By Christy Sandmaier
Last time we saw Olivia Courtney, she was lighting up the floor as a UCLA Bruin where she was an 11-time All-American, four-time Pac-12 individual champion, two-time NCAA Regional all-around champion and 2011 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. So, we were thrilled when Liv’s mom, Tonia, reached out to Inside Gymnastics to share some awesome news – and a great chance for us to chat with Olivia about her stunt work in a little movie you may have heard of called La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, directed and written by Damien Chazelle, and choreographed by Mandy Moore.
As bright, bubbly, and positive as ever, chatting with Olivia (a former senior international elite and three-time national team member) was one of our most fun “catch-ups” to date! As the NCAA season kicks off and La La Land dominates the award-show season buzz, we thought it was the perfect time to let you know a little more about Olivia.
What have you been up to and how did you get started in stunt work?
I’ve always wanted to get into the stunt work. I knew a lot of former gymnasts, especially UCLA gymnasts, who went into the business and thought it was just really cool that they continued to use their talent and gymnastics. I started talking with people and doing my research on how to go about it. Right now, I’m actually coaching at a local gym in Los Angeles, as well as doing stunt work.
Was it always NCAA gymnastics for you? Performing? Did you have an Olympic dream?
It was crazy actually – my mindset when I was around 10 – I wanted to go to UCLA and be a gymnast. That was my main goal. I would always tell people I was going to UCLA and they were always like, “What are you talking about?” So, yes, it was always my goal to be there. I did have an Olympic dream and wanted to go to Worlds. Being on the national team and going to international meets was awesome, and that inspired me towards the Olympics as well.
Do you feel like attending and competing at UCLA, working with Miss Val and all of the coaches, opened up many doors for you?
It really changed my mindset on how I competed and how I thought about gymnastics as mental game. Going to UCLA really opened up my eyes. It started to prepare me for what was coming next. My whole life was about gymnastics [up until then] and there wasn’t a lot of thought about what was next. At UCLA, they don’t just want you to be a special gymnast, they want you to be a special person. They are always talking about focusing on school and what you want to do with your life.
You were always such a powerful gymnast. Do you feel like UCLA turned you into an artist?
Yes! On [the] national team, I was very serious when I did my gymnastics, especially when I did my floor routine. I didn’t know if I was supposed to smile and express myself, or be just powerful or graceful! Once I got to UCLA, we had to perform. You have to put on a show for people. You have to make eye contact. Miss Val was always giving me these dances to try and get me to smile during my routine. By the end of my junior year, we were finally getting some pictures of me smiling!
Do you miss competing in NCAA? What were those first few months after graduation like?
I do. So much. The time went so fast. After my senior year, my body needed a break. I was trying to do other jobs in marketing, formal desk jobs. It really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I need to be active. I was really trying everything and then I talked to my mom, who really knew I still wanted to do gymnastics and wanted to try stunts. I started working at a gym and really liked it. It’s so different trying to explain gymnastics, teach gymnastics, than just doing it! I have so much more respect for my coaches now!
So tell us about how stunting in La La Land came about.
One of my former teammates at UCLA texted me about whether I was still interested in doing stunts. She asked for a headshot and sent my information, which was cool. The stunt coordinator, Mark, got in touch with me and at the time, he couldn’t really tell me what the project was, but asked if I was interested in coming down to audition and to see if I was a good fit for it. The audition was during a time I was scheduled to work, so I wasn’t sure I could make it. He really encouraged me to make the time! (LOL!) I really didn’t know what I was getting into once I arrived. I showed them what I could do, he talked with Mandy Moore and they thought everything looked good, so everyone was like, “Yeah, let’s do it. You’ve got it. We’ll see you on set tomorrow!” I was still like, very naïve about all of it! The next day at rehearsal, I finally learned how big and what a crazy opportunity it all was!
What was being on set like?
The first day we were fitted for our outfits and rehearsed everything. The next day, my call time was 4am. They have breakfast for you, hair and makeup – it can take a couple hours before you actually start filming and working while everything is getting set. I think we got rolling around 8am. We rehearsed and then went. We probably did 20 takes. It was really funny because I still wasn’t one hundred percent sure what I was doing even when we were filming! I remember the stunt coordinator told me not to focus on it being a musical, just to do my thing. The composers actually came up to me while we were filming and asked whether I knew the songs… I didn’t. Everyone who was on my team had to stop and learn the songs! I think we wrapped around 7pm. It was such a cool experience!
As the process was going on, did you realize just how big this was?
I started talking to a lot of the dancers, really professional dancers… backup dancers for really big-name artists… I realized how big it really was. I already knew who Damien Chazelle and Mandy Moore were but, wow… being in a movie, it didn’t really hit me until I saw a little preview of what we were doing. That was surreal. I called my mom and was like, “This is crazy!” I didn’t really realize the impact until now. When I saw it on the big screen, it was amazing. I was shaking when I saw it! So exciting and I literally couldn’t stop smiling.
Christy joined the Inside Publications team as Brand Manager, Gymnastics and Dance in August of 2016 following three years spent as a freelance writer for Inside Dance, Inside Gymnastics and Inside Cheerleading. Previously, she held the positions of Director of Administration for Fort Wayne Ballet, Director of Development and Marketing for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Director of Athletic Development for Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). The Indiana native graduated from (IPFW) with a degree in English and Communication Media, and a minor in journalism where she was also Editor-in-Chief of Confluence Magazine and was invited to present her work “Writing Center Consultations: How to Be Practically Ideal” at the ECWCA Conference at IU Bloomington. Christy served as an intern in International Relations at USA Gymnastics in 1998 and was published in Technique Magazine while there. She was named one of Fort Wayne’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2014. Christy and her husband Jon reside in Woodstock, GA.