Back Stage West

15 January 2004

Wonder women: the stuntwomen behind Double Dare face off on
the dangerous side of acting.

They get hit by cars, fall off cliffs, set themselves on fire, kick ass, and sometimes even put their lives on the line for a performance--but they have done their jobs well only when the audience never notices that they're there. In Double Dare, Amanda Micheli's action-packed, revealing new documentary on stuntwomen in the film industry, the challenges these women face on and off the set in a male-dominated industry become apparent. Micheli follows Jeannie Epper, a seasoned pro whose family has a legacy in stunt work, and her protege Zoe Bell, the upstart from New Zealand who, during the film, lands her first feature role as Uma Thurman's stunt double for Kill Bill. Both stuntwomen have portrayed modern-day, scantily clad action heroines. Epper, who at 62 refuses to retire, was the double for Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman in the 1970s; at 18, Bell doubled for Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess. The documentary features interviews with Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Carter, and Lawless, and it received the Audience Award for Best Documentary at its world premiere at the 2003 AFI Film Festival, but distribution plans remain on hold while the film continues making the rounds on the festival circuit.

While at Harvard, Micheli shot, edited, and directed Just for the Ride, a documentary about cowgirls on the women's professional rodeo circuit, which earned her an Academy Award and International Documentary Association Award in the student categories. So when producer Karen Johnson wanted someone to make a documentary on stuntwomen, Micheli, who also shot the documentaries My Flesh and Blood and Witches in Exile, seemed the best choice.

While making Double Dare, Micheli had trouble gaining access on sets to follow stuntwomen around, and the film went through many stalls and starts before finding the right pair to focus on: Bell and Epper. Micheli was surprised by how underemployed stuntwomen were and by how many of them have second jobs.

Says Micheli, "Of course anyone who has worked in the movie industry knows that 98 percent of the time, you're just sitting and waiting around. Especially with stuntwomen, they're unemployed a lot, so I think the thing that I hadn't been prepared for was what a struggle it is just getting on jobs. And people point to a lot of things as to why that is. There aren't that many action roles for women. Like, after Xena wrapped, the first job that Zoe got after months of trying was tripping over a vacuum cleaner for a sitcom. So it's like these nonromantic, nonheroic moments that are really more everyday, and I guess I hadn't really pictured that going into it."

"I love the change of routine," Bell says of her unconventional career. "It's not a 9-to-5. I enjoy the physicality and the skills side of it. I like being able to pull off stuff that looks really difficult and skilled at the same time. One of the misconceptions is that it's all kind of adrenaline-junkie-style stunt work, but it's not, really. I'm about to go to a rehearsal for jumping off a building that's 200 feet [tall], which kind of clashes with what I'm trying to tell you. But for me, anyways, the majority of my work is kind of fight-and-rig stuff that is a matter of perfecting certain moves. So most of the time there's not that much adrenaline aside from what comes with the performance side of it--the fear of [not] getting it right." Bell is currently working in Vancouver on Catwoman as Sharon Stone's stunt double, her third feature after both Kill Bill films.

Blazing Saddles

In Double Dare a nervous but "tough" Bell, who was accustomed to her fighting style on Xena, auditions in front of Tarantino, Thurman, and the fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen. "Initially I wasn't meant to be a fight double," Bell says. "I was cast as sort of a fall double. I kind of hit the ground and smashed through things, but the role ended up with me doing a bunch of the fight stuff. So there was less training to actually fight Wushu. Although Uma doesn't know Wushu either. So the fact that my style wasn't 100 percent Wushu probably made it more sellable, but I did definitely have to tone down a lot of the Xena. It was kind of getting into a different character mode, you know?"

Epper has blazed a path for stuntwomen working today and has doubled the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Kathleen Turner, Linda Evans, Diane Ladd, Cybill Shepherd, and Shelley Long, but she still felt the pressure following in the footsteps of her father, John Epper, who doubled for Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, and Gary Cooper and was considered the greatest cowboy horseman in Hollywood. "When I was very young I was expected to be faultless because of my dad," Epper says. "So I learned really early to go and talk to the grips. I wanted to know how things were set up. I started looking through lenses long before women were allowed to, just because I wanted to know where the sidelines were. I just had this curiosity about where to sell it, and [how not to] waste it off camera."

Micheli found it ironic that when Epper portrayed a superhero such as Wonder Woman, she not only had to change the way she ran but had to stop working out so that her shoulders became as thin as Lynda Carter's. "It's that double thing--you're not just becoming a character, you're becoming the character in the way that the actor is interpreting it," Micheli says. "So it's almost like a two-layered transformation. I know with Zoe on Xena, she was always very aware what Lucy's habits were--where she would put her feet, how she would land things. [Although] Lucy could land however she wanted, the second unit would always have to match what the first unit did. Sometimes they would have to shoot second unit before main unit, and they were often happening simultaneously, so [Bell] just got [it] ingrained in her, 'How would Lucy do this?'"

Epper always remembers to tell her proteges a few rules that will help them blend into the actors for whom they're standing in. "You have to do your fight, remember your routine, be the actress, and not let the camera see your face," Epper explains. "Sometimes it's a lot more than your mind can grasp if you thought about it too long. I think that's what separates the boys from the men or the girls from the women. Great stunt people have a tendency to just know how to do that. We have to become the actors. The audience wants to believe that these people are doing their own stunt work."

Grand Illusionists

On rare occasions, actors will misappropriate credit for stunt work. Licensing issues prevented Micheli from including an infamous clip on Oprah in her documentary, but in it a famous actor claimed to have done her own stunts for a certain blockbuster when, in fact, Epper had done them for her.

"Maybe [the unnamed actor] just felt the necessity to be the one recognized," Epper says. "You know, there were actors like that before. Steve McQueen had the same kind of reputation. It was just real weird back in those days. The stunt guys kept their mouths shut and just went to work, but ... I think through stunt competitions and all the stuff that's out there now, people are more aware of us. Most producers will be the first ones to tell you they cannot allow an actress or an actor to get hurt and shut a whole production down. So has it changed? It has changed a lot, because the younger actors are being groomed differently. They don't really want to do it. Why do they want to do a backwards stair fall or get lit on fire or get hit by a car?"

"It's not that actors or actresses are selfish or delusional," Micheli says. "It's actually embedded in the system of Hollywood, and it makes sense. The illusion is that the actor can do everything, and the movie is selling an illusion, and so in the old days stunt people were not allowed to walk around set in costume, because [those in charge] didn't want any press or anybody visiting the set to see that there were two guys wearing the sheriff outfit, because that would take away from the illusion that John Wayne was doing everything."

Back in Epper's heyday, most stunt people were blurs in the background and didn't even get credit for their film work. Epper says things started changing in the late '70s when stunt people started doing the math, and it turned out that they were in the top four percent of the earnings for SAG. "Half the SAG members didn't even know we were members of SAG," Epper says. "These actors would ask, 'What organization do you belong to?' They never knew, so we had to educate them. That was a big turning point, and I was young and feisty enough to get into Women in Film and get on all the stunt and safety committees and speak up and fight."

Open Door Policy

When roles are limited and stunt work is heaviest in male-oriented action films, you had better believe that sexism is an issue. "It's like the old saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire," Epper says, laughing. "Ginger did everything Fred did, only she did it backwards and in high heels. Well, that applies triple to stunt women, because we always have less clothes on."

What's more, Rogers never did any full-body burns. Costumes for women are generally skimpier, so when a stuntwoman dons the same costume for an action sequence, she is unable to conceal harnesses and padding the way her male counterparts do, which can put her more at higher risk for injury. "It's not so much sexism as it is a reflection of society," Bell says. "But it sucks for us if we have to fall down some stairs, and the chick's wearing a miniskirt and a bra."

"If you talk to a lot of stuntwomen, I'd say the bulk of the stunts that they're doing are in the role of the victim," Micheli explains. "It's usually a prostitute or somebody getting slapped and falling down a flight of stairs, or you see women running in the woods and falling, or getting killed in horror movies--the sort of quintessential victim role. We just don't have a lot of diversity in scripts for women. I think both actresses and stuntwomen feel the brunt of that. If there are more complex, emotional roles for women--and then also complex, physical roles--it's going to make a big difference in terms of how American audiences perceive what women are capable of and what they actually go through."

Indeed most stuntwomen are underemployed because men dominate the coordinating/second-unit directing positions. Not that men hire only men, but when it comes to nondescript stunts to fill in crowd or traffic scenes, they hire male stunt performers so much more frequently that stuntwomen playfully refer to nondescript or "ND" as "No Dames." Epper herself has hit a lot of walls trying to land coordinating/second-unit directing gigs, while watching her three brothers get the positions with ease.

"[Stuntmen] get doors open for them much easier than we do," says Epper, who recently stunt-coordinated November, starring Courteney Cox. "When I coordinate a show--which isn't as often as I should--I go in early, and I break down a script, and I know every stunt, and I want to know what the girls are going to wear--make sure that they're not wearing a bikini when they get hit by the car. She should have tight pants, or at least she could put a tailbone pad in. That took a lot of years. It seems like common sense, but it wasn't treated that way because men ran everything. They just don't think about it. The changes were made 30 years ago, not 10 years ago, and, you know, you still have to fight for that? If you see the way that women dress today, there's more T and A now than there's ever been." Epper points out that the pressure for beauty is not solely on the actor. For stuntwomen, breast enhancements have quadrupled, and some of Epper's friends have become anorexic because after they pad up, they look even bigger on camera.

Dangerous Dames

"People think stunt people are stupid and crazy--the danger factor." Bell says. "We're crazy; therefore we'll jump off stuff, but, as far as I'm concerned, if I thought it was crazy, to jump off something, I probably wouldn't jump off it. There's always a risk involved, but I know I'm safe [because] there's a science that goes into these things that people assume isn't there." Injury remains a serious, career-hampering risk. Bell has only recently returned to work following a year spent out of commission after she shattered her wrist on the set of Kill Bill. "It's not something that you're unaware of until it happens," Bell says. "I mean, there's always times when I'm like, 'Shit, I could've got hurt doing that,' but I hadn't. Most of the frustration for me came from not being able to go back to work and sitting around the house useless." Bell says she identifies so strongly with her work that when she was physically incapacitated she toyed with the idea of trying a different career.

Amazingly, Epper has never been injured so seriously that it kept her from going back to work the next day. But she has had her share of close calls, mostly due to uncontrollable conditions such as weather, wind, fire, and water. "Remember the movie Earthquake?" Epper asks. "We had a huge sequence that was underneath the city when we were trying to escape through the sewers. Supposedly this earthquake broke part of the main line, and it washed us down. But nobody tested it. The force was too strong, and 18 of us almost got electrocuted. The thing that wore me out the most was the mudslide in Romancing the Stone. It took two and a half weeks doing it three or four times a day. I almost dislocated my shoulder, and I also got tipped upside down once and almost drowned." Today, Epper is trying not to push her luck. She will appear on TV in Charmed and on-screen in Cheer Up, starring Tommy Lee Jones, and The Princess Diaries 2, in which she doubles for Julie Andrews.

For an actor interested in stunt work, the women advise not going into it lightly, as there are already too many stuntwomen and there is not enough work to go around in what often amounts to a family trade. Breaking in will require the usual headshot, show reel, and research, as well as knocking on stunt coordinators' doors. "There are a lot of girls who have come from the outside and had to work their way in," Epper says. "But then there is a lot more proving to do and a lot more hard work to get recognized and noticed and be given the chance. I probably want to make sure that she's really talented and driven to want to do it, because it's tough today to get in there and make it. I'll help girls. Some stunt guys just don't take the time to help."

"Double Dare" will be screening at The Miami International Film Festival (Jan. 30-Feb. 8). Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose (Mar. 3-Mar. 14). For more screenings and other news on "Double Dare," access www.runawayfilms. com.