Doing stunts in short skirts and stilettoes

Not a job for wimps Three Hollywood stuntwomen talk about how they leapt, flipped, tightrope-walked and elbowed her way into a male-dominated industry

Doing stunts in short skirts and stilettoes

There’s a certain method to being set on fire from head to toe. Or falling down a flight of stairs. In a tube top. And high heels. Joni Avery could tell you all about it. As a Hollywood stuntwoman for about 30 years, she leapt, flipped, tightrope-walked and elbowed her way into a male-dominated industry. Then she became the boss, working as a stunt coordinator.

“Typically, men get paid more,” she said. “I’m like: ‘You’ve got pants and a jacket and pads while she has a miniskirt and high heels. I’m going to pay her more.”

It wasn’t easy for her to rise up. Women struggled for decades to get noticed as stunt doubles, even when they had the right athletic and aerobic skills. If an actress needed a double, a man would just throw on a wig and a skirt, according to Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, a 2015 book by Mollie Gregory, a novelist and screenwriter.

“Are stunts important? They are more than that,” Gregory wrote. “They are fundamental to the mystery, excitement and thrills provided by action movies, and stuntwomen help create that experience.”

After the death this month of Paula Dell, one of the pioneering stuntwomen in Hollywood, we asked eight stuntwomen to reflect on their careers.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Lori Seaman (54): ‘You Need a Strong, Strong Personality’

How she got started: I started racing cars near Los Angeles before I got into stunts. In 1985, I was in a bar and a stunt coordinator said, “I could really use you on one of the episodes for Spenser: For Hire.” I did seven or eight episodes for that. I was a little pup, 24 years old.

Whom she has doubled for: Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief and Tammy. Melissa is a genuine person and I miss her a lot. She was really fun to work with. We had some laughs.

Stunt speciality: Anything to do with driving. I love to just get in a car and go out and do 360s or Hollywood skid turns going around a corner. My husband and I own a stunt-driving school.

A dangerous moment: I’ve never really been injured. When you flip a car you’re very sore for a couple of days, but I’ve been very lucky. We’re always prepped so that we don’t get hurt.
How to succeed at the job: You need a strong, strong personality. It’s not for wimps. Although I’ve been called a wimp before by my husband. He’s been a stuntman for 50 years.

Jadie David (66): ‘My Body Goes Into Autopilot’

How she got started: I grew up riding horses in Burbank, California, and one day a man named Bob Minor rode up to me and said, “I’m going to put you in the movies.” He called me with an offer to double for the actress Denise Nicholas in scenes that involved horseback riding and swimming. I was studying to be a nurse, but this seemed like a fun job. I was 21 years old.

Whom she has doubled for: Pam Grier. I did all of her movies in the 1970s, like Coffy, Friday Foster and Sheba, Baby. The last time I worked with Pam was on Escape from L.A. She was a really super person. She was generous in terms of me being new. She didn’t criticise. She let me do my job. We’re still friends.

Stunt speciality: Jumps and high falls from buildings. A lot of the stunts I performed were kind of risky. That’s why they hire you.

A dangerous moment: I had two bad falls. One was for the movie Rollercoaster. I was supposed to jump from a derailing roller coaster. They built a mock track on top of a building and pointed the cameras into the air. When I jumped, I remember seeing the ground and thinking “Oh, this is going to hurt.” I broke my back. The second fall was for a remake of the game show Truth or Consequences. I was supposed to do a high fall from a building, and I miscalculated. I broke my back, and it took nine hours of surgery and a year in a body cast. After that, I decided to leave stunting, but I worked for years as a safety coordinator for sets.

How to succeed at the job: Your mind has to overcome your body. If I’m standing on a building and I have to do a high fall, every part of my brain says, “Don’t do this.” But then they say “Action!” and my body goes into autopilot. You override something that’s not natural for human beings.

Joni Avery (58): ‘It’s Never the Same’

How she got started: I was a deputy sheriff working in jails. I was also a martial artist, and I had a karate school. So I was very physical to begin with. My ex-husband was a stuntman in Los Angeles, and he got me a job in 1986 on a remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth as a pig person. I had to wear a snout and ears and it was hilarious. And all I had to do was jump off a cliff, grab a rope and land on the ground. It’s a fun job, in that it’s never the same.

Whom she doubled for: Pamela Anderson. And Patricia Arquette, starting with True Romance and every movie or TV show she did moving forward. I even kept my hair like hers because it was just easier. She is a sweet, sweet girl.

Stunt speciality: Just about anything. I played a patient on E.R. who lit herself on fire in the parking lot of the hospital. I also once had two weeks to learn how to tightrope walk. We set up a rope 18 inches off the ground, and I got to the point where I was going forward and backward with no problem. But when the rope is 18 feet high, the ground disappears. I took one step just during the setup and I broke my shoulder.

A dangerous moment: I was working on the movie Broken Arrow with John Travolta and Christian Slater. I was jumping from train to train and I hit the side of one and I was flailing, trying to get my legs up. If I had fallen, I would have been run over by the train right behind me. I was getting paid $30,000 for the stunt. I thought: “Is this what my life is worth? I want to raise my son.” My career changed that day. Eventually I became a stunt coordinator. It’s a shame there aren’t more women stunt coordinators.

How to succeed at the job: If you don’t feel safe about a stunt, just don’t do it. Women are afraid to put their foot down because they think they’re not going to get called for another job. You’re responsible for your own safety.

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