Hollywood stunt legends Hiro Koda, Jahnel Curfman recall their closest brushes with death

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EXCLUSIVE: Most dangerous and death-defying scenes witnessed in Hollywood films are the work of adrenaline junkies who make a living on the thrill of putting themselves in harm’s way.

Such is the case for Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman – the legendary husband and wife who have performed and coordinated a sundry of the most insane stunts imaginable for titles including “Stranger Things,” “Cobra Kai” and “Avatar” among a slew of others.

The Emmy-nominated pair told Fox News about their most intense brushes with death and the high they receive after a director yells “cut!”


“I was doubling Jet Li on ‘The One’ (2001) and I was doing a scene where we’re running – it was me and another stunt performer David Wald. Each of us were playing Jet Li and we had to run together through walls and walls and walls of fire and then fall out of it,” Koda recalled. “The result in the cut looked like we went into the flame and came out of a flame but it was a very long run. It was probably 25 to 30 seconds in the fire, just running and then jumping out of it.”


Koda, a martial arts expert who obtained his SAG card at 12 years old, explained that he actually suffered a malfunction in his air tank, cutting off any supply of oxygen during the scene.

“We were in a full fire suit with a prosthetic fire mask that looked like Jet Li so they could shoot it straight on,” he explained. “And when you’re wearing that mask you can’t breathe so we’re on a pony bottle, which is an air respirator so we could breathe inside while we’re being shot with propane and going through explosions of fire.”

Jahnel Curfman and Hiro Koda attend the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Sept. 15, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage)

Jahnel Curfman and Hiro Koda attend the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Sept. 15, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage)

And due to the unexpected nature of show business, Koda’s air tank malfunction occurred at the most inopportune time as the cameras were set to begin rolling.

“This is when we were shooting with film and there’s a jam with the camera, so it’s not even digital,” he said while fighting back laughter. “So the camera jams and I’m having problems with my air and I’m like, ‘Forget it. Let’s just shoot and we roll.’ They finally get the camera working and we’re running through all this fire but I can’t breathe.”


The longtime “Power Rangers” stunt performer continued: “And once we blow out of the fire and land on the ground, our safety team is coming to each of us – they didn’t know I was in trouble as much so they went to the other guy first and I’m still laying on the ground, not being able to breathe. I had to rip my mask off.”

Added Koda: “That was a moment that was not fun. It was a little scary. But in the end, it turned out cool.”

Curfman’s journey to becoming a stunt performer reads like the next big-budget feel-good story. A former coveted Laker girl, the competitive gymnast and dancer was thrust into auditioning for what her agent sold her on as a “super top-secret project where hiring heads were looking for tall, athletic women who moved well.”

“I ended up going in for a couple of auditions, got called back for a screen test and the project ended up being the first ‘Avatar’ with James Cameron,” Curfman said.

She would work on the fantasy film for three years as part of Cameron’s performance capture team.


“It was my first movie so I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” she added. “We worked very closely with the stunt team and seeing what they did. [It] kind of gave me that taste of like, ‘Oh, wait a second. This is a job that looks fun and looks exciting and I think I’m capable of doing. I want to see where this goes.’”

The stuntwoman said she makes it a mission to prepare for each role she is tasked with doubling and said the pressure to perform is heightened whenever she knows she’s doing a stunt with no margin for error.

“It’s the most amazing feeling ever because, like Hiro said, you have that adrenaline and the anticipation and not to mention the pressure because cameras are rolling. You know there’s a lot at stake, one of which is your life,” explained Curfman. “And so for me, my most amazing stunt wasn’t quite as intense as Hiro because it doesn’t have a story to go with it, but I did a 40-foot jump off of a bridge down in San Pedro Harbor [in Long Beach, Calif.] when I was doubling Angie Harmon on ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ and I had never done anything from that sort of height before.”

Curfman said she initially passed on the gig and told the stunt coordinator to find another player to fill the role.


“When he first approached me for it, I said, ‘Hey, that’s not really my jam. You should go find a girl that’s a diver,’” she continued. “Well, he couldn’t find anybody that was Angie’s size – she’s my size. She’s 5 feet, 11 inches tall and practically nothing.”

The “Big Little Lies” stunt coordinator explained that she had to physically train herself to perform the bridge jump over two months and got together with Koda and another stunt performer who was a Canadian national high diver.

Hiro Koda, left, William Zabka and Jahnel Curfman attend Sony Pictures Television's Emmy FYC Event 2019 'Toast to the Arts' on May 4, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Television)

Hiro Koda, left, William Zabka and Jahnel Curfman attend Sony Pictures Television’s Emmy FYC Event 2019 ‘Toast to the Arts’ on May 4, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Television)

“We got into the dive tanks and just started practicing my takeoff and entry into the water. And I trained specifically for those five seconds on camera for almost two and a half months and the night that we went to do it, it was just like the culmination of all that buildup,” she said.

“And Angie [Harmon] wrapped before we did the stunt and she went to the bottom where they were shooting and she’s like, ‘I’m going to be here when you do this. I’m not going home.’ It was really, really cool. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning in the San Pedro Harbor and it’s one of those moments where I’m like, I freaking love my job. OK, now don’t f— this up.”


But again, few things in Hollywood ever happen as planned.

“I jumped and it ended up being higher than anything I had practiced from. It actually was higher than 40 feet because, by the time we got to shooting it, the water level in the harbor had dropped so it was actually higher,” said Curfman. “But it was so exhilarating! My takeoff, my entry – everything was perfect. I have never experienced such a high from just one stunt before. We only had to do one.”

Chimed Koda: “That’s the hard part when… you do something big and then somebody goes, ‘All right, we’ve got to go again.'”

“The worst is when the camera missed it or something happened with the wig or something that’s out of your control,” he added. “It happens all the time. You just have to be ready and say, ‘OK, let’s go again.’ And you do it as many times as you need to. But it’s so exhilarating. It really is.”


Asked how they’re anticipating moving forward with elevated safety guidelines amid stunt performer deaths and the global coronavirus pandemic, the coordinating team said they aren’t worried about studio plans, many of which remain a mystery.

“It always hits really close to home for all of us because whether you know them or not, you know that could’ve been me. And you always look at the circumstances surrounding what happened,” Curfman explained. “Everything we do is calculated risk. As a performer, you have to be able to trust your safeties and your stunt coordinator. And then as a coordinator, you have to trust your judgment that you’re providing the safest parameters for this stunt to be performed, not only for your stunt people but for the crew involved as well.”

“Communication is everything and I feel like so many things could have been avoided – injuries and accidents that happened – had communication been better between the crew and the stunt coordinator. The first assistant director is also in charge of everybody’s safety as well.”

Koda echoed Curfman’s sentiment and said as coordinators, they often have to be “the bad guys” when crew or others on the set push back on their requests to reposition themselves for safety.


“I’ve had it happen before where somebody is like, ‘I have to be here, I have to hold this for the cameras so we don’t see that.’ And I’m like, no, you can’t be there. Figure out a different way to put that there, because if something goes wrong with this, that car is going to be right here,” he said.

“There are so many factors outside of what you guys see on the screen, behind the scenes of what we have to go through to figure out what’s safe. I mean, that T-bone at the end of season 3 of ‘Stranger Things,’ we had five cameras set up on that. There was only one camera that was manned and that was up in the air where I knew nobody was going to get hurt. The rest of the cameras were unmanned.”

Koda, known for his fighting and expert wire and rigging work, also laid out the backup plan in case anything went wrong with the stunt.


“So there was a backup plan if the crash doesn’t happen then this safety net has to catch that car so it doesn’t go into the mall. Then, I had places beyond that where the crew was in a safe distance. I still had crash cars and stunt guys sitting in cars who were ready to go if a car came too far.”

The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards is slated to kick off on Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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