Why you should care
Because flying off of buildings without wings, even in Hollywood, takes some serious stones — and it takes even more to give the next generation a chance to do the same.
“My jaw broke at the joint on both sides.”
It should be noted that California native LaFaye Baker is smiling and laughing when she says this.
“I couldn’t close my mouth, my teeth were busted out and just hanging.” The occasion was a motorcycle jump through a wall of smoke back in 1996 for The Fugees’ video “Ready or Not.” Practice runs had been smoke-free, but for the actual shoot there was smoke. Lots of smoke. And while Baker landed the jump, minus a helmet, she landed the jump hard and her jaw hit the dirt bike’s speedometer — and the rest is all multiple reconstructive surgery history. Complete with titanium plates and screws and months with her jaw wired shut.
This was the year after Angela Bassett’s stuntwoman died during the making of the Wes Craven-directed, Eddie Murphy vehicle, Vampire in Brooklyn. “She was doing a backward fall. Hit the pad wrong and was in a coma for a couple of weeks before she died. Her family was on the set that day…” Baker trails off, reminding us in no uncertain terms that what we see when we’re enjoying a night out sometimes comes at great expense.
That wasn’t foremost in her mind when, in 1987, Baker finally yielded to the blandishments of a fellow probation officer who, impressed with the former gymnast and volleyball player’s physicality, urged her to start doing stunt work and introduced her to stunt notable Greg Elam. With two gigs the first year, three the second year and five jobs her third year, stunt work sort of seemed like a comfortable hobby. Until right around the time Halle Berry called.
Baker set her chutzpah phasers to stun.
“I got hired on as the first African-American woman to stunt-coordinate a big-budget Hollywood project,” says Baker. The project? Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the award-winning 1999 HBO movie. Berry had been pretty adamant about a few things, including having African-American women in key positions. Which explains having Shonda Rhimes on the team of screenwriters, and how the relatively untested Baker got her first major leg up.
“I did my research and went in with storyboards of work that Halle had already done and showed how I could and would have done it differently,” Baker says of setting her chutzpah phasers to stun. “And got the gig. Mostly fight scenes.” Which set the steamroller rolling: almost 20 movies, including big-name features like Hannibal with Anthony Hopkins and 2011’s Green Lantern.
“You fall off a roof and land on your back, and it’s not called an epic fail,” says Hollywood writer/producer Mike Horelick when describing life as a Hollywood stuntwoman. “It’s called a job and there are 20 people lined up behind you who want it. So you’ve got to be a little daring. And maybe a little crazy.” Something Baker feels keenly now as she considers every single one of the ramifications of what a bad day at the office would mean for her.
…at-risk teen girls, a population that often harbors a misplaced interest in life in front of the camera.
With directors under pressure to stay on schedule, get shots and move the production along, the stakes are always high and the jobs don’t get any easier. Mostly because of audiences’ hunger to see MORE, but also because it’s the nature of the entertainment beast to feed on surprise and thrill. And them that can provide it. Which started Baker thinking very seriously about her next steps.
Enter Diamond in the RAW, a nonprofit designed in 2008 by Baker to prime the Hollywood pump with at-risk teen girls, a population that often harbors a misplaced interest in life in front of the camera. Baker turns their attention to work behind the camera, in the hopes that the 20 to 30 girls finishing her program annually will directly address the industry’s continued race and gender imbalances.
Baker, the only child of an educator mother and a realtor father, never wanted for anything herself as a youngster, enjoying years of ice-skating lessons and gymnastics and even child acting jobs. But her day job as a probation officer has given her many a “there but for the grace of God go I” moments. It’s a perspective that sees serious potential in the Hollywood that her own parents initially thought was just a waste of her time.
More than a few of the Diamond in the RAW grads are taking steps into the industry, some working in post-production editing, one as a correspondent at an NBC affiliate in Reno, Nev., and a few more as camera operators. Meanwhile, Baker, a primary organizer, readies herself for this October’s 7th Action Icon Awards honoring celebrity stuntwomen. “It’s all just a great way to say that this can be done,” Baker says, referring to her long and non-standard career in Hollywood. “Because I did it, and I didn’t do anything that would make it hard to look at myself in the mirror for: I graduated from college, I had a serious career outside of it as well, and I’m still working.”
“You know sometimes it used to happen that it would be assumed that I was in the wrong place when I was on-set. They’d assume I was an extra or some bit player. I’d laugh and tell them that I was the stuntwoman and they’d be embarrassed and apologize, but my idea then was like now: Get more people like me doing what I am doing.”
Which we can well appreciate, even if the closest we want to get to a 200-foot dead drop is our remote controls.
“It’s a thrill, really,” Baker trills. Like she’s talking about something really easy and not dangerous at all. “And yes, it’s a little dangerous, but I’m pretty sure that’s where the ‘thrill’ part comes in.”