I had the pleasure of attending The Artemis Women in Action Film Festival April 22-24, 2016 at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills for the All-Stars of Stunts Panel Discussion. The panelists were asked to come up on stage and immediately Jessie Graff (Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) leapt up onto the stage from below as if she were a real-life Supergirl. “I prefer leaping to sitting.” she said. I knew this panel was going to be amazing.
Along with Jessie were fellow stunt performers Zoe Bell (Death Proof, The Hateful Eight), Angela Meryl (Kill Bill: Vol 1, Furious 7), Heidi Moneymaker (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Maja Aro (Cabin in the Woods, Godzilla), Dayna Grant (Mad Max: Fury Road, Ash Vs. Evil Dead) and Indus Alelia (Junk, B.F.E.). They were also joined by Stunt Coordinator Andy Armstrong (The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor).
As the discussion began, one thing was clear: none of them grew up thinking ‘I want to be a stunt performer.’ Most of them admitted they didn’t even know stunts existed as a career. They happened into it by accident or when another career didn’t pan out. Andy explained it best, “It’s a weird industry of successful rejects.” He is a failed racecar driver who discovered he could make more money crashing cars than racing them. Zoe grew up doing gymnastics – climbing things and jumping from high places was (and still is) her favorite thing to do. Maja grew up in a rodeo town riding horses, skiing, and racing bikes. Heidi grew up as a gymnast and it wasn’t until she was on the team at UCLA that she discovered stunt work. Indus grew up as a ballerina, but you can only do ballet for so many years. Each story is unique but they all converge at the same place. Each of these women had the skill, desire, and physical ability to become top stunt performers in film and television and as luck or fate or hard work would have it, they found and seized the opportunity.
Here are some highlights from the panel:
Sexism in Stunts
The sad truth is, men used to double women when it came to stunts. There was a notion that women couldn’t do the stunts or they shouldn’t do them. But times are changing because women (and men alike) have fought to stamp out that way of thinking. Angela pointed out that she believes her scene with Zoe in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 put female stunt performers on the map finally. You all know which scene she’s talking about. Andy talked about always being an advocate for hiring female stunt performers and his reasons are very logical: women are usually smaller and more compact physically so when they are equally fit and physically capable of doing a stunt, sometimes they are even the better choice. I don’t know about you, but after seeing Zoe Bell hanging on for her life in Death Proof, how could you possibly argue that she wasn’t the best person for the job?
Now, I must go on a tiny rant for a moment. Even in the very panel celebrating these Stunt Women, the discussion turned a bit sexist, and it infuriated me. I know it wasn’t meant maliciously but comments that degrade and generalize women shouldn’t be ignored. We all need to recognize sexism and how it affects us all and vow to try harder every day to stop these ideas from spreading. The panelists are amazingly skilled and dedicated stunt performers who kick-ass professionally and they deserved to be treated as such. End rant.
Balancing Stunts and Family
Dayna slipped in some quick words of wisdom to the audience: have kids and a family and keep doing what you love. She did it. She figured out a way to make it work for her. She brings her family with her on every job and her kids are even getting into stunts themselves. When asked about how much time she took off when she was pregnant Dayna said her doctor told her not to do anything she doesn’t normally do. And she said this with a shrug and a smile. Normal for Dayna is shaving her head and doubling Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Stunt Performing IS Performing
Zoe works a lot more now as an actress than a stunt double and on indie films she does her own stunts. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Unless of course, she pointed out, any of the other women on the panel were better at something than she was, she’d certainly ask them to come on down. She talked about how a stunt performer’s job is to make the action look terrifying, while it’s the rest of her team’s job to make sure it’s as safe as possible.
Teamwork and Trust
Teamwork was a huge theme throughout the panel. Without the stunt team these stunts wouldn’t happen. All of the choreography, rigging, testing, and spotting is key to making sure a stunt goes off successfully. And these teams trust each other. They wouldn’t do a stunt if they didn’t trust that each of these people had their back. Dayna talked about how members of her team have literally thrown themselves into a stunt when a rig malfunctioned. They will save your life if it comes to it. Now that’s a team you can trust. Heidi talked about actually turning down a stunt job because she didn’t feel the film had the budget and resources to make the stunt safe enough for her. If she couldn’t have her team she wasn’t going to get hit by that SUV. Movie magic or not, it’s still a stunt someone is performing.
Roles for Women
Maja was asked about the amount of roles she’s seeing for women in television. She said she’d like to urge TV writers to continue writing more roles for women. It’s getting better but TV is still behind film in her opinion. Performers do what is written on the page. If it’s not on the page, then there’s no chance for them to get hired.
The biggest thing I took away from this panel is actually what I love about filmmaking myself – the supportive and collaborative nature of the business. When you surround yourself with hard-working, trust-worthy, creative people you can do just about anything… while hanging off the side of a truck, racing through the desert, with flames shooting all about.