Car Culture

Hey, Susan Purkhiser, how'd you get to be a super-awesome stunt driver?

She spends her days making the stars look like precision drivers in movies like "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Identity Theft" and "Spider-Man 3." So what's that like?

Eric Van Arsdale

Let's be honest: In the world of automotive jobs, being a stunt driver is probably the coolest way to learn a living. Ever. Susan Purkhiser is living the dream in Los Angeles, working as a stunt driver in both movies and TV. She doubled for Charlize Theron in "The Italian Job," hurling a Mini Cooper down a flight of stairs and flying out of a sewer tunnel. She even got nerdy, doubling Jimmy Bennett, who played the young James T. Kirk in the 2009 "Star Trek." 

Purkhiser is mostly self-taught, hooning around Seattle in her teen years. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1996 she took a class at the Bobby Ore Stunt Driving School  and she was so great at it, they asked her to be an instructor. You can keep up with Purkhiser's career on her Instagram account

Susan Purkhiser

Purkhiser is a master behind the wheel of pretty much any car.

Eric Van Arsdale

I caught up with Purkhiser over email to find out just what it takes to be a kickass stuntwoman.

Q: What was your first car?
Purkhiser: When I was in 9th grade, a guy that had already graduated showed up to my high school in a 1968 Camaro and I instantly fell in love … with the car. I convinced him to give me a ride, and we proceeded to race around the streets of Seattle, doing burnouts, donuts and drifting. That was all it took to get me hooked!

I went on a mission to have my own car, and found a baby-blue 1967 Camaro sitting in an old lady's yard with grass 3 feet high growing around it. I bought it for $1,000. What a steal!

The mechanic that I worked with and I converted it from a three-on-the-tree automatic to a Hurst four-speed manual shifter. I painted it black and added a hood scoop and small wing.

Shaved the door handles and put in solenoids under the door jam that I could kick and the door would pop open. It had a 327 engine from a Corvette, which we completely rebuilt, 12-bolt positraction rear end, and big, huge Mickey Thompson wheels and tires. Great for sliding and doing donuts!

Susan Purkhiser

We're gonna need some more tires. 

Joseph Kennelty

I spent years in that car street-racing anyone that would engage me, and still can't believe that I never got in trouble. I drove from 14 to 18 without a license, and never got caught!

What was your first automotive job and how did you get it?
My father had gotten me a job at his friend's auto shop as the mechanics assistant. He thought that was a good idea, as I was always in the garage while he was tinkering on his cars. Little did he know… that job would be the start of my driving passion.

The mechanic took me under his wing, and was the one that taught me how to work on cars, doing tune-ups, and even rebuilding engines. He also taught me to drive his Bradley GT kit car, and was the person responsible for me getting my Camaro. He kept it in his name, as I was only 14, and helped me build it after hours. My parents had no idea that I had the car!

Tell me about a typical day on set.
I check in with production first thing in the morning. If I am doubling someone, or playing a part, I'll head off to wardrobe, and then hair and makeup. Once through that, I like to meet up with the stunt coordinator, to see if I can get a look at the car. You never know what you are going to end up with. It might be a fully prepped stunt car with a functioning hydraulic e-brake (for slides), new brakes, new tires and everything working properly, or it could be the biggest piece of junk, with no brakes, seats that are barely bolted in, no seatbelts, only works in 2nd and 4th gear, and has no reverse... oh, and the heater is stuck on high heat and on full blast and it's 90 degrees outside. Yes, I've had that more than a few times!

Once I get to the car, I usually check out the basics: tire pressure, brakes, does it actually start, seat position. Sometimes they are stuck in one spot and it's usually for someone 6 feet tall. That's when I have to get creative with padding, as I'm 4'10". There's no saying, "This won't work." You have to figure out how to make it work. I also carry my own belts with me, and usually just throw in a lap belt to be completely secure.

If I'm lucky, once I'm through with the basic check, and If I can get permission, I might have time and a location to actually test out the car. The most important question I need to answer is, "Will this car actually do what they want me to do with it?" For example, I need to know if the e-brake locks up, and if it does, I don't want to pull it too many times, as you never know how many lockups you might get before the cable starts stretching.

Susan Purkhiser

Purkhiser is just 4 feet 10 inches tall, so there is always some major seat adjusting to be done before a stunt.

Kaz Shimada

More than a few times, I am not able to even set eyes on the car before the scene, and then I'm fully just winging it. People always wonder why my stunt bag is so big for a driving job, but you never know what you are going to encounter, and I like to be prepared.

In a perfect world, once we get to set, the stunt coordinator will discuss the shot with all involved: other stunt people, medics, camera department, director and assistant directors. Sometimes we even break out the toy cars to map out where everyone is going to be. Then we walk the route and everyone jumps in their cars and does a half-speed rehearsal, then a full-speed rehearsal, which is always filmed, just in case it's the only take you get. That's in a perfect world. A lot of the time, you just get to set and they pop you in the car and say, "Here's what we would like you to do." Then you know that the first take is a getting-acquainted take, and you don't want to push the limits.

My motto is to always hold something back on the first take, so you can always give them more. Usually before a stunt I like to sit in my car and visualize the entire scene. I'll close my eyes, and sometimes almost fall asleep meditating on what's going to happen. I've actually had friends come over and ask me if I'm OK, cause usually I'm always smiling and laughing, and they are not used to seeing me be quiet. I'm always very calm and focused right before I go.

What's the most tedious thing about your job?
The most tedious thing about my job is the waiting. You can be on set for a whole day, and they might never get to your scene and have you come back the next day. Or you can be there for 12 hours and you will be last shot of the day/night. It's still the most amazing job, but the waiting can be so boring. I like to be busy all the time.

Susan Purkhiser

Just a typical day at work, filming a stunt for "Star Trek."

How does tech affect the future of your job?
When I first got into stunts in 1996, everyone was talking about CGI replacing all of us in 10 years. Well, it's been 22, and we are still going strong. A few things are different, like there are very few high falls being done these days. They are either CGI'd in, or they are done on cables now. Otherwise, it's work as usual. 

With the cars, tech has definitely made my world a lot more difficult. Knowing how to get around the traction control systems, when every car is different. It used to be we would pull the fuses, then the car companies got smart, and put in failsafes to disable the car when the fuses were pulled. Limp mode is no fun when you are on set.

Usually there are ways to disengage the traction control completely, but it's not often in the manual. They tell you about the first setting, which will turn back on if the car gets sideways, then there is setting No. 2, which they don't talk about, as you are completely on your own with no backup. So you have to figure it out on your own.

I've actually been on set, in a car at my No. 1 position, waiting for them to call action, and I'm on my cell phone with a friend who races that very car, asking how to turn it off. It's usually, hit the off button once, then hold down for an additional 12 seconds while scratching your stomach and patting your head and it will stay off.

What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
The lack of driving requirements to get your license in the US. Europe has an amazing system to get a license. They have way more extensive schooling with hours and hours of advanced training. They have incredible car control and knowledge of not only the road rules, but common sense, on how and where to drive.

Susan Purkhiser

Some folks sit behind a desk, other folks slay tires for a living. 

Eric Van Arsdale

Take slow left-lane drivers here in the US. They are very self righteous that they belong there, and they don't care if people go fast around to the right into slower traffic as they are breaking the law. Yes, it's the law, but common sense says that your driving is dangerous, and will most likely cause many accidents that could be avoided. In Europe, they know to never be in the left lane unless passing, regardless of speed limits, or lack of speed limits.

Teens should have an incredible amount of schooling before getting their license, and it's just not happening, which is why the death rate for teens in automobiles is so high. I help teach teens advanced driving skills (slide recovery) through Ford's Driving Skills For Life program. I've been really proud to work with them, and it's really opened my eyes to the lack of education they are getting.

What is the one project that you've wanted to tackle professionally but haven't had the chance?
The one project that has eluded me so far, is my own video series. I want to show young girls and women of all ages that girls can rip it up in a car too! But I'm pushing hard to make that happen this year, so stay tuned!

If you weren't a stunt driver, what would you be doing?
If I wasn't working as a stunt driver, I would be a pilot. I actually got my pilot's license the year before I found out about stunts, and was going to be a corporate pilot. I really wanted to fly jets! I was building my hours, and working towards my commercial rating when I decided to move to LA to do stunts. I've flown a few times since, but not near enough. I would love to start that up again.