Ultimate Tag, Fox’s new competition show that combines American Gladiator-style stunts with the playground game tag, is the perfect antidote to a sports-less, quarantined summer. It’s bonkers, high-octane, delightfully stupid fun. Hosted by football-playing brothers J.J., T.J., and Derek Watt, the show requires contestants to navigate neon-colored obstacle courses while being chased by a cast of “Professional Taggers.”
Each of the Pro Taggers has an Ultimate Tag persona — think WWE heel meets cheap Saturday-morning cartoon. The Geek wears glasses and outsmarts his opponents. The Kid is a parkour prodigy. Atomic Ant is small but mighty, and she wears her hair in buns that approximate antennae.
But by far the standout Tagger is Banshee. Played by Carrie Bernans, an athlete and actress who formerly appeared as one of the elite Dora Milaje fighters in Black Panther, Banshee is impossible to look away from as she taunts the Ultimate Tag contestants. She’s both a firecracker of a performer and an unbelievable physical force, sprinting across the course and tagging people out while always staying in character as the deranged, dangerous Banshee.
Polygon recently sat down with Bernans to talk all things Ultimate Tag, her dream role(s), and how she’s taking care of herself in the midst of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
Were you a fan of American Gladiators, American Ninja Warrior, that sort of show?
Carrie Bernans: I was born in the ’90s, so I didn’t grow up with American Gladiators, but I definitely was a fan of it. And I was a fan of Ninja Warrior because I had a lot of friends that did the show, and they dominated the course. One is Kyle Soderman, he was so amazing. So I was always just like, “How in the world are they doing that?” I mean, I ran track and cross country in college — I ran 60 to 80 miles a week. But I look at that course and it requires so much strength from every part of your body, like even your fingernails got to have muscles!
What was the audition process like for Ultimate Tag? Were you approached by producers because you’re an athlete and a stuntwoman?
Yeah, I was. [Stuntman] Cory DeMeyers had posted something on Facebook. “Do I really want to play tag on TV?” was my question. But I was like, “Maybe this will become an Olympic sport, then I can get really good at it and my dream of going to the Olympics can be possible.” So [DeMeyers] connected me with the producers. Because it is a TV show — although tag itself is a professional sport that’s played more in the UK — they wanted to get to know me. They were like, “We absolutely love this girl.” They sent me to the course the next day.
[The producers] built a makeshift course out of wood in this warehouse. And I looked at the course like, “What’s up? I didn’t sign up for this!” They said, “Somebody is gonna chase after you.” And it was only guys there at the time. I was like, “These guys are gonna chase me? Like, what?” But then I thought, “Okay, I’m just gonna do it and just go for it.” And I just ran with everything. I was jumping over obstacles the best way I could, and using my skill of running hurdles and track and doing agility and stuff, and I got through the course. Later they said, “Wow, that was one of the fastest times!” Then I got to chase after some people.
They wanted me to come out one more time, and I was like, “All right, you guys get one more run out of me, because this is a workout, and I should be getting paid to run like this. I don’t run for free unless I’m doing it for charity!” So I did it and they said, “We would love to have you on the team.” My team negotiated the contract, and next thing you know, I’m on the show!
Did you specifically audition for the character of Banshee, or did you work with producers on creating her?
You know, they really had a hard time trying to figure out what my character was going to be. They knew I did Black Panther and Avengers and all this stuff. They were like, “We know you’re a warrior girl — you were a Dora Milaje — and we know you have a bomb-ass personality, but we were thinking on something a little different, a little spicy. What about ‘Banshee’?” I had seen banshees on TV, but I didn’t know that’s what they were called because I wasn’t paying attention. [Laughs] I looked it up and saw it was a screaming, wailing woman, basically, you know, doing dirty, nasty things to guys before taking their souls. I was just like, “What!?”
I got on the phone with producers who gave me a similar description, but they said, “We’ll make it more like you.” And I was just like “[gasp], you think I’m an evil person? So you want me to lure people in, play nice, and then tear their souls out?” “Yeah, yeah, that sounds great.” “Okay, let me think about it. Give me a few days.”
A few days before doing the costumes, I was just like, “You know what? I’ll play something completely opposite from who I am. Might as well. I mean, it’s just fun, right?” And it was the best decision I ever made, because I love the Banshee. I even got birds tattooed on my neck after I finished filming the show, because I was so obsessed with her.
Your character is so intimating, I was a little nervous to do this interview!
You haven’t seen anything yet, girl. The next four episodes I’m in … Whew! I say some stuff to people that I would never say to anyone in real life.
Does the character ever feel awkward or weird to play?
You know, I put the costume on, and as soon as I get out there, we have a 600-seat studio audience pumping up the show. They’re screaming, “Banshee! Banshee!” and flapping their wings. So I start flapping my wings, and zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom, I’m in the character. It’s like a battery, i’m just there. Sometimes I’m even in character during lunch. Once I’m in it, I’m in the zone.
I will say I’m doing more like 70% of the character. If I was at 100% I would be even crazier. I would be doing, like, contortion and body manipulation, which would be really wild.
Did you have to do any special training for Ultimate Tag?
I did! I already had some parkour training, but some of the guys in the show are extreme parkour athletes. Like The Flow runs and jumps and flies in the air. La Flair, too. So I did some parkour training and agility drills. But honestly, we didn’t have that much time to really practice before the show started filming. I went out to the testing of the course, and then boom! Three weeks later, I think, we were filming.
And I was still working on other TV shows, too. So I had to put some shows on pause once I got full time on the show, because that month, I just had to focus on [Ultimate Tag]. I couldn’t run to another set. Plus, my hair was red. So that was a big deal.
How much were you running in a day?
A lot. I mean, shoot, I felt like we were working anywhere between 11 to 16 hours a day. We had maybe two hours of downtime a day. But for the majority of it, we were on the stage.
It was always at random, who was running each course. So once we knew when we were going to run, we’d get warmed up. We had a little mini gym in our holding area where we could pump up our muscles and get the blood flowing. We had physical therapists there working our legs and everything.
Like, when we did all of the showdowns in one day, it was just constant back to back to back to back. And I did nine out of the 10 episodes — the most out of everyone. Because I came from a track background, I can catch the boys if they needed a girl to do that, you know.
I also got injured twice during the show. It was crazy, but I just took some pain medicine and pushed my way through. I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. I saw it on one episode, I was like, “Dang, I was so slow!”
How were you injured? And how did the producers deal with that?
I fell off of some type of upward incline — I don’t even know the name of it. I was falling stomach-first, but I rotated onto my back, and when I hit the floor, my back was like [pained voice] “What the fuck?” I couldn’t feel my legs for a minute. But my adrenaline was going and the game was still on, so I just kept running. From the side, a producer asked, “Can you keep running?” and I was like [grimaces] “I can try!” Those last 40 seconds, I was so slow!
They brought on an emergency doctor and he gave me a cortisone shot and some pain medicine. They gave me another physical trainer that worked with me. And they took care of me after the show, thankfully. Workers’ comp kicked in, and I was able to go to physical therapy and get my legs and body back to feeling normal. And I mean, this comes after I did 10 years of track and cross-country. I only got injured maybe two or three times. So it was crazy that I got injured on the show. But it worked out, because the producers are amazing.
Do you have a favorite Ultimate Tag course? And which one is the hardest?
Oh, that’s a great question. Do you have a favorite?
I really love Dome Tag.
Yeah, I love Dome Tag too, except for the last one I did. I look so bad on it, because Fernando is crazy fast! I don’t know if you’ve seen the latest episode, but he completed the course faster than anyone — 38 seconds. When he was in the dome, I almost caught him three times, but the way it was edited, it didn’t look like I even tried. And I did try! We had a fucking face-off! This guy is just as crazy as the Banshee is. He was like, “Aghhh!” [Sticks her tongue out and makes a menacing face, then giggles.]
The hardest one is probably the Showdown, because it’s the longest course, and the contestants only have one way to go in and one way to go out. All of the other courses offer many different choices. And for us as the Taggers, after we run one Showdown, we might have to do it again. I mean, it takes a lot of energy, because you have so many obstacles you have to get over at the beginning — getting over the first hump, going through the honeycombs, and then through the slide and not hit your head. You have to figure out if you’re gonna zigzag through, or run and jump over those steeplechase-hurdle-looking things. Then you have to take some risk and jump over five feet in the air, but everybody’s adrenaline is running so high that they get over it on the first try.
But what they don’t get over on the first try is the second part — running up the side [of the Showdown pyramid]. And especially when I’m standing there, they’re like, “Who is this crazy bitch?” [Laughs]
I don’t see how it’s possible to get up that pyramid without getting tagged!
I don’t either, honestly. We had a big discussion on that. It is very difficult. I mean, some people didn’t! I don’t know how, but somehow they made it through. I think we’re gonna see some more contestants juke the tagger out. You’ve got to have that mental strength to figure out how to outthink us.
The editors are having a lot of fun with special effects in some of the promos: Flame holds fire in her hands, and The Viking claims to be descended from Norse gods. Can you go on record as to whether magic exists in the Ultimate Tag-iverse?
I love it! Hell yeah, magic exists. I use my superpowers — I fly. I tell everybody I’m coming back flying in season 2. With Flame, you may not see her flames [on the course], but they’re heating up in her body, and if you push them enough, they might come out. You know, she definitely gets heated, she’s a red-hot flame. And The Geek is nerdy, but he also has superpowers. You see him calculating things through his glasses, like [robot beeps] “Okay, I’ve got the course figured out.”
Who’s your dream Tag challenger?
Oh, wow, maybe The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. I love him. It would be cool to go against him. I’m not sure what his agility and speed looks like. I know he’s strong. And his WWE days were amazing. I would say Usain Bolt, but he’s so fast. Hell nah, he ain’t gonna run after me!
You like your chances better against The Rock?
Exactly, yeah, I’m gonna stick with him. I love The Rock, he’s such a dynamic person, I think he’d be fun to go after.
Do you have another favorite childhood game that you would like to see turned into an ultimate sport?
Let’s see, obviously hide and seek is so similar to tag, I don’t want to say hide and seek. I used to play flag football, but they already got that. I used to rollerblade all the time, it’d be cool to see some type of rollerblading game show. In the movie Alita: Battle Angel they were doing all these cool tricks, it was like roller derby. That would be cool.
I’m not sure what the game would be. Is it like hockey? I don’t know. Is it tag on skates? But then if somebody falls, that sounds really dangerous. Are they jumping through hoops? I’m not sure if I want to jump through hoops right now. I don’t know. What about you? would you would you want to see?
I was really into Red Rover as a kid. I don’t know how you would make it ultimate but I think it would be fun. And Netflix has The Floor Is Lava now, which looks like a lot of fun.
Everybody’s been watching that! They’ll ask me, “Have you seen this show?” and I’m like, “Have you seen Ultimate Tag?”
Do you have a secret to telling the Watt brothers apart?
[Laughs] I only know because I’ve seen them so many times. I mean, they’re all handsome and they’re all big and they’ve all got muscles! J.J. is the biggest one, and they get smaller from there.
What’s your post-Ultimate Tag dream role?
I’ve got three dream roles. I want to be in a Hunger Games, because I heard there’s a new one coming out. Please, please, please. This girl right here. I love the idea of volunteering as tribute, like my little sister goes up and I scream, “No, no! Not my sister!”
Number two would probably be some type of superhero like Black Canary, because she also has the power of screaming to make things go crazy. Or Batwoman — she’s a martial artist, and I’m getting my black belt right now, so, you know, I can kick some motherfuckin’ ass.
And the third would be X-Men. I wanna be a mutant so bad! I would be the female Wolverine. I can just see it. I know Hugh Jackman said he didn’t want to play Wolverine anymore, but maybe his powers were put into a serum that’s injected into me. So since I have the same blood as him, I’m like his child, basically. Maybe I’m dropped into the middle of a forest and have to protect myself. He’d sense that I was in danger and have to come back and fight with me.
You’ve been out protesting and speaking out about the Black Lives Matter movement, and of course we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. How are you taking care of yourself while all of this is going on?
I think we’re going through two different pandemics right now. We’re going through the pandemic of a medical crisis, and we’re also going through what I call the revolution or the rise of equality in America. It’s definitely been very emotionally draining for the last month. For the first three months, I was fine. I was working, I was busy, I moved to a new place. So when quarantine started, for the first time I had an opportunity to unpack my boxes.
But then when all of these shootings took place, I was like, “This is my community.” I had to use my voice to say it was wrong, you know, I had to band together with others. I just knew that I needed to go to protests and take those actions. Although we are in the middle of a health crisis, this is important to me. I couldn’t miss this moment. And after I got after out there, it felt so great being in solidarity with a mix of cultures and people — white, Black, Hispanic, Asian.
So I was taking really good care of myself by going home and drinking a lot of hot tea and water, taking herbal medicine. I feel fine and I was always wearing my mask. And I’ve been getting a lot more sleep lately, because at first I felt like my sleep was really limited for the past couple of weeks. I was breaking down, and then my body’s just like, “That’s it, you’re going to bed early!” I trust God. It’s definitely been a rollercoaster ride, but everything’s on the up, things are getting better. I remind myself that no matter how far down we go, we only can rise.
Ultimate Tag airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET on Fox, and is available to stream on Hulu.
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