Kill Bill, Uma Thurman

Eight stuntwomen speak out on the industry's abusive problems

Contributed by
May 22, 2018

Stuntwomen are undeniable badasses. They crash cars, hang from helicopters, and jump off buildings to land 50 feet below — all in a day's work. Their job is all danger and adrenaline, often for the glory of another actor. Stunt work has long been male-dominated; film data researcher Stephen Follows found that in the 7,303 movies released between 2000-16, women made up less than 15 percent of stunt pros.

He also found that, out of 17,772 performers, only 8.9 percent of either gender had more than 17 credits in 17 years. It's a tough, competitive field for everyone, made more challenging when employees feel unsafe or unsupported in their work—and unable to do anything about it.

Stuntwoman statistics

Credit: StephenFollows

Evangeline Lilly, star of the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp, stated last week that she was mistreated by the stunt coordinator on the set of Lost. She chose to do her own stunt but didn't count on the resulting injury from repeated executions. Her forearms were raw, with "open wounds, pus-y and oozing," she said. "I looked like a mutant." She felt the stunt coordinator was "misogynistic" and trying to prove his superiority by having her continue to hurt herself.

Olivia Summers, a performer with stunt credits like Transformers, Bridesmaids, and Lucifer, told SYFY WIRE that a stunt coordinator's job is to ensure safety. Actors sometimes want to do more than they should, and it's the coordinator's responsibility to tell them no. "I have watched actors wanting to do the stunt but have been told no if it's something that can cause an injury," she said. "If they get hurt, that could shut down production," she said.

Since no one wants production to halt, it's unusual for an actor to experience insufficient or hostile interaction with stunts. Uma Thurman recently spoke out about a car stunt that Quentin Tarantino pressured her to perform herself on the set of Kill Bill, causing severe injury, but the norm is to protect the star at all costs. Stunt doubles, however, are much easier to replace and therefore are far less willing to speak up.

A survey conducted by veteran stuntwoman Julie Johnson found that nearly 42 percent of performers responding thought that harassment was "sometimes" an issue in their work. When it did occur, it was most often verbal abuse (almost 62 percent); 60 percent said that it was perpetrated by a stunt coordinator. About 72 percent said that they never reported it.

Shelby Swatek, a performer whose work includes Terminator Salvation and Being Mary Jane, now primarily casts stunt doubles. She called Lilly's experience "sadistic and criminal."

"That's not normal, subjecting people to getting hurt," she told SYFY WIRE, adding that it was unusual for an actor to refuse to use their double. "Sometimes it's appropriate to have the double test the stunt and then teach it to the actor," she said. This allows the production to get the close shots they need of the actor and then fall back on the double for any additional footage required. Usually, she said, "the actors are happy to have the double do what could cause injury."

As stunts become bigger, scarier, and more impressive, the potential for danger also escalates — but with employment numbers as they are, no one wants to say no to work. Even low-risk stunts, like the one that killed stuntwoman S.J. Harris on the set of Deadpool 2 last summer, can turn fatal without careful planning and training; some believed that Harris's death was caused by a lack of stunt experience. In her panel discussion, Lilly alleged that it's not unusual for unqualified doubles to be hired because of romantic connections rather than professional credits.

"A stuntwoman whose breasts are four times the size of mine was hired once as my double," she said. "Her name was Cindy and she said she'd never done stunts before. And I wondered, how did this happen?"

Most stuntwomen are serious professionals, trained not only in stunts but often in gymnastics, sword work, and/or martial arts. The serious professionals know how to deal with what Swatek called "layers of complication." Performers learn quickly that risk is increased by complications as seemingly trivial as costuming. "Women are often put in rather skimpy outfits," Swatek said. "In an evening scene, a guy might be wearing a tux versus [a woman's] strapless gown."

Less protection means less margin for error, and stuntwomen are commonly asked to take hits and falls with far less cushioning than their male counterparts. Stuntwoman Tammie Baird told The Guardian that when she landed her first job on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, "I bought the biggest, bulkiest pads, and thought, 'Yeah, I'm protected, nothing's gonna get me.' Then I saw my wardrobe – I was wearing a miniskirt."

Performers can't sustain the level of risk tolerance necessary, if they're worried about their well-being. Stuntwomen — and actors — can't perform when they fear harassment or insufficient protection. But there's hope for the future. Johnson's survey showed that 56 percent of respondents believed they could become stunt coordinators themselves. Monique Ganderton, first-time MCU stunt coordinator for Avengers: Infinity War, told Bustle that "I don't know... what the psychology is […] but there's something that's missing with women getting opportunity to come up the ranking."

However, visible examples like Ganderton demonstrate that women can — and should — call more of the shots.