Gymnast-turned-stunt-performer Sadiqua Bynum ’16 got off on the wrong foot at UCLA — she arrived on campus nursing a torn Achilles tendon. But soon she got past the injury. By her senior year, Bynum, a three-time All-American, ranked eighth nationally in the floor exercise category, wowing judges with straight-backed double backflips.
Mentored after graduation by stuntwoman Natalie Padilla ’08 (Wonder Woman), Bynum has regularly nailed the landing, working on dozens of projects, including Black Panther and HBO superhero series Watchmen. She also starred in Cadillac’s “No Barriers” commercial, playing a fierce lady in red who crashes through a window and chases down a luxury car. “When you’re doing action, you really have to keep your eyes open,” Bynum says from her home in Atlanta.
You majored in sociology at UCLA. Did you envision a career in stunt work?
I thought I might get into social work or personal training, but when I graduated, I started coaching gymnastics at a kids program run by my UCLA coach Randy Lane. He suggested I look into stunt work, and I was like, “What the heck is stunt work?” I had no idea.
Coach Lane put you in touch with Natalie Padilla, who helped you break into the business of stuntwork. What was your first big job?
I doubled for Angela Bassett in the American Horror Story TV show. It was a cool scene: Angela’s character gets pushed off a ledge, falls down a spiral staircase and lands on this huge spiked thing that’s sticking up from a broken table. They put me on a wire that kept me from falling all the way down to my back. You have to trust the other crew members, because when you’re doing stunts, there’s such a fine line between safety and danger.
In Black Panther, you play a woman warrior. What was it like working on 2018’s top-grossing movie?
Ryan Coogler is one of the most chill directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s very particular about what he wants, but his sets are very relaxed. I played one of Black Panther’s bodyguards, called the Dora Milaje. For the first two weeks in Atlanta, we trained, learned the fight choreography and got comfortable with the spears on our bo staffs. Then, just before filming started, we had to shave our heads bald.
It was full immersion into Black Panther’s world of Wakanda.
In HBO’s Watchmen, you stunt-doubled for Regina King in the role of superhero Sister Night. How was she to work with?
Regina is very down to earth and funny. Most of the time, when you work with other actresses, they want to do their own stunts — which can get a little annoying, because they’ll overdo their movements or won’t do them the way they’re supposed to be done. Regina was very particular about her moves, but she also trusted my skills and the fact that I was there to support her.
Sister Night is a rarity on TV — a Black female action hero.
Seeing a Black woman in the lead with a lot of action to do was awesome, but we do have a ways to go. I think there’s been this missing link in movies and TV, so I loved being part of this superhero show that reaches out to a lot of different audiences. Some of the scenes are kind of weird, but I feel like the way [Watchmen creator] Damon Lindelof explains [racism] on this platform encourages people to be more open to understanding that not everything is what it seems.
“UCLA automatically felt welcoming — just seeing the campus and meeting the coaches and the girls on the team.”
Sadiqua Bynum ’16
What kind of learning curve did you experience, going from gymnastic routines to death-defying stunts?
In terms of being agile and understanding how my body works in relation to the space that I have, gymnastics helped a lot. But making the transition was challenging, because, in gymnastics, everything’s forward movement, backward movement, linear movement. Whereas, when you do something like [the sport] parkour — which is basically a mixture of flipping and kicking — a lot of times you’re taking off in a diagonal direction or landing in a twisty movement. In order to do stunts, I had to “unpuzzle” my body.
As a teen gymnast, you have said you were often the only Black girl in competition. Similarly, the entertainment industry employs relatively few people of color. How do you deal with this lack of diversity?
It has been kind of an up and down. With stunts, I think it starts with [how] the scripts [are written], so that the Black characters — especially women — aren’t just getting hit once, and then falling or running through a field and hiding behind a building or whatever. We’re able to do so much more, but there haven’t been that many Black stuntwomen in this industry who have been able to perform at that level, just because there haven’t been the opportunities.
You started gymnastics at a very young age — when you were just 2 years old.
My parents had trouble keeping me still, because I was always running around and jumping on the couch and stuff. Our neighbor across the street was a gymnastics coach at this recreation center, so I went there, progressed really fast and got into a club gym that was focused just on gymnastics.
You had energy to burn! What was it about gymnastics that resonated with you?
I’m a very competitive person, and gymnastics allowed me to do that in a healthy way. If some girl did a routine a certain way, I’d be like, “I’m going to do it better.” And also, I just like performing. My favorite event was always floor, because I felt like I could really express myself that way and be as powerful as I wanted to be.
Several colleges offered you a full athletic scholarship, but you and your family paid for your first two years at UCLA before you received a scholarship. Why?
My mom and I took a junior year road trip to visit those other schools, and I’d notice there was no diversity. It felt weird. I didn’t feel at home. But UCLA automatically felt welcoming — just seeing the campus and meeting the coaches and the girls on the team.
A quote from Gandhi is tattooed on your arm. What does that quote mean to you?
It says, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” I got the tattoo my freshman year, because I’d torn my left Achilles [tendon] and came to UCLA with an injury. At the time, gymnastics defined who I was, and since I wasn’t able to compete, it was a really low time. But then I read that quote and got inspired by the idea that you can push yourself through any situation if you keep your mind focused on your goal. Indomitable will — nobody can take that away from you. It was an important moment for me when I realized that even though I’m not doing gymnastics on this team right now, I still feel like I’m meant to be here.