UMass Amherst Superhero
A shaven-headed woman in a flowing red evening dress kneels on the roof of a luxury car as it careens through a busy cityscape. It’s a standout scene in Black Panther and a centerpiece of the movie’s trailer—and the stunt performer is Keisha Tucker ’06, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Theater alumna.
In addition to that marquee moment as the stunt double for Okoye, the character played by Danai Gurira, Tucker appears later in the film as a member of the Dora Milaje, the all-women honor guard that protects the monarch in the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
The movie is both a blockbuster and a cultural moment, and Tucker is thrilled to have played a part in it. “Who doesn’t like to inspire little kids?” she asks.
The movie is sparking important conversations, too, notes Tucker. “I didn’t really realize as much as I do now how much representation matters, but I feel like everybody has their eyes more open now. It’s cool to see—maybe there’s a little shift going on with more cultures being represented.”
A theater major at UMass Amherst, Tucker also took many dance classes and performed in theater and dance productions. Her intention was always to head to Los Angeles to break into acting after graduation, and that’s exactly what she did. While her stunt work in Black Panther is getting her noticed (she’s been a stunt double on several episodes of 911, which also stars Black Panther’s Angela Bassett), Tucker notes that she’s an actor in her own right, with several web series and a number of film acting credits on her IMDb page.
Stunt performers, Tucker explains, come from a variety of fields—martial arts, work with guns, motorcycles—but they usually pick up a variety of skills over time. Tucker has always been an athlete, listing gymnastics, track, softball, and others among her sports. With that background, it was no surprise that her entry into the field came from working as an extra on a project and watching the stunt performers. Intrigued, she worked out a barter agreement with the stunt coordinator: Tucker helped run classes for kids in exchange for learning stunt skills, such as how to fall safely and how to do ratchet pulls (where a person appears to fly backward, as in an explosion).
It’s proven to be a good move for her; she got her SAG/AFTRA card and has steady work. “Getting stunt work,” Tucker says, “is different from getting acting work. I feel like there’s less auditioning.” Instead, she says, it’s about personal relationships. Over her 10 years in Hollywood, she has worked hard to perfect her skills and build up a network of people who know she can deliver and be a positive presence on set. “It’s not just skills and looks; it’s also energy.”
Tucker got the Black Panther gig on the strength of another stunt performer’s word.
“The girl who mainly doubles (Danai Gurira) mentioned my name to the stunt coordinator because they were looking for a girl. I submitted my stuff—head shot, résumé—and I was willing to shave my head and work in 30-degree weather,” she says.
The job was with the film’s second unit in South Korea for three weeks (the friend who recommended her was on the first unit in Atlanta). Because the character of Okoye has a bald, tattooed head, Tucker had to have her head shaved and tattooed nearly daily.
In her other work on the film, a reshoot of a major battle scene, she’s a character in her own right. “Just because you’re doing a stunt doesn’t mean you’re not acting. . . . Sometimes, as a stunt person, you’re your own character. Like in Black Panther, I was one of the Dora Milaje, and I had to do a lot of acting on the battlefield.” She laughed, “Just, hopefully that leads to acting with lines.” Tucker doesn’t want to jinx anything, but she’s had some promising meetings, and “the movie might have opened up those doors.”
Although breaking into the film industry is hard, Tucker said she can’t imagine doing anything else and is glad she stuck with her dreams.
She urges others in the same position she was in 10 years ago to stick with their dreams, but take it one step further: “If you really love it, make sure that people know that you do!”