Gemma Nguyen: the Vietnamese American stunt performer who's done "Everything Everywhere All at Once"
Meet Gemma Nguyen, the stunt performer behind some of the most memorable roles in recent film and gaming history.
Nguyen is an entertainment and martial arts powerhouse with seven world championships under her belt. She has worked on several groundbreaking films and games, from being Stephanie Hsu's stunt double in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" to the stunt performance capture for Atreus in "God of War: Ragnarök."
Most recently, she collaborated with Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the co-directing duo known as the Daniels, on their Power Rangers-inspired photoshoot with Jennifer Coolidge.
Nguyen is also a popular YouTuber, having made recurring appearances on the popular “Martial Artists React” series on the YouTube channel Gamology alongside fellow stunt performers and martial artists Yoshi Sudarso and Noah Fleder.
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As a longtime fan of Nguyen's, I reached out to the martial arts master with lightning-fast kicks via email to discuss her inspirations, her incredible career and how she got started.
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Tell NextShark readers about yourself!
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Hi, I am Gemma Nguyen and I play karate for money! Just kidding… kind of. I’m a lifelong aficionado of martial arts and a world champion in Sport Karate (forms, weapons and team forms).
I grew up in Northern Virginia, where I discovered and grew my love for martial arts. After a successful competitive career and a few world titles, I decided to finally retire from competition and pursue martial arts professionally. I moved out to California in 2005 to fulfill my dream of being an action performer. I’ve worked many jobs over the years, testing the waters and being open to different opportunities.
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How did you come to be involved in martial arts, and what made you decide to transition your skills into stunt performing and action acting?
I am lucky to have found my calling at such a young age. Call it blissful ignorance, hopeless dreaming or just dumb luck, but somehow it led me here and I am wholeheartedly grateful.
My first experience was watching “Legend of the Condor Heroes” and “Judge Bao” (VHS tapes that my parents had of Chinese dramas dubbed in Vietnamese, also a big reason why my Vietnamese is decent). I remember feeling so inspired and moved by these high-flying, skilled martial artists who could also act, and thus — a dream was born. I found inspiration in the Western world as well; productions like "Power Powers" and "Ninja Turtles" grounded my dream in reality, that it could be real in the place I was living.
Not many know this, but I didn’t speak English fluently until 2nd grade. My parents only spoke Vietnamese to us at home in hopes of preserving our language and not teaching us English with their accent. So, despite not understanding English, I was still glued to the TV, watching characters kick and fly through the air, fixated on their movements. I am living proof that the arts, specifically martial arts in my case, are powerful enough to transcend language and inspire all different walks of life. Seeing Thuy Trang, the Vietnamese actress who played Trini, the Yellow Ranger in Power Rangers, solidified that dream, which goes to show how important representation is, that seeing one person who looked like me on the screen empowered me to follow this path.
My parents would often take my sisters and I to the neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese’s and right next door was a “karate” school (it was actually Tae Kwon Do as I discovered years later, it was called karate because that was more recognizable to our predominantly white community) to which I would peer into longingly and watch class. My parents signed me up for an introductory class at Charlie Lee Karate, and the rest is history.
Between gigs I was training and honing my skills, never forgetting my true calling: martial arts. I learned a lot about my body, movement and the industry, and while working on my skills as a stuntwoman I was always looking for the opportunity to challenge myself as an actor. I figure if I’m going to be wrecking my body, why not take credit for it? I wanted to follow in the footsteps of many martial artists turned action actors, and I am still working towards that dream.
2022 was a busy year for you, performing stunts for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Bullet Train" and “God of War: Ragnarök.” For one, what was it like working with Asian film legends Michelle Yeoh and James Hong?
It was an absolute honor and pleasure working with the legends Michelle Yeoh and James Hong. I had zero chill and squealed like a little girl when I was first introduced to her by the Le brothers (the action choreographers of "Everything Everywhere All at Once"). By industry standards it’s considered unprofessional, but I couldn’t even help myself. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but in my case, meeting one of my heroes, watching her work, left me feeling more passionate and inspired.
James Hong is an absolute hoot and still sharp as a tack! We shared witty banter and stories of our lives. For as kind, personable and generous a person you would never suspect his legendary status. His work and contributions in the industry paved the way for Asian Americans in the film industry. I am beyond grateful to have worked with them, along with the entire cast and crew.
My favorite kind of productions are the fun ones where everyone is united by their dedication and passion. The kind where hyper-talented people come together, give their all, have a lot of laughs and create magic. I definitely think that translates on screen, and something that the audience can feel. "Everything Everywhere All at Once" was one such project, and I think I speak for everyone working on that when I say I am so grateful and honored to have been a part. There was so much silliness and joy on and off set, and the incredible talent and storytelling will be a cherished experience for me forever. Watching the film made me ugly cry too many times, and I feel so proud to have worked for directors who made us a family and told such a wildly beautiful story.
As an Asian American woman in martial arts and media, what are some hurdles/disadvantages you’ve dealt with in your career and how did you overcome them? Do you still deal with any of them today?
As an Asian American performer I’ve had to overcome cultural obstacles in both the West and the East. Historically, in Western cinema the obvious struggle for Asian actors has been navigating a world of shallow roles and negative Asian stereotypes.
However, not often discussed are the restrictive and often harmful cultural expectations of the East. Whereas the battle in Hollywood is rooted within the industry itself, Eastern culture often trivializes or questions the utility of performance art as such. I often found it discouraging having to defend a career choice that didn’t involve medicine or law. As the daughter of an immigrant, I can empathize with why my parents wanted financial security for me, but I prioritized having a fulfilling life doing what I love. I’m happy to report, it’s going well! I hope my story can serve as a comforting nudge for those looking toward the direction of their dreams.
I also battled being fetishized for being an Asian female, let alone being an Asian female in a male-dominated sport/industry. Having to constantly fight being objectified or sexualized, has been a big factor in why I choose to be conservative in the way I dress. I prefer to have the focus be on my craft and not my sexuality.
When I first started in the industry, many of the roles I saw for Asians perpetuated negative stereotypes. Fortunately, today there’s much more opportunity and accurate storytelling of the Asian experience. Having seen the progress from when I started allows me to feel grateful for how far we’ve come. Rather than focus on the negative, I’d like to recognize the moments and people that have had a positive impact on me.
I was proud to book the role of Astrid on the world tour of DreamWorks' "How to Train your Dragon" live arena show. I was told during the audition process that I was trying out for one of the other teens, but after multiple callbacks, they decided I would be a good fit for one of their leads, Astrid. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Astrid is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed love interest and is the baddest female of a Viking village. I, being Vietnamese, don’t exactly match the physical description of the character. When confronted with this issue, the executives at DreamWorks said that it was “a moral imperative they hire the best person for the job.” I was shocked in the best way. And like that, I was given the opportunity to fly on dragons around the world.
Are there any major differences between performing stunts for film versus performing for video games?
Absolutely! While the skills needed within both realms are similar, there are some huge differences. The pros of motion capture are that you are in a controlled setting with the same wardrobe so you know what to expect every time. The suit is flexible so the performer can have full mobility and freedom to put on pads or harnesses. The cameras are only capturing the performer’s movements so we are able to use crash mats and safety equipment to protect our bodies. We can even offset the performers when doing fight sequences so we aren’t on the same fight line; the animators can adjust the plane on their end. Timing can also be adjusted in post, so we break up sequences for safety if needed. In my experience, it’s a creative collaboration between the animators/designers and choreographer/performer, figuring out how our abilities can best help one another to produce the best capture, and how to do it safely. I always joke with the animators saying, “It’s OK, they’ll fix it in post!”
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What are some lessons martial arts and/or the entertainment industry have taught you that you feel other people might benefit from?
In the pursuit of becoming the best martial artist I could be, I learned how to work hard and persevere. Martial arts is one of my life’s great purposes. It gave me something to love, strive towards, and feel proud of.
Whenever someone finds out I’m a martial artist, the first question I get is: “Can you kick my ass?” I’d like to take the time to answer formally once and for all. I have trained countless hours, pushing my mind and body past its limits. Martial arts has allowed me to contend with the more dangerous parts of myself, both physically and mentally. The more powerful I became, the more I had to learn how to control it. So, can I kick your ass? I’m too busy kicking my own, trying to better myself. During my competitive career, I was driven by my desire to be the best amongst others. Now that I’m older, I only wish to be the best within myself. Having this perspective helped me from comparing myself to others, especially on social media. You may never be perfect, but there’s something so real and inspiring about the pursuit of it. I love watching my progress through the years; it serves as a reminder of how far I’ve come, that I am the best version of me right now, and that is enough.
When meeting some of my heroes and people I look up to in industry, I most admired the ones who were kind and humble. The ones who were open and generous with their knowledge. It taught me that no matter where you are in life, you should help when you can and treat everyone with respect. That kind word or gesture could make all the difference to someone. I strive to be someone that I would’ve looked up to as a child.
Are there any upcoming projects fans can look forward to seeing you in?
For all you gamers, "God of War: Ragnarök" is out! I had the pleasure of doing motion capture for it alongside some of the industry’s best. Grateful for the experience.
You’ll get to see more of me in 2023 on a new martial arts-related channel on YouTube. Be sure to check out upcoming OOSS media projects coming soon.
There are a few ongoing projects still under NDA but they’ll be huge news when it comes out. Can’t wait to share!
All images provided by Gemma Nguyen