In her own words: Stunt driver Sera Trimble

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Sera Trimble was paying her Seattle rent by valeting cars at a local hotel. When a visiting film crew noticed her fluidity behind the wheel, it prompted one of the crewmembers to clue her in that Hollywood could always use talented female stunt drivers.

In the summer of 2007, Trimble bet on herself and moved to Los Angeles. She’s now a full-time professional stunt driver, and her success belies a decade spent hustling, learning, and sacrificing as she tried to carve out a place for herself in a new city and unfamiliar industry. Her on-screen exploits, meanwhile, disguise a persona who eschews the attention-seeking, adrenaline-junkie antics one might expect of someone in her job.

When people hear “stunt driver,” they probably think Dukes of Hazzard or Ken Block. Tell us what it really entails.

When most people watch a car commercial, they just see a car driving peacefully down some beautiful road. What they don’t see is a camera car with a crane on top and a very expensive camera mounted on that crane. Then, when that car is rolling along the viewer will see a nice close-up of the car’s logo as it comes right up to the camera. What they don’t see is me trying to get the car as close to the camera as possible even as the car’s automatic braking system is kicking in and trying to prevent this from happening.

So my job is everything from that crazy sort of stuff—the drifting, the donuts, the burnouts—to what seems really boring but is actually kinda important stuff, like being able to parallel park some average car while hitting the same marks over and over again. I mean, just because someone is a good actress doesn’t mean she’s great at parallel parking, much less [able to do] it in exactly the same way time after time after time.

What were some of the challenges you faced while getting into this industry?

Beyond the technical skills, there are the personal challenges. I landed in L.A. on June 1, 2007. The first week I was here I had a lady in the industry tell me that I would never become a stunt driver because I was Asian and that I should just stick to learning martial arts.

It was one of the most harsh conversations anyone’s ever had with me. Here I was, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and all excited to be a stunt driver in L.A., and she just ripped my heart out and threw it on the floor and crushed all my dreams. But you know, maybe she did me a favor because 10 other girls might have heard that speech and they would have just gone home. Sometimes I’m surprised I didn’t just go home. She was this seasoned stunt veteran who’d been in the business for 20 or 30 years, so it wasn’t like she had no authority on the matter, but I just didn’t want to do anything else. I certainly didn’t want to do martial arts.

Honestly, I’m not sure I had any reason to believe I could be successful back then. After that conversation, I went back to my car and thought maybe I should just drive right back home to Seattle. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Hopes and dreams, I guess, though I certainly wasn’t very hopeful at the time, much less for the next three or four months when I was trying to get into the unions, staying on people’s couches and watching pets because I was homeless. That was definitely a low point for me in L.A.

It was only after three or four years here that I started working enough—and it wasn’t even that frequent, maybe once every two months or so—where I kinda felt like I was doing this for a living, even though I was still doing a ton of odd jobs. It takes a long time for this to feel like any kind of job, and I’m still not sure how secure I feel in this industry even now.

To what extent do you consider driving to be a craft, and how have you worked to improve at that craft over the past 10 years?

The craft is in being able to immediately adapt to behaviors that you didn’t even know existed in cars. I might show up for a shoot and have things breaking off a car, or not working at all. Cars have all kinds of interesting suspensions and nannies and transmissions (and old cars are totally different from new cars), but no matter what’s going on you have to deal with these things, adapt to them, and get the job done even if you’ve never seen them before and have had no time to practice with them beforehand. There are a lot of little tricks that we pull out of our heads to get certain results by cheating the physics to get a car to react in a certain way. The craft is in having this understanding of how cars work and being able to get the job done.

The way you become able to do this is through a lot of training. When I first moved to L.A., I spent the first five years taking almost every dollar I earned and putting it right back into some sort of racing or driving school. Team O’Neil Rally School. DirtFish. Skip Barber. BMW M Performance School. Porsche Sport Driving School. Mercedes AMG Driving Academy. Jaguar’s driving school. You name it.  All of these things take time and money, but you do them because everything is different and you need to know intuitively how things work and be able to push cars to their limit without much advance practice on any given car.

I did this series of commercials for DriveTime and I had to drive a 1980s Mitsubishi minivan that was doing dolphin hops all over the place. Every time you’d pull into the driveway it would porpoise from front to back to front to back. I had to do an e-brake slide with it, which it really didn’t want to do, and the e-brake didn’t work very well anyway. Oh, and it was very underpowered so I barely had enough speed to do anything. The trick was to specifically pull the brake while it hit the front porpoise because on that back porpoise the van wouldn’t pivot around. So I had to bounce the van and then pull the e-brake when it would hit the front porpoise. Being able to do this—just  being able to know what was required to make the van do that—came from having a lot of seat time with all kinds of cars and knowing how they behave.

Stopping on marks can be practiced, but there’s a certain intuitive understanding of cars that we’re really chasing. Racing, especially wheel-to-wheel racing, is pretty good preparation for this because it makes you very aware of where your vehicle is at all times and it helps you learn the constraints of your vehicle. I love 24 Hours of Lemons racing for this reason. You’re out there in cheap cars that don’t really want to do what you’re asking them to do, but you’re racing side by side, having a lot of fun at low speeds, and learning a lot about car dynamics.

Ultimately, it’s just a very nonsystematic education that allows us to get better at this. Some people get into it through racing–guys like Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust–who have incredible car control and are great at going fast. However we get into it, though, there’s always room for improvement. You just never want to feel like you just barely made something happen. It’s not like we get to “measure twice, cut once.” It’s more like we often have to “measure once, cut once,” so we’d better bring as much experience as we can to that.

Is there a bit of driving work you’ve done that makes you proud?

That would be the Infiniti “Driver’s Test” commercial.

The basic story idea is that the mom is there at the DMV with her little 16-year-old daughter who’s in the car with the instructor. The mom says, “OK, just go do it like we practiced, honey!” And then this little 16-year-old girl goes out and rips around the driver’s-ed course. She does all the slaloms and then sticks it into reverse and rips through it backward. At the end of the commercial she does a reverse 180 and lands in a parallel parking spot in front of the DMV in the middle of the frame.

Everything about this last shot was difficult because, first, it was supposed be a forward 180 into the spot, which is wildly different than a reverse 180, but the car wouldn’t do a forward 180 because all the electronic nannies wouldn’t let the car lock up. You couldn’t power drift into it because of all the nannies. You couldn’t get the turn angle into it without the nannies shutting something down, so it became a reverse 180 to land in front of the curb.

Now, a reverse 180 is technical because if you do it right the car pivots and sits exactly where you want it, but if you do it wrong the car starts walking backward into a curb—and this car was a handmade, pre-production model with wheels that existed nowhere else in the world. Oh, and you have to commit with speed because not committing will also make the car walk backward.  Finally, I couldn’t approach in a straight line because of the shape of the curb itself in an oval roundabout. Just a ton of little technical things, but I did it three times and did not hit the curb once.

Each time I was relatively consistent, just moving my mark about a foot each time to get exactly where the mark was. I was being cued by a stunt coordinator, who’s also my industry mentor and who was giving me a verbal cue and having me react to it to land the car at a certain spot at a certain time. It was incredibly technical and I was very proud—and relieved—to have been done with that shoot. I was nervous all day because even as I was thinking of all the things that could go wrong I had all these people casually saying to me, “You know we don’t have any more of these wheels, right? You know this car doesn’t exist, right?” And I was just thinking, “Great, thanks for that bit of knowledge.”

Mostly, though, the stunt coordinator—my mentor—was really proud and I was grateful for that.

How important are mentors and advocates in this industry?

My mentor is Brent Fletcher and he’s amazing. In Los Angeles there are people who will overstate their abilities to get jobs and end up getting hired, but a lot of other jobs are gotten based on referrals from very important people who only trust other people. Brent is one of the people whom others trust a lot, and when he recommends someone they know that person is competent to do what they need. So it’s a great feeling to be trusted by someone like Brent.

Nobody wants to give out referrals for someone who might jeopardize their integrity.  Brent knew that I took all those courses before I was even considered a professional driver because I never wanted to be on set and not be able to do what somebody asked of me. He saw me taking responsibility for my own skills and not making excuses for myself and then he took a chance on me and gave me my entire career by telling others that I was worth a damn.

What’s a common misconception that people have about you as a stunt driver?

A lot of people think we’re just a bunch of crazies drifting and sliding around all the time. If they were to follow me onto set on an average day, though, they might see a director of photography (DP) with his eye pressed up to an eyepiece on a camera, with the lens on a camera that extends off a dolly. My job is to drive as hard and fast as I can and get the logo of the car right up near his lens without actually hitting the camera, because that camera is attached to the DP’s eye socket, and oh, by the way, in his other life he’s also the director of photography for Steven Spielberg. I sometimes find myself in that situation, sitting there wondering how I got myself into this and why this person trusts me. That dude is worth a lot more money than I am and, as it turns out, there’s a strict policy against taking out Steven Spielberg’s DP.

I just never want to be a famous stunt driver, because that would mean that something went terribly wrong. And I don’t want to be a YouTube fail video.

This is not a job for people who want attention and thrills. I love being able to work in this industry but not actually be in the show myself. I like being behind the scenes. I enjoy the concentration and technical challenges of this job, and making the car do something it doesn’t want to do. For me, being the world’s most famous stunt driver is like being the world’s loudest mime. If it’s the attention you want, you’re in the wrong line of work.

All of this means that the most rewarding part of this job is being done. I hardly ever see the finished product so the most fulfilling part of this life is to do what you’re supposed to do on any given day when it’s super challenging. At the end, when it’s all finished, when no one’s eye socket is blown out, and when you didn’t run over three people sliding sideways, you get to know you know you did a good job and made everyone happy. Only then do I get to go home, drink a nice Old Fashioned, and feel good about myself.

So what’s in this professional stunt driver’s garage?

I have a 1986 Porsche 911 Carrera and a 1968 Dodge Charger with a 572 Hemi.

With the job I have, I can’t say that I get a big thrill out of driving cars around on the road at normal speeds. Long road trips are fun, though, and I just enjoy the experience of driving different cars.

The Porsche is its own experience. It feels like its own car, with a unique smell and completely different handling in the canyons compared to any modern car. You don’t even have to be going at breakneck speed to enjoy driving it. You just get a sense of what it felt like to enjoy driving back when it was made.

The Dodge is…less maneuverable, but that’s what happens you get a car that’s huge and not a performance vehicle per se and then stick, basically, a NASCAR engine into. But it’s just a different experience, and I love getting out of it and smelling like gasoline. It’s fun because anyone I take for a ride in it always says it’s like a carnival ride. It’s big and loud, it rumbles and shakes. When you tap the gas, the front end wants to lift off the ground. It’s just a completely different experience from driving a Prius around L.A. I’m certainly not driving it to look like a reckless person, but you don’t exactly have to try with that car. Every time I get into the Charger I’m instantly that 13-year-old back at a car show again, who was overwhelmed by the aesthetics and experience of seeing these cars in person for the first time. The enthusiasm is just right there at my fingertips.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity. Photo by Jeremy Heslup.

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