Jessie Graff knew she wanted to be an action hero from age 12. Every jump, climb, dive, fall, roll and well-earned bruise since then has been in pursuit of this goal.
“I wanted to be Xena or Buffy,” she said. “And then, in high school, it was ‘Alias.’ ”
Graff — a 31-year-old stuntwoman and former Husker pole vaulter — displays her action heroics on TV and film regularly. Her work includes “Supergirl,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “John Carter,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and many more — not quite 10 years into this business, she has more than 60 film and TV credits.
Graff has even gotten to play herself in two seasons of “American Ninja Warrior,” the NBC reality competition series whose physical requirements — jumps, sprints, grips and other feats of derring-do — align perfectly with those of her day job.
She found a way to be an action hero. But her career path had some detours.
Action hero, take one: circus performer
“From age 3 to 17, joining the circus was my primary goal,” Graff said.
Graff lived in New York City until she was 9, when her family moved to the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania, where there were plenty of trees to climb and action sequences to re-enact.
Graff had always been an athlete and a performer. Joining the circus seemed like the most practical use of her passions and skills. But after high school, she had a change of heart. She chose college instead of the circus.
“I figured,” she said, “since I was stuck in school, I might as well come up with a goal that school applies to.”
Action hero, take two: astronaut
Graff did a career aptitude test in middle school. “It said I was good at science and math,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Gosh, what could I do that would be interesting that’s related to science and math?’ ”
Floating around in space sounded pretty interesting. Graff followed this idea to the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “I had no particular interest in what astronauts actually do,” she said, “but if studying math would get me an opportunity to go to space, I figured that was worth it.”
Graff spent her freshman year at Georgia Tech learning what aerospace engineers do.
“I realized this was the worst idea I’ve ever had.”
Action hero, take three: Olympian
Honestly, the astronaut plan falling through was a relief for Graff. She has a huge list of life goals, too many to fit into one lifetime. “As soon as I realized I wasn’t going to be an astronaut,” she said, “I thought, ‘Oh, great. Now I might be able to fit the rest of my goals in.’ ”
Graff transferred to University of Nebraska-Lincoln for her sophomore year partly because of the school’s strong track and field program. Now, pole vaulting had become her No. 1 priority.
In the back of Graff’s mind was always the idea of becoming an actress. Her mother was an actress and gave Graff this advice: Take acting classes and make it to the Olympics.
Graff’s mother told her to use her athleticism as a platform for her acting career, similar to how Ronda Rousey has maneuvered her MMA fighting into movie stardom. And when it comes to platforms, there are few bigger than the Olympics.
Graff vaulted the next three years at UNL. “But I didn’t make it to the Olympics,” she said. “I still feel like that’s kind of unfinished business.”
Action hero, take four: stuntwoman
At UNL, while training to be an Olympian, Graff studied theater. As it became clear that she wasn’t going to pole vault to the Olympics, she tried to become an actress through a more traditional route.
The summer before her senior year, she went to Washington, D.C., to meet her mom’s then-agent. She handed the agent her résumé. She didn’t realize until later that it was the wrong résumé — the version she made to join the circus before college, a CV that highlighted her physical agility instead of her skills as a thespian.
The agent “was looking at the résumé and then kind of glared at me,” Graff said. “She said, ‘Why are you even here? Do you act? You know, you should be a stuntwoman.’ ”
The agent jotted down the name of a guy who could tell Graff about the stunt business and then sent the aspiring action hero back into the world a little bewildered but also wondering.
“The wheels were turning,” she said. “I was like ... a stuntwoman, of course. It was so obvious.”
Graff spent her very busy last year at UNL learning everything she could about starting a stunt career. She learned about living in L.A. and brushed up on skills for her stunt work — Graff is trained in seven styles of martial arts, with a black belt in taekwondo and a black sash in kung fu. At UNL, she trained in stage combat.
Harris Smith, an associate professor of theater at UNL, recalls teaching Graff around this time.
“The story I like to tell everybody,” Smith said, “is one day she came up to me and asked how to go about doing high falls.”
Smith told her that professional stunt people fall from a high place onto an airbag but that the poor man’s version of this is to stack a bunch of boxes as high as you can and let them break your fall.
“I thought this was a theoretical conversation,” Smith said.
But a week later, Graff showed up to class with a nasty bruise on her shoulder. Smith asked her what happened.
What happened was that she had gone outside town, climbed a billboard and jumped off the billboard onto a big pile of boxes. The first landing was perfect. The second was not.
Harris said that anecdote sums up Jessie. She’s not afraid to jump, not into a pile of boxes and not into a new career track.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that she is where she is,” Harris said.
As Graff becomes more established in her profession, it’s become easier for her to find stunt work. She still works out constantly while taking last-minute jobs at all hours of the day, but the strain of constant networking is mostly behind her. This leaves her a little more time to work on the next big item on her bucket list:
Action hero, take five: movie star
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