Actor, director and professional athlete Kurt Yaeger is best known for his recurring role as Greg “the Peg” on the FX series, Sons of Anarchy. A motorcyclist since he was four, he grew up to be an avid BMX aficionado, and even had his exceptional riding talent incorporated into the popular Nickelodeon cartoon, Rocket Power.
After a motorcycle accident, Yaeger became a below-the-knee amputee. But he’s kept it moving, teaming up with business partner Josh Gillick to create the production company ArtistFilm, which has produced a number of projects and has an extensive slate of productions on tap. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and John McMahon recently met up with Yaeger at his manager’s Los Angeles home near the famed Hollywood sign.
John McMahon: I read that when you were a child in a play about the birth of Christ, you sat on your hands and wouldn’t budge.
Kurt Yaeger: That’s right. I was seven, and I was a stubborn little brat who was afraid to go on.
McMahon: That article made it sound like it was a hop, skip and jump from acting classes to getting your role. Was it that easy?
Yaeger: There’s nothing easy about this industry; acting is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.
McMahon: What was your first break?
Yaeger: I’m still waitin’ for it! (laughs)
McMahon: Did you start getting feedback right away?
Yaeger: Yes. I went out and started auditioning at places and booking roles. I don’t know why, but I took classes then, and I still take them. You never stop learning, because you’re always trying to figure out new roles, new characters, new things. I don’t really ever feel like I have a problem when I’m on set.
A lot of people are like, “Oh, that’s Ron Perlman, you’ve got to act against him.” I’m like, “Okay, just give it to me and I’ll do fine.” My biggest problem is memorizing material for an audition, because when I walk into the room there’s all this stimuli. Let’s say it’s your office: You’ve got pictures of your family and your friends, little doodads, a penguin—and all these thoughts are going through my mind right at the moment that I need to focus on what I’m doing. So now I get on set early, on my own time, and just sit in the space and get used to it. For me, working is easier than auditioning.
McMahon: Did you have a fear of auditions?
Yaeger: Originally I had a fear of rejection, which is a lack of self-confidence ultimately. But that’s partially why I had to do this. Now I have a production company and I’ve done a feature film and a bunch of shorts, and we have a bunch more projects in the works. And when you can look behind the scenes at the casting process, you know it’s not about rejection. It might have been the most amazing performance ever, but if the person is too tall, too short, too brown, too white, has blond hair or whatever it is—maybe the person looks too much like the casting director’s ex—then not getting the gig may have nothing to do with the performance. You have to learn to treat auditioning as matter-of-factly as drinking a glass of water.
McMahon: What do you like the most, being in front of or behind the camera?
Yaeger: I don’t have a preference. Acting for me is liberating. It’s almost like therapy, because I grew up in a blue-collar environment where you’re not supposed to have feelings. So it’s freeing to be in a safe place like a TV or film set where you discover feelings, and where you’re supposed to be open and honest with everybody while exposing the weakest parts of you. That’s really interesting. And then when people congratulate you on revealing the weakest part of who you are, then you start realizing that that might not be weakness. It might be a different kind of strength. Being behind the camera, on the other hand, you have control; you have the ability to make decisions for characters, for where the story line’s going to go, how you want to put it out there, how you want to edit it. Acting is like where you paint on the—
Yaeger: Thank you. Acting is like being the canvas, and being behind the camera is like being either the paint or the paintbrush. They’re both a part of the creative process, it’s just that they have two different functions.
McMahon: As an actor, do you search for the character’s weaknesses first?
Yaeger: I try to discover the character’s primary motivation. In a screenplay, you can make up a hundred different variables of a character. Is he there for love or respect, or is he there out of fear? What’s he doing? Why is he doing it? Then I can build on the intricacies. Does he pick his fingernails? Does he always do this when he’s lying? All the little things that come with it. But it’s also like, if you’re doing a caricature and you’re like, “I want to do a blue-collar guy from Jersey,” you have to go and do the research on the region, the who, what and why.
If it’s a period piece, what they would be saying and how they would be saying it? You have to have enough knowledge as an actor to be able to throw out some improv if the scene just goes to a different place, for some reason. You have to be that character even outside the words on the page. Or else all you’ll be is the words on the page, and that usually falls flat.
Cooper: Talk about Sons of Anarchy.
Yaeger: It has been a great experience. To wake up in the morning, put jeans and a t-shirt on, ride my motorcycle to the set, get into wardrobe and put on a different pair of jeans and t-shirt, and get out and ride a different motorcycle is a pretty good gig. My character, Greg “the Peg,” is a new nomad that comes in and causes trouble inside the club. I wanted to give Greg a little more heart than some of the other new characters that come in. I don’t want to just play a guy who’s a murderer. That’s basic. I want to explore what’s different about this guy. He seems to be the only character that has a conscience. I wanted to play that out in the words he says.
Cooper: Did you get to choose the bike?
Yaeger: We all ride Harleys, but we can choose which one we want to ride. So I chose the Fat Bob with the dual headlights.
Cooper: Do you like the dual headlights because they afford better depth perception?
Yaeger: Yes. I don’t want to get run over on set by the camera truck.
McMahon: What’s it like to work with Ron Perlman?
Yaeger: That guy’s a character, man. He tells the funniest trash jokes you can imagine, and then the director says, “Okay, we’re ready, and action!” And Ron sits down and goes, [in a serious voice] “Now listen, guys…” And you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, you were just telling a joke a minute ago.’ I love it.
McMahon: So he can really switch?
Yaeger: Absolutely. He’s a pro.
Cooper: Can you remember one of the jokes?
Yaeger: No, I don’t remember any.
Cooper: It would be cool if you could.
Yaeger: It would be really cool, but I’ve had 11 concussions, so that doesn’t help.
Cooper: Have you really had 11, or 12, concussions?
Yaeger: (laughs) Yeah. I don’t know if you can tell, but my jaw’s been broken. It’s a little crooked. I’ve broken my scapula. Never broke my clavicle, which is really weird, because that’s the one part that should’ve popped.
Cooper: What happened with your motorcycle accident?
Yaeger: In 2006 I hit a pole and went over a 40-foot embankment, crashing on the side of the freeway. I don’t know how long I was there, maybe 10 minutes, and when I woke up, I could move one leg, but not the other, and my pelvis was broken. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911 to come get me.
Cooper: How did the accident happen?
Yaeger: A car ran me off the road; we’ve never found the individual.
Cooper: I want to say, sorry about that; I spilled some coffee on my lap and…
Yaeger: It’s okay; I’m perfectly fine now, but you do owe me quite a bit of money. (laughs)
Cooper: Where did this happen?
Yaeger: In San Francisco. I’d been riding motorcycles since I was four years old, so it’s not really a matter of something I did wrong. Anyone who knows motorcycle riding knows that there’s only two types of riders: the ones who’ve already crashed and the ones who will down the road.
Cooper: What kind of bike was it?
Yaeger: A Ducati Monster 1000 SI. I ripped the baffles out and cut the pipes down, which makes it noisy because loud bikes save lives. When someone revs the engine [on a noisy bike], it’s them saying: “I’m over here, in your blind spot.”
Cooper: I know that you lost your leg; can you talk about your rehab?
Yaeger: I spent three and a half months in the hospital. My pelvis was broken in half, my bladder was torn in half, my ACL was torn, the MCL in my right leg… I had seven broken vertebrae, collapsed lungs, broken ribs on my right side, deep pain thrombosis in my lower limb. They removed my left leg below the knee. There were a lot of problems. A lot of the recovery in the beginning centered around moving slightly, or having body parts moved for me, to keep some circulation going. But mostly it was about resting and not doing anything that was going to injure me any further.
I did that rehab all on my own for about six months, because when I went to the facility it was more like geriatrics: “Here’s a band. Stretch it.” So I just did it on my own. Up in San Francisco, Lake Merced has a seven-mile loop around it. I would go out there when I couldn’t even walk, and grab a wheelchair, put it on my shoulder, go down each step with one leg to get to my car, crawl to my car, put the wheelchair inside, drive to the lake, and then get out and push myself around the lake. Seven miles. That’s just the stuff that I would do to recover.
When I got my prosthetic leg I thought, “I’m off to the races.” I put that thing on and took one step and I was like, “Aaagh! This hurts!” It probably was another two months of me walking and trying to do everything I could, and then I went back to my prostheticist and he said, “Why aren’t you moving forward?” My leg was a bloody mess. He said, “You need to see the doctor.” So I went to the doctor, and they were like, “We need some x-rays.” I got x-rays, and then they said, “We need MRIs,” and I knew there was something wrong. So when we got the results of the MRI, they said to me, “We don’t know how to tell you this, but they cut your leg off wrong; we’re going to have to do it again.”
Cooper: But it was the correct leg?
Cooper: Oftentimes they will prepare the leg knowing the prosthetic’s coming. Odd they overlooked that.
Yaeger: They had so much other stuff to deal with to put me back together, and the leg wasn’t a life-saving thing.
Cooper: You were still in survivor mode.
Yaeger: Yeah. They were like, “Look, we’ve got to rebuild his internal systems.” So they saved my life in first, but because I had compartment syndrome, if this was my leg, they had to keep cutting it back. So at some point they were like, “We’re just going to keep cutting and not worry about fitting the prosthetic foot later on. He might lose his knee, so what’s the difference if we make this really pretty and perfect?” And then it finally stopped. I started to heal. At that point, I was able to have a leg that wasn’t going to have to get cut from the knee up.
Cooper: So you had another surgery?
Yaeger: I had about 28 surgeries when I was in the hospital. I think I’m up to 56 surgeries now.
Cooper: So when you go to the hospital, they all yell, “Kurt!”
Yaeger: Yeah, I have my own parking spot and they wave me right in. I get to inject myself. They’re like, “Oh, he knows what he’s doing.” I’m like, “Oh, the occipital arch on that bone doesn’t look very good, Doc.” He’s like, “Oh, you see that, too?”
Cooper: But you learned a lot about medicine in the process.
Yaeger: Oh, yeah. I have anatomy books at home so I could learn about different parts and bones, and what they do and why they do it so I could fix them in my mind, and make it work for my body. A doctor can only tell you from the outside what your body’s doing. He can give you a best guesstimate, but only you really know what’s going on inside. Because of my high tolerance for pain, there’ve been plenty of times when I’ve walked into the hospital and said: “I need to get x-rays.” And they go, “I’m sure you’re fine, young man.”
And then I show them my broken knuckles snapped and my twisted wrist, and they’re like back: “Oh, my gosh! You need pain medicine.” And I’m like, “No, I need you to yank this back into place and put a splint on this, because I can’t do it.” It’s that kind of pain tolerance. So only you know what’s going on in your body, and it’s your responsibility to learn as much as you can in order to give them the best information you can about yourself. If the doctor doesn’t have the information from you, he’s making a wild guess. Probably a good guess, but you make the best assessment of your own body.
McMahon: Would you say you’re kind of like Evel Knievel?
Yaeger: I could not compare myself to Evel. He was the man. He was doing stuff before anybody even thought it was cool. He didn’t have any suspension. He was just a daredevil. But the thing is, you noticed from his character that he was calm and took calculated risks.
McMahon: Are you a bit of a daredevil as well?
Yaeger: I don’t consider myself a daredevil, but I do take risks.
Cooper: Calculated risks.
Yaeger: Yes, but I don’t like being afraid of something. If someone dared me to do something that I thought was a poor decision, I wouldn’t do it, no matter what they said. But if I thought I could do it and they dared me, I’d ask how much and at least put some money on it. I just looked up right here and there’s a tall roof and a little roof, and I wonder, can you make this distance? Two story down to one story? I bet you could.
Cooper: So tell me about this rider named Darius Glover.
Yaeger: I met him through a friend of mine. He lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident, I believe, along with spinal injuries. He’s probably the fastest kid I’ve ever seen on a motorcycle. At Milestone he was jumping the big tabletops, the back 100-foot one, with only a cage around his legs.
Cooper: So he was riding a lot?
Yaeger: As a kid, he rode a lot, trying to get sponsors, and then got he hurt.
Cooper: What does he ride? KTM has done a really good job supporting riders. Where as Honda can’t see itself—
Yaeger: They probably don’t want to mark it that someone can get hurt riding this very dangerous thing. (laughs)
Cooper: Tell us about your BMX riding.
Yaeger: I’ve been on the BMX since I was a kid. I’ve been on motorcycles since I was four. My dad had a cabin up in Paradise Pines, which is north of Chico, and we’d ride motorcycles all the time. It was so much fun that I would ride BMX every day that I was not at the cabin. We had a field behind our house where I built jumps. They were one mound, which turned into doubles, which turned into bigger doubles, stretching out further and further. Then I was doing 40-foot-plus jumps.
Cooper: You sent me a video of you. Are you the first person to—
Yaeger: Yeah. I’m the first amputee to pull a back flip in history—that I know of. No one else has come to claim it, so I’m assuming it’s true. And then I’m the top adaptive BMX in the world right now. I went to the X Games. I can do tailers, back flips, 360s, bar spins, every trick. But it was a long process of relearning to ride. It’s not just pedaling the bike, it’s weight distribution, it’s pressure distribution, it’s the fact that I have less muscle on the left lower half of my body than I do on the ride side, so not only do I have less power, but I physically have less weight on one side now.
Cooper: So is it easier to whip your bike in the air because of that?
Yaeger: No, it’s just difficult all the way around. Riding bikes is just so much harder with one leg…….
photo by Christopher Patey