look at some physical evidence,” says McMichael. Alas: COVID.

Now, though, she, Russell, and their collaborators are forming connections as fast as a character actor’s IMDb profile. They’re collaborating with the Boston University CTE Center on a study about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that occurs after too much physical trauma. Most folks have probably heard about it happening to football players. Performers from McMichael’s community in western Canada and elsewhere are registering to donate their gray matter to be probed after they die so scientists can investigate the tissue’s structural changes and deterioration as well as abnormal proteins that may appear. Russell will set up and guide the research agenda and take the lead on the articles and presentations that result from it. The CTE Center will handle the ethics, the pathology, and the data storage and help with the write-ups. McMichael and other community research members will recruit participants and inform and interpret the findings from their specialized perspectives.

Meanwhile, Gerlinde Metz’s neuroscience group at Canada’s University of Lethbridge will cooperate with Russell, McMichael, and collaborators to look into a protein that might appear in urine after a concussive injury. That signal could be used to definitively diagnose brain trauma—and spot true recovery when the metabolic biomarker disappears. Most concussion symptoms clear up in a week or two, although getting fully back can take a month or more. Finally, Russell and his cohort have picked up work on low-profile head-protection gear that fits under a wig, very much like a shock-absorbing helmet McMichael started developing during her master’s program.

McMichael, who volunteers her research time, will help coordinate with the Canadian stunt community—the subjects for the CTE and protein projects—and provide her insider knowledge of the industry and its conditions. When it’s time to write up results, she’ll review the manuscript with her experienced eye, which sees things an outsider like Russell might miss, like the ways interpersonal dynamics play out on set.

She doesn’t do much doubling anymore. Recently, she helped coordinate an RV explosion and an emu’s run through a house for the Spectrum Originals TV show Joe Pickett, and she guided TikTok stars trying their hands at a big-screen fight sequence for a forthcoming Amazon series called High School. Summing up her science-fed perspective on the safety of her performers, she says, “If someone hits their head, we’re watching them like a hawk. They go straight to the paramedics or the first-aid workers. ‘You don’t have a say in this, you’re gonna be checked out.’ Other shows maybe aren’t going to be as stringent. They would just be like, ‘You’re good? OK, great.’”

Once the filming of a stunt begins, McMichael is often glued to the monitors that show the scene in progress. Watching her performers, she holds her hands as if she herself is ready to punch—which she does, jabbing the air when they get it just right and are ready to go to work again tomorrow.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 Daredevil Issue of PopSci. Read more PopSci+ stories.