Mindy Kelly’s handiwork is in Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” music video, Childish Gambino’s “Sober” music video, many other music videos, video games and commercials, and most recently the feature film “The Art of Self-Defense”— though you’d never know it.
She’s stealth like that.
The Destin native is a real life ninja. OK, not exactly — but close. The martial arts champion is one of few female stunt coordinators, a fight choreographer, action designer and martial arts trainer. She went to Destin Elementary School, was in the first graduating class at Destin Middle School and graduated from Fort Walton Beach High, where she was a varsity cheerleader. She moved to Los Angeles in 2004.
“The Art of Self-Defense” was her first time to run the stunt department for a movie.
“Two Christmases ago, I took my mom to see ‘Shape of Water’ at the AMC Theater, and when the end credits were rolling and the stunt coordinator’s name popped up there, I told her, ‘Mom, my name is gonna be up there when you see this film.’ I don’t know how she took it, but to me it was like, ‘I know I didn’t go to college like you thought I should do like a normal kid, but I hope I make you proud.’
“The cool part is I’m just getting started.”
Kelly, 33, can’t wait for her parents, who still live in Destin, to watch it in the theater. It will begin airing at AMC Destin Commons 14, 4000 Legendary Drive, Destin, on July 19. For showtimes, visit https://theartofselfdefense-tickets.com/.
TOXIC MASCULINITY TAKEDOWN
The human memory doesn’t fully develop until around age 7, but Kelly recalls a particular feeling she had at 3.
As Kelly watched her older brother study martial arts, she vividly remembers how badly she wanted to train alongside him. She started at age 4 and got her black belt in Kenpo Karate at 10.
Her prime training spot was her living room.
“Even when I was in Destin, I was training in my living room while I was competing internationally,” Kelly said. “My friends would come by the house and look through the front door and see me practicing my martial arts. I wouldn’t go play until I practiced X amount of hours each day.”
Now, she starts each day with martial arts and a side of yoga. Her next birthday, in August, will mark 30 years of martial arts.
“It’s a mind-body connection,” Kelly said. “Every day you wake up and it’s a mold of clay and you get to decide how you’re going to mold each day. You can have the nicest house, the nicest car — the nicest things — but the one place you’re living in this lifetime is your body and you get one of those. Be kind to your body.”
Kelly’s martial arts training made her the prime candidate for Riley Stearn’s dark comedy “The Art of Self-Defense.” The movie follows a man named Casey who is randomly attacked and then seeks out a local dojo to learn how to defend himself.
“This was before the #MeToo movement,” Kelly said. “Riley wanted to hire female department heads to balance out the male dominant cast. There’s only one female actress, Imogen Poots. He wanted to balance out the energy on set, and he’s also one of the greatest guys ever.”
Kelly was the entire stunt department. She choreographed the fight scenes, hired out for any stunt work and coordinated the project.
Something unusual, though, was she trained the actors in martial arts. She had only a week to train the lead roles of Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg, and Anna, played by Poots.
“I like to story-tell through movement,” Kelly said. “I wanted to see Jesse’s journey. I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, stunt double,’ and you see the back of someone’s head or the same with Imogen. The imperfections are what make things interesting. It’s a stand-alone unique film that was directed by Riley, so it’s not a remake. It’s not a superhero movie. It is an original movie. Making sure I made his vision come to life was a priority.”
The film has a great message, too, she said.
“It’s a takedown on toxic masculinity,” Kelly said. “For our time and for women, I think it’s a very important movie.”
Kelly’s first feature film as the head of her department is her favorite project.
“I gave a little bit of myself to each character in developing them because of my martial arts background and the importance of the film,” Kelly said. “In films, it’s important to teach the human condition — even though someone may come across as a bad person, that they’re a byproduct of their environment and not necessarily bad.”
“The Art of Self-Defense” had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10.
“We were an indie film and now it’s got a nationwide release and it’s going to the most prestigious film festivals,” Kelly said. “I’m just excited we created art, and people are responding to it in a way we can only dream of, because with movies you never know.”
Much like martial arts, Kelly always knew she wanted to work on movies.
As a kid, she would make fake commercials.
“When my parents would have their friends and kids over Friday night, I would organize choreographed dance and martial arts talent shows,” Kelly said. “At the end of the night, I would have everybody perform. I guess before I knew it, my parents knew I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”
Kelly has worked as a stunt performer on movies, such as “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” as well as video games, such as "Injustice 2" and "Mortal Kombat 11." Her work stunt coordinating music videos for artists such as Metallica, Childish Gambino, Skrillex, Muse and Green Day, started with fight choreographing and acting in Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” music video.
It wasn’t her first TV experience.
Kelly was televised on ESPN for the International Sport Karate Championship, which she won. She was also featured in an episode of National Geographic’s “Fight Science.”
Kelly has the career of her dreams.
“I’m lucky, but I’d be lying to you if I said this industry was easy or this life has been glamorous,” Kelly said. “Being a woman in any field is difficult and has its struggles. It helps having the foundation I had — perseverance and continuing to always grow, adapt. Self-defense is to adapt and survive.”
Being a female in a male-dominated industry wasn’t her only setback.
“I’m 5’1" and I’m muscular,” Kelly said. “I was told very early on that I needed to starve myself so my body would eat my muscle so I could double actresses or kids. I was like, ‘That sounds like it’s unhealthy, so I don’t want to do that.’
"To double for an actress, when I first moved out here, it wasn’t in the cards for me.”
In addition to being a petite, muscular woman, Kelly is half Korean and half Irish. In some situations, she was “too Asian,” and in others, “not Asian enough.”
“A lot has changed since 2004 in terms of casting, but everything leads you to where you’re supposed to be; I truly believe that,” Kelly said. “Every door that closed on me, I found my path. I didn’t want to be a stunt double. I didn’t want to be an actress. I wanted to work in creating and developing and being a filmmaker and bringing directors’ visions to life.”
“The Art of Self-Defense” was Kelly’s perfect opportunity to do just that.
People often ask Kelly what tips she has for self-defense. She has only one.
“To know who you are,” Kelly said. “To put in the work to find out your truth, to not be a victim. To know vulnerability is not a weakness. Trust who you are. Once you have that, you have the power. The power exists within all of us.