Stuntwomen go full throttle

With female action roles on the rise, stuntwomen's careers kick into high gear.

Alisa Hensley can't believe her good fortune: Not long ago, she got paid for throwing Arnold Schwarzenegger through a wall. And then for having him throw her through a wall or two. She also got paid for doing a lot of other things to the hefty Hollywood star during the recent filming of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." But she's not allowed to talk about them until the movie opens on the big screen on July 2.

All that on top of some strenuous martial-arts fight sequences and wire work during the filming of "Charlie's Angels 2 - Full Throttle," followed by a bruising stint as a werewolf in the upcoming movie, "Cursed." Ms. Hensley figures life doesn't get much better than this.

Not for a stuntwoman, anyway.

"I have no idea what I did to deserve this, I am so unbelievably blessed," says Hensley. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I'd be standing next to Arnold, throwing him through a wall, I'd have started shaking."

After decades in a business still dominated by men, stuntwomen are in big demand these days, as action roles for women become more common in both television and film, with shows like "Alias" and films like "Charlie's Angels" and "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider." If this summer is any example, their phones won't stop ringing any time soon. In addition to the Angels and Lady Croft, female action heroes populate two of the most anticipated sequels of the season: next month's "X2: X-Men United" and "The Matrix Reloaded."

Stuntwomen also are earning kudos at the annual World Stunt Awards ceremonies, inaugurated in 2001 to recognize stunt performers. And they are the subject of a coming documentary, "Double Dare," which will hit film festivals this year.

A self-described tomboy and former English literature major, Hensley stumbled into stunt work nearly 10 years ago while still in college, after taking part in a TV show called "Wild West Showdown," which pitted her horse-riding talents against those of two male contestants.

She lost, but during the taping became friends with the stunt people who were working on the show. They encouraged her to try her hand at stunt work and helped her make connections in the business.

Six months later, she landed her first job, on a low-budget film, which involved a variety of stunts, most of which she'd never done before.

"It was great, I was so excited," she recalls. "It was a great training ground. The stunt coordinator held my hand through everything. He talked me through all the stunts.

"I had to drive fast around corners and fall off balconies," she says. "They needed someone who was good with horses and could drive, which I could do. The other thing was just throwing yourself through something, like a window, which, you know, I was willing to do."

Almost a decade later, Hensley is at the top of her form - a successful member of a very small group of women, fewer than 200, who flip, jump, fight, ride, fall, dive, and generally defy all types of fear and gravity as Hollywood stuntwomen.

Not that you would know her name or even her face: Like stuntmen, Hensley and her female cohorts do most of their work as "doubles," dressed and made up to look exactly like the actors who have the starring roles. (On "T-3," for example, Hensley doubled for costar Kristanna Loken. On Charlie's Angels, she worked as one of two doubles for Cameron Diaz).

"To me, so many stuntwomen are real-life action heroes," says Amanda Micheli, director and producer of "Double Dare." "They're not the glamorized version that we're used to seeing. They're real people and they're very human. They're the real working-class women of Hollywood. They're the women behind the scenes who make the star animated and really physical."

Forty years of flips and falls

Stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, one of the two women profiled in "Double Dare" (the other is Zoe Bell), has been the woman "behind the scenes" for decades.

For more than 40 years, she has doubled for some of Hollywood's most famous women - from stunt work as Lynda Carter's double on the 1970s television series "Wonder Woman" to taking Kathleen Turner's place in the action- romantic comedy "Romancing the Stone."

The daughter of one of Hollywood's earliest stuntmen, John Epper, who doubled stars such as Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, and Ronald Reagan, Ms. Epper is one of six siblings who went into stunt work.

It's a family tradition that has carried over to two more generations - with Epper's three children and an 18-year-old grandson also working in the business.

"There's not any one thing I can say about why I love it," says Epper. "It's not for the paycheck. It empowers me. It gives me a sense of great accomplishment and control.

"As a woman, when you pull off something that only men do, it raises respect for all women. It opens the door for women to do all kinds of things."

A lot has changed since the early days of stunt work, says Epper, when men doubled for women in films.

The advent of more athletic - and more exposed - parts for women actors gave rise to a need for more stuntwomen. Epper, who got her first job at 9 years old, riding a horse down a steep hill on the set of a movie her father was working on, found that stunt work came naturally.

"I was just always gifted with a natural ability of knowing inside how to do stuff," she says. "I don't think fear is part of it. It's respect. I respect what I do, and don't take any of it for granted, from the tiniest stunt to the biggest."

Like many other stunt people, Eppers had an athletic childhood that led into a natural adeptness with the physicality of stunts.

On-the-job training

Because there are no stunt-training schools, performers often study with trainers, learning how to do things like high falls, fire work, fights, and fast-car work.

They may also study with individual masters, such as martial-arts instructors; and they get together for occasional backyard sessions, using special equipment to help them refine their stunts.

The work is intensely demanding. Not only do stuntwomen have to be strong enough to do stunts, they also have to be trim enough to double for notoriously slim Hollywood stars.

Although many young actresses are eager to do their own stunts - Jennifer Garner and Diaz are known for their enthusiasm and skill - there are still things which contractually they are not allowed to do, such as crashing through windows, because they might hurt themselves and be unable to finish filming.

For stuntwomen, on the other hand, there's no limit to the amount of bruising and bleeding they can endure on the job.

"We think we're successful if we don't walk away with a broken arm," laughs Epper. "Our idea of being hurt is being hauled off in an ambulance."

Epper is proof that age is no limit in the business (though she says there are some stunts she no longer does, such as being hit by cars).

But she and other stuntwomen have expanded their work repertoire by taking on jobs as stunt coordinators, assuming responsibility for setting up all stunts on a job.

A few have also moved into work as second-unit directors, in charge of filming and setting up camera shots for stunt sequences - a job which requires membership in the Directors Guild.

Her toughest stunt yet

For LaFaye Baker, directing is a logical step after 14 years of stunt work and coordinating, doubling for stars such as Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodward, and Vanessa Williams; and as a coordinator. Her other jobs have included coaching Halle Berry on the cable film "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."

But she's also faced limitations as an African-American woman in a business that has been criticized for not providing enough good roles for black actresses, let alone black stuntwomen.

"When they don't write action parts for African-American actresses," she says, "it puts a dead-end on the possibility of us working [as stuntwomen]. There are numerous jobs that call for nondescript stunt work, it doesn't matter what you are. But they don't think of you for those roles. They only call when they have to have you to double an African-American."

So Ms. Baker, who describes herself as someone who always has a "Plan B," has taken matters into her own hands. Since 2001, she's maintained a busy school schedule in addition to her work schedule, taking a certificate program in film through UCLA's extension school.

Just three classes short of completing her studies, she's hoping to become the first African-American woman to work as a second-unit director.

In addition, she's director and executive producer of her own docudrama, a 60-minute film featuring five of Hollywood's top African-American stuntwomen, including herself. Baker says she's hoping to sell the film, titled "Hollywood At Its Best," to a cable channel.

"I have to move to the next phase," says Baker, who continues to work as a stuntwoman and coordinator. "I like the entertainment industry. I can display my skills and abilities in stunt work. I could never see myself doing a 9-to-5 job. I'm a creative person and I need flexibility.

"I love my job," she says. "Stunt work is fun. I always say they pay me to play."

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