Toni Jean Erasmus is an actress, singer and stunt performer. After completing her degree at Pretoria Technikon and spending a few years working professionally, she set off to study in the UK. Among her training, she branched out into some new sports and discovered that stunts could be a legitimate job. She added new levels to her training by attending film action courses through the British Action Academy. Upon returning to Cape Town, she was cast as Sister Mary Robert in the South African premiere of Sister Act the Musical. It was on moving to Cape Town that her focus moved more towards film and television, returning to Joburg once more to perform in Saturday Night Fever at the State Theatre. She has slowly built up her stunt and acting resume in a variety of international TV shows and movies filmed in Cape Town; from epic zombie deaths in Resident Evil and Maze Runner to reenactment crime shows, to the lead bad guy in the upcoming movie Camp Getaway.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My family has always been very artistic. My dad can play any instrument that you put in front of him. He would always play the guitar and we’d sing and my mom loves theatre. My parent’s first date was to see Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat when they were 19. I think I went, “I want to do theatre,” when I saw Cats on M-Net. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. It was the 1998 London production. I saw that and I went, “I must do this for the rest of my life.” Then came dance lessons, singing [and] drama. It’s evolved into now doing acting and stunts and voiceovers and things like that but that was the initial catalyst. I saw Cats and needed to do that.
You then went on to study at TUT. What was your experience like?
I loved it. I think I needed drama school because if I think about the personality I had before I went to study and the personality I have after I went to study, I probably would have gone to two auditions, cried and given up if I had gone into the industry straight after high school. Drama school was hard but I learned everything and learned how to adjust to how the industry works. There were great shows, there were great teachers and a lot of our teachers were working in the industry. They would come off a show and teach us the choreography from Chicago or Cats and then go back and do the show that evening. They kept us up to date with how the industry worked at the time. It just gave me the three years to grow up, get a bit of a backbone and obviously have a good grounding of how auditions works. It let me grow up, which is what I needed. I needed that safe space to get comfortable with myself as a performer.
From there, you went to study quite extensively in the UK. What was the decision around that?
Cats was my magic. It was the London production, so I had eyes for the West End. That was the pinnacle of musical theatre for me. That was my goal. I don’t have any ancestral visas or family in the UK so I was like, “How do I get into the UK? Student Visa!” If I continue doing a musical theatre degree, which is just a one-year drama school that will get me into the UK and get me into the right networks, hopefully, I can get a job and then advanced visas and stuff like that. I did a one-year course in Bromerly which was amazing. The one year in the UK gave me a super solid foundation of how to audition for a show. I walked out of that one-year course and they said, “You need a repertoire.” I came out with 20 songs in a repertoire, five monologues; a variety of Shakespeare, modern, comedy, drama. I then discovered that there was a post-study working visa where if you got a degree at an accredited university in the UK, you can get a two-year working visa to do with as you please. I was interested in English and film and that kind of idea so I applied to do a degree in English and film straight after I did the drama school thing in a way to give myself more time to network and get an agent and build up. Halfway through my first year, they canned that visa but I loved what I was studying and the opportunity was there and I got very involved in their theatre productions. I started doing extras work and getting into the film industry and I started just expanding my horizons that side. I got an agent and I got to a few auditions and through my singing teacher, I got involved in a couple of productions that were happening there, just on the side on a volunteer basis. Once that expired, I had to come back but I always say that it’s the best choice I never would have made for myself.
Less than two months after returning to Cape Town, you booked Sister Act…
I arrived back in January and I contacted my old agent and asked if they’d still represent me. They had changed internally a bit so I didn’t really know the people there but they were happy to have me back. One of my friends said that they were auditioning Sister Act the following week. I booked the job and then had three months before rehearsals started in June. It was a kind of a whirlwind. Since then, it’s been so hard to get into a musical. This makes it sound super easy but I’ve since then auditioned for tons of musicals and haven’t gotten another one.
During those three months prior to Sister Act, is that when you fell into stunt work?
I toyed with the idea of stunt work when I was in the UK. I had started doing martial arts and I even joined the cheerleading team at the university because they didn’t have a gymnastics team. I did all these extra things because I always wanted to be a superhero and I grew up on Hong Kong cinema and Chinese martial arts movies and that style. A friend of mine sent me information to a seminar on how to become a stunt performer in the UK and they have a registry that is very hard to get on. You have to do six skills to a national level of proficiency. It requires a crazy level of skills. I was like, “This is something I could train towards.” If you put the time in, they say, you can get all those skills in three years. It’s qualifications that you have to get to get on their registry to even be considered to work as a stunt performer there. I also discovered a couple of workshops to do fighting and sword fighting and how to make action look convincing on screen. I started doing those workshops and I kept working towards it while I was in the UK. When I had to come back to South Africa, my eyes had been opened to this industry of stunt performers. We don’t have a registry like that so indirectly I thought it might be easier for me to make connections in South Africa. By pure fluke, as soon as I got back and connected with my agent, they sent me an email from SAGA offering a film fighting workshop by a stunt guy who happened to be in Joburg at the time. I had done all the basics but thought this might be a way to meet someone in the industry. I went to the workshop and it was really fun and we learned the basics of punching and hitting and camera angles and stuff like that. I chatted with him about this being something I wanted to get into. He suggested I do a film firearms workshop in Cape Town. He gave me the number of a stunt coordinator in Cape Town. I phoned the coordinator and told him I’d like to meet to find out how one would get into the South African stunt industry. He went, “Cool. Come meet me.” I flew down to Cape Town to do the armoury course which was phenomenal. I had a meeting with the coordinator. He was busy working on Dominion at the time and he said, “This is my fight choreographer for the show. Let’s put something on camera and see how you do.” He put together a little fight and then he said, “Do you want some work next week?” I went, “Yes, I just need to go fetch my car.” I flew back, packed my car, drove down in one day and had two months to kill. He gave me my first two days of work which were definitely like, “Let’s see if she’s a crazy person who will embarrass herself on a film set.” He gave me another couple of days and then another few days. Every little one got a step higher. I think those two months were a, “Who is this new chick? Let’s see if she’s serious.” I like to think I proved myself competent.
What do you have to do every day in order to maintain a stunt career?
Because of how our industry works, our work is so random and you have to wake up and make your own work. Luckily working with stunts, getting up, you go for a run. You’ve got to focus on the skill set. That was the nice thing about the British stunt registry. They have such a specific skill set that you need. It gave me a side reference of things that I should look into training in, in order to be usable as a stunt performer. I started making friends in the parkour guys and went, “Can you teach me things?” Every day is just working on skills but with stunts specifically, it’s making sure you are fit, visually ready as well. You’ve got to always be on point because as much as we try and tell ourselves that the industry is about people, it’s also about pretty people and skinny people. In stunts, you are going to be doubling lead actresses and they are all taller than me and half my waist size. We’ve got to fall off a building looking like them but actually have some musculature to us because we don’t want to break. It’s that idea of maintaining a look, a size or at least closer to it so that if someone says, “Two weeks from now we need you on,” you can focus on your training and get down to the right space to work as an actress’s double. A lot of our bread and butter is falling and fighting. The getting set on fire and the high falls are perks but they don’t happen a lot. You are going to get punched in the face and you are going to have to hit the deck. If you are trained up and you are strong enough, that kind of stuff eventually doesn’t hurt you because you land correctly and you know how to land but if you land wrong, your muscles protect you. It’s really just focusing on training. I try to train a skill at least every day. Sometimes it’s not just stunts. I’ll work on my singing one day or watch videos on an actor’s process. If you are not feeling energetic, then you can focus on other things. It’s going to iStunt and practising things on the trampoline and basic drills of aerial awareness and practising some tricks with the parkour guys outside and going to Rush and practising things into the foam pit because it’s a safe landing.
Out of all the skills you have acquired, was there one that was the most challenging or scariest?
I think the parkour is the most challenging and scariest because it’s on concrete so if you fall, you are going to hurt yourself really badly. It was definitely out of my comfort zone. I’d say my strongest baselines are fighting. I got to Cape Town and I started doing Brazilian Jujitsu because a lot of the up and coming movies were big in jujitsu. It’s a good baseline martial arts. Between Kung fu and Jujitsu, I’m a good fighter but I was like, “I need something else.” Gymnastics is all good and well if you can land in a foam pit but then you talk to a parkour guy and he goes, “Jump over this pillar but if you do it wrong, you are going to face plant into the concrete.”
What do you find to be the biggest misconception people might have about stunt people? Would one say, “stunt people?”
Stunt man, stunt woman. There are definitely fewer women in the industry but that is up and coming. Even in the states now, women are starting to coordinate and that is new to have women actually running the job. It’s a very male-based thing but it’s slowly getting better. In film, a lot of people don’t like to put women in crowd scenes or soldier scenes because they don’t want violence against women but then I always fight back, “But there are women in the military and the police. There are women who would fight to the death for their children. By not showing that, you are taking away their power and opportunity to die protecting something they love.” But that’s a whole other ball-game about feminism. Misconception? I think it’s that we are all daredevils. People always say, “What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?” The bigger stunts are usually less scary because there is so much preparation for it. There are so many safety backups and the lines are double checked. Whereas with a simple thing like running across a road while a car goes fast, that is scarier because it’s just simple. Your brain stops focusing and you stop concentrating for a split second during a basic fight scene and then you are punched in the face whereas if you are jumping off a 62-story building, you are going to concentrate until the end no matter what because it’s very serious. Daredevils and stunt people are two very different things. A daredevil jumps over the Grand Canyon and hopes that he survives. A stunt person figures out how to do it in the safest way possible and if you can do it with rigging that you can take out in CG, even better.
What advice would you have for anyone looking to enter into the industry?
I think my advice would be the same for theatre people as it is for stunt people and as it is for actors, don’t think that you are going to make it in two months. I’ve been in Cape Town for almost four years and I’m only just starting to work consistently. I’m still not in the top list of girls that get picked. I have to hope that the top three girls are working full-time on something else before I’m an option but it’s taken me three years to become that fourth option. Do everything because one thing is not going to support you. If I just did stunt work, I wouldn’t be able to live off of that just yet. I do voicework and theatre and TV adverts and that kind of stuff and all of that right now sustains me quite nicely. For stunt work, keep your head down. Listen. Network and make sure that the coordinators and the people in the industry are aware of your presence because you could train as much as you want but if no one knows you are training, they are not going to hire you. Keep active. As an actor, you have an agent who is always rooting for you. As a stunt performer, you are your own agent. All the companies work individually and they will reach out for people to work. If you have a new video or reel or set of photos, email them and say, “I just updated my reel.” Just so that you are in their mind.
I also think it’s worth noting that you are a Guinness World Record holder.
It’s super exciting and something I never thought would happen. I’m one of 32 stunt performers who got set on fire for over 30 seconds. It’s the most people consistently and simultaneously on fire. It had been in the woodwork for a while. Kevin Bitters who runs Paradigm Shift Special Effects had been wanting to do it as a special effects supervisor. He had done a couple of workshops for full-body burns for stunt performers. Because it’s such a rare stunt to do a full burn, as a stunt performer, the first time you get to do it is when you picked to do it on set. He always says that you can be as confident and amazing and grounded as physically possible but you have no idea how you are going to react if you are set on fire. Having those workshops was cool. I had done two at the time. Paradigm wanted to do the record so they started experimenting with types of material that could burn longer but not hotter and which types of fuel would be most efficient for a long burn that wouldn’t go out when you start walking. They had gotten to setting someone on fire for 45 seconds. They set it up and got all of the stunt companies in Cape Town together to coordinate it and got as many people who were comfortable with a full-body burn involved. I was just lucky enough that I had done the workshops so they knew I was comfortable. We did it on the Grand Parade in the middle of Cape Town. It was a beautiful clear day. We rehearsed it a couple of times and then set it up and set 32 stunt performers on fire at the same time and we walked in a straight line across the Grand Parade for 30 seconds. It was cool. It took a while to have it confirmed but I got my certificate in the post about a month ago.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Anna-Mart van der Merwe. I love her. She is a magical actress. Other than that, it’s the women who taught me who inspire me most because I get to know them. The women that came in and gave me lectures at university, like Shelley Adriaanzen Lothian. I love her to bits and her enthusiasm for theatre and for creation. She’s a magical human being. The guys that I’ve worked with like Kate Normington. I worked with her in Sister Act and she was just magical to watch her process and her light. And Judy Ditchfield. Those are two women who are just the most magical, positive human beings. It’s the idea that you can build a career in this industry just by loving what you are doing. They’ve done it all and they just want to have fun. Those women showed me that you can just have fun and not take life too seriously and the work will come. You just have to believe in your abilities, put your best foot forward and then let it go and the universe will provide.
All photos were taken on May 10th 2019.