Once in a great while, you come across a person who inspires you to become a better person. This is the kind of person I found when I recently had the opportunity to interview Kurt Yaeger. What I found is that he is intelligent, gracious, easy to talk to, and tenacious. Kurt also has a love for life and a determination that you rarely see in today’s age. He was involved in a motorcycle accident while at university that quite frankly he shouldn’t have survived, but he did. Not only did he survive but he has flourished and used his new life to try to make things better for other people with disabilities. Keep reading, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
In the new Cinemax show Quarry, you play Suggs. What intrigued you about this role and made you want to play him?
Suggs is a complicated character, and I think what drew me to him specifically is trying to play the heart of a murderer. The heart of a contract killer. Someone who’s doing whatever it takes to win and putting myself in that kind of a position was a real fun challenge. How do I get into that head space? How do I justify his existence? That’s a great challenge for an actor, but Michael Fuller and Graham Gordy wrote the character so well that it made it much easier to play. I mean when you get great writing you can do good work. So their writing was definitely a draw for me.
What was your first thought when you read in the script that, in the first episode, a man is murdered with your character’s prosthetic leg?
I thought “Let me make sure that we’re going to do this correctly” and when we talked, I said, “I’ll show my leg and whatnot just as long as it’s juxtaposed to strength.” They were completely on board and kind of changed the character a little bit to show his strength. So when I read that part after we collaborated a little, they were writing this amazing character, and I essentially said, “Can we film this tomorrow? Can we do this now?” (laughs) I was so excited. I thought this was going to be so cool. Even when we did go film it, they were like “There’s no photography on set…” and I was like “uh uh.” I brought my cell phone in my pocket and was snapping selfies all over the set. (laughs)
What has been your biggest challenge playing Suggs?
It’s the same thing that intrigued me. The biggest challenge is finding his heart. You can play a character that’s bad, and people will play the character bad, and they’re considered a villain, but Suggs just seems like an asshole. (laughs) I wanted people to feel for him. I wanted people to say, “Yeah he’s a bad guy, but oh man he’s just got a soul.” I wanted there to be a little bit of sympathy for him. Finding that was definitely a hard challenge. It’s very hard to think about someone who’s a murderer, who is potentially a rapist, hanging out with prostitutes, killing other people, to have a heart. So I think that was the biggest challenge.
In 2006 you went to school for Hydrogeology. How did you go from being a pro-BMX rider to studying Hydrogeology and then into acting?
I like a lot of different things. I like a lot of various topics, and I’ve always been a science guy. I have subscriptions to “Scientific America.” (laughs) I like reading peer review papers.
BMX has always been and still is part of my being, but at a certain point, you start getting a little too beat up, the opportunities are dwindling, and you have to figure out something else to do with your life. Most people find that at some stage. They played football in college and maybe got to semi-pro but never went pro and have to rediscover who they are.
My moment was “Well I exercised my body my entire life. Let’s go exercise my brain.” I said, “I’m going to go work in a really cool industry that deals with what I think is going to be the new major issue in the next 100 years: water, water resources. Where all water comes from, water filtration, dams and how to deal with dams and the deconstruction of dams once they need to be removed.” I thought it was just an excellent career opportunity and the science behind it was awesome.
That’s what I went for, and then I had a major motorcycle accident which changed my perspective on everything. I decided that I wanted to pursue a full-time career as an actor. Partly because I had a near death experience and partly because it was something I wished I could do and thought I was never good enough to do. I had a little bit of interaction with it through BMX. They’d say, “Hey, can you do a stunt for our TV show or a television commercial on a bike?” So I did some of that stuff. I did some theater as a kid, but I never thought I could be an actor.
I grew up in a rough place. I’m not from money. I don’t know anyone in Hollywood. What makes me think I have a chance? That was my thought, and when I had my near death experience I was like “Who cares what I think my chances are? I’m gonna go make this happen.”
You were in an accident that resulted in the loss of part of one of your legs. After someone goes through a life altering accident, do you think it’s important to get back into the things they loved before the accident?
Absolutely. It’s part of who you are, and it’s regaining aspects of who you are. You’re just reclaiming parts that people tell you you’re never going to have again and some parts that maybe you believe you can’t get. When you reclaim those things, you find that there’re other things that you’re also gaining in that process. It’s the only way you can grow.
So if you lose the ability to do something you can manipulate that into some other form. I think that’s partly the acting part of it. Being an actor, you get to be other people. You get to do all these cool roles. Now I’m a pure reinvention of myself, and I still get to ride motorcycles, and I still get to ride bicycles. It’s at a different level, but I’ve done several TV shows now where I get to ride a motorcycle, and that’s the thing that caused the accident in the first place. It’s a big, huge circle. It comes back, and I think if you regain that then you regain part of yourself.
Was it hard for you to get back on a motorcycle after the accident?
Yeah. The accident was pretty bad. I still feel bouts of PTSD. Riding along the freeway now if a car gets too close or something, I’m like “Oh that was close. That was close.” I get flashbacks and stuff, so it’s never gone and getting back on the bike the first time it was pure, it wasn’t horror, it was like an anxiety attack. You know what I mean? It was just a feeling of dread.
Where you’re like “Okay, this is all in your head Kurt. Easy, let off the throttle, go down the street, and just go around the block. You know how to just start over. So do it. Do it. Just do it.” And I did, but it wasn’t easy.
Before your accident, you were a professional BMX rider in the X-Games. After your accident did you ever think you would participate in an X-Games again?
No. Did I want to? Absolutely. Did I want to get back on a bike? Absolutely. When you’re laying in a hospital bed for three and half months near death, you don’t think much of anything except I have to get out of this hospital. I have to get better, and then you think life’s over. What do you do? You have no leg. You can’t walk. You’re in a wheelchair. Your pelvis is broken. Your back is broken. There’s not much you’re thinking about. There’s just the immediate, which is recovery.
I thought about the motorcycle, and I thought about the bikes and can I get back to it? But the reality of it once it started getting closer and closer to, I guess, testing things out it was painful. It was tough. I would never have thought I’d make it this far.
What was it like to be the first amputee to land a back flip in the X-Games?
(laughs) It was great! It’s pretty cool to have thousands of people cheering for you and all your mates cheering for you to do something that’s pushing the limits. It was just an experience that I was lucky enough to get to do again, and it made me feel like “Okay, I’m back! I’m back. I can do this.” That was just a magical feeling. I rode that high for several months.
You do a lot of work educating executives in Hollywood about disabilities and why disabled people should be cast in roles that are not necessarily written for someone who is disabled. Why do you think this is important?
Television media influences society. The good and bad. People with disabilities aren’t shown on TV as capable humans, which makes society consider them not able people. On top of that for the disabled people out in the world, they might have some self-doubt because they don’t see anyone like themselves doing capable things. Not every single human on the planet is a trailblazer. That’s just part of the psyche. It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. It’s just different, and if actors with disabilities aren’t being shown on television, then you’re missing out on an entire gambit of people that you’re not encouraging in a good way. Plus TV is a visual medium, and it’s more interesting to see individuals with a disability playing a character that has nothing to do with it.
A blind person on TV right now would be like “Oh they’re struggling with this and how they walk and whatever else, and so on and so forth, instead of being like “No I’m just an interviewer. That’s what I do. I got my own show, and I do my own thing.” I mean how many times have we seen that on television? Not very often.
You started a production company called Artist Film. What inspired you to start this business and what kind of films do you want to make?
My business partner (Josh Gillick) and I met on a set, and we were like “Let’s write our own stuff. We can write better than this.” So we started our own projects and raised money for several of them. We’ve done nine short films, and a feature film called “Sedona’s Rule.” We’ve done a bunch of corporate branding videos. Corporations will call us up and ask us to create content for them.
I think that we’re not interested in a genre specifically. We just like making good content. If a good idea pops up, or a good book we’ve read pops up, we definitely want to make that. I shy away personally from horror. Just because it’s not my thing. (laughs) I don’t like watching scary movies. It just doesn’t do anything for me. I prefer to do more dramas or stories that have huge interesting concepts.
We’re raising money now for a new film project, and we acquired the film rights to a book called “Jupiter’s Travels.” It’s about a gentleman named Ted Simon who in the early ’70s goes around the world for four years as a journalist for the “London Times.” It’s just the most fascinating book. Imagine if you went everywhere during the most critical points in history. What he learned in his humanity was just an exciting trek into the depths of the human soul. It’s just such a cool, cool book. So that’s a project that we’ve developed, and we’re raising money for right now. Those are the kinds of projects. The ones that are not just inspirational but inspire me, personally. If I find them interesting and I think they have a market, then I’ll try and develop it.
We at TNWU all have something nerdy/geeky about us. What is something nerdy or geeky about you?
My favorite TV show is Stargate SG-1. I know everything about it. I know that one of the main character’s, Teal’c’s son’s name is Rya’c and they’re from Chulak and his wife died because she couldn’t get a symbiote. That’s a little nerdy I think. (laughs)
You can catch Kurt on Cinemax’s Quarry on Friday nights. Check your local listings for times.