After Living Dozens Of Lives, Leading Stuntwoman Mimi Lesseos Has Lessons To Offer

Oct 13, 2018
Originally published on October 14, 2018 9:26 am

You had to have lingered long after watching an action movie to spot Mimi Lesseos' credit. But, eventually, her name pops up.

It's a small reward for getting decapitated by a helicopter blade on AMC's Fear the Walking Dead, or having her lights punched out in Clint Eastwood's boxing movie, Million Dollar Baby.

But sometimes the stuntwoman gets her sweet revenge, dishing out karate kicks to famous actors playing unsavory hoodlums. In Lesseos' house — which sits in a cul-de-sac in Acton, Calif., a high desert community about an hour north of Los Angeles — her walls are covered with movie posters and photos of her with celebrities she's known (George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Cher) and some she's pretended to pummel over the years.

She stops at a photo of Erik Estrada, her co-star in The Last Riders. "I beat up his whole gang, took his drugs and then they came and killed me and took the drugs back," she says, describing her star scenes in the 1992 film. Lessos, an auburn-haired 54-year-old with a sturdy build and a distinct cackle, figures she's been killed some 30 to 40 times on screen. Today, very much alive, she's dressed in black track pants and a tank top showcasing biceps boasting definition.

She entered the fight world young. When she was a teenager, Lesseos says she fled a rough household. Already armed with a bit of judo experience that she learned from her uncle, she found her way to mud wrestling by age 16. Working at Hollywood Tropicana at the time, she says, "I did the whole dance around the mud pit and fought another girl almost every night."

Lesseos moved on to professional wrestling, and "Magnificient Mimi" was born. But even though pro-wrestling moves are choreographed, Lesseos says your body still takes a beating.

In 1990, she retired from the ring to start a career in writing, directing and producing her own action films. But while making her first film, Pushed to the Limit, she ran out of funds. To help make money to finish that film, she decided to re-enter the ring — this time in Japan. There, the money was good, but the action was brutal.

She recalls particularly punishing stunt work while in Japan in a wrestling ring with electrical barbed wire in the place of ropes. "They were crazy," she says. "When you got kicked, you got kicked into the barb wire. And you would not only get shocked, but your skin would get stuck onto the barb wire."

Stunt fighting for film and TV, however, is all about safety, Lesseos says. There are pads to protect your knees and spine, the moves are precise, and there's no contact — usually. "I particularly like a little bit of contact. That's just me. It's like, 'Hit me a little bit, you know, come on!' " she says.

Lesseos has worked her share of car crashes and fires. But her specialty — and her point of high pride — is the art of fighting. "It's like a dance, a choreographed, wonderful dance and it's all in the timing. And you've pleased that director so much ... and then you get up, everybody stands up and claps." She gets choked up at the mere thought of the rewarding work, adding, "I've got chills, I almost want to cry."

But that doesn't mean injuries don't happen. Once, while stunting on a TV show, Lesseos had to absorb a car window breaking on her face.The glass was fake, but still, she was bloodied by 50 little shards of candy glass.

About 20 takes into that scene, she says, she didn't back down. "You've got to be the person who's up for another one. Because the director can hire another person and you want them to say, 'Wow that stuntgirl was badass.' "

Women are now more prominent in the stunt work industry than ever before. They've helped end the era when stuntmen would throw on a wig and a dress and pretend to be an actress.

With her 55th birthday around the corner and an arsenal packed with lessons from the world of stunt performing, Lesseos thinks it's time to pass on some of her fighting know-how.

To start, she's just written a memoir called Break the Chain: Reach For The Heavens and she's shopping around a 12-part reality show, America's Superwoman: Next Action Diva in which aspiring action stars learn how to take a fall and a punch.

NPR's Ian Stewart produced the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman adapted the story for Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Stunt work is a tough trade - almost as tough as writing our theme music like BJ Leiderman does. Stunt people have to know how to take a poke in the schnoz, get thrown off of buildings and smolder in fiery car crashes. Sure sounds like a job for the young, but about an hour outside of Los Angeles, NPR's Peter Breslow spoke with a woman who's been at it for decades. We sent Peter out to learn a few tricks of her trade.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: You have to linger a long time in your movie theater seat or on your living room couch before Mimi Lesseos' credit rolls by. But eventually, her name does pop up - a small reward for getting decapitated by a helicopter blade on "Fear Of The Walking Dead" or having her lights punched out in Clint Eastwood's boxing movie "Million Dollar Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MILLION DOLLAR BABY")

MIMI LESSEOS: Here's a wall of shame over here (laughter).

BRESLOW: Mimi Lesseos' house sits in a cul-de-sac in Acting, Calif. - a high, desert community full of scrub brush and played-out gold mines. Her walls are covered with movie posters and photos of her with the celebrities she's known - George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Cher and some she's pretended to pummel over the years.

LESSESO: Erik Estrada - I was in a movie where I beat up his whole gang, took his drugs (laughter) and then they came and killed me and took the drugs back (laughter).

BRESLOW: Lesseos, who is auburn-haired, sturdy and likes to cackle, figures she's been killed about 30 or 40 times on screen. Today, very much alive, she's dressed in black track pants and a tank top showcasing biceps boasting definition. She entered the fight world young. She says she fled a rough household when she was a teenager. And with a bit of judo experience she learned from her uncle, she made her way to mud wrestling.

LESSESO: I went to a club and got a job at the Hollywood Tropicana when I was 16 years old and did the whole little dance around, you know, the mud pit and fought another girl almost every night.

BRESLOW: From mud, Lesseos moved to professional wrestling and Magnificent Mimi was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Unintelligible) challenger - from Hollywood, Calif., here is the Magnificent Mimi.

(APPLAUSE)

BRESLOW: Along the way, she began performing stunts on screen. But even though pro wrestling moves are planned out, Lesseos says your body still takes a beating. So she retired from the ring in 1990 to begin a career writing, directing, producing and acting in her own action films. The first was called "Pushed To The Limit," but she ran out of funds while making that movie. And so she re-entered the ring, this time in Japan where the money was good, but the action was brutal.

LESSESO: They would take out the ropes and put in electrical barb wire. It was - they were crazy. And so when you got kicked, you got kicked into the barbed wire. And you wouldn't - not alone just get shocked but your skin would get stuck onto the barb wire.

BRESLOW: But stunt fighting for film and TV is all about safety, says Lesseos. There are pads for your knees and to guard your spine. The moves are precise and there is no contact - usually.

LESSESO: I particularly like a little bit of contact. That's just me, you know (laughter)? It's like hit me a little bit, you know? Come on.

BRESLOW: Lesseos has done her share of car crashes and fires, but her specialty, one she's very proud of, is the fighting.

LESSESO: It's like a dance - a choreographed, wonderful dance. And it's all in the timing. And the other person that you're fighting with has the same feeling. And you've pleased that director so much after you - you're on the floor going - and then you get up. Everybody stands up and claps. You know, I've got chills. It's just - it's - I almost want to cry. I'm sorry.

BRESLOW: But that doesn't mean injuries don't happen. Once while stunting on a TV show, Lesseos had to absorb a car window breaking on her face. The glass was fake, but still, she was bloodied by 50 little shards.

LESSESO: You know, we did like 20 takes. And, you know, I was, yeah, I'll do another one, sure. I'm up for another one. You know, you've got to be, you know, the person who is always right there. OK, yes, I'm eager to do it because the director can hire another person. And you want them to say, wow, that stunt girl was badass.

BRESLOW: Stunt work has changed, and women are now prominent in the industry. They've helped end the era when stunt men would throw on a wig and a dress and pretend to be an actress. Mimi Lesseos is almost 55 years old, and she thinks it's time to pass on some of her fighting know-how. She's just written a memoir called "Break The Chain," and she's shopping around a 12-part reality show, "America's Superwoman, Next Action Diva," in which aspiring action stars learn how to take a fall and take a punch. But today on her front lawn...

LESSESO: What do you punch with? Are you a righty or lefty?

BRESLOW: I don't punch anyone.

(LAUGHTER)

LESSESO: Are you a righty or lefty?

BRESLOW: Yeah, I'm right handed. Yeah.

LESSESO: OK. So am I.

BRESLOW: She's going to show a graying reporter how to stunt fight. The sequence - a right hook to the jaw, followed by a backhand to the face, a karate kick to the midsection and a toss onto a mat on the ground.

(LAUGHTER)

BRESLOW: This is fun.

LESSESO: It is fun. OK. Do it again.

BRESLOW: Peter Breslow, NPR News.

LESSESO: Yeah - beautiful.

BRESLOW: Are you OK?

LESSESO: Oh, I'm great. I didn't feel a thing. Did you (laughter)?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.