Throw her through a window or light her on fire, LaFaye Baker is a stunt performer and coordinator who can take the hardest of punches on a Hollywood lot. But, like the rest of us, Baker is learning new ways to cope with the mental curveballs life throws at her in the real world by getting therapy later in life.
The stunt legend, who has doubled for many of Hollywood’s Black elite is also the first African-American stunt woman to coordinate a big-budget project, HBO’s special Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry and she was an assistant co-coordinator on season 4 of HBO’s Insecure under her industry mentor Eddie Watkins. Hollywood has been hit hard by the global pandemic which shut down many Hollywood filming schedules indefinitely and the news wasn’t easy for casts and crew. But in the wake of it all, Baker’s found solace in taking the time to manage her mental health in the stillness of it all. She talked with Thrive global about spirituality and mental health therapy while navigating her high stakes career and personal obstacles.
What does a typical day as a stunt coordinator and performer look like?
LaFaye Baker: The stunt coordinator arrives on the set to make sure stunts are executed according to the director’s vision while at the same time making sure action sequences are exercised without causing any formidable situations, such as accidents or death. Before walking onto the set, I have to do pre-production which is when I break down a script and hire the best stunt performer for the job. In most instances, if there is an action sequence with two or more performers, there will be rehearsal and pre/visualization for the Director to witness how you see the sequences visualized. Once on set, it is my responsibility to keep my eyes on the possibilities of potential hazards or accidents. I also check-in with all of my performers to see how they feel about the upcoming sequence and if they have any concerns. This way you know your team knows their surroundings. Once the director is ready I make sure I speak with the performer to make sure he/she is ready for action. Upon the completion of the stunt, I double check with the stunt person to make sure they are okay. And then, upon wrap, our team breaks down our equipment and I make sure the area is safe before exiting the set.
How do you manage stressful situations on set?
LFB: Believe this or not but before each stunt or any task that requires a blessing from GOD. I keep a print out of Proverbs 3:5-6 in my pocket. This verse I carry with me in my heart and soul for any stunts performed or coordinated. Outside of that, I meditate, but my best form of concentration before heading to set comes with going over the action sequences in my head and reading over the storyboards I have on file for the action sequence.
How has therapy helped you handle stressful situations on set?
LFB: I have been in the business for over 25 plus years and it has its ups and downs. Within the last 10 years I sought out therapy for the challenges I faced. Let’s just say sexual harassment is real and can interfere with your success. But one must think outside the box and never give up. I for one believe that challenges should be addressed, but as most would say “let it go.” This is where I struggle the most and why I am currently in therapy. I believe that if therapy was around when I started in the stunts industry, then when any formidable situations and circumstances arise, I would just say to myself “That’s their problem not mine.” I still struggle with being opinionated, too. I am working on calming down on that through meditation and work with my mentors.
Can you recall a moment where you used something you learned in therapy to get through a situation while working in the industry?
LFB: Nowadays there is something called tapping which is used to calm you down. But for me going off to the side, meditating, saying a prayer, and isolating myself from others is the best therapy one can ask for, to relax that overactive BRAIN.
Therapy is often a taboo subject in the Black community, growing up what were your initial thoughts on therapy?
LFB: Growing up, I never heard of therapy. As my parents were from the old school and it was forbidden to speak about issues or problems. My mother kept everything inside. But she always said “GOD WILL WORK IT OUT.”
You are a world record holder and started competing at a young age, how did you deal with pressure, competition, and fame at a young age?
LFB: The hula hoop contest was the first competition I ever recall in which it destroyed my faith in competition. Being the first Black hula hooper from California brought many challenges I try not to remember. Just know that discrimination is real and it can be detrimental to a young girl’s development and trust in others. However as fate would have it, my mom kept me busy with sports which granted me another opportunity. I broke the Guinness World Record by twirling 58 hula hoops at one time. I was able to travel and see the world after that. I didn’t understand the importance of that at the time, but now I realize it is a part of history.
How has that changed, if at all?
LFB: Nowadays because more entertainers and athletes are speaking out it is more acceptable. In the Black community just paying the bills was hard enough, so therapy wasn’t an option. But now most health plans offer therapy, and if not, one may seek therapy from the ministry or pastor of their church. So it is more accepted and accessible.
When did you first start therapy? Why?
LFB: I first started therapy in 1994 when I was faced with a few challenges in stunts. I was so stressed out that I almost quit, but everyone who knows me also knows failure isn’t an option for me, either. It seemed like all the work I was putting in was not returning the benefits in which I expected. So I sought out counseling through Pastor Cecil Mc Murray and Pastor Kerry Brooks both were well respected in their congregation. I recall Cecil Mc Murray telling me you owe no one anything in this business, God has blessed you. Keep your head up and remember people are jealous of others, especially when an individual has something they don’t.
As we get older life can get tough, how have you seen yourself change since starting therapy?
LFB: I pay more attention to people in my circle and understand that a listening ear is better than an opinion. My thought process has changed and I think more about what makes me happy and creates peace of mind.
You recently lost your mom, how has therapy helped you through this moment?
LFB: Losing my mom has been extremely difficult and to be honest I don’t believe therapy will ever be the answer to closure. I still am in disbelief and the pain is engrained deep, deep, down. However, I am constantly reminded how I made sure my mom had the best care. My therapist reminds me that many kids don’t take care of their parents. Therapy has made me realize and confirm that I did the best I could for my mom. However, I will always feel that there was more to do to save her life even at the age of 86.
COVID-19 has also been tough on how its affected the movie/TV industry. How has your job been affected and how has therapy helped you through this tough time?
LFB: The entertainment business as a whole was hit hard. Everything was closed causing SAG-AFTRA members to lose credit towards their medical insurance. This has been a serious set back and many will lose medical benefits. I have been blessed, though, to be able to take time for myself and map out my roadmap to success in other areas of my life. I also have learned to sit still and release my anxiety, hyperness, and stress.
How has therapy helped your advance in your career?
LFB: Therapy has helped me look at life from a different perspective. Live now, count your blessings and accomplishments. Now that I am older, I take the time to pat myself on the back for all of my achievements and push forward in my career. If not for therapy. I would not have made it thus far. As a product of a middle class family and the only child most people think you don’t have any issues and your issues seem small to them. But my small issues are large to me, so therapy has helped me tremendously as I can finally vent and learn how to cope and move on as a happier, healthier person.
What projects are you currently working on?
LFB: I just produced three music videos. I am in pre-production for two independent docuseries and a special project that is on the hush-hush for now.