The day before Mad Max: Fury Road roared into theaters, stunt professional Dayna Grant tweeted a behind-the-scenes photo of herself in full Furiosa gear, sitting in the rusty, crusty cab of the War Rig. Although she didn’t have that many followers (yet), the pic went viral, as did the ones that followed: Grant dangling from the underside of the War Rig; Grant doing jazz hands wearing Furiosa’s prosthetic arm; Grant’s fiery view as Rock Riders attack; and Grant with her husband Dane, whom she’d met on the set of Fury Road. “I brought home a Warboy,” she told me via Skype, laughing.
It’s good that she has a sense of humor, because being Charlize Theron’s stunt double on the set of Fury Road sounds like no joke. Frankly, it sounds like the sort of thing that documentaries are made of, and not just because of the rumored tensions on set between stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. The grueling pre-production training included hours and hours of gun prep with Greg van Borssum, where Dayna learned to strip and load eight different guns while blindfolded, but it was no preparation for what transpired on set. Grant demurs, “I only had one injury on [set],” but that injury was falling off the side of Immortan Joe’s monster truck and knocking herself out. Oh, and that post-storm fight between Max and Furiosa? Grant had “shocking” food poisoning the three days she spent fighting Hardy, which ended with her collapsing from dehydration and spending five days in the hospital.
Grant honed her skills on the sets of Hercules and Xena, where she worked as a stunt and riding double for Lucy Lawless. “It was the first times that we were [doing] fire burns and stuff like that, so we were getting burnt a lot,” she said, “And we were getting injured day after day. Not like these days where everything’s [rehearsed] and everything’s safe now — back then it wasn’t. I think you learn a lot from that.” Since then, she’s doubled for Gwyneth Paltrow in Sylvia, Tilda Swinton in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Rhona Mitra in Underworld 3, and Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman.
Grant is basically a one-stop stunt shop and she also runs her own stunt school, teaching everything from fire burns, high falls, and horse riding to fight choreography. She took time off from a busy schedule filming Ash vs. Evil Dead — created by her old Hercules and Xena boss Sam Raimi — to chat about all things Mad Max.
Were all of these giant stunts on Mad Max worked out by the time you got onto set?
It was pretty insane. It would go down as one of the most memorable jobs in the 20 years I’ve been doing it. Everybody who worked on this, and especially me, is quite passionate about it. I’m happy to be alive, to be honest. There was just such a small margin for anything to go wrong, but why it didn’t was because they hired the best of the best. We could all look after ourselves. With the amount of people and the amount of stunts that were happening in every scene… A coordinator couldn’t really look after you; we were all out for ourselves. So, we kind of went into a bit of survival mode.
It was tough. I’m not going to say it was easy because it really wasn’t. Like the scenes where you see me under the truck holding on, or on the side of the monster truck, that’s such a small clip of it, but I was under that truck for days and days going through the desert… We kept going, and they would keep shooting until I couldn’t hold on any more.
Did you know how grueling it would be when you signed on?
I had no idea. [Laughs, then long pause.] I really didn’t. To show how bad it was, we had people quitting. They just couldn’t handle it. And it was mentally taxing. Being in that desert for eight months on end, especially coming from New Zealand where everything’s green! At work was hard, but at home was just as hard. I had taken my whole family over… People were trying to break into the house. And they got in twice. We were always listening. The alarms were going off. So, just being in Namibia was also tough. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was just me, but I had my kids as well, so that was tough. It was all quite tiring, and I think everyone was sort of over it in the end. [laughs] We’d had enough after eight months. Mentally and physically exhausting. But so happy that I finished it and walked out fine as well.
There have been rumors and gossip about tension between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron — what was the vibe on the set? I guess everyone was going pretty stir crazy, after a while, right?
Yeah, everybody was. I mean, we were all grumpy in the end. [Laughs] We had all had enough. It was tough. But I think even on the last day, Tom Hardy was still smiling. What an amazing guy, a really amazing guy. The vibe was, how can I say, very tired people.
Some action fans seemed pissed off at the fact that Charlize is actually the star.
[*Laughs] I saw that! I remember reading the script and thinking, “Hang on a minute. This is odd.” But yeah, it was funny. I went over there thinking that I had a tiny part, and after I read the script, I was like, “Wow, I’ve actually got quite a lot to do in this!”
Which stunt was the biggest?
I would say the slide under the truck, that was the most dangerous. That really was. It was one of those where you don’t want to miss. There’s no backup. If you fall, you fall. And there were no rehearsals for it, either. We went straight into shooting it on that day, and I didn’t even know we were going to shoot it that day… That was one of the harder ones.
I think the question of work/life balance for women is actually really sexist, but the fact remains that you have a very small baby and are still doing 12-hour days on Ash vs. Evil Dead. Physically, how do you do that?
You know, if you want to do it badly enough, you do it. You find a way. I did it with my other two kids as well. I worked right up until I couldn’t work any more. Even if I was on a job, I’d cut back the major stunts and just do the basic stuff, like the fight stuff, while being pregnant. It’s like they say; as long as you’re not doing something that you wouldn’t usually do… Doing a fight scene is, as long as I’m not getting hit, then I can do that easy as anything, even if I’m pregnant.
Back when I got pregnant, I was on Hercules in Budapest, doubling Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. She’s fantastic, and most actresses would have said, “I’m not having a pregnant woman doubling me!” And she was like, “You’re awesome! You make me look good and you’re pregnant!”
What is your response to people’s response to Fury Road? For example: Did you read about the woman who has no lower arm who didn’t know what it would mean for her to see a character like Furiosa?
I thought that was really neat. I enjoyed reading that, actually. I had no idea what people were saying. You just kind of do it and you don’t even think about it. And actually, it’s only now that I realize, with all the comments and everything, how female-heavy the movie actually was. I didn’t even really think about it. I thought about it as a team thing, like Max and Furiosa, and they go on and they’re a bit of a team, and I thought of them on an equal [level], if anything. But now after things have been pointed out, I’ve kind of looked back through and gone, “Actually, she is…” ‘Cause she does do quite a lot in it! I’ve only seen the movie once. I haven’t had time to go back and see it. I do want to go back and see it again. Things are only kind of just sinking in now from it, I think.
There’s already talk of two more movies. Have you heard anything about that?
Yes, I have. [Laughs] I can’t comment.
But yeah, I’ve read one of the scripts.
So, does that mean we’ll see Furiosa again?
She’s in it. Yeah, she’s in it.
The rumors were that it was such a rough shoot that Charlize wasn’t particularly interested in doing more of them.
See, I don’t even know. The [script] that I’ve read, I don’t know if — I mean, I know it is involving [Furiosa]. I have no idea whether she will come back or not. Yeah, it was rough for her. Because she had a baby as well. That was even tougher. So, she might change her mind. Don’t know. Hopefully she does! It would be nice to have her back.
The movie is so big. All action fans are just like, we’ve never seen anything like this. It’s beyond.
George Miller is a freaking genius. He really is. Outright, the most amazing director I’ve ever worked with. And so talented. What he came up with was phenomenal. I just remember the feeling I had being in the desert, hanging out of the roof of the War Rig or something, and you had the whole armada. You had hundreds of cars, and you had the Doof Wagon there — with the guitarist, who was a musician actually playing his guitar that *actually blew flames with the sound blasting through all the speakers.
We’d get in there in the morning, and we’d all be like, “Okay, let’s mount up our cars or our trucks.” It wasn’t like a normal day of shooting where you go, oh, we’re gonna do this scene and we’ll do a little loop and we’ll come back. We get on our cars and our trucks, and we go for the day. We don’t come back. We eat lunch on the run. Everything is on the run.
You’d hear one car starting up, and it’s not your average car; even starting it’d be like a really loud bass-y [sound], and all of a sudden they’d all start up, and you’d have hundreds of them going and revving their engines. Then when they’d actually call action, you had the guitarist starting up, and the drummers, and so you’d hear all the engines revving and these drums just thumping through the entire desert, and it’s so loud, so loud, and it was so memorable…
Even when we were training in the gym, Immortan Joe [Hugh Keays-Byrne] would come in and he’d bring his stick and everything. We’d just be training in our normal clothes — we hadn’t started shooting yet — but as soon as he came into the gym, it was like we were on the movie. We all bowed down to him… We had to act like we would in the movie, and we’d just stop and drop and bow down to him. “I love you, Immortan Joe! I love you!” He would come up to the front of the gym and he’d sit down and we’d all sit 'round in front of him, and he’d sing us a nursery rhyme.
He’d go, “'Round and 'round the garden [running her finger around the palm of her hand] goes the teddy bear,” in this real eerie voice. We were all his kids. It was bizarre.
It’s like I lived in that movie… I think that’s why everyone is so passionate about it, everybody who worked on it. We lived that. That was our lifestyle. We lived Mad Max for eight months.
Jenni Miller has interviewed everyone from One Direction to The Lizardman, traversed the tundra of Park City, visited movie sets, and reviewed too many movies, books, and video games to count. She has written about film, feminism, music, and various pop culture concerns for BUST, AV Club, Salon, Moviefone, Refinery29, The Cut, GQ.com, Vulture, and an assortment of other outlets online and in print. She tweets at @msjennimiller.