Babes With Blades: Jade Ang Jackman and Ayesha Hussain
Film director Jade Ang Jackman and stunt woman Ayesha Hussain are a fighting combo in more ways than one! Creators of the community Babes with Blades, the pair chat about how they are shaking up the action and sports industry
Photography by Jade Ang Jackman
United by their love of sport and action, film director Jade Ang Jackman and stunt woman, Ayesha Hussain, joined forces to create Babes with Blades – a tongue in cheek reference to women with all the weapons but no lines within the Western action genre that takes the form of a print magazine and creative collective. They are on a mission to empower other women in this competitive scarcity mindset rat race that can often reduce that sentiment to a buzzword only to perpetuate individual gain. Glorious set up a call between the friends and collaborators to find out about their personal journeys, the reality of the stunt and combat sports industry, and their determination to welcome people into the space they’ve found.
Jade: It feels like a lifetime ago now since we first met. I reached out to you in 2020 before the pandemic because a lot of the work that I had done or was interested in doing at the time, was to do with sport and specifically women in sport. I remembered thinking, it’s really crazy, despite having grown up watching a lot of action like Hong Kong martial arts films, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in those stories in the UK. The new generation of action films had missed people out, or they were going to film in places like Indonesia. So, that’s how we met and we spoke for ages, something crazy.
Ayesha: Yeah, we met at Shoreditch House. You came to me and this was pre-action Jade, because Jade has become an extremely hostile action girl, and has really delved herself into the genre in a way I don’t think I’ve seen another director do that doesn’t have a background in martial arts.
Obviously, if you’re an athlete, you run, you swim, and you do all these amazing activities, and you have done for a very long time. But as far as combat sport goes, which as you know now, from having indulged in it to such a heavy degree, is such a different sport in itself all together. You hadn’t done any of this at this point. You were wanting to start a documentary about my journey onto the British stunt register, which I’m still training for. This is an elite qualification for stunt performers in the UK where you have to qualify in six different sports.
We were talking about how it’s quite a good echo of the genre of action in general, in that obviously there hasn’t been a need historically for brown faces on film and TV, especially not to double actors that were brown. We have only just escaped the era of paint downs, where if there was a brown actor that needed a double, they would darken up a white stunt double to double them. The industry is broadening and the British talent register is supporting all of that in the best way it possibly can, but there’s still a big lack of brown faces, and there’s certainly no Indian and Arab. The lack of Asian women on the register is what really interested Jade. Historically, we haven’t had the platform, there hasn’t been the demand, therefore the supply hasn’t existed.
Jade: We also chatted about how when you’re a young woman you often get syphoned into different sports. This is kind of crazy, but when you think about boxing and combat sports, it’s not really that long ago that women were allowed to box in the Olympics. So, that’s what kicked off our friendship, but then the pandemic happened and everyone had this weird rebirth period. I got super into running, and I even started doing kickboxing in the garden, and then by the time that two-year period was over, I felt like I had a new personality.
Ayesha: Yeah, absolutely. You came out the other end violent, which worked for me! Like you said, that’s a really good way to classify the pandemic, it was a rebirth period for a lot of people. As much as life came to a standstill for everybody else, ironically it was my entry into the stunt world because film and TV versus all other industries were still heavily going on, obviously with lots of PPE. I actually got my big break, in terms of getting into the stunt industry at the end of 2020. It’s actually been quite interesting to see the difference, even in the last three years, how much we’re seeing more women in action heavy roles and it’s refreshing.
Jade: When the pandemic happened, we obviously had loads of time to watch TV. My work has always had a really strong aesthetic and an element to it that feels hyper free, and that was certainly the case in 2018 and 2019, working more in a documentary space. I always thought that I was going to end up directing horror, but look at me.
Jade: When I started looking at what I really loved and what had always been the important films to me, I realised that they were action, but in my head, I had always associated the genre and space with certain types of characters and stories. The idea of Hong Kong cinema, even though that’s what I grew up on, just felt really far away. I guess that period of us meeting and from our conversations, and also learning about you coming to it later in your life, I was like, okay, I can start now, and as long as I dedicate myself fully to this, we will get somewhere so it will happen. That’s what’s really funny to preface here about this three-year-long story, that Ayesha and I have just finished our first film project together, Young Hot Bloods which we’re super gassed about. It is not actually through Babes With Blades, it was funded by Canon and supported and produced by Steve McQueen’s production company Lammas Park, and It’s just about to go on the festival circuit. What I’ve learned over our three-year friendship is not to give up, because throughout the pandemic, I don’t think anyone could have told us that this would be happening.
Ayesha: It’s honestly very bizarre and the wonderful thing about our partnership is how affirming it’s been to the presence of women in the industry. What we love is how an industry that has been very male dominated is becoming a much more inclusive space for women. Obviously, there’s so much more work to do, but one thing in stunts that I absolutely love is getting to work with amazing women – incredible action directors like Jade, and people like Nikki Powell, an amazing stunt coordinator and a world champion martial artist who then transitioned into stunts and then worked extremely hard to become a stunt coordinator. The fantastic thing about stunts is that pay disparity doesn’t exist and it’s one of the very few industries where women do legitimately get paid the same as men.
Jade: Yeah, that’s absolutely amazing. And everyone deserves that because they are out there doing gnarly stuff. Another thing that I love about the action industry is that when you get to meet other actioners, because everyone is such a geek and wanting to do something different in that space that is still quite nerdy and technical, you just meet loads of nice people that are really enthusiastic about fighting.
Ayesha: Also, people that you wouldn’t naturally expect. Obviously, a bit of a controversial opinion because the white cis male is the biggest enemy in the world at the moment, this is slightly tongue in cheek, but also slightly serious. The patriarchy is still quite strong, but one of the things that I find miraculous about my personal journey is that the man that got me into action and allowed me that space – Nick Chopping – is exactly that, a white cis male.
I have been invited into the industry in such a wonderful way because it’s a recognition of talent as opposed to the idea that you’re working because you’re brown. There can be a lot of that in the industry as well, you’re talentless or you’re this or that, and it’s only because of that, you’re getting a moment of people of colour privilege. It doesn’t mean that I have to work any less than my counterparts. It actually has meant that I’ve had to work doubly, triply as hard as people in the same position as me, because as Jade said, I came into the industry a lot later. I’m not a born athlete. I became an athlete in my late 20s, and I’m still on that journey. It does add an incredible amount of pressure because there aren’t that many young Asian women doing it, I have to be a big all-rounder, so I have to train harder than a lot of the people in my same position as far as their journey in sport goes.
If anything, that’s made us work harder and smarter because we want to be that representation so that we can get more young women in the sport and in the film industry. Look, if we can do it, with all these things stacked up against us – age, physical ability, and then push through obstacle after obstacle both systematically and personally to find our space in this world, which was never meant to be our world traditionally. I was going to be a doctor and Jade I’m pretty sure was not going to be an action filmmaker.
Jade: What’s interesting is that a platform like Glorious has been created to not only challenge misrepresentation, but also the lack of representation altogether in sport. I’m reading a book at the moment called Game On by Sue Anstiss, which is about the rise of women’s sport, looking at how in certain sports, namely combat sports and football, women weren’t allowed to participate. For example, people said that football would harm women’s bodies. We’ve got so much undoing to do in certain arenas of sport and movement, but what I feel now about the space that I’m in is that it’s not that people don’t want us to be there, but women haven’t historically been involved in certain areas or spaces, so that can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy to people. When you look at tennis and dance, even swimming, these are seen as active pursuits that women are allowed to do. There has been a charge to diversify football and rugby, to get equal parity, but I feel that with directing and action, we are maybe the first of this generation.
Historically, so many big franchises have been run by men. Showing Michelle Yeoh’s wins now and how you serve victories demonstrates how long it has taken for stunts to be taken seriously. Stunts are still not recognised at any award shows, it’s like a weird hidden secret of the film industry, and it’s something like only 10% of speaking roles and action films are given to women, so …. Why are they there? Why are they fighting? What’s their story?
Ayesha: We are part of that pioneering generation and it ties in nicely with who we are and what we want to do. Because of that lack of numbers, and only 10% of action roles for females, ironically, the industry amongst women can be very, very catty. Where we should all be celebrating each other, it can be about elevating yourself and not elevating people around you, so friendships are quite difficult to form. Jade and I don’t come from that perspective. A good example, I filled in for a job for one of my very good stunt friends recently, and again, as a young brown woman doing stunts, both of us have similar skill sets. A lot of people would try and quash that existence of another female. People have this idea that they want to elevate females because the idea of female empowerment and community is very popular right now, but very few women actually stand for it because that community doesn’t really exist in a large global way.
One of the things that Jade and I champion so much, and what we’re trying to do with Babes With Blades, is give that representation. We are genuinely desperate to create that community. We found ourselves and our strength by finding other women in our industry that are doing the same shit, and are just as hostile and violent, but also very soft and loving.
Jade: Female characters in action are usually everyone’s fantasy. It’s like the Lara Croft Tomb Raiders, and they end up devoid of humanity. I first thought that was such a magnificent role to create and I love it because it’s like they’re in debt, and she gets all these skills. My favourite thing that I read about Michelle Yeoh was that it was actually really hard for her to pretend to be bad at fighting. She said that was one of the biggest struggles to try and forget how to not be able to learn, I thought that was so funny.
Ayesha: One of the biggest things that I’ve learned that’s progressed not just my career, but my training is the ability to connect with myself and letting go of this image that I have to be the chest beating overcompensating female to be taken seriously in action. Everything I do is lead with joy and I’m really bloody dorky outside of obviously being quite proficient with weapons and my ability to probably kill you. Again, that’s another thing that unites us and what we want to bring to people is the joy and all of the things that go with combat sports that are usually discarded because people want to see all the gritty stuff. The thing is the grit is not perpetual. Do you know what I mean?
Jade: There are these really amazing technical films like The Raid or Gangs of London, but what I find really interesting at the moment, is the number of war films from the West, like American Sniper, where people are going in to invade another country and you’re basically amplifying and elevating action in a form propaganda. I’m more interested in looking at the social and political ways in which some people resist, whether that’s to do with debt or like our film about suffragettes, resisting police sexual violence. When we start to open up what the action genre is, what other stories about resistance and why different people fight can we tell? There’s also some action comedy stuff that will be great, just from a different perspective, not just funny cop dramas all the time. I really want to ask you, as a stunt performer and as someone who has become a sports person later in life, tell me about your training routine?
Ayesha: I’m in a wonderful privileged position to have this career, but having to be an all-rounder with all these sports, it means that I really have to juggle everything in order to consistently try to become the type of athlete that I want to be. On any given day, I’m training at least two sports, so today as an example, I’ve done strength and conditioning training that is specifically sport related to jiu jitsu and boxing, and then I’ve done some horse riding. Sometimes I’ll do a kickboxing class in the evening, and after we finish this chat, I’m about to go and throw knives for a half an hour because I’m throwing knives at Jade tomorrow on a photo shoot. It’s all consuming and that’s why having joy in whatever you do is so important.
Jade: Just picking up what you have just said, you have to be good at so many different things, your skill set is so broad. You sent me a video the other day of you being whipped backwards down a corridor, and I thought, ‘what is going on in the wild world of Ayesha?’ Being a director isn’t as interesting, I get to interview some cool people and maybe some fun stuff will happen to me, but I’m not the one being pulled around. My phone is full of photos of either me getting Ayesha involved in extra violent situations or crazy videos of her falling off things. I admire that so much and it’s interesting because even knowing that level of dedication to movement that you and other people that I work with have, I felt like I had to train.
Ayesha: Yeah, and you did, and you do – period.
Jade: It’s funny because running is not enough for me anymore, so my training schedule is getting more and more crazy. I’m doing a triathlon, so that’s swimming three times a week, running twice a week, cycling two or three times a week, and because of all the martial arts stuff, four times a week I’m doing a combat sport. Now my bag looks like a stunt person’s bag with a machete, but there’s also a red lipstick, so I’m still me!
Ayesha: Well, this is a really nice way to round off what we really want to do. With Babes with Blades, we want to welcome people into the space that we’ve found, uniting over action, uniting over hostile but joyful women, if that makes sense. We’re collaborating with Nobu, and last week we ran a pilates class to coincide with International Women’s Day. We invited a bunch of our (what Jade likes to all) our hostile friends and family, so amazing women doing amazing and ground-breaking things in their respective fields. The next day I taught kickboxing and flexibility at a youth club women’s group, and this is the type of thing that we want to do to create the initiative of women automating their use of their body in sport, in action, that we don’t necessarily have access to.
Jade: Super cool as well, and perhaps different compared with other sport collectives, is that we have a dual pronged approach, as we are coming at both of our interests from two different perspectives. That union through action allows us a broader reach, whether that’s screening stuff that sends us queer voices in action, other people who have been marginalised. Even the name, Babes with Blades, whilst we are very heavily focused on gender disparity, it’s tongue in cheek – women with weapons, but no other discerning skills, or no lines. We still want to have that element of inclusivity, even ‘Babes’ is such a gender-neutral term.
The other day we were talking about the misrepresentation of certain men, those that we want to talk about who are also making change, for example someone like Nick Chopping who is such a huge ally. We want to include those voices of our community that are united by aestheticized violence. Over the next year, we’ll be working on our next print edition that will include stories that are linked together in the action genre. We’ve had four videos, three music videos, one of those featured vampire boxing and lots of blood. Basically, we’ve got a certain aesthetic and if people want to join in, they know where to find us.