Hollywood has a 5-foot-3 former policewoman to thank for turning Daenarys Targaryen into a one-woman Terminator killing machine.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s silver-haired T-800 may have raised Sarah Connor into a lethal killer in last weekend’s Terminator Genysis, but it’s soft-spoken former police officer turned stuntwoman Michelle Cannon who taught Emilia Clarke how to pack heat like a pro in the action reboot.
“She was a good shot, actually,” Cannon said via phone from her home base in southern Ohio, where she and ex-military husband Russ Cannon own and operate a tactical training business. “I was really impressed. She’s about 5-foot-2, I’m 5-foot-3, so we have the same small hands.”
Clarke came to Terminator Genysis, her first action role, with no previous firearm training. After all, who needs guns in Westeros? She spent three weeks on a private range with Cannon to convincingly handle a Colt M4 Carbine rifle and the Sig Sauer P226 handgun.
“Each day we’d go over the four-point draw from the holster, multiple target engagement, shooting on the move, magazine changes, and malfunctions. I would put a snap cap in a round of live ammo which would cause the weapon to malfunction, and she would have to correct it,” Cannon said with a laugh. “Hopefully she remembered.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Cannon dabbled in acting classes but had her first taste of weapons training while working as an animal control officer, then a police dispatcher. She put herself through the police academy to become a cop, but after a decade in law enforcement the spark was gone. She turned to showbiz and segued into stunt work, earning her SAG-AFTRA card while working on America’s Most Wanted.
Cannon landed a number of thankless stunt gigs, briefly doubling for Michelle Rodriguez in Battle in Seattle (“It was in the riot scene; I jumped off a bus and that’s it, then I came home!”). Her additional credits include Southland Tales and The Lone Ranger. “I didn’t see the movie,” she said of the latter, “but I played a Native American woman and got shot by a cavalry officer on a horse in a massacre scene.”
With her petite frame, Cannon says stunt work was sometimes hard to come by. “I didn’t get hired as much because a lot of time you have to have the same size and shape,” she said. “There are a lot more male roles than female roles.”
It was around that time when Cannon was recruited to perform in a military simulation that tapped her particular set of skills. “I was contacted by a company in San Diego looking for a woman who could play a female Iraqi and shoot a gun,” she recalled. “So I worked with the Marines in what’s called a shoot-house, and they would come in and train. I would play a bad person and train with them that way. Once I got into that, I really enjoyed it. I had no military background, so I thought that would be a good way to get experience.”
“I got to travel and support the troops, support the training, and save lives, because training really does help save lives,” she said. “So that’s what we do now.”
With husband Russ, a three-decade military and special ops veteran whose own résumé includes a stint training the United Arab Emirates Royal Guard and working for billion-dollar defense contractor DynCorp International in Iraq, Cannon co-founded Mission Support Specialists Inc. in 2009, combining the entertainment and military fields in what’s become an emerging cottage industry for small-business-owning veterans.
In addition to providing firearm sales and rentals to law enforcement and the film and television industry, the Cannons are called to help whip actors into combat shape on shoots, providing training to blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Fantastic Four. They also work in video games, recording the live-fire sounds for Call of Duty: Ghosts that millions of teenage boys hear when they mash the buttons on their PS4s.
But what MSSI specializes in are live battlefield simulation training, traveling up to five times a year to train soldiers headed for overseas deployment. Licensed to carry firearms and explosives, the couple utilizes an extensive armory and tap military vets to pull off productions that blend the worlds of entertainment and the armed forces.
“We use role players depending on what country they’re training to be in,” Cannon explained. “Arabic speakers, different languages… it’s called ‘reality-based training.’ We use special effects explosions to simulate IEDs and car bombs.”
Although she declined to go into detailed descriptions of various training exercises, the company website offers courses on firearm safety, marksmanship, foreign weapons from AK-47s to grenade launchers, and have access to “one of the largest weapons inventories in the country.”
Scenarios “change constantly,” Cannon says. “The war’s over now—well, it’s not really over, but there’s always going to be some kind of training, and it’s constantly changing.” Training packages on offer through their website include pyrotechnic-enhanced suicide bomber and IED simulations, and a special effects makeup team that can fake battlefield wounds.
“I think we were one of the first companies to do this,” said Cannon. “They’re popping up more now because of the time, a lot of people are getting out of the military and starting their own disabled veterans’ companies.”
The Cannons were originally based in Southern California but moved their operation to a 12-acre spread in Ohio, she says, “because of all the laws.”
“We have to have several types of permits in California in order to possess assault weapons and certain types of machine guns,” she explained. “There were just a lot of laws and a lot of money to keep up that type of business. The cost of living’s cheaper and the cost of running our business is better out here.”
It’s not necessarily easy for even federally licensed operations like the Cannons to stockpile caches of firearms—but it is easier to do in Ohio than in California, Cannon says. “You can’t have a criminal background. You have to have a reason to have weapons. They’re not just going to give you firearms unless it’s for your personal use. But there are stringent processes to go through in order to handle these firearms.”
In the wake of violent crimes like the Charleston church massacre, in which nine people died after shooter Dylann Roof was able to obtain a handgun despite a pending felony record, the national call for gun control earned a prominent resurgent cry from President Obama. Cannon’s not worried about a ripple effect impacting her business.
“Obama’s going to try to push his agenda for guns and weapons, but I really don’t think it will ever happen because we have the right to bear firearms,” she said. “I think there’s a different way they should go about allowing people to have them. Too many people with mental disorders are able to get ahold of guns and hurt people.”
“Right away everyone wants to ban weapons, but it’s not the guns’ fault,” she continued. “I think they should do better backgrounds on people and not allow people with mental disorders to buy guns. Criminals don’t care—they’re going to get guns regardless. They don’t follow the law. But it doesn’t affect our business.”