Since becoming a professional actress in 2001, Zee James has fought to create compelling work as an actress and stunt performer in films and on television. Sometimes that involves literal physical fighting – which she did as a member of the SAG award-winning stunt ensemble of Marvel’s Black Panther – and other times it means grappling with her own fears. It’s also meant fighting to “be seen” in an industry that has a history of overlooking women of color.
By embracing training, expertise, hard work and communication, James continues to challenge herself – and the system – to take on new roles and redefine herself personally and professionally.
“I love what I do. I love creating,” said James of her work as an actress, stunt performer and stunt coordinator, writer and producer. “I love bringing a character to life. All the little tools I’ve learned along the way from stunts, stunt coordinating, and now producing and creating are tools that I’ve added to my belt to make myself a better person and to also contribute back to the entertainment industry.”
Being a working actress is all about rolling with the punches, even in a good year. When the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike shut down television and film production, James made her first pivot into stunt work. She holds a black belt in Taekwondo and loves action films, so it proved to be the perfect move, eventually leading to work in Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War.
“It’s amazing because you get to go out and train with a group of performers who you know are highly skilled in everything they do. We’re all there to make one another look good, to perform well so that the film looks good and we can get called back for our next job,” said James of working on the Marvel projects. “We shot Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War out in Atlanta, and it was just so great to be amongst people I would call superstars because they’re friends and they’re hard-working people. I think we are the bread and butter of what makes these films work.”
James has worked as a stunt double with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Kerry Washington, Regina Hall and Nia Long, who she had previously worked alongside as an actress.
“Working with Nia was so funny because I first played Nia’s girlfriend on Dear White People for two episodes in the first season and then I worked with her on Fatal Affair being her stunt double. She was like, ‘Oh my God.’ She was totally surprised, so it was great working with her. We shot our scene out in Malibu at Matador Beach and it was amazing,” James explained, adding that stunt work is best when it’s a collaborative experience. “I always talk to my actors and make sure that they are comfortable. I let them know that I’m here for them, let them know that if there’s anything that they’re uncomfortable with doing, I’ve got their back. If they need any pads, I’m there to help them out and support them in that aspect. When it comes to the scene, you’re hoping that your actor is there watching as well because that scene is something that they are going to get to cut into and transition you out of.
James’ talents shine on the screen as an actress and stunt performer, but she feels like she is truly at her best when she is able to use every tool in her belt and combine her passions in one role as she did on Bosch and in Straight Outta Compton.
“I absolutely loved working on Straight Outta Compton because I’m the actress and I’m doing my own stunts. I deliver the line. I know what I’m doing. And working with F. Gary Gray – such a great friend and such an amazing director – it was phenomenal.”
Working on Straight Outta Compton may have been a phenomenal experience, but one of her most unique gigs has been her appearances on JEOPARDY in the categories “The Physics of Taekwondo” and “Taekwondo,” which provided James with the opportunity to work with her “better half” Brett Schneider, a producer and segment director of the popular game show.
“My lovely better half is one of the producers on the show and he does a lot of the clues that feature celebrities or are shot around the world and he came up with the categories,” James said of the path to her JEOPARDY appearance. “He came to me and explained, ‘We came up with a category called ‘The Physics of Taekwondo’ and also ‘Taekwondo.’ Would you be interested in delivering the clues and also performing the action. This would be the first-time ever that we would have an African American woman on the show actually delivering clues and demonstrating the physical aspects.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, I would love to.’”
Recently, with the pandemic causing studio shut-downs, James once again found herself with an opportunity to pivot. She did so by collaborating with Schneider on a new writing project.
“I would say my passion is creating,” she said. “I like to make sure whatever I’m doing, I’m able to do it well so I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘Let me get my hands into everything.’ When COVID happened, my partner and I sat down and we wrote our first pilot.”
She is also still creating magic with stunts and acting in a variety of projects. She developed a fight scene for Pratibha Parmar’s upcoming documentary, My Name Is Andrea, on which James serves as the stunt coordinator. As an actress she can be seen in the new season of Netflix’s Selena: The Series, playing the role of Julia.
Going for your dreams is never easy and James confessed that at times she feels like she’s spinning her wheels, but her passion continues to prevail pushing her into the next chapter of her career and she hopes others can find inspiration in her perseverance as well.
She said, “Don’t stop fighting. Don’t give up. If this is something you really love keep at it because potentially, one day, your time will come.”
(Photos provided by Zee James)