Former UNL pole vaulter lands in Hollywood as a stuntwoman

2013-01-23T23:45:00Z 2015-05-22T09:51:06Z Former UNL pole vaulter lands in Hollywood as a stuntwomanBy CORY MATTESON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Jessie Graff isn’t certain what her final University of Nebraska-Lincoln exam was. She thinks it might have been for a history of rock and roll class.

What she remembers is how ready she was to finish it and get outside to her prepacked car.

"I walked out and drove here," Graff said during a phone call from her Los Angeles-area apartment, which houses a battle ax.

It shares space with a 12.5-foot-long pole for pole-vaulting where the living room wall meets the ceiling. There are harnesses and stunt pads all over the place. In a December 2011 video on her YouTube account, you can watch Graff and her roommate, who is in the circus, decorate an L.A.-style Christmas tree -- a ladder wrapped in a green blanket -- with climbing carabiners, motorcycle gloves and nunchucks.

In Lincoln, Graff, a 2007 graduate, majored in theater while competing as a pole vaulter on the Nebraska Cornhuskers track and field team. She also climbed trees in Pioneers Park, dove from great heights into bins full of cardboard and staged fake fights with her roommate.

All of that prepared her for a career as a Hollywood stuntwoman.

On the same YouTube account, you can watch stunt reel footage of Graff tackling a hula dancer, sending them both off a cliff and into choppy waters. She jumps from a bridge and lands on a moving boxcar. She kicks and spins through the air in a manner that wouldn’t look out of place in a game of “Mortal Kombat.” She whips around and pivots off a wooden staff while wearing Nebraska sweats.

The user name for her account, “JessieTumbleweed,” is her nickname, too.

“It basically comes from the fact that I've always been so quick to travel,” Graff said. “I go where the wind takes me. There's not a specific story, but the moment an opportunity pops up, I'm already packed and ready to go. I've moved 19 times -- twice with my parents, twice for college, and the rest of them were usually because I'd found a new gym that I would spend five hours a day at, and I just wanted to live closer to it.

"One Wednesday last year, I decided to go to Thailand. I left that Friday and stayed for a month. While I was there, I started at a muay thai training camp, then moved into the jungle to learn survival skills and then wound up road tripping with one of my favorite action star's stunt double."

She balances those impulses with hours and hours of training and prep work. (Before she moved to California, she'd mapped out the highway routes and time it'd take to get from one studio or gym to the next.) She practices falls and jumps and crashes from every direction. And sometimes, if she sees a nice-enough cliff, she throws herself off it.

Graff grew up in Mount Airy, Md., and knew she wanted to combine her love of gymnastics and acting, but also had a fascination with floating in space.

"I was going to be an astronaut, and then an action hero," said Graff, who studied aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech University before transferring to UNL's theater program. "So I had to prioritize."

She thrived in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film's renowned stage combat classes and has been invited to teach at the Lincoln Assassination Stage Combat Workshop that will be held at UNL March 16 and 17.

UNL theater Professor Ian Borden said Graff and Jessica Merideth, a fellow UNL alum who’s beginning to develop a stuntwoman career of her own, are inspiring examples for the theater department’s female students.

“They, too, can pursue a career in action and this part of the business,” he said.

As long as she doesn't get a last-minute job she can't pass up, Graff will be there. But many stunt jobs are of the last-minute variety, she said.

At a given time, her resume might grow in three hours or so, which she said is occasionally the window of time she has to accept or pass up a job in the stunt industry. Often, she gets a call wondering what she's got going the next day.

“They may or may not feel the necessity to tell me where I’m traveling,” she said. And then she's off to Oregon or Detroit.

Such is the life of a stunt person, she said. They train together, hang from cables together, set themselves on fire together and more. At parties, she said, they tend to stage falls down staircases.

Graff is almost certainly the only person to appear in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts’ Points of Pride column with an alumnus update that includes the sentence, “She plays a jogger who gets murdered in the park.”

That was for a 2009 episode of “Criminal Minds,” but Graff has done commercial and film work along with television stunts and roles. She’s one of the doctors fleeing from the hospital the Joker detonates in “The Dark Knight.” She springboards herself over a car in an episode of “The Nine Lives of Chloe King.” She performs acrobatic flips on a mattress bed in a CarMax ad that premiered during Super Bowl XLV. She was part of the group of stunt actors to receive a 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

So far, Graff said, she's escaped significant injury.

"It's an instinct that can be developed," she said when asked specifically about a pole vault attempt that went awry after the pole snapped. "After so many years, my body just knows how to land safely.  I use the trampoline to practice getting into awkward positions in the air and twisting to a safe landing at the last second.  It's a combination of that and flexibility.  I have a greater range of safe landing positions, because I can contort comfortably into so many different positions."

In Lincoln, Graff practiced everything constantly. Her teammate and roommate Maggie Thorne, who also used to box, would stage fight scenes with Graff -- sometimes in front of unsuspecting crowds. She said Graff would climb park trees and swing from them. She had to talk Thorne down from a tree at least once.

She knew her friend would follow through on her promise to become a stuntwoman after witnessing a car-bike collision near 29th and Q streets. Graff's bike, Thorne said, “was munched.” But Graff left the crash unscathed.

“Over the hood, over the top of the car and landed on her feet,” said Thorne, who now works in the UNL Athletic Department. “It was pretty amazing.”

Now Graff sends to Thorne and other friends and family links of the latest window she shattered or SUV roof she held onto for dear life. Whatever Graff's doing on those clips fails to surprise her.

“It’s her,” Thorne said. "I don’t think that the words ‘crazy’ and ‘Jessie’ go together. It’s normal.”

Reach Cory Matteson at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LJSMatteson.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.