Closing The Gap

Top Hollywood stuntwomen share what it's like creating some of film and TV's toughest fight scenes

Stuntwoman Crystal Michelle
Image credit: Crystal Michelle

When Jennifer Garner starred in the award-winning television series "Alias," it was former gymnast Shauna Duggins who executed Sydney Bristow's famous fight scenes. When Halle Berry dove into a swimming pool in the 2003 thriller "Gothika," it was budding actress Crystal Michelle who actually took the plunge. And when Queen Latifah got into a fight in the 2003 film "Bringing Down the House," it was former wrestler Jwaundace Candece who threw the punches.

You might not recognize their names, but these women bring some of the most physical scenes in film and television to life, and they're part of a growing group of women and people of color among the roughly 3,400 stunt performers registered with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) labor union.

Jane Austin, national secretary-treasurer of SAG-AFTRA and president of the union's local Los Angeles chapter, tells CNBC Make It that because pay is determined by a union contract, stuntwomen rarely encounter pay disparities. Stunt performers' pay is determined by SAG-AFTRA and is based on the length and type of project they work on. According to SAG-AFTRA, all television stunt performers are paid a minimum of $1,005 for one day of work and $3,746 if needed for a week. They're allowed to work no more than 12 hours in one day and can negotiate higher pay based on experience.

Stunt performer Shauna Duggins and actress Jennifer Garner arrive for the Premiere Of STX Entertainment's "Peppermint" held at Stadium 14 on August 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Albert L. Ortega | Getty Images

"I personally haven't experienced the pay inequality that actors and actresses do," says Austin, who first started working as a stunt double in the late 1980s. "I will tell you it's not about pay, but it's more about what opportunities are out there for women doing stunts."

Breaking in

Shauna Duggins had been a gymnast at the University of California, Davis, and was first introduced to the idea of being a stuntwoman after college. She was interested in martial arts and after graduation she spent hours each week working out in open gyms across Los Angeles.

"I was, you know, 20, 21 years old and I just wanted to run in the gym and play," she tells CNBC Make It. "And when I was in there, since it was an open gym, there were people with all kinds of different skills and some of the people I met were stuntmen and a couple of them stuntwomen. They were these group of people who were so talented and passionate and creative. They were doing gymnastics, and fights, and choreography and just kind of combining everything."

Eventually Duggins started to train with these stunt performers up to six times a week in hopes of one day joining the industry. In 2000, she auditioned to be a stunt double for Krista Allen in "The X-Files" and landed the role. After that job, she went on to stunt double for Kelly Lynch and Cameron Diaz in "Charlie's Angels."

Her next big role was on "Alias," where she spent five years as Jennifer Garner's stunt double. "It was a dream to show up every day and work with [Garner] and J.J. Abrams," Duggins says. The role was a career turning-point for Duggins, who became Garner's go-to double and stunt coordinator, coaching the actress through projects, like the movie "Peppermint," in which Garner performed her own stunts.

Actors and actresses often land their first major auditions with the help of an agent, but Duggins says that student doubles don't always rely on having representation, because the industry is small and most opportunities are passed by word of mouth.

"Commercials may happen through an agent, but not necessarily TV and film," she says. "When you're first getting started, [opportunities] normally come through a stunt coordinator, so it's a lot of word of mouth with someone recommending you. You really just have to get out there and try to meet people and train and make yourself well-rounded."

Austin says that when she first started stunt doubling more than 30 years ago, stunt doubles would hear about a shoot and show up on-set to drop off their headshot and reel. "When I started out, you would go around to sets and hustle," she says. "It's a lot harder to get on sets today, so a lot of it is just word of mouth, your reputation, your work ethic and your abilities."

Stuntwoman Crystal Michelle
Image credit: Crystal Michelle

Like Duggins, stuntwoman Jwaundace Candece says she was introduced to the industry unexpectedly. "I was doing professional wrestling for a federation called Women of Wrestling back in 2000, 2001," she says. "I got recognized from television and was approached to stunt double for Queen Latifah in 'Bringing Down the House.'"

Candece's performance in that role earned her a Best Fight nomination at the 2004 MTV Movie Awards. She appeared as Latifah's stunt double in several other films, including "Scary Movie 3," "Taxi" and "Last Holiday."

"She was actually the one who encouraged me to continue with stunt doubling, because I initially moved to Los Angeles to be an actress," says Candece. "But there weren't that many black stuntwomen, and she said 'If you want to excel as an actor, be a better stuntwoman so you can make a name for yourself.' And she was right."

Candece has appeared as a stunt double in over 75 film and TV shows for actresses like Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg and Mo'Nique. She's also landed a few acting jobs, including a recurring role in the 2014 ABC drama "Resurrection" and the 2014 film "Let's Be Cops."

Overcoming obstacles

As more women become stunt doubles, SAG-AFTRA has implemented protocols to protect performers from unsafe work environments and discrimination. This includes a 24/7 hotline that performers can call if they feel they have been sexually harassed or abused at work, as well as a diversity department that can be contacted if any form of discrimination takes place.

In 2014, Warner Bros. faced intense backlash for its plans to use a white stunt woman to double for a black actress in the Fox show "Gotham." Known in the industry as a "paint down," the practice, in which a white performer wears body paint to double for a black or brown performer, was once common on film and TV sets. So were "wiggings," or men donning wigs to double as women. The Black Stuntmen Association and the Stuntwomen's Association of Motion Pictures were founded in 1967, in part to address practices like these.

Warner Bros. eventually issued an apology and hired a black stuntwoman to double on the show. Austin says today, incidents like these are increasingly rare, because there's a growing pool of diverse stunt performers to hire.

"Now, it's not so much that you can't find someone for a role, it's moreso people just wanting to hire their buddy if it happens," she says. "The union is very aware of it and if it's reported, we come down on it — but half of the battle is having it reported."

Katie Rowe, president of the Stuntwomen's Association of Motion Pictures, says she surveyed a group of about 30 members of her organization about wigging and found that "most people have maybe seen it once." In fact, she says, it's more common now for shorter stuntwomen to land roles doubling for boys.

But Michelle, who started her career as a stunt double for Halle Berry and more recently doubled in "Black Panther," says that though the industry has gotten significantly more inclusive, it still has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to the safety of female performers.

She says that when she was working as a stunt double on the film "School of Rock," wardrobe called for her to wear a pencil skirt in a scene in which she had to flip over a table. The body padding that stunt performers wear to prevent injury was visible under her costume, and different from her complexion.

Shauna Duggins, winner of the award for outstanding stunt coordination for a comedy series or variety program for 'Glow', poses in the press room during the 2018 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, day 1 at Microsoft Theater on September 8, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
JC Olivera | WireImage | Getty Images

"[The director] came over to me and said, 'Crystal I like what you're doing, but we see your pads. Is there any way you can fix it?'" The experience led to her decision, in 2017, to launch AXTIONWEAR, a line of stunt pads for women of all complexions.

"Safety is so important in our line of work," she says. "For me, being an African-American chocolate stuntwoman, never were there options in my skin tone, or let alone any brown skin tones. So I started pulling resources together and doing some research just to figure out how I could contribute a little something to this area of safety."

'Fight like the guys'

Austin says she's seen huge strides for women stunt performers throughout her career. "When I started out, we were just the pretty girls in the passenger seat," she says. "We weren't driving the car in the late 80s. But, I honestly think the game-changer was "Kill Bill," when Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah had that amazing fight and they beat the crap out of each other."

That role, Austin says, showed writers and directors that "women can fight like the guys."

"The roles have become better for women so that we aren't just accessories," she says. "We're bad a---s, and we actually can do stunts, or drive cars, or do fights and all the stuff guys have done."

In 2018, Duggins became the first stunt coordinator to win an Emmy. After nearly 20 years in the business, she's been able to work her way up from stunt double to stunt coordinator and is the director of the upcoming action drama "Guardian." She says her biggest advice to any woman who is looking to get into the industry is to train as much as you can in various skills so that you can't be boxed in.

"Make yourself as skilled and talented as you can in a variety of things," she says. "Go to the different gyms with [stunt performers], train with all of them and just learn from each other."

"Women at Work" is a CNBC Make It series in which we explore the experiences of women working in majority-male occupations. Does that describe you? Contact courtney.connley@nbcuni.com to share your story.

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Stuntwoman Crystal Michelle
Image credit: Crystal Michelle
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