Richmond-based nurse, VCU graduate, ensures safety and health of ‘The Walking Dead’ and other productions – Reuters

Teaching an actor how to play dead better might be the last thing Heather DuHamel Sams thought she was doing as health and safety supervisor on the set of Apple TV+’s “Raymond and Ray.” In a position where his job was to make sure everyone — from crew to cast — was safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand came as a bit of a surprise.

But, during production in Richmond last fall of the comedy-drama about the reunion of two half-brothers following the death of their father, his role expanded to suit the needs of the film. Sams, a nurse who has worked in intensive care units, intensive care facilities and schools, advised actor Tom Bower on how to “look more dead” to make a scene look realistic.

For Sams, a 1993 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, it was just another turning point in a far-reaching career that brought her unexpected and exciting experiences. She was called a unicorn for her unique background and skill set.

“When people hear that I’m a registered nurse and have worked in film production before, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re the unicorn. You’re the one we’ve been looking for,’ because he there aren’t many of us with a medical background who know the way around a film set,” Sams said. “But I’ve had this crazy career, and it’s come full circle.”

An “adventure-filled” part-time job started it all

Her experience gained while earning her bachelor’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism with a minor in environmental studies helped bring her career full circle, Sams said. As a VCU student in the 1990s, she worked part-time as a production secretary and production coordinator at a film production house in Richmond, working on TV and film commercials and shoots.

“It was an adventurous job and something different every day,” Sams said.

After graduating from VCU with the dream of entering the world of environmental tourism, she began working in professional and Olympic sports as an operations specialist, traveling the world and coordinating and organizing cycling events, including including the Olympic trials in Charlotte, North Carolina, and other events. in China and Hong Kong. She soon brought those skills to the Richmond Renegades, the city’s professional ice hockey franchise at the time, where she became director of business operations. Then, in 1998, a new opportunity presented itself to her.

“A friend of mine called me and said, ‘Heather, you take care of all these athletes. You’ve done this kind of work before. I want to ask you if you want to come work for an actor,’ Sams said.

Sams said yes and spent the next few years working as a personal assistant for actor Brett Cullen while he starred in the television show “Legacy,” filmed in Richmond. Sams then moved to Hollywood and served as a personal assistant for actor Penelope Ann Miller.

When Miller quit acting to start a family, Sams took a public relations role for Brooks Running in Seattle on the team that created the brand’s longtime slogan “Run happy.” After 9/11, 2001, Sams felt the need to be closer to home, so the Hopewell native returned to Virginia and began working on a second degree at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. . After graduating from nursing, she met her husband, Steve, and within a few years was a mother of three.

Sams worked as a nurse in intensive care facilities and in diabetes education, before becoming a school and public health nurse at public and private schools in Henrico County where she lives, a role she she continued until the start of the pandemic. Then, Sams said, a call came that brought her back to film productions in a new way.

“One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a friend who said, ‘Hey, this TV show is coming to town, and they need someone to help make it COVID-19 tests for all their productions. And she said, ‘Heather, that’s not my kind of job. It’s your kind of job because you’ve done it before,” Sams said. “So I ended up sending in my resume, and the next thing I know, I’m the head of the health and safety department for ‘The Walking Dead: World Beyond,’ which was filmed in Richmond, from January to August 2021 And since then, I have worked successively on films and on television.

Advocate for Safety and Stamp the Stars

As health and safety supervisor and, at times, COVID-19 nurse for half a dozen film and television productions over the past year, Sams’ role, in many cases, has involved testing everyone involved in a production from one to five times. one week for COVID-19.

Some productions sent her to locations across the country, such as “Interview with the Vampire” in New Orleans, “Lady in the Lake” in Baltimore, “The Walking Dead: Dead City” in New York and the New Jersey and, currently, “Dark Winds” in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Others, like “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” and “Raymond and Ray,” kept her close to home. It was the work that caught the attention of his children: his second child, who is interested in creative writing and the horror genre, took a behind-the-scenes interest in “The Walking Dead”, while that his eldest son, now in college in New York, was able to lend a hand in certain productions.

But beyond bringing her children into the fold, productions such as “Raymond and Ray,” which premiered widely on Apple TV+ on October 21, also brought her closer to her roots.

“It was one of our first days on set, and it was funny because one of the locations we filmed was upstairs from the office my dad had at the bank he ran in Hopewell It brought everything back, like, “Oh my god, here I am all these years later, standing in this office above my dad’s old desk,” Sams said. “There’s all these little signs and these funny things that happened along the way.”

The latest phase of his career has brought Sam new levels of fulfillment while tapping into his range of interests and abilities.

“It really wrapped up my career and combined all the things I love about film and TV: the creativity, the adventure, the excitement,” Sams said. “And it also allows me to be a nurse, to be a person who can advocate for the health and safety of our crews and to be their advocate and their voice, not only when they are sick, but to help make best conditions for them.

A woman standing behind a tombstone
The “Raymond and Ray” team impressed VCU grad Heather DuHamel Sams by letting her be part of the movie magic. “The art department, they did something really cheeky. They had us all, if we wanted we could have our names on the headstones in the cemetery,” Sams said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, yeah, sure. I want my name on my tombstone. So I have my name on a tombstone which is right next to the grave in the movie. His headstone reads, “You will always be in our hearts,” a nod to his work as the film’s health and safety supervisor. (Courtesy Heather DuHamel Sams)

“When we watch movies and TV shows, we often only see the faces on the screen. We don’t think of those hundreds of people at the end of the credits, and behind those names are families, partners , friends who support them. For me, getting to know the crews and having them trust me and my team to drive them forward every day is the most rewarding thing.

The job also brings her closer to movie stars. But she’s used to it. On the last day of production of “Raymond and Ray”, Ewan McGregor came to take his COVID-19 test. His co-star Ethan Hawke had been to Richmond for several productions, Sams said, but this was McGregor’s first time.

“Before he and his wife and family returned to Los Angeles, one of the last things he said to me – and it tickles me – he said, ‘Heather, I absolutely loved being here at Richmond. Do you think I could come back one day and work with you? And it tickles me, right? Because he is one of the greatest actors in Hollywood. It’s Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Sams said. “But he loved being here; he loved the community and the crew. And so I said, ‘Yeah, I think we could make that happen, Ewan.’