Daredevil Stuntwomen Uncovered

When I call stuntwoman Juliette Cheveley for a chat, she is otherwise engaged. ‘Sorry, I can’t talk now,’ she says, sounding distracted. ‘I’ve just been doing a fight sequence so my brain is rattling around a bit. I need to come off set and get de-rigged and de-robed.’

Half an hour later, when her brain has stopped rattling, Cheveley, 33, is eager to talk about a career that she clearly loves. Rather than being fazed or deterred by the constant battering she receives in her line of work, she seems to relish it. ‘Last week I was strapped to a full-size windmill while it rotated with all the sails on fire,’ she says, gleefully.

Surely that must have been frightening? What if something went wrong?

‘No, I wasn’t scared,’ says Cheveley, airily. ‘Sure, the fire element is never ideal but there were many safety precautions. I was reliant on a fire brigade gentleman who was standing there the whole time with a huge hose. We also worked closely with the special effects team to get the scene looking just right.’

Fighting one week and fire-dodging the next, Cheveley’s life is never dull. ‘I enjoy the diversity of my job; I never know whether I’ll be drowning or throwing myself off a building.’

Like other performers, she can’t afford to specialise in any particular type of stunt, as no two jobs are ever the same, and performers are expected to be flexible and capable of many different types of work.

Cheveley has been on the stunt register for six years, and has performed stunts in a variety of films, including Harry Potter and Phantom of the Opera. As a trained actress, she is sometimes able to stunt double for herself. She talks with satisfaction about a British murder mystery she acted in that allowed for close-ups of her face while she was being beaten, burned alive and thrown off the back of a lorry.

Angelina, Halle & Co

Most stuntwomen stick to taking risks on behalf of established actresses, something Angelina Jolie’s stunt double, daredevil Eunice Huthart knows all about.

Huthart first doubled the Hollywood star in Tomb Raider. She describes the film as “a female James Bond” and explains how rare it is to find such a demanding stunt role as a woman, as most of the good action roles still go to male actors.

‘I was performing every day for about six months, nothing amazing, just bread and butter stunts, taking the hits,’ says Huthart, with a typically modest description of her time on-set. She is equally blase when talking about the friendship that she now enjoys with Jolie. ‘Yeah, we’re very good friends; we just hit it off,’ she explains. ‘If we’d been at school together we would have been mates.’

Fighting one week and fire-dodging the next, the life of a stuntwoman is never dull.

Huthart, has also worked closely with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman, and her first stunt job was as Famke Janssen’s double on GoldenEye. Makers of the Bond film spotted her martial arts expertise on the hit UK television contest Gladiators (which she won) and approached her to double Janssen.

‘I wasn’t qualified at the time but if they can’t find someone on the stunt register who can do the job, they’re allowed to bring in someone else,’ she says.

Huthart, 39, has now been on the stunt register for more than 11 years; the GoldenEye experience left her keen for more. ‘I thought, I’ll have some of that,’ she grins. ‘I’m getting paid to play!’

Since then, Huthart’s physical skill and no-fear attitude have ensured that the work keeps coming in.

So what stunt is she most proud of? ‘It’s hard to say,’ she admits. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a perfectionist, but there aren’t many stunts I’ve done that I’m pleased with.’

However, she does make special mention of her work doubling Virginie Leyoden in hit film The Beach, where she performed the huge waterfall leap. ‘I had to jump forward 33ft or I would have hit solid rock. It was a 70ft drop though, so not too hard. But it gets your heart rate going!’

No Limits

Relishing a challenge is an integral part of being a stuntwoman. All the girls I speak to recount with gusto those stunts that were particularly difficult or dangerous, or which put them outside their comfort zone.

Veteran stuntwoman and stunt coordinator Elaine Ford, 41, has been on the register for over 20 years. In that time she has ‘taken the hits’ for Tanya Roberts in View to a Kill, Maryam D’Abo in Living Daylights, and Glynis Barber, who played Makepeace in Dempsey and Makepeace, among many others.

Being a stuntwoman takes skill, confidence and faith in your abilities.

However, she reserves special mention not for any of the Hollywood blockbusters, but for her work on Britain’s best-loved soap-opera, EastEnders, where she doubled actress Martine McCutcheon, who has more recently appeared in the film Love Actually. ‘I did the stunts for Tiffany’s (McCutcheon’s character) famous stair fall, when everyone was wondering whether Grant pushed her,’ she says. ‘I was also her double for the car knockdown which eventually killed Tiffany. That was a big deal as it was a huge storyline.’ But what really gets Ford going is talking about the difficulties of that stair fall, which was made all the harder because the staircase was very narrow and steep. ‘We modified it to my specifications as much as possible, but I was still in danger of landing awkwardly,’ she says, happily. ‘It was a big shock to the body even though I was wearing padding.’

Cheveley is also eager to recount her more death-defying moments. ‘For a Spanish film I had the task of sliding my motorbike under a moving lorry – this is called a bike lay-down,’ she says. ‘We rehearsed the scene over and over again to get the timing right.’ Um, because if it was wrong, surely that could be fatal? ‘Obviously I had to make sure I didn’t get hit by the lorry.’ I express concern that Cheveley is putting her life at risk on a daily basis, for what is basically just a job, but she shrugs off the suggestion. ‘I’ve never been asked to do anything that I thought was so daft as to be very dangerous.’

Of course, it’s all very well enjoying the thrill of throwing yourself down flights of stairs and in front of lorries, but you need good technique to stay safe. ‘Over the years I have discovered that the harder and faster you go for a stunt, the better; you’re less likely to get hurt than if you’re tentative,’ Ford explains. ‘Being a stuntwoman takes skill, confidence and faith in your abilities.’

Falling Off the Horse

While these girls may enjoy their jobs, money is still a consideration. Ford admits that stunt work is well paid, but says that it depends on the film company how much you’ll get. ‘If you do something out of the ordinary, such as a stair fall or fire work; something where there’s more chance of you getting hurt, you’ll be paid what’s called an “adjustment”, which means extra money on top of your standard fee,’ Ford adds.

Annual salaries for successful stuntwomen can vary from £10,000 to £100,000 a year. ‘But because this is freelance work, sometimes even the best stuntwomen only earn £1,000 in a year; it just depends on the work available,’ explainsSally Fisher, secretary for the Guild of Stunt and Action Coordinators.

Getting hurt is the one thing all stuntwomen fear, as apart from the pain and inconvenience, this prevents them from earning a living. Cheveley has had experience of this and swears by having another means of making money, ‘for when you’re injured, when the phone doesn’t ring or when the fear factor kicks in.’

The harder and faster you go for a stunt, the better.

Before becoming a stuntwoman, Cheveley did a secretarial course, so she always has office work to fall back on if she is temporarily incapacitated. ‘Touch wood, I have never been seriously hurt while performing stunts; just a few cuts and bruises, which are part of the job,’ says Ford, who seems to have escaped remarkably lightly. ‘The only time I was hurt was when I took part in a jousting competition just for fun. I did a deliberate fall from the horse but landed awkwardly and partially ruptured a ligament in my knee.’

Huthart, on the other hand, reels off her injuries as if they were badges of honour. ‘I smashed my foot up pretty badly and was on crutches for 6 months, I tore the pectoral muscle away from my shoulder, I broke my jaw, I’ve broken ribs and my coccyx.’

Injuries aren’t the only hurdle stunt women face when trying to make a living. Another issue is that there are not enough stunts to go around. ‘With both the men and the women you get about 20 per cent who are working all the time and get the best jobs,’ explains stunt co-ordinator Julian Spencer, who has worked with Huthart, Ford and many other “gutsy ladies”, as he terms them.

Like other coordinators, Spencer prefers to hire stunt performers he has worked with before, making it difficult for those who are just breaking into the business. ‘I take a chance when I employ someone new to the game, as you can only really learn how to do stunts on the job.’

Fisher adds her own words of warning for any budding stuntwomen. ‘Getting qualified is a long and expensive process,’ she says. ‘It’s ultimately a freelance job, and the amount of work available is getting less and less.’ And, she cautions, the stunt work that is on offer for women isn’t always wildly exciting, and can involve mundane jobs such as getting out of lorry cabs for Hollywood stars. ‘Say Liz Taylor climbed out of the lorry herself, turned her ankle and couldn’t work for a month – that would be very expensive,’ Fisher explains.

I’m great mates with Angelina.

Even Amanda Foster, Halle Berry’s double, a Taurus World Stunt Award (the Oscars of the stunt world) winner and the only black woman on the UK stunt register, can sometimes struggle to find work: ‘I don’t think being black helps or hinders me,’ muses Foster. ‘I don’t necessarily get all the doubling work for black actresses; sometimes they will paint another stunt performer up instead.’

Foster, 37, has been on the stunt register for nine years. While working as an extra on the film Patriot Games (Foster’s starter career included small acting parts in movies) she got talking to the stuntmen, who inspired her to make stunts her career. However, this didn’t just happen overnight; becoming a registered stuntwoman is a long process. Foster was in her early twenties when she started to train and it took her six years to qualify.

The UK is the only European country to have a register, meaning that women in the rest of Europe looking to become qualified stunt performers must relocate. Camilla Naprous, daughter of acclaimed French stuntman Gerard and talented performer with her family’s live horse stunt show, is currently training to be accepted on the UK stunt register, but she’s impatient.

‘I’m 19 years old but you can join the stunt register at 18,’ she says. ‘I’m a bit slow – I wanted to be qualified by now.’ An ambition to work on the big-budget films that are mainly shot in the US, UK or Australia (all these countries require their stunt performers to be qualified) is behind her decision.

The UK stunt register is well respected in the wider stunt world because of its strict regulations. In fact, when the Australians decided they wanted an official register they copied the UK system rather than the US version.

Double Take

So, if you think you can cope with the blood, sweat and tears, how do you become a qualified stuntwoman?

Entry to the UK stunt register is controlled by the Joint Industry Stunt Committee (JISC), which is a collaboration between arts and entertainment union Equity, and the stunt performers’ employers, such as Warner Bros.

There are two parts to becoming qualified. The first is to have completed 60 days work in front of the camera, which in practise means that girls with acting or entertainment experience have a head start, and those who don’t may find this the most difficult aspect to achieve. Cheveley already had it covered because of her background as a professional dancer, as did Ford with her previous bit-part work in films.

The second part involves reaching the required standard in a minimum of six physical disciplines, which are chosen from a limited range. This must include a qualification in at least one fighting art; for example, if you choose judo you must attain the brown belt. Other sports include gymnastics, high diving, horse riding and sub aqua. Again, standards are high.

To be a successful stuntwoman you need to be a jack of all trades and a master of them all too.

‘The main thing I’d say to any woman wanting to make stunts their career is not to be put off by the amount of time it takes to get qualified,’ says Spencer. ‘It can take a hell of a long time to get up to standard, and then to find an instructor who is qualified to test you and give you the award. To be a successful stuntwoman you need to be a jack of all trades and a master of them all too.’

Even Huthart, an expert martial artist who had also reached a high standard in sub-aqua and swimming, took two years to obtain the qualifications necessary to get on the register. On average, the women I spoke to took around four years to qualify, and many of them mentioned the difficulties of fitting in the gruelling training while holding down a full-time job. But the girls all agree that the struggles to become qualified, stay fit and find work are outweighed by the excitement and diversity of working in stunts. ‘The next phone call could send me anywhere!’ enthuses Cheveley, and heads off on her next adventure.

Cooler’s Coolest Stunts

  1. Stuntwomen Amanda Foster, doubling Rosamund Pike, and Nikki Berwick, doubling Halle Berry, won Taurus World Stunt Awards for their fight scene in Die Another Day. Their edge-of-the-seat knife and dagger scene takes place on an aeroplane.
  2. Tracy Eddon, the unsung risk-taker behind Supergirl who fell off a horse for Kim Basinger in the Bond film Never Say Never Again, took her life in her hands when she doubled for Helena Bonham Carter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The stunt, which is highly regarded by the stunt community, involved having her entire body set on fire while she fell down a staircase.
  3. Angela Meryl and Zoe Bell doubled Vivica A Fox and Uma Thurman respectively in the Tarantino film Kill Bill. They both won Taurus awards for their fight in a suburban living room using martial arts techniques and props such as knives. At one point in the fight Meryl put her hand through a glass table and sliced her finger to the tendon. She was rushed to hospital but returned to continue the sequence the next day.
  4. In Eighties movie Romancing the Stone Kathleen Turner’s stunt double Jeannie Epper leaps out of a car that is tumbling down an 80ft waterfall. This incredible manoevre is executed alongside stuntman Terry Leonard as Michael Douglas.
  5. Matrix Reloaded sees motorcycle specialist Debbie Evans as Carrie-Anne Moss (who plays Trinity) escape at high speed through a crowded freeway, evading multiple cars and a truck while carrying a passenger on the back of her bike. She then rides through the traffic head-on to escape. Her incredible skill earned her a Taurus award in 2004.


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