And ... action! Jolene Van Vugt lands in Hollywood
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's February 27 issue. Subscribe today!
The lipstick is the first to go. Then the eye makeup and foundation that today's makeup artist used to soften the imperfections. Over the past few months, Jolene Van Vugt, 36, has grown accustomed to looking not quite like herself. A motocross champion and the first female member of Nitro Circus, she has launched a new career as a Hollywood stuntwoman. And as she looks in her bathroom mirror and washes away the gloss, she admits she doesn't know which Jolene the reflection will reveal.
"I see a different face now," she says, referring to the accident 17 months ago that changed her life. "Some days I'm grateful for what I see. On a bad day, all I see is the scar." That's when she reminds herself she's thankful to be alive and where she is today. All it took was Catwoman, a motorized toilet and a brush with death to get her there.
The opening notes of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" fill a Madrid arena as Van Vugt rips her Suzuki RM-Z250 toward a motocross ramp. "Nitro fans! Who wants to see a backflip?" an announcer booms during the final show of Nitro's 2015 European summer tour. "Get on your feet for Nitro Girl! The only woman in the world loca enough to try this trick!" She doesn't know it, but this will be the final backflip of her Nitro career. As she sticks the landing, pillars of fire erupt from the arena floor.
That backflip is Nitro Girl's signature move, the trick that started it all. In July 2005, Van Vugt visited motocross icon Travis Pastrana at his Maryland home, where he told her he'd been looking -- unsuccessfully -- for a female rider to learn the backflip. Although she'd never hit a ramp on her dirt bike, Van Vugt went for it. Within two months, under Pastrana's guidance, she became the first woman to successfully backflip a full-sized dirt bike.
In Van Vugt, Pastrana found something he hadn't in other riders: a commitment level on a par with his own. He started inviting her to video shoots for Nitro Circus, his group of action sports athletes. "Any time Trav sent an invite, I said yes before reading the first sentence," Van Vugt says. "But I didn't know it would lead to a career."
As Nitro Girl, Van Vugt BASE-jumped from a biplane, backflipped her dirt bike into the Grand Canyon and set a land speed record on a motorized toilet. She'd fantasized about becoming a Hollywood stuntwoman as a teenager in Canada, but even as she was performing stunts for a living with Nitro, she didn't consider herself equal to those women. "I never called myself a stuntwoman," she says. "You can't just go into your backyard, film yourself doing crazy s--- and call yourself a stuntperson. I didn't think I'd earned it."
The London track is slick from rain as Van Vugt arrives for the audition of her life in May 2011. She's here to ride the machine in front of her, and she isn't even sure how to mount it. "The Batpod is not a motorcycle," says Tom Struthers, stunt coordinator for Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. "It's a concept vehicle with two wheels."
It'd been difficult enough to find a double for Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight -- "A lot of very talented motorcycle guys couldn't ride the Batpod," Struthers says -- but it seemed impossible to find a woman to ride it as a double for Anne Hathaway's Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Still, Struthers and Nolan were determined, partly because SAG-AFTRA rules stipulate that directors "make every effort to cast qualified persons of the same sex and or race" as the character for which they double. Nolan's crew also couldn't imagine casting a man to mimic Hathaway's seductive performance. "That would have killed the Catwoman image in my mind," says George Cottle, assistant stunt coordinator on the film.
Van Vugt, who had never auditioned for a Hollywood gig before, was given just three days to master the Batpod; otherwise the job would go to Batman's double, French stuntman Jean-Pierre Goy. By the end of the first day, Van Vugt was racing Goy around the track and doing figure eights. "Jolene is a supremely talented biker," Nolan says. "She picked it up like a natural."
For four months that fall, Van Vugt put on the Lycra catsuit, elbow pads, a helmet and brunette wig, and applied layers of foam sealant and talc to protect her skin from the leather gloves and boots. That's right, Nitro Girl is allergic to leather. "I didn't want anybody to know or to think I was high-maintenance," Van Vugt says. "But my hands started breaking out in massive red, itchy patches, and the makeup lady noticed."
On days she didn't pilot the Batpod, the crew tutored her-how to drive a police car, handle weapons, get blown up. As Nitro Girl, Van Vugt felt like an adrenalized version of herself, a role she rarely had the luxury to turn off. But on set, by becoming someone else, she felt free to be Jolene. "It was a moment in life where you think, 'This is where I'm meant to be,'" she says. "I thought, 'I want to do this the rest of my life.'"
But she wasn't ready to leave Nitro Circus, so when the film wrapped, she packed up her new skills and went back. Then in September 2015, one day before her 35th birthday, her world came crashing down.
Van Vugt has never watched footage of the accident that nearly killed her. But a video exists. At Nitro Circus, the cameras are always rolling. In the clip, she's seated in a plastic whiskey barrel, her head and shoulders exposed and a towrope in her hand. On this test run, she's trying out a winch that will replace a 50-foot ramp and the whiskey barrel, a new contraption similar to her motorized Barbie car. The winch springs into action, pulling her toward a ramp at 30 mph. She lets go, and in an instant, the barrel starts to wobble and careens off course on two wheels. "I couldn't jump off," she says. "I was a sitting duck." Her right elbow hits scaffolding, and then her face smashes into a pole a couple of feet away. With Van Vugt still inside, the barrel slams onto the concrete 5 feet below, and the video fades to black.
During Nitro Circus Live shows last year, the video would segue to a photo of Van Vugt with a jagged scar on her forehead and her right arm in a cast; she's had multiple surgeries, including one to insert a large plate and 17 screws into her arm, and another to reconstruct her nose and left eye socket. An emcee would ask the crowd to wish her well.
But Van Vugt didn't want that video shown. She pleaded with Mike Porra, then Nitro's CEO, to pull it. "I felt violated," she says. "But I was told he owns the video and could do with it what he wanted." She appeared at a few shows, looking away while the video played and waving to fans when it ended. But after each event, she felt worse. After several months away, she told Porra she was ready to return to Nitro -- on her terms. No video. "It wasn't something I wanted to rehash for someone else's entertainment," Van Vugt says. Porra's answer, again, was no. The video stayed. Van Vugt felt she had no choice but to walk away.
"I had to stand up to him, stand up for myself," she says. "It was the hardest decision of my life to leave Nitro. But I felt angry and disrespected. I control my life and my story, and I was determined to get that back."
Blood drips from Van Vugt's right foot through a hole in her faux-leather boots and onto the kick-starter of a Honda CRF250. She ignores the pain, kicks the bike to life and tears down a dirt road. When fans watch this scene in the Season 2 premiere of NBC's Blindspot, they'll see FBI agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) chase counterfeiter Laura Moses through wooded trails, shoot out her back tire and arrest her at gunpoint. Then Moses surrenders and removes her helmet, and Van Vugt's face appears.
Blindspot isn't Van Vugt's first stunt job since leaving Nitro last May, but it's the biggest and most meaningful. By revealing her face on-screen, she announced her return to making a living on a motorcycle, a new identity born from old skills. "It's not Jolene playing 'Jolene' in Nitro," Van Vugt says. "It's fun to step out of your own life."
When the writers saw her ride, they began scripting parts specifically for her. "They write the season as they go, and because that first scene went so well, the writers were like, we need more motorcycle scenes," says second unit director Chris Place.
A year and a half ago, Van Vugt couldn't have seen this coming, how one of the worst days of her life would lead to some of her brightest, how leaving the identity she'd known for a decade would lead her to find comfort in playing someone else. But she's made peace with the past. She lives with Pastrana and his family whenever she's based in the U.S. It was at his home where she first got back onto a bike after her accident, and it is there that she is preparing for the next time Hollywood comes calling.
"I want to show the industry they can keep building strong characters because we have the stuntwomen to back them up," Van Vugt says. "I want to help make as many female characters as badass as they can be."