Interview: Jolene Van Vugt

If you enjoy the slapstick idiocy of Jackass, but wish their stunt comedy involved more high-speed motorcycles, then chances are Nitro Circus is for you. For the last ten years, motorsports champion and professional nutball Travis Pastrana has led the team of equally insane/talented high speed stunt specialists through a series of DVDs, an MTV series, several live tours, and now a feature film (in 3D, because why not?). With Nitro Circus: The Movie slipping onto DVD-shelves nationwide this week, we got a chance to speak with the loveliest of all Nitro stunt folk Jolene Van Vugt. Accurately described in the film as the only member with a vagina, Vugt became an award-winning motocross specialist in Canada in her teens and continued to do amazing things with a dirtbike between her legs for years. She’s far more than eye-candy, holding her own with the boys through even the most ridiculous stunts (like say riding a dirtbike off the Grand Canyon) and also recently began a career as a Hollywood stunt woman in a little Batman movie that you may have seen last summer. We spoke with Vugt about her time in Nitro Circus, the inevitable injuries, sympathizing with teammate Tommy Passemante (aka the fat/funny one), playing Catwoman, and her recent entry into the Guinness Book Of World Records on a toilet.

DS: How did you hook up with Nitro Circus and was this something you ever imagined could be a job?

JVV: Well, the point that I’m at in my life right now, I don’t think that I ever could have imagined. This lifestyle that I get to live is ridiculous and I love it. I got invited into Nitro Cricus around 2005, but I actually met Travis [Pastrana] about 10 years prior to that when we were teenagers. We met again at a tournament in 2005 and he had been trying to teach a girl how to do a backflip on a dirtbike. At that point there were only a handful of men in the world doing it. He had tried to teach a few girls prior without success and then I showed up and he said, “would you like to give it a try?” I said, “Sure, I don’t know if I can get it done, but I’ll try.” So with his advice I did a backflip on a full-size motorcycle and became the first woman in the world to do it. It sort of snowballed from there and that was my intro into Nitro Circus.

DS: Was making a Nitro Circus movie something you guys always planned on doing as a group?

JVV: Yeah, we always thought that would be a target for us. We always talked about doing a film. We had done all the DVDs, then we had the MTV show and started doing live shows all over the world. The next step was a movie. We had always wanted to take our stunts to a bigger, grander level and we were finally able to do that with a film behind us.

DS: Have there ever been ideas for stunts for stunts that you guys wanted to do, but just couldn’t talk the insurance companies or anyone in the group into it?

JVV: Well, actually a lot of the stuff in the movie was stuff that we wanted to do in the TV show, but we didn’t have the funding to do it or we had too much red tape to get through at the time. So we were really stoked about the fact that we got to take the stunts that we had planned for years and put them in the film. That was stuff like the base jump off of the skyscraper, there were a lot of variations on that over the years. But that was the grand idea that we had been waiting for. Another rule that we have for Nitro Circus is, that if you think of a stunt then generally you’re going to be the first one to carry it through. You’re not really allowed to come up with some crazy-ass stunt and then make somebody else do it. That was a no-no.

DS: Was there anything that you were particularly worried about shooting in the film or was everything equally idiotic/awesome?

JVV: There was definitely some stuff that got us a little worried. In Nitro, our stunts go from a lower level funny ha-ha, to a higher level of danger where possibly you could die if you screw it up. Like the building-to-building jump on a Big Wheel, that’s something that’s clearly going to be so amazing and effective on camera. But it’s also something that if you mess up in any way, you’ll literally be falling to your death. So, we have to take as much care as we need to in any stunt, weigh our abilities vs. the safety and hope for the best.

DS: I heard that you got injured at the start of the movie and I was curious what happened?

JVV: I did. I was actually injured during our live show in Australia. I really fucked up my shoulder and had to have shoulder reconstructive surgery prior to filming. Four weeks after my surgery we went straight into making the movie. It was really frustrating for me because I had to change what I was able to bring to the film, but they were still able to keep me in the mix. Sometimes I’d just have to sit on the sidelines and cheer, but I tried to get involved in the stunts as much as I could, like I usually do. I definitely got stunt envy over missing out on a couple of those.

DS: Since you’ve done this sort of thing for so long and have seen so many things go wrong and experienced injuries over time, does that make you any more nervous to try some of these stunts?

JVV: (Laughs) You’d think so, right? Absolutely not. The only thing that injury does to any of us on the crew is make us sit out for a while. That generally makes us upset or bummed out. It doesn’t make us want to stop. It just makes us want to get healthy and back in it faster.

DS: Do you ever feel bad for Tommy? He really seems to dread that painful things he has to do for Nitro Circus?

JVV: Yeah, he’s a big teddy bear. He does take a lot of coaxing into doing stunts. He’s a funny guy and loves to be in the limelight, but he doesn’t like getting hurt. His skill level also isn’t quite up there with the rest of us and he hits the ground pretty hard. But when he gets out there, he does do fabulous work so you can’t feel bad.

DS: I read that you worked as a stunt diver on The Dark Knight Rises and I was wondering what you got to do as part of that film?

JVV: I did. I kind of got recruited for one of the dream jobs of my life. I got to be a stunt woman for Catwoman and ride the Batpod for Anne Hathaway in the film. To me, that was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever been asked to do. Any time that she’s on the bike is pretty much me whipping around the streets. It was pretty cool to see myself on the big screen.

DS: Do you think you’ll do more stunts in films in the future?

JVV: I hope so. I definitely fell in love with it. I got to meet a lot of amazing people who have worked in the industry and have been around stunts for a long time. I got a lot of great compliments and they told me that if it was something I wanted to do that I could have a very long career in it. So that was a huge compliment for me. I’m not quite done with my dirtbikes and Nitro Circus yet, but I have definitely caught the bug for doing Hollywood stunts.

DS: I have to ask about something. Earlier this year you broke the fastest landspeed record on a motorized toilet? What exactly does that mean?

JVV: (Laughs) I did! It’s probably the most ridiculous Guinness World Record you can get and I hold it, so I’m pretty awesome. It was basically a toilet on a go-kart. We were promoting our Australian tour in the spring and wanted to do a PR stunt. There was a landspeed record on a toilet that already existed, so we thought what better way to get attention? So that’s my toilet record now.

DS: Do you ever see yourself settling into a normal job after racing on toilets?

JVV: (Laughs) I hope not. I actually did that once. I worked at a magazine for 2.5 years as an assistant designer after I graduated college. As much fun as it was to get in there and design stuff, I don’t ever want to have to sit behind a computer again.