Sera Trimble’s Rise to the Top of the Ranks of Stunt-Driving
Death defying for a living
Sera Trimble isn't trying to scare me, but she does.
By stomping a Lamborghini Huracán Spyder's V-10 and flinging the wheel, she kicks out the tail abruptly in a plume of dust. I'm scoping her technique from the passenger seat before directing her in a video shoot, and despite the raucous, pebble-launching powerslides in a $300,000 car on a dirt road, the petite driver remains eerily calm.
Trimble, it turns out, is one of the last humans on Earth to warrant concern. As one of Hollywood's most sought-after stunt drivers, her skill set has navigated her through a labyrinth of peculiar automotive scenarios. She's jumped a '72 Chevelle, drifted an Infiniti on polished concrete within inches of actors, steered, accelerated, and braked from the footwell of a Subaru while a dog "drove," dodged explosions in a Camaro, maneuvered a Kia while wearing a hamster suit, and launched a Porsche 928 onto a dock that collapsed into a lake. The drifting-a-Lambo-on-a-dirt-road thing? Essentially a nonevent.
This particular driver embodies every automotive-obsessed personality trait you'd expect, despite the usual stereotypes associated with XX chromosomes. Case in point: She outfitted her Los Angeles home with a Gulf-liveried kitchen and a Martini Racing-themed bedroom and is more likely to chitchat about weight distribution and suspension mods than shopping or fashion. But in the grand scheme of things, the car bug took some time to mature.
She was born 80 miles north of Seattle in the tiny town of Sedro-Woolley an unspecified number of years ago. (Like many a Hollywood player, she prefers not to disclose her age.) A deep-seated automotive iconography is embedded in her psyche, including an irrational attraction to '66 Sting Rays, a warm spot for the Jaguar E-type hearse from "Harold And Maude," and a self-proclaimed giggle reflex triggered by big-bore muscle cars. But the serious signs didn't manifest until later. Her first car, a Nissan Pulsar NX with seafoam green paint, was simply an escape vehicle from her parents and a way to make a few bucks in high school by delivering pizzas. After two years at art school and a job at Blockbuster, she valet parked cars at a Seattle hotel. Spoiler alert: True love, no matter how circuitous its path, eventually wins.
"I drove everything," she recalls, "then I started having feelings about everything." Darting between parking structure pillars revealed handling quirks, and opinions of cars were quickly polarized. That black-on-black Land Rover Discovery she coveted? Its lazy turning radius burst the bubble. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class? Surprisingly nice lumbar support. Any Dodge Neon? Don't get her started.
"If you say, 'I think there's a better way we could do this,' no matter who it offends, you live with someone being pissed off and not putting someone in the hospital. "
And then, the fate-shifting moment: Director Doug Taub, in town shooting a Lincoln commercial, happened to spot Trimble as she whipped cars around at the valet. "Have you ever thought about driving for a living?" he asked her. "What do you mean?" she answered, pointing to the valet stand. "Look at all these cars I drive for a living."
Based on her facile maneuvering (and perhaps aided by her quick wit), Taub offered her a gig as a production assistant so she could dip her toes in the precision-driving business. Sensing an opportunity for change (and admitting to herself that her art education wasn't doing her any good as a valet anyway), she paid a friend $40 to cover for her on a Saturday. "When I think back," she recalls, "that $40 was the best possible career investment I've had to this day. I'm glad he covered that shift because it was totally life-changing."
As with any rise, Hollywood or otherwise, success was anything but overnight. She kept in touch with the crew she worked with, and nearly a year later in summer 2007 she moved to Los Angeles and started working as a runner on commercials. Although fixed on her goal of being a driver, she methodically learned how a set worked: who was in charge, who (in her words) kissed whose ass, and how the puzzle pieces of hierarchy fit together. More crucially, she observed what made an exceptional driver, why top drivers demand respect, who hires them, how they save the production money, and why they never seem to complain. Before long she met acclaimed stunt driver Brent Fletcher, who heard she wanted to drive. "I don't want to sleep with anyone to do it," she announced, when asked about her aspirations. "I've only been in L.A. for a few months, but I'm beginning to understand that that's an actual way people get work here. I want to get hired one day because I'm really good at what I do. I don't want to hook up with some producer, and he gives me two jobs as a stunt driver, and everyone thinks I'm an effing joke."
Leveling with Fletcher laid the foundation for a career-long friendship and mentorship. "When I knew that driving was all I wanted to do," she remembers, "I never wanted to be on set and have an excuse that I couldn't do what I was there to do." That meant investing heavily in driver training, diverting much of her earnings into instruction over the next several years. She attended schools from virtually every major automaker—BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-AMG—as well as every conceivable type of course—Skip Barber, Bridgestone Winter Driving, Team O'Neil, and Dirtfish rally schools.
The pressure of stunt driving can be immense, and the expectations — especially for a woman — are often crushingly anachronistic. For instance, the common request for Ken Block-like maneuvers must be tempered by a realistic portrait of the vehicle and conditions in question. In other words, a director who thinks a Chevy Cruze can pirouette in a cloud of smoke might need to rearrange his or her expectations. "The fact of the matter is if you seriously, seriously hurt someone, you have to live with that forever," Trimble says. "If you say, 'I think there's a better way we could do this,' no matter who it offends, you live with someone being pissed off at you and not putting someone in the hospital." Also unsurprising is the tendency for some directors to be naturally biased against female drivers. If told a certain maneuver can't happen, some directors "don't want to hear it. They look at me like I'm a hack, like I'm a girl, obviously I don't know how to drive, I can't make it work, and I've wasted their whole day."
On Preferred make of stunt car: "Any car with brakes. You really take brakes for granted, they boil over, and you almost go over the mountain or into a helicopter or camera-car crane. "
Ensuring she can deliver on her promise of automotive acrobatics requires vigilant attention to detail and exhaustive spatial awareness, often without the luxury of advanced preparation or in-depth rehearsal. Drifting the Infiniti around those actors on polished concrete was particularly stressful. Grip levels changed constantly because fresh rubber was laid down with each take, which could dramatically alter the car's handling characteristics. Upping the X factor was the repositioning of actors and lights between takes, requiring on-the-fly recalibrations of turn-in and apex points. Some 17 takes later, the director was eventually satisfied and called, "Wrap!" Trimble recalls the aftermath: "I was so mentally exhausted, when I got home I couldn't even feed myself. My brain just turned off because I had to focus so hard and couldn't change anything."
Maintaining a routine is essential when it comes to prolonged concentration. If Trimble takes a bathroom break and someone has reset her seating position because the car had to be moved, her whole world has changed. One of her favorite examples concerns a stuntman who's about to leap through a plate-glass window and fall 20 stories. The stunt involves a detonating charge to break the window, but the stuntman senses that something isn't quite right. There's a small chance the charge will detonate at his head, so he asks for it to be repositioned by a foot. Stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong, aware of the importance of the stuntman's opinion, stops everything. The helicopter lands, the crew resets, and they start over. The stunt then goes off without a hitch. "Every human has things they like to focus on, and sometimes they're super crucial in moments like that," Trimble explains. "I love the idea, and I will always think of that moment where this big thing is about to happen, and it's like, 'How does this feel? Does everything feel good? Are you comfortable with this?' Because that stuntman's ability to move something one foot completely changed his energy."
Once that sense of rightness is established, there are countless degrees of subtlety involved with precision driving. Although she once rated her brake-pedal effort on a scale of 1 to 10, trading notes with fellow stunt driver and racer Tanner Foust inspired her to increase the resolution of her stopping effort, expanding it to a scale from 1 to 100. That exacting level of control can make it difficult to stomach rogue external forces, like ham-fisted Uber drivers. Even though she essentially operates as an aerobatic pilot in two dimensions, her fortitude flies out the window when she's a passenger. "I've gotten ill in taxicabs more than probably anyone who exists," she confesses. "During one trip to Thailand I puked on every moving form of conveyance."
When the stakes can be life or death, Trimble's preferences for stunt cars get improbably binary. When asked what carmaker makes her stunt-driver heart go pitter-patter, her response is simple: "Any car with brakes. You really take brakes for granted until driving on a mountainside, they boil over, and you almost go over the mountain or into a helicopter or camera-car crane." She adds, "Any day I'm on the set and my car stops when I want it to stop, it's a good day."
As for her personal automotive tastes, her garage reveals some rather varied proclivities. Her fleet includes a Porsche Macan S, an air-cooled 911 Carrera, a Ford Focus ST, and a meticulously restored '68 Dodge Charger that speaks volumes to her eye for detail. After enlisting fellow '68 Charger enthusiast and owner Mike Musto (host of "The House of Muscle" on Motor Trend on Demand), the two embarked on a two-year quest to find her ideal black-on-red steed. Although she started searching for a 440 (the inspiration behind her Instagram handle, @Trims440), her so-called Mopar mentor led her through a journey that involved a seemingly Sisyphean process of sharing listings of prospective cars, to which he invariably responded, "Sera, this one's a big sack of shit." When your prepurchase inspection involves a list of 36 detailed questions (and your undercarriage viewing process is "like, a 3,500-point inspection"), the wheat separates from the chaff fairly quickly. The search eventually led her to a 572-cubic-inch-powered Charger in Indiana. "I was like, '700 lb-ft of torque? Of course I need 700 lb-ft of torque. And 768 horsepower? Of course I need 768 horsepower.' It's like an Indy cylinder head with these crazy headers I can fit my calves into. Holy headers, Batman."
Based on her car collection alone, Hollywood appears to have been very good to Trimble. But she plays down the lavish array with the fact that she lacks overhead such as kids, adding that her specialized focus on driving makes her a rare breed in an industry where most stunt people are well-rounded in the fields of weaponry, martial arts, and all manner of physical badassery. "Since I'm technically more 'useless overall,'" she says, "I would be less likely to be brought along on movies for that reason. The fact I survive on a living wage at all baffles me, especially considering the amount of amazing talent out there."
Follow Sera on Instagram @trims440
For someone who drives for a living, Trimble has little affinity for nonprofessional motoring, save the occasional jaunt up Angeles Crest Highway with friends or the Robin's Rally, an annual on- and off-road shred she does with a small group of air-cooled Porsche driving buds. As for real racing, she is surprisingly nonplussed by the lure of competition. "I have no personal need to take corners away from people," she explains. "I have more fun at slow speeds being super technical than I do going as fast as I can."
As for my Lamborghini video shoot, after my initial ride-along I climb out and shoot car to car with a cameraman, calling instructions through a walkie-talkie for Trimble to execute. She tells me when things don't feel right, and I adjust the shot as required. But when she's on, she's on, coaxing the Lambo with precise authority, driving with balletlike grace as the gray machine cuts an elegant arc through the desert.
I know she has reached that "just right" state when she executes a perfect high-speed drift in the dirt, nailing a satisfying yaw angle while staying completely in control. It is at that moment that Trimble once again proves her mettle, allowing me to finally let go and enjoy her performance.