For someone who claims to never have read comic books or been into sci-fi growing up, Thekla Hutyrova is carving out an impressive resume playing superheroes and warrior cyborgs in the types of films that make the halls of San Diego Comic Con rattle with enthusiasm.
From Logan and Deadpool 2 to the most recent Alita: Battle Angel, Thekla has adapted her competitive martial arts experience to suit the demands of supernatural fighting and motion capture stunt work. Her incredible acrobatic ability has established her as a force in the stunt world, and her natural athleticism helped her knock it out of the park as a Rough Around The Edges trainer.
The Arizona native explains how an early dedication to martial arts instilled in her an unshakable worth ethic, and how motion capture and CGI actually don’t make a stunt person’s job all that much easier.
Openfit: When did you get bitten by the martial arts bug?
Thekla Hutyrova: I started Taekwondo as a kid. I performed and competed with our school demo team, and that led me to do sport karate. Sport martial arts is basically like forms with flips involved, and then there’s a competition circuit.
So I competed in that and the NASKA circuit. And a lot of people who were on the circuit ended up coming out to do stunt work in LA—so I kinda followed that path after I was done with the circuit and had won two world titles. I followed a bunch of people to LA, made connections, and started stunts. It was a pretty easy transition.
Did you come from a sports family?
My mom is a doctor and my dad was pretty athletic when he was growing up, but no martial arts. My mom just always liked it and wanted to do it when she was younger, but never got the chance. So she put me into it and I liked it and stuck with it long enough to get two black belts in Taekwondo.
What was your schedule like when you were doing all of this?
I was in high school for most of the time when I was competing, so I’d go to school and then right after school I’d go to martial arts school. I taught the first few classes, which were like kids classes with acrobatics. Then after all that was done, I would stay for like another hour or two and run through form sections or flips. Or I would travel to a different city like Phoenix or Flagstaff and train with some other people and do tricking—which is martial arts flips and acrobatics. So the schedule was a couple of days of training and one or two rest days and then back to training.
When did you become conscious of having to monitor your diet?
My mom is a holistic doctor of integrated medicine, so she’s always been into healthy eating. I was actually vegetarian until I was 16, so I still don’t eat too much meat, but I’ll eat fish every now and then.
So I grew up as the kid who’d have a whole avocado instead of candy or cereal. And it was always organic, non-GMO foods, whole grains, not too much sugar. I’m still pretty conscious about that and I try to keep it up. Traveling makes it a little more difficult, but I try to eat organic whenever possible.
Is there a type of exercise you dread doing?
I hate running! I hit a runner’s high, like, once I think. And that’s amazing, and I understand why people enjoy it, but it’s a lot of work to get there so I usually don’t do that.
I don’t typically do workouts I hate. If I don’t feel like doing some aspect of training — like I don’t feel like flipping or kicking or doing forms that day — I just won’t do them. I’ll switch it up and do something else because there’s so many different skills that I can be training. You can choose from a variety of things, so if you don’t feel like doing cardio one day, do something else! That’s how I structure my workouts, too.
Did anything in particular surprise you about the stunt world after you entered it?
The social aspect was the most surprising to me. It’s a lot of networking — like, more so than training.
A lot of people think you just have to train, but it’s more about making sure people know you exist. That was interesting and confusing to me, because when you’re competing, you’re set up for your tournaments and everything, so it’s not like you have to be invited to them. You don’t have to promote yourself as much. With stunts, you definitely have to stay on people’s minds and make sure they know you exist.
The other stuff – because I have the background in acrobatics and martial arts – comes pretty easily to me. A lot of people aren’t that way. They have to train and work those specific skills, but that part was pretty smooth for me, which was nice.
You’ve found a niche in a lot of comic book and sci-fi films – are you a fan of that stuff yourself?
I just started reading the Alita manga, which is really good—but I did not grow up on comic books. I think that sort of stuff gravitates to me because I do flips, so I can add pretty superhero-esque acrobatics into fight scenes. That’s why I ended up getting on Logan. And Logan actually had the same stunt coordinator as Alita: Battle Angel so that’s how I ended up going on to that!
It’s mostly the skill set that kind of lends itself to sci-fi films, but I didn’t really grow up with it, no.
Is doing motion capture generally the same as regular stunts?
The aspect of motion capture that is most difficult is that you kind of have to be pretty specific with your movement, because you can see it from 360-degrees. So it all has to look good. You also have to be specific on where you’re moving in the world. You have to land on specific marks and stuff – which you have to do on features as well, it’s just different.
That’s interesting, you’d think CGI would allow you to fake it, but it sounds like the opposite is true.
Yeah, you have to definitely be good at the moves you’re doing because it captures everything and you can’t really hide from it. With camera angles on a live action film you can kind of hide a less skilled person – you can just do camera movements and stuff.
But what’s nice is that with motion capture you can get more pads usually and you don’t have to wear wigs! But you do end up in a Velcro suit and get stuck to everything, so…there are pros and cons.
Have you ever run into a stunt you thought you legitimately couldn’t do?
It’s all kind of, “you’ve never done it,” and that’s the cool thing about it. Everything is new in its own way.
Fights are pretty standard, but when you’re applying the acrobatics and the tricking to fights, there are definitely aspects that are going to be different, even if it’s the same move you’ve done over and over. You have to hit targets, you have to do a front flip and land on one shoulder, and maybe it’s on wires and maybe it’s not. Maybe your shoes are heavier this time or you’re wearing a skirt or you’re doing it in a little hallway and there’s not as much room as in a gym.
It’s amazing how much more difficult things become when you’re on set and you have wardrobe and lights, and you have to hit a specific mark or target. You just have to adapt to every situation.
Have you had to pick up any new skills doing stunt work?
Adapting my flips and movements to hitting targets and making more specific moves are definitely skills I had to learn. And then film fighting is different in a lot of ways. When I was competing at karate or Taekwondo, everything was a little faster and sharper. The stances are different—your back is usually straight and you’re a little squared. But for film fights, you kind of smooth it out more in between beats, your legs are bent, and it’s a little slower. And it’s a timing thing, too, when you’re working with the other person. It’s kind of a cross between a fight and a dance.
But I’ve been pretty lucky to have a solid, well rounded background. They’ll be like, “Do you know bow staff?” And I’ll be like, “Yes, but it’s been a second—give me a minute!”
I did have to learn how to ride a Segway for a stunt once, which was fun. I got to go in early on the day and just ride the Segway around the lot for like three hours. Then I had to ride it into a couch and fall off of it, which was actually harder than you’d think because it’s balanced so well.
How do you find motivation on tough days?
First off, I make sure I listen to my body, because there’s a difference between laziness and being really worn out and needing a rest day. So I make sure to listen to that, and if I am feeling worn out, then I just take a day and relax and stretch a bit or do some crunches or sit ups if I absolutely need to. But I definitely try to respect that as much as I can.
There’s a cool quote that I really like that is about how you have to create the habit to sustain yourself because the motivation isn’t always going to be there. Motivation kind of goes up and down whenever it wants to, so you just have to create the habit so you end up doing it. And it’s cool to know that because a lot of time people wait for motivation to come and it’s not always going to be there for you. Build the habit.