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Daddy trained his girls how to take falls and flip cars!
Anderson Martin has taught his three daughters how to take a punch (maintain eye contact with the puncher to time the recoil), how to fall off a building (flatten your body to distribute the impact), and the proper way to get thrown into a trash can while wearing a cocktail dress and stilettos (pray you’ve sufficiently padded the bottom of the can). He has taught them how to react when they’re shot (well, with blanks), set on fire, or turned into zombies. But the skill he’s teaching today—how to accelerate, or “drift,” a car into a turn—is one of the most fundamental of all for any self-respecting stunt driver. And, as it turns out, one of the most difficult.
The father is buckled into the passenger seat of a beat-up silver Honda Civic. In the driver’s seat is his oldest daughter, Ashley, thirty-one years old and at this moment a bit confused. I am in the backseat, even more confused.
“Stay in one?” she asks.
Anderson nods. “Stay in first gear. Gas it. And then hit your brake.”
We are in an overgrown field in Carroll County, slipping around on makeshift grass roads, a practice course of twists and turns about the size of a football field that Anderson has tractored over for just this purpose. Ashley’s sisters, Alex (twenty-seven) and Aby (twenty-three), are watching from the shade of a nearby tree.
“Which brake?” Ashley asks, her hand on the emergency brake.
Thud. The right front wheel hits a hole, causing the bottom of the car to scrape against the ground, ripping off the muffler. But we don’t stop. Anderson looks back. “Well,” he says, “it’s just going to get louder.”
Ashley accelerates through one turn, then the next, as we navigate the course. At each corner she cuts the wheel hard as she brakes, and we fishtail to a stop. Then she stomps the gas, and the car jerks forward. Dust and grass fly into the car through the busted-out window. Anderson offers vague instruction. “Focus,” he says after one turn. “Control it,” after another. At one point, he reaches over to grab the wheel. Finally, he tells her to stop. They switch places.
“You’re a little bit nervous, and I like that,” says Anderson from the driver’s seat. “Now, I’m just going to do it easy.” He drops the car into gear, four cylinders screaming through the unmuffled exhaust.
The speedometer is broken, but the tachometer needle passes 5,000 rpm. He flies down the straightaway into the turn, then suddenly pulls the emergency brake while yanking the wheel left, sending the car into a controlled, Dukes of Hazzard sideways slide, before gently reapplying the gas and pulling smoothly out of the turn.
He skids to a stop. “You see?”
Performing stunts is the Martin family business. The sisters’ grandfather, Glenn Wilder, cofounded Stunts Unlimited in 1970, one of the first stunt companies in the post-Western era of film and TV. Wilder himself saw screen time in movies like Scarface and Die Hard. Wilder’s daughter was a dancer in a show at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park outside of Los Angeles when she fell in love with the male lead, a Georgia transplant named Anderson Martin. Anderson wanted to act in films, but it was a tough business, and stunt work gave him a back door to the set. Anderson discovered his athleticism and habit of tinkering lent themselves well to coordinating and executing action sequences, which he saw as a sort of dance. Whether it was a fistfight or a car crash, it was all about timing and troubleshooting ways to make it look real on camera. “I loved the creative process,” he says. “I’ve always thought of us as stunt artists.”
The day Anderson found out his wife was pregnant with Alex, he was on the set of a movie called Out of Bounds, starring a Breakfast Club–era Anthony Michael Hall. Anderson braced himself, free-fell eighty feet off a building into a Dumpster (technically an air bag), got out, hopped on his motorcycle, and promised his wife he’d settle down.
Anderson moved back home to Georgia to be closer to family, started a youth ministry, and used occasional stunt work for supplemental income. But by the early 1990s, movie and TV shoots here had picked up just enough to keep him busy on a full-time basis again. Before long, Anderson had “settled” back into a career of T-boning cars (Everybody’s Doing It), falling backward out of helicopters (Black Hawk Down), and plummeting from toppled watchtowers while engulfed in flames (Kingdom of Heaven).
Meanwhile, the girls grew up on set. “As part of the stunt crew, you were the action,” says Ashley. “You were the cool crew.” Occasionally the girls would get in on the action as extras or child doubles. As they got older, they would help Dad rehearse at their Carrollton house, standing in while he choreographed a fight scene, springing off the mini-trampoline onto floor mats, and getting thrown from the front porch onto pads. But since 2008, when Georgia passed tax incentives that brought Hollywood to their doorstep, the Martin girls have gradually been able to push their day jobs as waitresses and cosmeticians aside and chase stunt gigs full time.
There are now enough films, TV shows, and commercials filming in the state to sustain four separate careers, so many that the Martins rarely work on the same projects—something Anderson laments. He loves spending time with his daughters, even if it means crashing into a car driven by Alex or holding down the gas while Ashley flashes a semi from the driver’s seat of a stunt car flying down the interstate. And there’s the added pressure of trying to hide his concern in the name of professionalism on set—like the time he prepared Aby to fall off a ladder and she landed hard on the mat, knocking the wind out of her.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“Well, then get up!”
“Don’t call me ‘Dad’!”
The strain on the old man’s heart isn’t lessened by distance or distraction. In the moments before Ashley was to double Jennifer Aniston for a twenty-five-foot front-fall out of a tree in Wanderlust, she was on the phone getting last-minute notes and advice from her father, even as he was revving up the bus he was going to flip for the Footloose remake. He would rather be there to watch as Alex falls down two flights of stairs and Aby is strapped to a wheelchair and pushed off a dock into a lake (there were divers waiting in the water to rescue her). But over three decades in the business, he’s worked with the other stunt coordinators. And he trusts most of them.
But more than anything, Anderson has faith in the girls’ training. With business booming, he was able to buy a 4,500-square-foot warehouse along the main drag in Carrollton that he packed with mats and trampolines and ropes and pulleys. Employees of the realty office next door barely look up from their smartphones when Ashley is dragging Aby around by her platinum-blond hair, or Aby is hanging from a rope in the wooden rafters after being kicked by Alex, who is five months pregnant and on temporary leave from being tossed around by Dad. The business is still tougher for women, as female characters don’t see as much action as the men, and when they do, they are often the victims of violence, clad in skimpy dresses or bikinis with no room for extra padding.
But the best stunt artists have a specialty, and female doubles who can flip, roll, and throw a car for the cameras are commodities. Of course, Anderson isn’t satisfied that his daughters be good for girls. “I want them to be the baddest-ass stunt drivers in the world,” he says.
Hence the intensive driving training, which takes place about four miles from the warehouse, near an old, abandoned family home. After Ashley takes a few more turns in the Civic, it’s Aby’s turn. Even though Aby is the baby of the family, she’s the more accomplished driver (a claim backed by her vast collection of civilian speeding tickets). She takes the wheel, jams the gas, and starts expertly throwing the vehicle through the turns, riding the emergency brake while keeping the tach twitching around 5,000. Anderson just laughs—now he’s having fun.
“Go left,” he says. “Now right. Hit that turn!”
At his command, the twenty-three-year-old carves up the course, sprinting across the straightaways and weaving through the turns. Around. And around. G-forces press hard against our guts.
“Yes! That’s it, baby!” says Anderson, streaming with sweat. “See how controlled you were? Now . . .”
“Actually,” I interject from the backseat, “I think I need to get out.”
Aby pulls over, and Anderson gets up to let me out. Sweat soaks my shirt. The ride has rearranged my insides. I take a step into the weeds, gag, and vomit.
Anderson chuckles and pats my back.
“I’ve made extras puke before,” he explains, as if this is something Aby should add to her resume.