In 1991, I was a student at New York University, working at a bookstore, and this woman came up to me out of nowhere and basically asked me to come audition for her film. She was a casting director for this PBS Masterpiece Theater thing. The part was for a quote-unquote “little person.” I’m four foot six, and they were having trouble casting the part. So she was just grasping at straws. You know, she had nothing left, and she saw me there, and she said, “What the hell–we can’t find anybody, why don’t you come audition?”
I had never given anything like this a thought. I knew nothing about the film industry. Knew nothing about what to expect, but I was intrigued. So I said, sure, what the hell. About a week later, I went and auditioned for the part. I was a nervous wreck, but I got it anyway. Just a tiny bit–two days of work–but while I was on the set, a couple of stunt men pulled me aside and said, “Have you ever thought about doing stunts?” They were interested in me because I’m small and I’m well-proportioned, and as a result, I’m theoretically a good double for children. And they were funny guys. They asked me, “Well, you know, how do you feel about getting hit by a car or rolling down some stairs?” And I believe my response was something to the effect of, these are things I normally try to avoid, but I’m pretty sure you could talk me into it.
At the time, there were no other stunt doubles for children in New York. On the West Coast, there were a few, but none here locally. And these guys really thought I could get work. So I threw together some head shots real quick. They were cheesy, I did them myself and they were awful, and I didn’t get anything. But it didn’t matter, because I ran into these guys twice more over the course of the next two years. They were working in the neighborhood near my job in Greenwich Village, which is a big film area. I just walked by them while they were shooting, and they were very enthusiastic to see me again. Mind you, I hadn’t worked, hadn’t done anything in like two years. But they remembered me and I guess they must have passed my name around because out of nowhere sometime in the fall of 1993, I got a call from the stunt coordinator on an Al Pacino flick down in Philadelphia. He needed somebody quick to double for a kid in his film. I agreed to do it. So out of nowhere I’m working.
That first job, my first day, I had to climb out the third story of a building on to a ladder and fall into some guy’s arms. It really wasn’t so big a deal. I was all safetied off–I had a harness on and a cable, so I wasn’t going anywhere. Then I did a couple of other things over like three days of work on the film. And during that time, just by having approached things in a quote-unquote “professional manner” and getting along with the stunt coordinator, I got another call which ultimately led to five weeks of work out in Georgia and South Carolina for another film. I’ve been doing it ever since. Once you get the ball rolling, people find you by other contacts. I’ll get calls out of the blue from somebody I’ve never heard of before. It’s completely word of mouth. And reputation.
Most of the stuff that is scripted for children isn’t too intense. Nobody wants to make a movie where a kid falls through a plate of glass eighty stories to their death. You know? It just doesn’t happen. But I have done a fair number of kinda intense things. I’ve done high falls. I got hit by a car. I rolled down some stairs. I was in the back seat of a car during a chase scene which ultimately culminated in a dive onto this staircase and rolling down the staircase in this car–which was actually pretty intense, but all I was doing was sitting in the back seat, so it was not exactly a big deal.
I also went swimming in the Hudson once. I dove off this barge near the Statue of Liberty–into the Hudson River. I had regular clothes on, with a wet suit underneath. I had a wig on. I was a little girl. It was like October. A beautiful day, but the water was pretty fucking cold. And, of course, I had to get all sorts of shots beforehand, just to swim in the Hudson, you know? I had like tetanus, like a gamma globulin shot. It’s a pretty dirty river, I guess. I’ve heard it’s gotten much better in the last few years but that it used to be odds were like one out of three that if you dove into the Hudson you were going to get hepatitis. (Laughs.) Anyway, all sorts of people tried to tell me how dirty it was. I mean, the doctor even told me when he gave me the shots, he’s like, “You realize what you’re doing here, right? You know, what the hell are you doing swimming in the Hudson River?” And I’m, like, “I don’t know. It’s a paycheck.” And it was no big thing, I didn’t even catch a cold.
I’ve never hurt myself. No injuries at all. Knock on wood. The day I went rolling down the staircase was probably the worst, pain-wise, but I had a lot of pads on. I was actually doubling a very short, fat woman. So I had a lot of padding on to bulk me up, which helped a lot. But then I had nothing on my head. So rolling down the stairs meant, you know, clunk, clunk, clunk–that’s my head hitting all the points on the staircase–so it hurt, but it wasn’t like I got injured or anything. You put yourself through a certain amount of pain.
No one loves to get hurt. No one loves pain. You try to avoid it. When I got hit by the car, the coordinator pulled me aside and said like, “Have you ever done a car hit?” I said no because the first rule about doing the stunt is, be honest. Don’t tell people you can do something you can’t do. You know? Let them coach you. Let them tell you how to do it. Because there’s a right way and a wrong way, for instance, to get hit by a car. If you get hit by a car wrong you’re going to get hurt, the shot’s going to get ruined, everyone’s going to get pissed off, and you’re just going to cause mayhem.
So he pulls me aside, and he tells me how to get hit by the car. Which basically entailed like sort of pivoting so the car hit me from the back side of my knees so that I could buckle under onto the hood of the car, you know, before rolling on to the windshield. Sort of letting the whole momentum thing take over. So I did it. Two takes. It went great. But that night after shooting, my whole body was sore. My entire body from head to toe was all just sort of muscle soreness because I mean, I got hit by a car. I mean, I didn’t fake it. I didn’t jump on the hood of the car and start rolling. They didn’t cut me in slow motion. I got hit by a car. I mean, there’s no way around it, you know? The coordinator said, “Well, the first thing you need to know when doing a car hit is you’re going to get hit by this car, all right? Don’t try to jump on the hood. They’ll just make you do it again.”
Stunt men put themselves through a hell of a lot of abuse–that’s just the way it is. But it’s worth it. It’s very interesting work. It’s interesting being on the set. It’s exhilarating having that kind of attention focused on you. I mean, basically all the attention is on you. You’ve got all these cameras on you. Everyone’s watching you. It’s like this adrenaline rush. And then on top of that, what you’re doing is most often sort of physically demanding, so there’s that sort of exhilaration too.
Plus there’s all this mental stuff. Because–really, most of the work is mental. I mean, you have to have the right attitude. You have to not be afraid. I mean, one of the stunts I did was to climb up a ladder, like a hundred feet into the air. You know, and I had no safety, I had nothing. I mean, if I fell, if I slipped and fell, I would have died. There’s no way around it. I would have died. But in reality all I was doing was climbing ladder. And, I mean, everyone climbs ladders. That’s not a big deal. But just to have that kind of mentality to sort of keep that composure and know that all you’re doing is climbing a ladder and you don’t freak out–that’s pretty much like cut and dry what most of the work entails. You know, most of the most dangerous work. So you just have to know. And, like, you can’t be afraid. If you’re afraid to get hit or to fall or whatever–that fear is going to show in the shot. You’re going to buckle. You’re going to cringe. You’re to do something before you actually get hit that’s going to give it away. So you learn, mentally, to do nothing. You’re just a little kid–you don’t know that car’s gonna hit you. Then–wham–you’re hit.
For the most part you pad yourself up as much as you can. I mean, whatever you’re doing you wear as many pads as you possibly can and you just hope you don’t get hurt. There are actually some places in Los Angeles that make custom equipment for stunt people, so a lot of our pads and shit come from that. A lot of it will be like from motor cross, too, and other sports, extreme sports, traditional sports. Like you might get shin guards from the soccer section of your sports store. Kneepads near the roller blades. Get a harness in the rock climbing section. Some shackles. It all helps.
But most of the time–I mean, it’s really a big deal to coordinators and to stunt people alike not to get hurt. So pads are key, but what’s really important for these people is to do it right and to be prepared for everything and what not. And that means rehearsing. It means running through everything in your mind. You know, everything. You don’t fuck around like that. It may mean changing the shot. Because if doing it the way the director wants to do it is too dangerous, then the coordinator may say, look, let’s not do it that way. Let’s change it to this way and that way we can safety him off or something where we know he’s not going to get hurt.
It all takes a lot of time sometimes. A lot of time is spent in making the film in setting things up and making things work right. Another stunt man once said to me, “Doing stunt work is eight hours of waiting followed by about two minutes of exhilaration.” That pretty much sums it up, you know? You learn how to wait around, but the actual work is a blast. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
It’s a fucking funny job. It is hilarious. And you know, plus, I work with these kids. These actor kids. And they’re great. I mean, I’ve run into a couple of snotty ones, but for the most part they’re just too young to be snotty yet. And it’s a good relationship, you know. At first, the kids are just sort of like who the hell are you? But if you stay on the set for a couple of weeks they’re, like, you know, “Hey, this is my stunt double.” They’re showing you off to Mom and Dad and everybody else, you know? They get a big kick of out that, like, “Yeah, I’ve got a stunt double!” We’ll be on lunch and they’ll pull me out of the lunch line or something, just to show their family, you know, “This is my stunt double, this is my stunt double!” It’s cool. I like kids a lot.
I like the other stunt guys too. We all hang out together. It’s like a little clique, a clan. I’ve made a ton of friends doing this. That’s like one of the best parts. I remember one time I was working up in Central Park and we basically got rained out. It was storming, and we were kind of just sort of waiting out the rain, we had nowhere else to go, couldn’t shoot, and there were about five or six of us, and we were all in this trailer. And all of a sudden one of the stunt men starts pulling out their new pad. And it was really quite a funny scene, because everyone was like showing off their pads. “Wow, check out this pad, man.” “This pad’s great for car hits. You know? You wear it on the leg. Boom! Nothing’s going to happen to you.” “Yeah, well, look at this back pad I got. It’s great for getting, like, wacked over the back with a broom handle, you know?” “This is great for fighting scenes, you know?” And everyone’s trying to outdo each other. You know, like pulling out a bigger and better pad. Basically every stunt man’s got this huge bag of pads with them all the time. And, you know, everyone was just sitting there showing off all their pads, telling stories about how they used these pads and blah, blah, blah. And it was hilarious. I thought it was absolutely hilarious, you know? I mean, like where else would you have such a stupid conversation, you know? About pads, you know? But everyone was like really getting such a rush out of it. Like, “Wow! Where did you get that pad?! Oh, my God!” You know?
We’ll go out afterwards, we’ll go work and then we’ll go hit some bar somewhere, go have dinner or whatever. And just get to know each other and just like spend that kind of time together. If you’re on a good set for a long period of time it’s great. You get to know people and make friends that way. It’s great. It’s a fucking great life. I can see doing this for a long time. Until I’m physically unable to do it any longer. Yeah. I enjoy it so much.
Edited by Sabin Streeter.
This is part of a series on Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood brought to you in collaboration with the editors of GiG, a book of interviews with people about their jobs. Click here for more information about GiG.