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Interview: Emmy-nominated ‘Cobra Kai’ stunt performer Jahnel Curfman

Previously nominated for her work as a stunt coordinator, Curfman becomes one of the first to be nominated for stunt performance on Netflix’s martial arts-centered show

Stunt performer Jahnel Curfman is among the first to be nominated for the Emmy Awards new stunt performance award.
Photo credit: Marc Serota

Stunt performer and coordinator Jahnel Curfman is one of the hardest working women in Hollywood. It is not unusual for her to pull double duty on high profile projects, working behind the camera as a stunt coordinator and in front of it as a stunt performer and stunt double for the lead actress.

Still, the devoted UFC fan never misses a PPV event, and so despite being exhausted from a full day of shooting she ordered UFC 248. Just as Zhang Weili and Joanna Jędrzejczyk began their epic battle she drifted off to sleep. She woke up as the fighters concluded the fifth round. “I was like, ‘Who is in the ring right now?’ Last thing I remember there were two beautiful, fit women entering the Octagon.”

Curfman cites Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko as her favorite fighters, as well as Justin Gaethje. “He grew up in a small town in Arizona, like me,” she says. Curfman has come a long way since her childhood in Sierra Vista. Always athletic, she focused her energies on gymnastics, basketball, and dance, and was working as a Laker girl during the 2005-2006 season when her agent reached out to her with an unusual opportunity.

“They were looking for tall dancers,” she says, but outside of that the project was shrouded in secrecy. After a lengthy audition process involving dance, stunts, creature motion, and wire work, Curfman found herself hired on as part of the small team doing the core motion capture work on James Cameron’s Avatar. “I spent three years working on Avatar,” she says, “and it was a year and a half before I found myself on a film set in New Zealand for the start of live filming.”

In addition to her invaluable experience on Avatar, Curfman pursued an education in martial arts. She began with capoeira, a natural fit for the gymnast and dancer, but would eventually take on a wide array of forms. Her years spent studying martial arts have been an important ingredient to her success, but she stresses how different stunts are from training in the dojo or gym. “Throwing a punch so that it reads to camera is very different than just throwing a punch.”

When asked how her background in dance benefits her current career, Curfman has a ready answer. “The ease with which I pick up fight choreography,” she says. Being a quick study of fight choreography wound up sparking a significant turning point in Curfman’s life when she was offered Tekken commercial. The lead actress had been fired at the last minute, and they needed someone to come in and perform the complicated fight choreography without benefit of rehearsal. She took the job and impressed everyone on set, including Hiro Koda, one of the most highly respected stunt performers and coordinators in the industry.

Koda and Curfman would wind up becoming not just co-workers, but husband and wife.

Jahnel Curfman and Hiro Koda attends the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards on September 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. 
Jahnel Curfman and Hiro Koda attend the 2019 Emmy Awards
Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage

Over her career, Curfman has racked up an incredibly impressive slate of credits, from Marvel movie stunts to acting as Sandra Bullock’s stunt double in Bird Box, but it wasn’t until Cobra Kai came along that she moved into stunt coordinating.

Hiro Koda had a huge challenge on his hands for the season one finale. For the giant tournament sequence he would be playing the role of the referee, coming up with extensive fight choreography, and coordinating, which required an eye behind the camera. Koda could not be both in front of the camera as referee and behind it as a stunt coordinator, so he called Curfman. She cleared her schedule and flew in to help Koda put together Cobra Kai’s All Valley Karate Tournament.

“It was maybe the biggest challenge we’ve ever taken on,” Curfman says. In addition to blending story and action, they also needed the fights to make sense within the context of karate tournament. “We had to make sure they weren’t scoring points, and had to add in misses.”

After the success of the season one finale, Curfman was brought on full time as a stunt coordinator for seasons two and three, and along with Koda was nominated for an Emmy for her work on Cobra Kai in 2019. She has since gone on to more stunt coordinating work on such shows as Ozark.

For the first time this year, the Emmys will be presenting an award for stunt performance, and Curfman is among those nominated, again for her work on Cobra Kai. This award is a long time coming. While stunt performers have their own Taurus Awards and SAG has the Award for Outstanding Stunt Ensemble, the industry has been notorious in its absence of official appreciation for stunt work. For example, the Academy does not recognize stunt work at all.

When asked about what she is looking forward to, she cites her work on Stranger Things and the latest Spider-Man movie, along with an all encompassing project she is not allowed to discuss yet. But as the school year approaches, Curfman also looks forward to retreating to her home in Colorado, where her son can go to school away from the hustle of Los Angeles or Atlanta. After years of taking on massive, time-intensive projects, Curfman is looking forward to shifting gears to stunt work requiring only a couple of days. “That’s what I am looking forward to,” she says. “Finally being able to say yes to those smaller jobs, getting back to that small town and my ten acres.”