It was 1989, and the local horse shows south of Seattle were abuzz. One of the Northwest’s own was in the big new Patrick Swayze movie, Road House. (I was like, Wait, what? You can just leave?) Not many people find their way out of Kent, Washington, but Julie Michaels did, thanks in large part to her training as a martial artist.
Michaels and her husband, Peewee Piemonte, were recently nominated for an Emmy for their stunt coordination work on the CBS show SEAL Team. It was a pleasure to talk to them about the art of fighting on film and how they made their way into the stunt world, especially getting a chance to speak with the woman from my small hometown who made good.
In addition to being a competitive equestrian, Michaels competed for the University of Washington as a gymnast, pursued her martial arts training in Asia, and has worked with the legendary Benny “The Jet” Urquidez since her Road House days. Her transformation from actress to stunt performer began on the set of Point Break, where she was asked to switch roles from her original character, who was normal and clothed, to the character named “Freight Train,” who was neither of those things.
In the film, Freight Train goes straight from the shower to beating up Johnny Utah, played by Keanu Reeves. The team behind Point Break knew Michaels was both an actor and a martial artist, and could therefore serve as a one-stop shop to get the scene done. Despite her reluctance to take on the nude role, Michaels found she enjoyed doing stunt work, and her transformation into a professional stuntwoman and coordinator began.
Marrying stunt coordinator Peewee Piemonte in 1993 helped solidify the deal. (They met on the set of Jason Goes to Hell, romantically enough.) Initially, Piemonte would work as a stunt coordinator and Michaels as the stunt double, notably for Pamela Anderson on Barb Wire. Over time, Michaels took on more work as a coordinator. Her career has been a slow motion morph, from actress to stuntwoman to stunt coordinator, with much overlap along the way.
When asked about how former MMA fighters handle the transition to stunts, the couple noted that every kind of athlete has their own unique struggles. Former dancers want to point their toes, gymnasts want to stick the landing, and fighters? They have to learn how to not actually hit their “opponents.” Piemonte pointed out that a solid six inches may separate the fist from the target, depending on camera angles. It is up to the actor being “punched” to sell the hit.
On the plus side, stunt performers with an MMA background know how to fall and convincingly portray a fight on the ground, a quality other stunt performers often lack. Perhaps most importantly, however, they’re tough—something both Piemonte and Michaels value highly. Piemonte knows about toughness, stating that he is not a martial artist, but a “brawler.” He spent twelve years as a bouncer before making his way to stunts, and therefore knows full well just how often real life fights hit the ground.
Piemonte (who has 800 credits) and Michaels (who has over 400) have built a solid reputation for safety in the industry, which has improved over time. Michaels explained that the “cowboy up” days of the past have been replaced with required performer feedback, and generous use of Lyft rides home and hotel nights after long days on set.
Their current show, SEAL Team, has made it its mission to not only protect its performers, but to provide jobs for veterans. Wherever possible, the production hires veterans—both in front of and behind the camera. SEAL Team has hired over 150 veterans in various capacities, and continues to hire on more veterans, providing work for America’s soldiers. This is meaningful to the couple, both of whom were raised in military families.
As fate would have it, the highly unusual circumstance of a married couple being nominated for an Emmy for stunt coordination has been doubled in the same year. Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman are also up for the award, having done the stunt coordination work on Cobra Kai. No other married couple has ever been so nominated. When asked who would win in a fight, Peewee & Julie vs. Hiro & Jahnel, Michaels immediately demurs. “We would bow down to Hiro,” she said of the 5th degree black belt in karate. I was expecting more sass, but as Michaels asserted, “Respect is the way of the martial artist.”
While Michaels may be willing to hand over the hypothetical street fight, the Emmy is still up for grabs. To see the award-nominated stunts, check out SEAL Team Wednesday nights at 9pm on CBS.