When the director of a Tom Hanks film approaches you — an extra with two lines — and says, on-set, you should seriously pursue a career in acting, it’s time to pay close attention. Especially when those two lines were in Farsi. Which you don’t even speak.
Kurt Yaeger, who has now acted alongside the likes of Morgan Freeman, Rob Lowe, Jessica Alba, and scores of others, experienced that life-changing moment in 2010, on the set of Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War.
It all began when a friend of his took a headshot of him and later, put it on an acting website, unbeknownst to Yaeger. Like a tinsel town “discovery” story, the company called him, so impressed with his Hollywood looks, and asked him to read for an upcoming role. But there was a caveat.
“Do you read Farsi?” they asked.
Without blinking, he said: “Absolutely!”
Thing is, he wouldn’t recognize Farsi to save his own life.
Still, he learned some lines phonetically, auditioned, they liked him, and three weeks later he’s shooting a scene with Tom Hanks and Amy Adams. (The film tells the story of how the United States secretly helped the Afghans fend off Soviet invaders in the 1980s.)
For the part, filmmakers needed an amputee (which so happens, Yaeger is one); and, it helped. He had a beard at the time to give him that “Afghan” look.
“So I did my thing, and Mike Nichols was like, ‘how long have you been acting?’ And I said ‘today.’ And so we had lunch, and he said, ‘I’ve only told three people this thing my entire life, but I think you should do this,’” recalled Yaeger. (“This” being acting.)
“And up until that moment, it was a very scary pipe dream. But when someone as monstrously as big as Nichols took some time to tell me this, it’s something you should consider. I think that was the glimmer of hope. It gave me the edge to believe that maybe I was good enough. It’s a lot to overcome — the internal lies you’ve told yourself as a kid, and when someone as powerful as him says ‘no, all that shit is garbage, you should do this,’ you do it.”
“I know our existence on this planet is short, so I realized it’s something worth risking.”
Determination, coupled with a strong professional ethic, he says lent to an impressive array of roles that followed. Yaeger has since appeared in major network television shows as The Rookie, Without A Trace, Paradise Lost, NCIS LA and dozens of others in the past decade. He’s also been in Dolphin Tale with Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr; and Knife Fight with Rob Lowe.
He stars in the forthcoming season 2 of Netflix’s Another Life, as Dillon Conner, opposite Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), premiering in 2021. “The character is a military guy who served in wars in this fictitious world – and he had lost leg in one of them, so there’s a lot of connections with my real-life experiences, and what this guy is all about,” Yaeger says.
“He’s seen the worst of the worst, and you can really count on him.”
Fresh off his role as Clete Winslow in the new season of LA’s Finest, opposite Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union, he describes the character as “a badass.”
“It resonates ‘cause I love playing the bad guy. It’s so much more fun to walk on set and think ‘okay, let’s see what this bad guy does,’ and bring some character to the world. So, maybe ‘cause I’m a good guy in real life, that I get to express the bad part of me, is fun.”
Not to be typecast or pigeon-holed, however, Yaeger has amassed a diverse collection of roles.
“I play good guys, bad guys, comedies, feature films,” he notes of his eclectic resume. Exemplary of this, was his character in the comedic film The Festival.
“So people are surprised. They’ll say, ‘hey I saw you on Quarry where you played a contract killer, but on The Festival, it’s funny.’ That’s exactly how I want it. It’s a very rare thing to do in this business.”
But how does an up and coming actor, only a decade or so in the business, amass dozens of roles, and not just distinctly different, but shares the screen with veteran household names?
“I think it’s more about trying to have a stellar reputation as an actor, being a nice guy — someone who comes on set in difficult moments, and can just pull the trigger,” he says. Demonstrative of this, was a scene from Sons of Anarchy.
Lead actor Ron Perlman gave him a fake hit to the face, and on cue, Yaeger spun to the ground. But on a later take, one of the production crew had moved into the spot where Yaeger would land. This time, when he fell, Yaeger flung himself right into the crewmember’s knee, and busted his lip wide open, spitting blood everywhere.
“And people were like, ‘oh, we need to shut this down!’ And I pushed my lips together, and I said ‘film it! I’m already bleeding!’ So we filmed it, and it was really blood after the ‘hit.’”
And this was no method acting for Yaeger – he had seen this scene before in his younger days.
“I grew up real rough, so it’s easy to play a rough character, and there’s an element of truth,” he says, recalling neighborhood brawls growing up in South San Francisco (also known as The Industrial City).
“You could look at people, and start a fight… I didn’t learn how to stage-fight or learn anger in a theatre – I have that,” he says.
“And it was back in a day where Bloods and Crips were killing everybody, the Norteños were fighting the Sureños, MS13 was coming through. I’ve had friends who were murdered. But things have developed and gotten better.”
Fortunately, in those ‘hood days he didn’t belong to a gang, or associate with bad elements; he instead had become a professional BMX rider. But taking a beating from a ruffian was nothing compared to the physical pounding he would take in 2006. While on a motorcycle ride, he hit a pole, flew over a 40-foot embankment, and crashed on the edge of the freeway.
The damage was vicious: a pelvis busted in half, seven vertebrae fractured, ruptured internal organs and an amputated leg. It required three months in the hospital, and another two years to recover from the limb loss. It was a miracle of survival and determination to overcome all odds.
Though his body might have been broken in dozens of pieces, he did not let is break his spirit. In fact, the experience spurred something of an epiphany.
“I realized life was short, and I realized I was always too afraid to be exposed on an emotional level. So that, and some help from my friends, and encouragement, I decided to fully invest in acting,” he says.
“Here’s a guy who doesn’t have any money, no connections in the film business, no formal training, and yet with a couple people saying ‘you should try it,’ and the more scary something is for me, the more I realized I wanted to do it. Because facing your fears is what teaches the most about yourself.”
Once full healed, he bravely returned to athleticism. Despite the loss of a leg, he completed 55-mile triathlons, and ran up the Empire State Building (86 floors) in a little over twenty minutes. Parlaying his unique circumstance, with his position in Hollywood, he’s served for nearly a decade on the SAG-AFTRA committee for Performers With Disabilities, in order to bring more people with physical challenges into the profession.
And his inspiring story – from crushing collision to the journey of recovery – was dramatized in a music video he directed, Rudimental’s Waiting All Night, featuring Ella Eyre, in which he also starred. It has accumulated more than 215 million views.
Unbelievably, to this day, he has retained his passion for motorcycles. Yes, even riding with one leg. In addition to hosting the BMW GS Trophy Challenge for many years, he also toured Africa with Touratech-USA.
For charities like Motorrad Angels, he and friends rode motorcycles to places where cars and trucks can’t access, including Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, where they installed water filtration systems. Moreover, the National Guard asked him to do some reconnaissance, since even they weren’t able to explore certain areas with conventional means.
Then there’s Race for Water – another organization who asked him to not only deliver filters, but also solar power lights. “It was all a great way that we activated our fellow riders all over the world to do.”
And to think, altogether the stars aligned, because a series of accidents: being ‘discovered’ online, those hard knocks helping his career, a motorbike crash that changed his view on life, and so much more. Maybe, just maybe, there are times when accidents can be a blessing in disguise. Or spark ways for us to find the fire within ourselves to achieve, in spite of the challenges.