A Karate World Champion Whips Hollywood Into Fighting Shape
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she makes sure movie ass-kicking is realistic.
Alone in a dark room, two women are locked in combat. One throws the other to the ground, pinning her knee into her ribs. She then cocks her elbow back, and swings it toward her opponent’s face for the decisive blow.
But the sound of bone crunching into bone never comes. Instead, there is only a loud smack as the elbow connects with a training pad.
“Better,” the woman on the ground says. “Just remember to put your whole body into the strike, not just your arm.” Her pupil, actress Imogen Poots, stands up. “You’ve got this. Now let’s go again.”
It’s just another day on the job for 33-year-old Mindy Kelly, a world-class martial artist who has quietly become one of Hollywood’s most impressive stunt professionals. While coordinating stunts on music videos for Lady Gaga, Childish Gambino, Metallica and more, Kelly developed a talent for working not just with stunt doubles but also the artists themselves. By bringing out the subtle imperfections in the way actors and musicians move, she crafts stunts and fight scenes with a rare quality — realism.
Kelly lets loose in the upcoming Jesse Eisenberg movie, The Art of Self-Defense. It’s a jet-black comedy that hyperbolizes the transcendent triumphs, absurd ritualism and magnified masculinity found in the world of martial arts — a world that Kelly has spent her life navigating.
You can be kind to people — and get better performance.
Growing up in Ohio, Kelly couldn’t wait to get started as she watched her father and brother practice martial arts, She began training in kenpo karate under her father’s instruction at age 4; by age 10, she was a black belt. She earned a second black belt in taekwondo, and started supplementing her kinetic education with gymnastics classes.
Kelly also displayed some not-so-subtle signs that she might be destined for life in the entertainment industry, recording commercials in the living room or choreographing dance and martial arts routines at get-togethers with friends. “At the end of the night, we’d do a performance. Those poor kids!” she says with a laugh.
Soon, Kelly was displaying her martial arts skills in front of a live audience. Competing in tournaments around the world, she performed choreographed routines that combined martial arts techniques with the flips she had picked up from gymnastics — and she started winning.
“She had a really well-rounded skill set,” says Steve Terada, a black belt and pioneer of martial arts tricking (a hybrid of martial arts, gymnastics and break-dancing) who plays Thomas in The Art of Self-Defense. “Other women wouldn’t focus as much on their punches, so having fast, strong hands is something I would drill with her — and she became a beast at it.” By the time Kelly retired from sport karate at age 22, she had earned more than a dozen world titles — and a place among the top competitors of her generation.
But what would come next? There aren’t many ways to pay the bills using a mix of combat expertise, acrobatic skills and flashy performance. But there is one field that, as Kelly’s peers like Terada also discovered, is a good fit: the Hollywood stunt industry.
Kelly moved from Florida to Los Angeles, and in 2010 she was hired as the fight choreographer and a stunt performer for Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” music video. Over the next few years, she snagged small stunt roles in big-budget projects like The Dark Knight Rises, Transformers: Age of Extinction and the Daredevil TV series — but working as a woman in the stunt industry comes with unique, often dispiriting challenges. And Kelly, whose mother is South Korean, is the rare woman of color in the field.
“One coordinator told me that if I wanted to be a stunt double, I needed to starve myself to lose muscle,” Kelly says. While coordinating small projects and music videos, she was confronted with skepticism about how she had gotten the job. One crew member even had the gall to announce, in front of everyone, that he was the real stunt coordinator.
These condescending digs fed a persistent sense of self-doubt that Kelly battled over the years, a fight that continues today. “I had to learn how to love me for me,” she says. “It’s an ongoing process, and it took a lot of hard work, but I finally trust my voice, my opinion and my art.
“And that judgment from other people — that’s what made me want to be a coordinator,” she continues. “You don’t have to break people down or tell them that they’re not good enough. I believe that you can be kind to people — and get better performance.”
While working on The Art of Self-Defense as one of the few female stunt coordinators in the industry, Kelly had the chance to prove herself right. Most action films give their actors months to prepare, but Kelly had just one week to train Eisenberg and Poots — and all of 24 hours to turn Alessandro Nivola into a full-fledged sensei, or teacher of martial arts. And Kelly rose to the challenge. “I was really surprised by how great she was at training the actors,” says Terada. “She incorporated her knowledge of acting, giving the actors not just the choreography but also the intention or motivation behind their movements. It made them feel a lot more comfortable, and it shows in the film.”
Rebecca Roven Oakley, an executive producer of Wonder Woman and Kelly’s closest friend, found Kelly to be a patient martial arts instructor. “She never once made me feel silly for not getting the hang of something quickly,” says Oakley. “She made everything joyful and fun, and I think that comes from a very pure love of martial arts and what she does.”
Kelly says she hopes “to inspire, to create change, to have a little kid watch something, and then go play in the yard pretending that they’re a superhero.”
And she’s making sure the hero can throw one heck of an elbow.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Mindy Kelly
- What’s the last book you read? They Can Kill You … but They Can’t Eat You, by Dawn Steel.
- What do you worry about? People not communicating with one another.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My dog. Also pasta.
- Who’s your hero? My parents.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To give back, and to help others pursue their dreams.
Read more: She’s taking on ‘wigging’ and whitewashing in Hollywood stunts.