She suffers for her art
by Gary Francoeur
Ruth Chiang, BA’06, has been blown up, thrown from buildings and bounced off speeding cars – and she’s walked away (mostly) unscathed. As a stunt performer and actress, she has carved out a career by putting herself in harm’s way, accomplishing pulse-pounding feats that would make most people’s hair stand on end.
She has worked on several big Hollywood blockbusters, including Pacific Rim, The Smurfs 2 and The Day After Tomorrow. And while most viewers would be hard pressed to single Chiang out on the screen, many films and TV shows rely on the deeds of daredevils like her to supply their audiences with thrills and chills.
“I love the challenges of this profession, and I love to push and validate myself,” she says. “My parents always told me that if you’re going to do something, you better do it well and you better be the best at it.”
Of course, Chiang’s success as a stunt performer isn’t a fluke; it is the culmination of years of hard work. Born and raised by Chinese immigrant parents in The Pas, a small town located some 630 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, she got involved in both competitive sports and the arts at a young age. Over the years, she has trained in a variety of martial arts, putting together the kind of CV Wonder Woman would heartily approve of. Chiang’s skills include kickboxing, trapeze, archery and fencing.
But it was as a student at McGill, where she studied drama and music, that Chiang got her big break in entertainment. While working as a waitress at a Montreal restaurant, she had a serendipitous run-in with a customer who turned out to be John McTiernan, director of Die Hard, Predator and The Hunt for Red October. “I guess he saw something in me, because he gave me his card and encouraged me to audition for his upcoming project,” Chiang recalls.
That project turned out to be Rollerball, a remake of the 1975 James Caan movie. She reluctantly put her Bachelor of Arts on hold and spent the next four months doing stunt work for the movie.
Chiang was soon hooked and she has worked in the entertainment industry ever since. She played a flesh-eating zombie in Warm Bodies, was decapitated in Death Race 3000 and has been a regular on the Just for Laughs Gags TV show. The 2008 Get Smart remake even brought her back to McGill’s downtown campus, where one stunt had her narrowly leaping out of the path of a Sunbeam Tiger convertible sports car as it crashed through the doors of the Arts Building.
One of the biggest perks of her job is interacting with A-list stars. Her favourite experience was working alongside Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams in a small-budget 2004 film called Noel. “I don’t normally get star struck, but it is hard not to get excited when you’re in the company of such amazing actors,” she says.
Though Chiang has notched her share of bumps and bruises over the years – like the time Will Ferrell accidentally smacked her in the head with a ski on the set of Blades of Glory – she has never been seriously injured. Still, she knows the dangers of her job can be very real.
“I don’t want my family to worry, so I often tell them that the work looks worse than it is, but the truth is that it is often worse than it looks,” explains Chiang. “I’ve been pretty lucky so far, but I also go into each stunt being cautious and well prepared. It is when someone gets complacent on this job that they tend to get hurt.”
More worrisome than the physical danger, says Chiang, is the unpredictable nature of the entertainment business. Stunting is hardly a 9-to-5 gig, so she spends much of her time in auditions and living out of a suitcase, with last-minute call-ins being part of the routine.
Despite this, Chiang can’t imagine doing anything else. “I can’t believe I’m actually getting paid to do this,” she says. “I can’t expect my luck to keep going forever, but I plan to ride this out as long as I can.”
Want to see Ruth Chiang in action? Check out this YouTube video showcasing some of her stunt work.