As a theater student at Wayne State University, Ivy Haralson had a moment in “The Crucible” that predicted her future as a performer.
For a scene in the Salem witch trials drama where her character was thrown to the floor and kicked in the stomach, Haralson had to convey the agony of the staged violence through her movements and timing. “I remember every show, the audience would gasp just because of me reacting. … Hearing that reaction every night I was like, ‘OK, I did a good job.’ I was always so excited to get that,” she says. “It should have been my sign, like, ‘OK, you were meant to do this physical acting.’”
It took a few years, but eventually the universe got its message through. Haralson, 31, has found her niche as a stunt actor with a list of international credits stretching from Marvel Universe Live! arena shows to Cirque du Soleil to Bollywood action films.
Her career has taken her to Europe, the United Arab Emirates, China, India and U.S. cities like Las Vegas and Atlanta. That last destination, now her home base, is where the metro Detroit native spent about nine months working on “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” as part of the movie’s elite women warriors, the Dora Milaje.
The sequel to 2018’s blockbuster hit “Black Panther” has remained the top film at the U.S. box office since opening nearly three weeks ago. So far, it has earned almost $368 million domestically and some $675 million globally. And it’s achieving those numbers while fulfilling the double mission of being a thrilling action movie and honoring the legacy of the original’s star, Chadwick Boseman, who died in 2020 of colon cancer.
Haralson says she was a big fan of the first “Black Panther,” which had a tremendous cultural impact for a superhero film. It was the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a Black actor at its center, a Black director in Ryan Coogler and a mostly Black cast portraying the royalty and citizens of the fictional nation in Africa that was home to Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther character.
When Haralson saw “Black Panther,” she particularly was drawn to the fierce, all-women fighting force assigned to protect T’Challa. ”To see the Dora Milaje be introduced … I was like: ‘Whoa, that’s what I was meant to do. That’s what I’ve been working towards without even knowing I was working towards it.’”
Growing up in southwest Detroit and Belleville, Haralson was immersed in sports. She played softball and volleyball and, at Belleville High School, participated in track, running sprint relays and hurdles and becoming one of the school’s first female pole vaulters. Then, in her senior year, her theater teacher encouraged her to try out for the spring musical, which shifted her focus to acting.
She went to college at Wayne State University, which was close to her family and boasted a theater program (now officially titled the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance) that includes actors like S. Epatha Merkerson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tom Skerritt and Sam Richardson among its alums.
“Wayne State felt like home from one of my first days. It’s such a good blend of people. It’s such a diverse campus,” she says.
Another major factor for Haralson, who has Black and Mexican heritage, was Wayne State’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (then called the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies). She says it was the first place to provide her with a scholarship.
Haralson acted in a range of productions during her college years, from the musical “Hairspray” to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and recalls attending a seminar on stage combat, another hint of things to come.
After graduating, she moved to New York to pursue a career in performing. Although she tried out for “The Book of Mormon” and had several callbacks, getting into Broadway musicals proved challenging. Several years after arriving, she had put her dream on hold and was managing a nightclub when a friend told her about auditions for a Marvel Universe Live! tour.
“”She was like, ‘You have to go!’ I was terrified. I almost didn’t go because I hadn’t auditioned for anything in years,“ says Haralson, describing the tough, roughly six-hour process that winnowed out hopefuls for the tour through a series of increasingly strenuous tasks such as learning fight choreography on the spot.
She landed a spot in the European tour and was as an understudy for Storm (the role played by Halle Berry in “X-Men” films) and did stunt acting as a bunch of different villains, or “whoever the superheroes in that specific scene were fighting.” When a broken ankle sent her home to America, she used the time after recovering to increase her skills in acrobatics and gymnastics.
Haralson moved on next to Mirage Entertainment and found herself doing three or four live stunt shows each day at theme park-type attractions in Dubai and China. That led to a stunt acting gig with Cirque du Soleil’s “R.U.N.,” which premiered in October 2019 in Las Vegas. A departure from the usual balletic Cirque du Soleil show, it was packed with action stunts and featured a story line by director Robert Rodriguez.
“It was very ‘Kill Bill’ style,” says Haralson, who once again played bad guys — typically the parts that are the most fun in terms of doing a range of stunts like rappelling down walls and soaring through the air on wires.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down “R.U.N.” in March 2020. In early 2021, Haralson traveled to India for stunt roles in two Bollywood action films. “It was a huge learning curve,” she says of her first brush with being on the screen. And it was great preparation for what would come next. After connecting on social media with a veteran Marvel Studios stunt actor who just happened to be involved with stunt casting for “Wakanda Forever,” she ended up landing her dream job as a Dora Milaje soldier.
“Sometimes I want to take a break from social media, but it’s also that’s where I get work,” says Haralson. “So it’s like, ‘OK, I have to keep active on my Instagram.’ Honestly, as a stunt person, uploading and having the content that shows you’re capable to do these things is an easy selling point for someone who’s trying to hire us. You can’t really fake these skills they’re needing.”
Haralson did intense physical training for the role, which also brought the emotional challenge of becoming a woman warrior. Donning the iconic Dora Milaje costumes by Oscar-winning designer Ruth E. Carter was a lesson in how powerful the characters have become as symbols.
“Trying them on and doing the fittings was one thing, but being on set the first day and having all seven of us girls dressed and just walking to the stages, everywhere we walked everyone was like … ‘Oh my God.’…You just felt so regal and powerful walking out in that costume, for sure.”
She says the commitment to paying tribute to Boseman was mentioned often and almost palpable on the set. “Everyone was brought together with the idea of we need to do this, we need to continue this legacy that he began.”
Haralson attended the “Wakanda Forever” world premiere in Los Angeles, where she finally was able to see her work on the screen, particularly in the big action scenes near the end. She also got to see the underwater sequences, where she served as a stunt double for Angela Bassett, who portrays Queen Ramonda in both “Black Panther” movies.
Recently, not long before the Thanksgiving holidays, she again watched “Wakanda Forever” with an audience of friends and family inside a rented theater at the Ann Arbor 20 in Ypsilanti. “It was a great way to thank everyone who’s been involved in my life,” she says.
Since finishing filming for “Wakanda Forever,” Haralson has worked in Spain on the Peacock series “Vampire Academy” and in Hungary on an upcoming series, “The Continental,” a prequel of sorts to the “John Wick” movies that focuses on that franchise’s hotel for assassins. Another upcoming project is a series adaptation of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” from “Atlanta” creator and star Donald Glover.
Being a member of film and TV stunt acting teams seems to suit Haralson’s knack for collaboration. In a recent profile of her for Wayne State University, Mary Anderson, who chairs the theatre and dance department, described her this way: “She’s an incredible star, but she’s also an ensemble player because she’s all about making everyone else on the production look good, too.”
Haralson puts it more modestly when she talks about crisscrossing the globe to do stunts for big-name projects. She says, “I’m just going from job to job, trying to keep the ball rolling.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]
Rated PG-13; violence, action, language
2 hours, 41 minutes