“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.”

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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.

The dam­age

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.

Be­hind the scenes as Milla Jovovich’s stunt dou­ble on the set of Res­i­dent Evil. ABOVE On her wed­ding day in Cape Town with hus­band David. BELOW Re­cov­er­ing in hos­pi­tal with David at her side. After the ac­ci­dent, he flew straight from a film set in Malta, w

After her paral­ysed left arm was am­pu­tated in June this year.

On set as Char­l­ize Theron’s stunt dou­ble on Mad Max: Fury Road.

Knick­ers H&M R99

Col­lared shirt Mango R599

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