WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if it’s not a bird or a plane, that flash flying through the skies above Hollywood is probably your friendly neighborhood stuntwoman.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Fear’s a wild, weird and sometimes wonderful thing.
Not fungible, changeable or mutable, our fears are all different but have at their base the specter of painful demise. So when you stumble on people who willfully and gladly place themselves in harm’s way so that we will pay $12 for movie tickets, well, that seems not just a little cray-cray. It seems a LOT cray-cray.
So with great care and caution, we gingerly made our way into the whys and wherefores of stuntwomaning by talking with a sampling of the women who inspire ladies everywhere to take leaps and kick ass.
”I was thrown out of a 33-story window for NCIS,” says the 5-foot-7, 125-pound stuntwoman Angela Meryl about doubling for an actress on the TV action thriller. “I couldn’t look before I did it because I didn’t want to spook myself, but as they were pulling me back up by the cable I looked and it was something! But, and my friends laugh at me for this, what really makes me anxious? Escalators. I got a shoelace caught in one when I was kid and since then? Anxiety.”
“My first stunt? Interestingly enough, it involved escalators,” Meryl laughs. It was 1994 and the film was the forgettable First Kid with Sinbad (not the sailor, the comedian/actor). Meryl was struggling as an actress, but one day she came to the set with a friend who was doubling for Sinbad, just to check things out, and she was in. Like Flynn.
”I was leaping off of this escalator onto this platform, over this guy in a wheelchair. There were a lot of things going on,” Meryl says. Plus, that whole escalator-anxiety thing. And from there she discovered her penchant for bungee jumping off of bridges, rappelling off of buildings and freefalling 40 stories off of the top of Oprah’s building. She’s racked up more than 75 other film and TV credits, all built on a foundation of softball, track and field, and tae kwon do.
In between all her self-professed tomboy time, Meryl penned a book, Stunts: The How To Handbook: Secrets From an Award Winning Hollywood Stuntwoman (the award being the 2010 Taurus World Stunt Award winner for Best Fight Scene, for her work in the movie Obsessed, which was preceded by two nominations for the Taurus World Stunt Award for Best Fight and Best Overall Stunt By a Woman for Kill Bill). She is currently working on the Web series Chosen.
When asked about the key to surviving both the falls and the business, Meryl says without pause, “Be nice. Never underestimate the power of people liking you. If you’re working 17-hour days for seven months at a time and you want your airbag where it should be? Be nice.”
Good advice for any era.
“I didn’t ever aspire to be a stuntwoman,” said 5-foot, 110-pound Dartenea Bryant, the lone sister among five brothers who had a pronounced predilection for the perilous well before she started getting paid for it. “It just fell in my lap. I knew a stunt coordinator and he asked me to double for Aaliyah for a music video back in 1998. And that was it.”
Or part of it. Her early life growing up in Southern California was replete with wild-assed West Coast stuff: horses, water-skiing, scuba diving and motorcycles, from as early as she can remember. Along with what seems to be de rigueur for most stuntwomen: martial arts from age 11 on up. She balks at the idea that anyone would consider cinematic high-speed chases (her specialty), car crashes and hand-to-hand combat to be the purview of daredevils. ”This is a popular misconception,” says Bryant. ”We’re very trained professionals. I am trained to know how to throw myself off of buildings without breaking my ankle. Or anything, really.”
Trained by old-time stunt guys who schooled them on the side on how to not die at work. The rest she figured out herself. ”Make no mistake,” Bryant says. “Injuries are serious, and stuntpeople have died, and I get plenty of bumps and bruises from the work I’m doing now on Sleepy Hollow. But fortunately I’ve suffered nothing worse than that.”
“Well, I did break an ankle during non-work hours.”
Which is sort of amusing, but not nearly as much as the fact that with over 50 film credits, Bryant loses track of how much stuff she’s done: an enviable position to be in as we cruise into the World Stunt Awards season this May. ”With about 4,000 stuntmen and only about 400 stuntwomen,” according to Bryant, the field is not as packed, though it’s proportionally tight. However, she says, ”Getting recognized by the folks in the trenches that really know what it’s like? Nothing better than that.”
Except maybe actually living to get the award. Yeah. That’d be pretty nice, too.
Zee James’ start in stunts was a product of pure chutzpah.
”I introduced myself to [martial arts/action actor] Michael Jai White one day at 24-Hour Fitness,” says James, just decamping from some holiday travel. “He then pointed and said, ’Well, here’s the man right here,’ pointing at William Washington, ’talk to him.’ Of course I introduced myself and told William I wanted to be a stunt performer. He looked at me as if I was joking.”
At 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, James might not have been the biggest on the block, but after attending Long Beach State on a track and field scholarship, long jumping and playing basketball (she was a guard), she had the hyped-up drive for the business at hand. And joking or not, Washington called — and the stunt he needed help with was a doozy.
”I was literally hand-pulled from across one side of the room to the other while going high up into the air about 10 feet and having to turn my body vertical to fall 10 feet back to a concrete floor,” James remembers. Two successful takes later, she was a stuntwoman.
So, from her recurring roles in Everybody Hates Chris to a Microsoft commercial playing a stunt actress at a wedding, working with one of Jackie Chan’s stuntmen, Andy Cheng, to working with Roman Coppola and shooting a Super Bowl commercial, James is busy. With a capital B. ”I’ve been stunt-doubling for Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, Regina Hall, Sharon Leal [and] Denyce Lawton, and body-doubling for Meagan Good and Beyoncé.”
Her latest: A bunch of falls and leaping out of the way of motorcycles on Ride Along, which opened in theaters January 17, with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube.
Bold, brave and ballsy, if that’s a word that even makes sense to use here, and when James describes a 70-foot fall she took recently on Perception, we’d have to say it does. Undoubtedly.