Awkward phase

Parkour legend Jesse La Flair talks 360 cameras, Linkin Park, and UFO pants

"I don't ever see something not working out as a failure."

Jesse La Flair does Nathan Drake’s stunts. For real.

The parkour legend and pro freerunner is the first in the action sport to have his own signature shoe. La Flair has done stunt work for a remarkable variety of games and movies, including The Last of Us Part II, Westworld, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A past competitor on American Ninja Warrior, he currently appears on the competition show Ultimate Tag, which airs Wednesdays on Fox.

Unsurprisingly, La Flair hasn’t turned into a gelatinous blob monster (like the rest of us) amid global stay-at-home orders spanning the past several months. Naturally, Inverse had to ask if he had any at-home workout tips.

“There's a fun game that I like to play, where I take pieces of painters tape and put it on the ground and various surrounding areas. Then I just kind of hop from one to the other while trying to get off-axis, so your fast-twitch muscles have to adapt to find the spot,” he said. “The goal is almost to try to get too dizzy, so you're adapting to essentially saving yourself. And you can change it every day.”

What kind of kid were you?

I was pretty sensitive and emotional, but always driven physically. I got the physical fitness award for my elementary school, and I still hold the record for pull-ups in second grade. I remember times where I would just lock myself in my room, and say “I'm gonna do 200 sit-ups.” I might have actually fainted!

This passion for being physically fit has obviously carried into my entire life. It's the yearning to have the ability to do anything. Being in action sports and seeing all these people that I love and admire, pushing the limits of the human body… it definitely is the reason I am where I am today.

What was your favorite band when you were 15?

I was definitely listening to Linkin Park for a large part of my life. That was like one of the first bands I was really into. I didn't have very many posters on my wall, but I had a Linkin Park poster.

I grew up in the 90s, and was into really early hip-hop. How I got introduced to it, I don't know. But I was into groups like Onyx. I had the cassette tape with “Slam” and would play it on repeat and breakdance in my room.

What piece of clothing did you wear too often in high school?

By far, the most insane thing that I had way too many of was UFO pants. I don't know if you remember them. They're like super-thin, windbreaker, baggy pants that had strings so you could potentially turn them into backpacks or purses. They were kind of like raver pants, and they had ‘em at like Hot Topic and Spencer's. I literally had, like, 16 pairs of them in different colorways. Some of them were insane, like neon orange camouflage.

La Flair in the season premiere of 'Ultimate Tag.'FOX/FOX Image Collection/Getty Images

What’s your first memory of the internet?

The big thing that comes to mind right away is AOL Instant Messenger. The chat rooms were a fun place to talk to people from a town that was maybe a five-minute drive, but back then it seemed so far away. I always wanted to inspire people. So I had an account called Doctor Help, and I would just try to give people advice — I was probably younger than most of them, if not the same age, so I don't know what I was thinking!

What’s a truth about love you believed when you were 15?

I always believed that love was something you can find at any point in your life, and that it has the potential to last forever. I think a lot of young people do. Maybe society hasn't shown us the reality of heartbreak, or that there are obstacles besides just each other that might get in the way.

I started dating my wife when I was 14. She was 15. We were in ninth grade. We've been together now for 20 years, married for 10. We just had a baby six months ago. So in some sense, that truth still exists. I see a lot of young people told by their parents, “it's just young love.” But you never know. If you really do feel connected, you can grow together and not grow apart. The hardest part is just being there and willing to watch each other grow, help each other grow. That's probably the key to staying together forever.

What high-school teacher did you like the most and why?

I ended up going to college for art, so there were a lot of art teachers I loved. But Mr. Mangan was my most influential or memorable teacher.

I think it was a psychology class. He kind of had this hippie vibe, all white hair, big bushy white eyebrows. But a lot of the stuff he said was just, like, truth and down to our level. He was the first teacher that didn't seem like he was putting up some facade about who he actually was. When he talked to us, we felt connected in a really straight-up way.

La Flair competes during the Red Bull Art of Motion in Santorini in September 2013.Mark Wieland/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

What do you consider your first professional big break and why?

I made a video audition for the Eastman Kodak company pretty early on in my career. I was in New York scouring Craigslist for opportunities and auditions, and the tape I sent was one of the first hardcore videos I really thought about producing for the sake of people seeing what I'm fully capable of, not just a couple tricks.

They loved it and ended up booking me as the lead. All of a sudden, I'm getting flown to upstate New York for like four days. The cinematographer, Fred Murphy, shot a bunch of big movies — The Secret Window with Johnny Depp and Freddy Versus Jason and stuff. It's my first big project, I'm working with these industry pros, and it just felt like okay, I can do this for a living.

What was your first professional failure?

It's not that I haven't had a lot of failures, but it's harder for me to remember failures because so many of them have taught me stuff. So, in my mind, I don't ever see something not working out as a failure. I also learned not to dwell on it. In the beginning of your career, when you have a small failure, it feels like a big failure because you have nothing else to compare it to.

Even now, when I audition for something, I still feel excitement. I believe in manifestation, so I put energy toward it happening. But I've learned to let go of the expectation of it happening. There are times where I'll forget that I auditioned for something, then find out I got a callback.

La Flair doing mocap work for The Last of Us Part II.

What’s your can’t-miss prediction for 2030 and why?

360 cameras on everyone's phones. I feel like it's destined to happen because of the continuous evolution of what we're doing with our phones, which means more lenses and better storage on our devices.

I’m working with a company right now called Instant360. When I started using a 360 camera, you realize anyone can shoot like really good stuff on it. I used to be very particular about directing someone shooting my content. The value of a 360 camera is that you control where the camera looks in post-production. So I think it's it's one of the things that'll allow the layman to never miss the shot — you turn on the camera and it's getting everything.

What would your 15-year-old self say about your latest project?

He’d be blown away and freaking out. I grew up living action sports, everything was about pushing the limits and trying to have fun. So many people grow up hearing you have to be a certain way based on your gender, or race, or the environment you grew up in. That becomes a very limiting thing. Being from Long Island, no one I knew was moving to LA or literally even out of our town. Most of my close family lives within a 10-mile radius.

When I was younger, I would look at the clouds and pretend they were mountains to envision the world of travel. Now I’ve done two world tours and brought communities together all around the globe, and I’m on a TV show where I'm literally just running around tagging people as “the parkour legend.” It’s even mind-blowing now. I don't have to be 15 to recognize, like, “Holy shit, dude, what just happened?”

Awkward Phase is an Inverse series with interesting people talking about the most relatable period in their life. The interview above has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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