Stuntwomen crashing gender barriers


As a rule, Linda Howard likes to be set on fire. But she is also partial to car crashes, and feels quite comfortable falling out of windows.

As president of the Stuntwomen's Association of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, she shares this passion with 26 other women who double for Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner, Betty White and hundreds of other actresses in everything from frightening car crashes to hair pulling.

Sometimes, they need only do a quick fall before picking up their checks and heading home. But other times, a film is full of perilous action.

Cindy Folkerson has just finished John Woo's "Broken Arrow," which will open in November with John Travolta, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis, whom she doubled.

In that film, shot on rough terrain in Page, Ariz., she ran from burning cars, attacking helicopters and raced down a 65-foot rock.

"Running from explosions is a matter of timing," said Ms. Folkerson, 39. "You want to be close enough to the vehicle so that it is exciting but far enough so that you don't get burned."

In this stuntwomen are comparable to stuntmen. But the women also have added constraints. "I've never seen a stunt man working who wasn't in black Reeboks," said Ms. Howard, 38. "Women are the ones who get thrown down stairs in a negligee and high heels. There's no room for kneepads there."

While they may be getting more and better jobs than a decade ago, stuntwomen complain that a lot of inequity remains. There are about 1,000 working stunt performers, according to the Screen Actor's Guild in Los Angeles, and only about 20 percent of them are women.

"Our stuff is pretty basic," said Kym Washington. "We don't get a lot of action pictures like men, and we wish we could do more. For instance, Mel Gibson has this new film out with horses and fencing, and we didn't get anything." She was referring to "Braveheart," which used hundreds of men in battle scenes.

The women argue that many jobs that feature unisex stunt positions, like precision-driving scenes, go almost exclusively to male performers.

"There are some jobs where they could have used more women," said Ms. Washington, 35, who has been doubling Whoopi Goldberg for 10 years. For instance, in 'Die Hard With a Vengeance,' for the close-ups of passengers running to escape a derailing subway train, she said, "they could have put in more women." Part of the problem, she said, is that there are not enough women who have made the leap from stuntwoman to stunt coordinator, the person who chooses staffs and puts the stunts together on the set. Men tend to choose to work with male peers, she said, many of whom they have known for years.

"We need more women doing that job," Ms. Washington said. "But our day is coming."

Ms. Howard said sometimes stunt work can feel like a boy's social club. "Men tend to socialize and play golf and eat dinner with other people on the set," she said. "Women have other things going on. Many of them have a family at home."

Many stuntwomen are mothers whose erratic film schedules wreak havoc on their home life. "Jeannie has to roll a car then go pick the kids up from school," Ms. Howard said.

She was speaking of the stunt veteran Jeannie Epper-Kimack. The two of them most recently appeared in the scene in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" in which a subway train derails. And Ms. Epper-Kimack slid down a mountain of mud during a downpour of ice cold "rain" for 10 hours a day while shooting "Romancing the Stone" in Mexico in 1983.

"Going down face first into mud was one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life," said Mrs. Epper-Kimack, 54, who doubled for Kathleen Turner in the film. (Ms. Turner said on a talk show that she did all her own stunts; denying the use of stunt doubles is common among actors, something that really gets under stunt folks' skin.)

The career is often passed down through a family. Ms. Epper-Kimack's father doubled Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper; her children (Richard, 36, Eurlyne, 35, and Kurtis, 25) are all in the business.

Ditto for her grandson Christopher, 10, who did "Dennis the Menace" last year. "It's kind of like a dynasty," she said. "When you see your mom do this, it's like a way of life for you to do it too."

Ms. Washington is also following in the footsteps of her father, who was a stunt coordinator. One of her stunts involved doubling for Ms. Goldberg in a shot that had her riding a bike while an elephant chased her in "Made in America."

"I was riding a bike and ringing a bell which made an elephant chase me," she explained. "Whoopi couldn't do this because of the chance of the elephant getting too close. We wouldn't want to put her in danger like that. With animals you never know what they are going to do."

Take bears. One stepped on Ms. Howard's collarbone and snapped it in half during a shoot in the early 80s. Ms. Howard, who was in town with her husband, Ken Howard, an actor who was in "Camping With Henry and Tom" Off Broadway, took relish in describing her preferred stunts. Her all-time favorite is being set on fire.

To prepare, she first puts on a protective "stunt gel," then layers of fire-resistant underwear. She is then put in costume, doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire.

This stunt scared the rock group Van Halen. "We were doing a routine, you know: go there, knock this over," she said of her part as a person on fire in a music video. "The next thing I knew, the entire band had dropped their instruments and left the set. They were terrified."

Mrs. Epper-Kimack said that car hits are perhaps the most scary stunts, because the margin for error is smaller. Stunt work can result in injury, and even death.

Last year, Sonya Davis died in a free fall while shooting "A Vampire in Brooklyn." In 1980, stuntwoman Heidi VonBeltz was paralyzed while shooting "Cannonball Run."

But Ms. Howard said that stunt fatalities are rare because the performers are obsessed with safety. "We we are not daredevils, like people think," she said. "Sometimes, a director will try to push things. He'll say, 'I'm losing light, I need to get this shot,' but it's not worth it.

"It's make-believe," she said. "It's the movies. I'll say, 'Bring us back tomorrow.' People say stuntpeople are crazy, but, quite the contrary, we're control freaks."

"I've never really been injured," said Ms. Epper-Kimack. "Oh wait, I had stitches once. But that's nothing. You get stitched up and you go back to work."

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