Lone wolfStuntwoman, actress and model Gemita Samarra has gone from the ocean’s depths to the edges of hollywood, with a fiercely independent streak and an intimidating four-legged creature as companions. just try to keep up
Models don’t usually turn up to photoshoots brandishing knives. But Gemita Samarra is packing. Though the knife she’s brought on set today is a prop, a Bond girl-like nod to her lead stunt role in last year’s Spectre, it’s the real deal. Just like Samarra herself. She uses it for emergencies during freedives, one of the many skills she’s picked up for fun and that have now added several slashes to her job description: model/ stuntwoman/ actress/ adventurer…
Between takes, the knife lies sheathed on the dining table as Samarra bounds around the set, a Vitamin Volcano smoothie in hand, talking fast and exuding energy. Samarra is a multitasker, as happy modelling for a magazine photoshoot one day as acting out a complex fight scene the next, or scaling cliffs and exploring underwater worlds. Thanks to her authentic thirst for the new, she’s managed to avoid the usual distinction between work and leisure: she just does what she loves.
It’s hard not to find yourself a little captivated by Samarra, as much for this intrepid attitude towards life as her film-star looks. Seemingly not tethered by the usually practical constraints that govern the rest of us, there’s something wild about Samarra, maybe even a little feral. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having a wolf for a best friend. Today is a rare day that Lupa – a wolf and German Shepherd cross, bred by Czech special forces for use in combat – isn’t at Samarra’s side. “I take her where I can,” she says. That that doesn’t include photoshoots is a relief to the crew.
A pet wolf is far from the most intriguing thing about the Bristol-born, half-Spanish, half-South African 22-year-old. All on her own she cuts an improbable figure. Few fashion models swap heels for knives and rise to the heady heights of Hollywood stunt acting. Fewer still become Bond girls. Game of Thrones has come calling (you’ll see her in the latest season), and other parts await. For Samarra, it’s a journey over which she’s always had complete control, not because any of it was part of a strict career plan. Instead, it’s been her many and varied passions that have dictated her every move. Adventure comes first. Work can wait.
“My parents were in the circus,” says Samarra, who grew up in England and around Europe. Her mother was one of those death-defying trapeze artists you never meet in person, who travel the world performing in Cirque du Soleil-style productions. So no prizes for guessing where the initial inspiration came from. “We were an active family,” says Samarra, who now lives in London. “It was never pushy, but my parents encouraged my athletic side.”
The stunt world isn’t one that’s usually easy to enter by accident. Custom dictates that you master six disciplines before you’re let into the fold. It just so happened that the activities giving a young Samarra her kicks – the circus-inspired discipline of horse riding and also swimming – are on the list. And Samarra was no half-hearted hobbyist: she had become a show jumper competing around Europe and a synchronised swimmer who almost made the Olympics.
The first step was being spotted and then signed up to a modelling agency, where Samarra’s ease in the water was quickly put to use. “It was a niche I’d created for myself by accident, thanks to a love of water,” she says. “If I could I’d live underwater. It’s why I learned to freedive. So when a job came up that involved someone holding their breath in a pool for a long time, I got the call.”
Samarra’s amphibious background is clear at today’s London shoot. She dives underwater again and again, tirelessly. The only person out of breath is the photographer’s assistant as he nervously holds on to the lighting rig above the water. The vague risk of electrocution only seems to amuse her.
It was Samarra’s insatiable appetite for new experiences and adventure that stopped her from being typecast as “the water girl”. “After a bunch of underwater jobs, I was like, ‘OK, this is my identity,’ ” she says. “But then a few jobs had me near the water’s edge. Then a bit on land. I went from fish to frog to… what lives out of the water that likes a swim? An otter!”
Samarra acquires new skills for the love of it, learning jiu-jitsu, mastering surfing, becoming a competent climber, mountain biker, stunt driver… And all have played their part in her unique approach to career building: do everything to please yourself. “My logic was always if you can make money from doing the things you love, you won’t feel like you’re working,” she says. “I was speaking to the stunt co-ordinator on that first underwater modelling job and he was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you get into stunts?’ And that was that. Now I don’t feel like I’m working, ever.”
It certainly beats walking a well-trodden path you’re not sure you want to be on, an all too common situation in modern times. “I could never be one of those people,” she says. “If someone says, ‘I’m stuck in a job I hate, but I can’t leave,’ I’m like, why not? People create these boundaries for themselves and live within them. You’re only stuck inside your own mind.”
Samarra makes it sound so simple. And for her, it is. As far as boundaries go, she has few. Since leaving school at 16, she’s roamed alone, from Europe to the US, embracing the unconventional and the nomadic. “There was the farm in Holland,” she reminisces. “That was nice. Cosy. Recently I’ve been living in LA. Then there was the tent in the British countryside. I lived there for a while. It was cold, but I had a sweet set-up.” She scrolls through pictures on her phone, showing a gigantic tent in the middle of a forest, accompanied, of course, by her wolf. “I love being on my own,” she says.
“It’s not that I don’t like people. I just don’t like them as much as animals. And I’m totally at peace in my own company. Some people struggle with that, like they’re terrified of themselves. Not me.” Samarra’s roguish attitude means anything that gets in her way – obstacles, habits, even people – is quickly removed. “I’m proactive in that way,” she says. “I can’t put up with sh-t. If something isn’t happening, not working, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to change. It’s gone. Friends, boyfriends –if anything hinders my progress, gone. I know who I am. I don’t take well to people trying to change me.”
So don’t get in her way and you’ll be just fine. But Samarra isn’t cold-hearted. She’s funny and self-effacing. The network of people she’s built around her suggests she’s not quite as averse to humans as she makes out, either. She does have some friends other than the four-legged, four-inch-teeth kind. Somewhat surprisingly, wrestler turned actor and definite human being Dave Bautista, whom she met on set, is among her closest.
That set was James Bond. After a mixture of stunt and extra roles in Ron Howard’s Rush, Fast & Furious 6 and a smattering of TV work, Samarra was cast as the double for Bond girl Léa Seydoux in Spectre, to whom she bears a genuine resemblance. For a stunt actor, getting blown up and rolling around in a James Bond romp is the highest marker of success. And she’d reached it at 22.
“Growing up, shovelling horse sh-t and working on farms to get to the top of my game in show jumping, not once in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be wrapped around Daniel [Craig] jumping off a balcony or running around the Sahara desert with him,” she says. “I’ll never forget that.”
Despite Samarra’s ability to exude calm confidence, things for her are rarely easy. On Bond alone, she blacked out (during a driving scene), had a table kicked into her face by Bautista (some friend), did some interesting things in a helicopter above Morocco and generally pushed her limits during her version of a nine-to-five job.
But then, if your occupation reads stunt double, you’re kind of asking for it. And, aside from a recent job in which she was “nearly catapulted to my death in a rickshaw”, most stunts have been well-controlled and safe.
Well, in terms relative to the job, at least: an average day as a stunt performer would be a nightmare day for anyone else. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy it. “I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to danger. I’m not stupid,” she says. “If something is just outrageous then I’ll push back. But I love adventure and taking risks.”
That’s why you’re more likely to find Samarra cliff diving than clubbing come Friday night. “I’m not into that social scene – clubs, bars, getting drunk,” she says. “I don’t think I ever will be.” Her buzz comes from adrenalin. And it’s taking her places – some more unexpected than others. After working in Bond and Game of Thrones and appearing on red carpets, Samarra has sort of made it in China.
“Large cheesy movement-lady movie,” Samarra splutters, laughing, giving an uncharacteristic glimpse of her youth. She’s reading from a recent interview conducted in San Francisco, later translated from English into Chinese and back again by someone seemingly without a grasp on either language. “You’re not usually a lady who can tumble over and not usually a lady who can get punched in a face,” she continues reading. “I’m perplexing to take on roles that aren’t usually attempt oriented.”
That, believe it or not, is a translation of something quite significant. To translate more effectively, Samarra wants to bring her stunt skills and acting ability into films that aren’t action for action’s sake – rather thrillers, cerebral films, plot-driven films. She wants to be a proper actor with kickass tendencies. A thespian who might just put you in an arm bar.
If her growing list of successes is anything to go by, she’s on the right track. More than anything, she wants to explore every opportunity. Brands like American Apparel and Ripcurl book her as a model. She’s working with directors like Tim Burton and could return for more Game of Thrones. She’s in talks with National Geographic to create documentaries on marine-life conservation (about which she’s a zealot, by the way). But she can’t let go of what makes her who she is: that unquenchable thirst for adventure. Now we’d best get out of her way.