“Film stunts are safe. Usually”
Hollywood stuntwoman Olivia Jackson, 34, was a kick-ass go-to for stars like Charlize Theron. Then the unthinkable happened. “The shot required no helmet: my face was degloved, the artery in my neck severed and I woke from a coma two weeks later.”
Iremember everything about the lead-up to the stunt. The director calling, “Action!” Twisting the motorbike’s throttle and feeling its power as it shot towards the camera. Then my memories cut, and I’m grateful my mind is protecting me from the moment of impact. I have enough reminders of what happened. The scar curving from my brow, around my eye to my left ear. My paralysed left arm.
The simple stunt for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter had gone so wrong. It was the first day on set: I was there as Milla Jovovich’s stunt double and had to drive a bike in a straight line while an oncoming camera on the arm of a crane would lift up and over me.
I did exactly that, but the camera did not. The arm failed to clear and collided with my upper body and head. The shot required no helmet: my face was degloved (when skin is torn from the underlying structures), the artery in my neck severed and I woke from a coma two weeks later.
When my sister visited me in hospital, she saw my teeth where my cheeks used to be. Morphine numbed the pain of my shattered shoulder blade, severed crown, collapsed lung, brain bleed and broken clavicle, ribs and vertebrae. But it gave me such horrific hallucinations about motorbike crashes that it was a relief to wake up to reality. My husband David’s face showed only compassion: he hid his worry, knowing I needed him to be strong. But I still cried when I saw him. They were tears of gratitude because I knew, even while woozy with morphine, that he loved me.
All my life I was used to being pretty and strong and able to do whatever I wanted, so I felt scared David would be embarrassed of me. Now the kick-boxing model-turnedstuntwoman he married was scarred.
The surgeons spent five hours operating on my face while I was still in a coma. A plate was made that mirrored my remaining cheekbone, and they used tweezers to put the pieces of my eye socket back together.
When I saw my face for the first time, four weeks later, I was stunned. There were no bandages, just hundreds of stitches and staples. Lacerations criss-crossed my face, my entire right cheek was scraped away, the left-hand side was swollen and my whole face looked askew. I felt devastated and scared I would never look normal again. I just had to believe it would get better, and it did.
The road to recovery
It was strange learning to walk again: it was as if my body had completely forgotten how to do it and I battled to keep upright, as my neck was pushed over to one side. David had to hold me up on my wobbly legs, and just shuffling to my hospital room door and back was painful and left me breathless. It felt alien – I was used to martial arts and running half marathons. Training taught me to push through the pain, so each day I tried to take two more steps.
The weight of my arm weighed me down. David said that even when I was still comatose, I pointed to my left arm as if to tell him that it wasn’t working. That really upset him.
My family knew my arm was paralysed, but didn’t have the heart to tell me. So I had no bombshell news, just a gradual realisation. Throughout all the specialists’ tests, there hadn’t been a single movement. My optimism ebbed away, so by the time doctors confirmed the paralysis, I’d already come to terms with it. I thought of the amazing Paralympians, and of Bethany Hamilton – the pro surfer who had her arm bitten off by a shark in 2003, but relearned to surf. They became my new role models.
Humour has always helped in every situation, and David and I have had lots of lighter moments throughout my recovery. If I think too far into the future, I get upset, so I try to just enjoy each day as much as I can. The left side of my forehead is paralysed, so my left eyebrow doesn’t lift. It really cracks him up if I pretend to be surprised and suddenly pull only my right eyebrow up high. And making him laugh makes me laugh, too.
We married in May 2015 on a beach near my home in Cape Town. I wanted to wear dungarees, but my family put their foot down. So instead I wore flipflops and a white flowing slip dress.
So when the accident happened last October, I was a happy newlywed enjoying my job. I’d spent 15 years as a martial arts fighter in Thailand, and also modelled before joining the stunt industry. A fellow professional cast me as an actress in one of his films. I had to do my own stunts, so a good teacher trained me for weeks. It took off from there. That’s the hardest thing to cope with now. I pushed myself hard on little films, earned my way on to bigger ones and then the best films. Then boom. It’s all gone.
My new appearance
I look so different now. I’m used to being muscular and strong, but all of my muscle had atrophied. Once the doctors had ensured that I was both physically and mentally prepared, my paralysed left arm was amputated. Some of my stunt colleagues put me in touch with people who make bionic arms. Maybe I’ll get one, or maybe I’ll just rock my stump. Every day David tells me that I am beautiful.
My injuries may sound depressing, but I’m not depressed. And I’m not bitter or angry. Learning to sit up and walk again was so hard, my mind was wholly focused on regaining strength – I don’t have the time or headspace to feel down. At first I missed my old face, and now I’m amazed by my new one. The scars have healed so well and even the big one is fading.
Doctors told my family I might not have any use of the left-hand side of my face, and it would hang down. They also said I was possibly brain damaged and wouldn’t recognise anyone or know what was going on. So I’m very grateful for what I do have and try not to yearn for what I don’t. Usually doing stunts on film is safe, thanks to the protocols in place and rehearsal time, but if I’d moved 2cm to the left on that bike, I’d have died.
The support from the stunt and film community has given me a huge lift. Milla Jovovich wrote a caring message and asked to visit, but I hope she understands I just wanted to be with family. Charlize Theron, who I worked closely with on Mad Max: Fury Road, sent beautiful flowers. People who had similar accidents emailed me and it’s inspiring to see how they came through it. I felt the whole world willing me to get better.
Now I need something fresh to focus on. I’ve always liked working towards mammoth challenges, like mastering new stunt skills, learning new sports or practising motocross jumps. These days, I celebrate goals like feeding, showering or dressing myself. Baby steps, but still progress.
Being Buddhist has helped ease my recovery, and I’ve learnt to take things as they are. I don’t stress too much about my face as I understand if something can’t be changed, there’s no use in worrying about it. And if it can be changed, then there’s no use worrying because it will change.
If I was asked a year ago how I’d react if I lost my arm, I’d have answered, “Wail, scream, cry.” But we are all stronger than we know. If we believe in ourselves, we can do anything we want.
I have shed loads of tears. Some in pain, some in fear, but many more of happiness because I realise how much I love David and my family and how lucky I am to have them. I haven’t yet chosen a new path, but whatever I decide to do next, I know it’ll be brilliant. I’m positive I will find new goals to work towards. I always do.
It’s OK to have eight variations on a navy jersey if you wear them all, but there’s little point in getting a cherry red jersey if you won’t ever wear it.
It may look fabulous in the store, among the rails of more ‘It’ things and in the company of a convincing sales assistant, but in the cold light of day, is it actually going to be something you will reach for from your wardrobe? And can you name three situations when and where you would wear it?
Avoid shopping on a whim – this leads to mistakes. But if you see a piece that won’t date (like gingham), don’t think twice.