A (real) Hollywood story: Granby native Nikki Tomlinson, an actress and stuntwoman, talks about life in the spotlight (with video)
January 20, 2018
Nikki Tomlinson has been through a lot. She’s been shot, stabbed and had her arm torn off, not to mention she is partially decomposed.
Well, that all actually happened to Tomlinson after she dons the fake gore to become a member of the un-dead on the mega-hit zombie TV show, “The Walking Dead.”
Tomlinson, a native of Granby, has gone from spray tanning naked celebrities to getting repeatedly killed on “The Walking Dead.” She’s stunt doubled for some big names in Hollywood and had a staring role on an NBC series. The actress has experienced most aspects of the stereotypical Hollywood dream, but along with it has come rejection, uncertainty and uncomfortable situations.
Tomlinson, 37, was born in Kremmling and grew up in Granby. Her father, Allen Tomlinson, was the dentist in town and her mother, Kim Tomlinson, was the junior choir director at the former Presbyterian Church.
Both of her parents were performers. Her dad would sing with a local barbershop quartet and her mother involved with the choir.
Tomlinson credits her parents for gaining the “musical theater bug.” And her work as a stunt woman would stem from the love of gymnastics she had in her youth.
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She had the typical Colorado childhood — going sledding, playing outdoors, climbing trees and hitting the slopes. She recalled being dropped off at Silver Creek — now Granby Ranch — by her parents on Mondays during the winter since school back then only ran from Tuesday to Friday.
When she was 11 years old, she and her family relocated to Denver. But she has never forgotten Grand County.
Her most recent visit to the area was last summer. She and her fiancé, Jake, went searching for the perfect venue to have their wedding and she looked no further than Grand County.
In July, she’ll be married at Grand Lake Lodge.
Tomlinson attended college at UNCO in Greeley and majored in musical theater.
“I always knew I wanted to perform and act, but being from Grand County, I didn’t feel like film and TV was accessible,” as she explained she didn’t know anybody who had done that.
Acting onstage and performing on Broadway felt more accessible to her because it was what she understood.
She would go on to tour with the Broadway musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” for a year, performing at huge venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Shrine Auditorium, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Japan and more.
It was through her work onstage when she began to meet people who worked in the film and television industry.
“I started to realize it was more doable than I thought,” she said.
So she did what many young actresses do. She made the move to New York City to take in some acting classes and pursue a role on a soap opera or in commercials.
But her first “big break” would happen in Los Angeles. “That’s where I needed to be to focus on film and TV,” she said.
She booked a job on a little known channel, the G4 Network, which she said most people likely have never heard of. The show was X-Play. Her role: a sexy devil dancer.
She had done it. She made it to Hollywood and appeared on screen in a professional production. Her next steps, however, weren’t as calculated.
In between exhaustive auditions and subsequent rejection and disappointment, Tomlinson had to find a way to support herself financially. Waiting by the phone for a callback audition wouldn’t pay the bills.
She recalled her first lucrative full-time job as a custom spray tan technician at a posh salon in Beverly Hills.
“I’ve seen so many naked celebrities; the list is very long,” she giggled.
The first celebrity she ever spray tanned was Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Academy Award winning star of such films as “Chicago” and “Traffic.”
“I was so nervous, but she was so friendly,” Tomlinson remembered.
After nerves eased, the two sang scores from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
But after some time, the spray-tanning job became difficult. She felt trapped, like she was wearing “golden handcuffs,” as she explained.
Only known as ‘the spray tan girl’
She knew the famous faces that would come into the tanning salon as people she dreamed of working with; they knew her as their spray tan girl and nothing more.
The job paid well, and she was good at it, but it was holding her back.
Tomlinson felt she had become pigeon holed before she could even audition for these people, hearing about roles that she would be perfect for, knowing that they wouldn’t give her a chance since she was the one known for holding the spray gun and simply offering a darker complexion.
“That’s how they knew me,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t move to Los Angeles to be a spray tanner; that’s not my life ambition.”
But she continued with the audition circuit, facing rejection after rejection.
“It was just me finding whatever I could,” she said. She would search online for open casting calls and hear about acting job leads from her friends.
One of the biggest people she auditioned for was Julie Taymor, the Oscar winning director of “The Lion King.” It was for a role on Broadway in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which would become infamous for being a disastrous production.
Tomlinson made it down to the very final auditions, after auditioning once in Los Angeles then basically repeating that same exhaustive audition in New York City. She even was taken to an aerial gymnasium, put into a harness and spun around to see if she’d get sick.
The day before her flight back to Los Angeles, Tomlinson had the longest day of her life, waiting for the phone to ring to hear if she got the gig. Alas the phone rang, but not with the news she wanted; she didn’t get the part.
The “Spider-Man” show would go on to earn notoriety for its vast production troubles related to the difficulty of its stunts, in which several actors were injured, and frequent rewriting of the book and score. It closed after only three years on Broadway.
Suddenly she was no longer disappointed over not being cast.
Another memorable audition was one she had for the film, “The Cutting Edge III,” as the lead bad character — the mean girl — but was told she was too tough after having to kick a man in a certain area on his body.
“It didn’t make sense,” she said, but she learned to laugh about it.
A step in the right direction
Tomlinson’s goal is to one day become a household name, which would mean she would be working enough consistently on big projects. That’s her ultimate goal.
“I know I have the ability and the skills, it’s just a matter of continuing until it happens,” she said.
The process of becoming an actress “is like magic,” she explained. “There’s no set way; you just have to keep going, keep trying, meeting people and auditioning until the right set of circumstances and the right people all align and it happens.
“It’s like when luck meets preparation.”
That preparation paid off after a one-episode role in 2014 on the long-running CBS crime drama, “Criminal Minds.”
One day on the set, clad in her stiletto heels as her character was a stripper, the five-foot-four actress navigated the line for lunch, struggling to carry the full lunch tray on a gravel parking lot.
“Some of the guys were making jokes, ‘Put that on your resume: stunt girl,'” she said, but she actually was already on the fringe of becoming a “stunt girl.”
That quick exchange, which started out as a joke, opened the door to meeting and getting to know the stunt coordinators and stunt people on the set, one of whom just happened to be working on the smash AMC hit, “The Walking Dead.”
Her heart dropped. She was a huge fan of the show.
If she were ever in Atlanta, where the show is filmed, they would gladly turn her into a zombie and blow her head off.
“I want to do that so much,” she recalls saying.
But Georgia wasn’t at all on her radar at that point, so she thought the opportunity was gone.
In the meantime, she became a business owner as she started a Christmas caroling company known as The Tinseltone Carolers, which she created with her business partner whom she had graduated college with back in Colorado. The business recruits talent to perform Christmas carols at private Christmas parties, corporate parties, shopping malls, a regular performance at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, and along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The company would go on to have branches in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Still, her love of acting and doing stunts never faded. She continued to juggle both until, one day, a few months after her stint on “Criminal Minds,” she was offered a stunt job on “The Walking Dead.” It was in Atlanta.
It was heading towards the Fourth of July, which was also the most profitable time of year for her spray-tanning job. She could either take a huge risk and head out to the Peach State for zombies or stick around in Los Angeles and earn big money, but run the chance of not finding acting or stunt work.
She did some soul searching and got some pretty solid advice from a close friend: She hadn’t moved to Hollywood to be a spray tanner, but that’s what she was mainly doing.
After heading out to Atlanta, and seeing for herself the splendid opportunities for what she wanted to really do, she made the big move across country, to Georgia.
“It’s been the best move I could of made,” she said.
Becoming part of ‘The Walking Dead’
Tomlinson went on to star in 13 episodes — as 13 different zombies, or “walkers,” as they’re called on the show — beginning with season five. Her latest episode will debut on air Feb. 25 as the show returns from its season eight mid-season hiatus.
Since joining the show as a stunt woman, Tomlinson said she has had so much fun, despite being on a show known for its gory decapitations, half-decomposed zombies and main characters being killed off left and right.
She most enjoys the makeup, which transforms her into the most gruesome creations.
“The makeup is crazy. I love it,” she beamed. “I just want them to make me as gross, disgusting and bloody as possible. I love every second.”
While she’s never had the fortune to be the zombie responsible for biting any of the main characters, she’s been killed by most of them. Rick Grimes — played by Andrew Lincoln — shot her and knifed her in the head; Abraham Ford — played by Michael Cudlitz — pulled her arm off; Daryl Dixon — played by Norman Reedus — shot her with a crossbow; and she was killed by the stick of Morgan Jones, played by Lennie James.
“I haven’t seen all the episodes I’ve worked on,” she admitted. “But my closest friends and family recognize me, even as a zombie.”
She gets stabbed, pushed down hills, sprayed with fire hoses and much more, but filming the horror series isn’t as morbid as many would think, according to Tomlinson.
“You kind of lose sight of the fact that everybody is bloody and dead,” she said. “Everybody is talking and walking around like normal until we roll, then everybody gets into their zombie positions.
“It’s really friendly, really positive.”
And it doesn’t smell or taste bad, either.
Tomlinson explained that one of the main ways they get the zombies’ hair to look matted and gross is they put conditioner in it. “So all the zombies smell like some delicious, fruity conditioner,” she laughed.
As for that blood dripping out of the zombies’ mouths, it’s a syrup-like substance that tastes like mint.
“It’s delicious,” she said with a laugh.
But the days of the shoot are long, typically lasting up to 12 hours. That’s about two hours in makeup, filming for eight or nine hours, a half-hour lunch break — which she said is funny because you get to see all the zombies sitting together eating — and roughly an hour to remove the makeup.
Most of the show is filmed on location about an hour south of Atlanta, around an area called Senoia, Ga.
Of the 13 episodes she’s been part of, her favorite scene was the one in which she got her arm ripped off.
“The makeup was so good and so neat,” she said.
She had her real arm tucked behind her back, basically in her pants, then a fake shoulder and arm that was created and fastened to her costume with Velcro, making it able to be easily torn off. The special effects team rigged blood pumps through the prosthetic so blood spurt out when the arm was detached. The scene only lasted for a few seconds, but the impression was lasting.
A risky business
While she says she always has fun on the sets she works, being a stunt person doesn’t come without big risks.
In July, a stunt man was killed on the set of “The Walking Dead” after he plunged headfirst to the ground from a balcony.
“It was really sad and heartbreaking,” Tomlinson said.
When things like that happen, it reaffirms the serious risk of her industry. “There’s always risk with stunt work, that’s the nature of the job.”
Her job is to perform the stunts as safely as possible. “You have to be thinking 12 steps ahead and what’s the worst possible thing that can happen, then you take measures to prevent them,” she explained.
Though she’s never been seriously injured, she’s been in some hair-raising scenarios.
The most dangerous stunt she has performed will appear in the upcoming film, “Game Night,” starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams.
She couldn’t divulge many details, since the film hasn’t yet been released, but she said there is some harrowing stunt driving in a red Corvette, some of which involves an airplane.
“Those are things that, if they had gone wrong, we would have been killed,” she said. “My life is literally in other peoples’ hands.”
‘Game of Silence’ gets canceled
In between shooting stunts on “The Walking Dead,” Tomlinson was overjoyed after she landed a recurring role on the short-lived NBC drama, “Game of Silence,” which aired in 2016. It was her biggest acting role yet.
The show, about a rising attorney who finds his perfect life threatened when his long-lost childhood friends threaten to expose a dark secret from their past, premiered mid-season as a replacement show.
“Game of Silence” was created by David Hudgins, creator of prior NBC hits “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and executive produced by Carol Mendelsohn, who also produced the mega-hit, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”
“It was very promising,” said Tomlinson, “and the cast was fantastic.”
But the show wasn’t picked up after its initial 10-episode order.
Tomlinson was devastated.
She said the show basically didn’t receive enough viewers that NBC would want in order to sell the advertising space. She also thought the content was a bit too edgy for network television. Had it been on FX, AMC or even HBO, she believes the series would have thrived.
She starred opposite Larenz Tate and David Lyons, playing the character Annie Nolan, the pregnant wife of one of the main characters.
It was a good match for Tomlinson since she finally got to demonstrate her acting chops, crying and having a dramatic outbreak in nearly each of the 10 episodes.
Though that experience was over, she still had her stunt work to fall back on, and she continued with it, landing some big jobs.
Tomlinson will soon be featured in “Game Night”; “Blockers,” where she doubles for actress Leslie Mann; “Strangers 2: Prey by Night,” and “Knight Squad,” a new show on Nickelodeon in which she plays a sea hag.
“I’ll be completely unrecognizable,” she said, by being covered in prosthetics.
The makeup artist who did her makeup for “Knight Squad” is a four-time Oscar winner for special-effects makeup. She got to combine her talents on the show, doing stunts and acting.
Acting in a world of sexual misconduct
Tomlinson is an actress in a time when sexual misconduct allegations have swirled through Hollywood, bringing down powerful men such as producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K. and actor Kevin Spacey. And she, too, has had encounters with Hollywood men — and women — that were less than appropriate.
She recalled two specific times when she felt most uncomfortable, shying away from suggesting the incidents were akin to sexual assault.
The first incident was at the tanning salon where she worked in Beverly Hills. A man, a relatively unknown movie producer, started to “get really creepy” in the little spray tanning room. According to Tomlinson, the man “kind of opened his robe up and started coming towards me.”
But she was able to diffuse the situation and “redirect him.”
“Nothing happened and no lines were crossed,” she confirmed. “Had anything gotten worse, I most likely could have gotten out of the room.”
She reported it to the salon staff and owner.
Another time was when she was sent on an out-call appointment through the salon, which was common for her.
Tomlinson was at a female celebrity’s house, whom she declined to name, and noticed the woman was drunk and quite possibly on drugs.
“She started to get a little inappropriate” in a sexual nature, Tomlinson said. “It actually happened a couple times with her; I knew her well enough and had been to her house many times that I knew how to handle it.”
Tomlinson was exposed to the seedy side of Hollywood, which she acknowledged is on the way to change.
“I’m really glad that the movement is happening; that women are finally coming forward and other women are backing them up,” she said. “It’s not right. It’s not OK.”
She said she had been warned so many times to stay away from a certain man, told what had happened to a friend, instructed not to socially go out with another person. “It’s definitely there,” she said. “It’s a big open secret.”
She knew early on that sexual misconduct was prevalent in Hollywood, having known people who had worked with Weinstein whose jobs were to get the women who were intoxicated or drugged to sign a non-disclosure agreement as they were put in a cab and sent home.
“I remember hearing about that and being floored,” she said. “People knew what was going on. So I’m glad that it’s being exposed.”