You will never see her face in Deadpool — the record-breaking box office hit now playing in soldout theatres around the world — but you will certainly see this Red Deer original’s amazing death-defying moves.
Thirty-one-year-old Michelle Christa Smith, born and raised in Red Deer where she learned to be a world baton twirling champion, was the stunt double in the movie for actress Gina Carano. Carano plays Angel Dust — the bad guy’s right-hand lady — in the adult superhero movie starring Ryan Reynolds. Angel Dust does brutal battle with super hero Colossus.
At the moment, the Lindsey Thurber Comprehensive High graduate — now acrobat, professional stunt woman and instructor — is working on the set of another movie being filmed in Vancouver, Scorched Earth, starring Carano. Again Smith is Carano’s stunt double. The two have become friends, supporting each other through the trials and tribulations of a tough industry.
“My job (on Deadpool) happened a lot in rehearsal. I was practising wirepulls, a lot of fight choreography, because my actress is actually a professional fighter in real life, aside from being a real actress.”
“I did a lot of wires, crashing into things, rehearsing the fight. And then when we get to set, I of course do all the hard hits, anything hitting the ground, or hitting set pieces or objects around, that’s going to be my job,” said Smith, who is also an acrobatics and baton instructor.
“Usually I would do most of the fights in other projects I worked on but on this particular one, Gina was very capable of doing her own fight. My job was to do all the lineups so that camera could get it ready. So I did it multiple, multiple times, before she even got to camera, and then I just stand aside and coach her through or be there for moral support for her.”
An example of her stunt work involves wearing a harness, and being hooked up to a wire line, a machine that pulls a stunt person with high force into obstacles like cars and poles, or to the ground.
So when mutants Angel Dust and Colossus are fighting, they are both so strong that when they hit each other, “They go flying”, said Smith.
“They are not going to let Gina do that. There’s a couple of times I had to. … (Angel Dust) would get hit in the face and go flying backwards on this wire, and crash into the ground, and another one where Colossus grabs her by the neck, lifting her up, she has to jump. I jump, kick my feet up and then I have to land on my shoulders and back.”
There’s definitely a technique to hitting the ground, riding the wire, landing on the ground, she said. “But that is our job, the risk we’re undertaking.”
“I’m the one you call to do choreography … wires, fires, definitely weapons. It came from baton. … Stick weapons, swords, knives comes really quite easily to me.”
It is no easy job. Smith said she spends time weekly getting massages and at the chiropractor. Her biggest issue has been whiplash. “Multiple whiplashes on whiplashes, and that’s not fun.”
Her first stunt involved using a sword in the movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
Since then, she has performed stunts on quite a number of film/TV sets, acrobats at the 2010 Olympics, and taken acting along the way as well. She was a long-time member of the touring Underground Circus, a professional company based in Vancouver.
Most of her work has been in Vancouver, which has a burgeoning movie industry. Until recently that’s where she lived. Now she’s making her home in Calgary where she wants to get her own business going, teaching what she knows. She also really wants to live in a place where it doesn’t rain so much. She said this from Vancouver as she watched the pouring rain come down.
Smith does some teaching at studios now in Calgary, and has also instructed overseas in places like Scotland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Her beginnings in performance go back to when she was five years old in Red Deer, where she learned to motivate herself in baton twirling. “We were in nationals when we were nine.” She remains close friends with her former Red Deer childhood baton teammates, Chelsea Henning (nee Bissonnette) and Hollie Gamble (nee Neilson).
When Smith was young, as soon as she would get home from school she would head out to baton or dancing lessons until 10 p.m. Then she would train in Calgary on weekends. It amounted to 40 hours every week.
“I was competing regularly, flying all over Canada to compete in nationals, all over the world.”
“It used to really frustrate me when people would be like ‘Oh you march and do parades.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no. … We march when you’re young, when you’re learning to count music. But then aside from that, that’s never been what it’s about.
“It’s so artistic, and such a beautiful sport. It’s really, really difficult because of fine motor skills and precision required. You do dance, you do gymnastics, all with this baton in both hands, multiple batons. It’s like rhythmic gymnastics but a little more meaty, and it’s so beautiful.”
“One of my goals in life is to be able to share what it is to me, what my vision of what it can be. It’s given me so much. The reason that I’ve been so successful at circus, and dance, and stunts and marshal arts, is because I have this skill that just opens up my brain.
“You’re golden. The application of it is just endless and I really wish more people could see that.”
Among her many accomplishments when she was younger, Smith was World Baton Twirling Champion in 1999. She left Red Deer when she was 18 but still considers it her hometown. Her mom and step dad, Louise and Frank Watson, now live in Canmore. Her father, Harry Smith, who is disabled, still lives in Red Deer.
Smith said getting into the film industry is not easy.
“You have to be patient, believe and trust it will happen but you have to put the work in.”
Two years ago Smith questioned herself, what she was doing, and where she was headed. So, in what seems to fit for someone who just never seems to stop, she decided to do something that turned out to be life-changing.
She walked for 33 days on the Camino de Santiago in Spain — a pilgrimage route many people walk as a way of growing spiritually.
“To work in this industry you put so much of yourself into it, and you don’t always get anything in return because there’s no overnight success. It is years and years of hustling and constant networking, and I sort of woke up one day … ‘I don’t think I love this.’”
She came back with some clarity. “I changed my priorities. Now if I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, I don’t do it.”
She’s had to keep quiet about her work on Deadpool until now due to a confidentiality agreement.
The latest numbers estimate the movie, which opened on Feb. 12, has earned $325 million (U.S.) worldwide as of Wednesday, breaking numerous records, including 20th Century Fox’s largest opening ever.
“I felt that (Deadpool) was going to be good because the energy on set was really cool. It was a really ego-less set. … Everyone was just really having a good time. I think that reads really well in the finished product.
“I knew that it was going to be good. I didn’t know that it was going to be so successful.”
“And watching Ryan, Ryan Reynolds, he’d be in his Deadpool suit and not have a mask on and then as soon as he put the mask on he became this cartoon character. It was quite incredible to watch. … He’s a very nice guy.”
Last fall, Smith was invited to audition for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. She’s hoping that turns into something.
“That’s been on my list since I was about 10. I feel that it’s very, very close but I’m not going to sit around and wait for it.”
For more about Smith, visit her website michellecsmith.com