There’s a certain method to being set on fire from head to toe. Or falling down a flight of stairs. In a tube top. And high heels.
Joni Avery could tell you all about it. As a Hollywood stuntwoman for about 30 years, she leapt, flipped, tightrope-walked and elbowed her way into a male-dominated industry. Then she became the boss, working as a stunt coordinator.
“Typically, men get paid more,” she said. “I’m like: ‘You’ve got pants and a jacket and pads while she has a miniskirt and high heels. I’m going to pay her more.’”
It wasn’t easy for her to rise up. Women struggled for decades to get noticed as stunt doubles, even when they had the right athletic and aerobic skills. If an actress needed a double, a man would just throw on a wig and a skirt, according to “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” a 2015 book by Mollie Gregory, a novelist and screenwriter.
“Are stunts important? They are more than that,” Ms. Gregory wrote. “They are fundamental to the mystery, excitement and thrills provided by action movies, and stuntwomen help create that experience.”
After the death this month of Paula Dell, one of the pioneering stuntwomen in Hollywood, we asked eight stuntwomen to reflect on their careers.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Lori Seaman: ‘You Need a Strong, Strong Personality’
How she got started: I started racing cars near Los Angeles before I got into stunts. In 1985, I was in a bar and a stunt coordinator said, “I could really use you on one of the episodes for ‘Spenser: For Hire.’” I did seven or eight episodes for that. I was a little pup, 24 years old.
Whom she has doubled for: Melissa McCarthy in “Identity Thief” and “Tammy.” Melissa is a genuine person and I miss her a lot. She was really fun to work with. We had some laughs.
Stunt specialty: Anything to do with driving. I love to just get in a car and go out and do 360s or Hollywood skid turns going around a corner. My husband and I own a stunt-driving school.
A dangerous moment: I’ve never really been injured. When you flip a car you’re very sore for a couple of days, but I’ve been very lucky. We’re always prepped so that we don’t get hurt.
How to succeed at the job: You need a strong, strong personality. It’s not for wimps. Although I’ve been called a wimp before by my husband. He’s been a stuntman for 50 years.
Jadie David: ‘My Body Goes Into Autopilot’
How she got started: I grew up riding horses in Burbank, Calif., and one day a man named Bob Minor rode up to me and said, “I’m going to put you in the movies.” He called me with an offer to double for the actress Denise Nicholas in scenes that involved horseback riding and swimming. I was studying to be a nurse, but this seemed like a fun job. I was 21 years old.
Whom she has doubled for: Pam Grier. I did all of her movies in the 1970s, like “Coffy”, “Friday Foster” and “Sheba, Baby.” The last time I worked with Pam was on “Escape from L.A.” She was a really super person. She was generous in terms of me being new. She didn’t criticize. She let me do my job. We’re still friends.
Stunt specialty: Jumps and high falls from buildings. A lot of the stunts I performed were kind of risky. That’s why they hire you.
A dangerous moment: I had two bad falls. One was for the movie “Rollercoaster.” I was supposed to jump from a derailing roller coaster. They built a mock track on top of a building and pointed the cameras into the air. When I jumped, I remember seeing the ground and thinking “Oh, this is going to hurt.” I broke my back. The second fall was for a remake of the game show “Truth or Consequences.” I was supposed to do a high fall from a building, and I miscalculated. I broke my back, and it took nine hours of surgery and a year in a body cast. After that, I decided to leave stunting, but I worked for years as a safety coordinator for sets.
How to succeed at the job: Your mind has to overcome your body. If I’m standing on a building and I have to do a high fall, every part of my brain says, “Don’t do this.” But then they say “Action!” and my body goes into autopilot. You override something that’s not natural for human beings.
Joni Avery: ‘It’s Never the Same’
How she got started: I was a deputy sheriff working in jails. I was also a martial artist, and I had a karate school. So I was very physical to begin with. My ex-husband was a stuntman in Los Angeles, and he got me a job in 1986 on a remake of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a pig person. I had to wear a snout and ears and it was hilarious. And all I had to do was jump off a cliff, grab a rope and land on the ground. It’s a fun job, in that it’s never the same.
Whom she doubled for: Pamela Anderson. And Patricia Arquette, starting with “True Romance” and every movie or TV show she did moving forward. I even kept my hair like hers because it was just easier. She is a sweet, sweet girl.
Stunt specialty: Just about anything. I played a patient on “E.R.” who lit herself on fire in the parking lot of the hospital. I also once had two weeks to learn how to tightrope walk. We set up a rope 18 inches off the ground, and I got to the point where I was going forward and backward with no problem. But when the rope is 18 feet high, the ground disappears. I took one step just during the setup and I broke my shoulder.
A dangerous moment: I was working on the movie “Broken Arrow” with John Travolta and Christian Slater. I was jumping from train to train and I hit the side of one and I was flailing, trying to get my legs up. If I had fallen, I would have been run over by the train right behind me. I was getting paid $30,000 for the stunt. I thought: “Is this what my life is worth? I want to raise my son.” My career changed that day. Eventually I became a stunt coordinator. It’s a shame there aren’t more women stunt coordinators.
How to succeed at the job: If you don’t feel safe about a stunt, just don’t do it. Women are afraid to put their foot down because they think they’re not going to get called for another job. You’re responsible for your own safety.
Lisa Hoyle: ‘It’s the Best Job in the World’
How she got started: When I was young, I was a competitive gymnast and then a flying trapeze artist. I was with an acrobatic troupe when I was in college, and I kept switching my major. Some people in the troupe were doing high falls, and I got into it through them. That was 26 years ago.
Whom she has doubled for: I lost count, but I’ve doubled over 100 actresses. My first job was doubling for Angelina Jolie on “Cyborg 2.” I’ve doubled for Keira Knightley on “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Diane Kruger on “National Treasure” and so many others.
Stunt specialty: High falls.
A dangerous moment: I did a 93-foot fall for the “Charlie’s Angels” movie. It ended up on the cutting room floor, but it was the highest high fall I’ve done. Leading up to it, it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep. My palms would get a little sweaty. But that day it was euphoric. On the first take, the director said, “That’s great, I got it.” And I thought, “You mean I don’t get to do it again?”
How to succeed at the job: Stunt people don’t have agents so you have to do what we call hustling. The field has gotten more competitive, but there’s nothing else I’d rather do. It’s the best job in the world.
Elle Alexander: ‘The More Skills You Have, the Better’
Age: I’d rather not say, but north of 40. I’ve been a stuntwoman since 1991.
How she got started: I began my stunt career at an audition to play Ma Hopper at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Wild West Stunt Show. I trained there and also trained with many stunt coordinators for stunts like fire burns, high falls, car hits, weapons and horse work. The more skills you have, the better.
Whom she has doubled for: Sigourney Weaver, Kristen Johnston and Missi Pyle. Sigourney is wonderful and regal, educated, brilliant and funny. Some of the films I have doubled her on are “Vamps,” “You Again” and “Paul.” Kristen is your buddy, the kind of girl who says what she means and is very funny at all times, even when she isn’t trying. I doubled her on the second “Flintstones” movie and the TV Land comedy “The Exes.” I double Missi regularly. She was kind and friendly from the moment I met her and is a joy to be around.
A violent scene: The chick fight scene from “Bringing Down the House,” when I was doubling Missi Pyle. I fight Queen Latifah, and it’s a knock-down, drag-out fight. At one point I get thrown in the bathroom stall and she flushes my head in the toilet. Well, the floor was a little wet and I banged my shin on the edge of the toilet and split it open. The set medic said, “Well, I can see your bone, so you probably should get stitches.” I got it stitched up, came back and finished the scene.
On the long term impact of stunt work: It definitely hurts more as I get older. I should have bought stock in ibuprofen!
Shawnna Thibodeau: ‘It’s Not Something You Can Learn at School’
How she got started: As a kid, I’d take any chance I had to jump off the roof or do something exciting. I was riding my bike around the block when I was 13 and decided to stand on the seat with no hands. I hit a pothole and flew off, knocked out my front tooth and had to get a root canal. As I got older, my mom said, “You might as well get paid for it.” I moved to New York, worked different jobs and picked up stunt work until things started getting busy, around 2000.
Whom she has doubled for: I’m 5 foot 10 inches tall, and at first they didn’t have a lot of women my height with my skill set. I’ve doubled Charlize Theron, in “Hancock” and “In the Valley of Elah,” Uma Thurman and Nicole Kidman. They were definitely really nice ladies to work with. Nicole would always give me a hug and say thank you for making this movie with me, and the same with Charlize. It’s nice when you’re appreciated.
A sketchy stunt: I agreed to double Adrianne Palicki on “Red Dawn” while I was recovering from tearing my ACL and MCL, shattering my meniscus and breaking my patella during a Nike ad. They told me there were no hard landings, so I agreed. Then they said, “Yeah, you’re going to jump out this window onto a super steep roof.” It was a gnarly little jump. I jumped out the window on my good leg and landed back on that same leg. I was so worried because I’d gone through all this physical therapy and surgery and I didn’t know if I would walk away. I did.
On raising young children while doing stunts: I have a son, Mason, 4, and a daughter, Hudson, 1 1/2. Juggling stunt work and raising them is intense. I was doing “The Amazing Spider Man” when Mason was a baby, and I’d work nights, 12 to 14 hours, and I was breast-feeding, so I’d pump at work, come home, try to feed him and sleep and then go back to work. It’s getting harder for my son to understand because you’re home and then all of a sudden you’re gone.
What it takes: We call ourselves “ground pounders,” and that’s the most important thing. There are tons of people out there with different skills, but the gist of it is getting hit by things and jumping off things. It’s not something you can learn at school. It’s just being able to relax and do it without hurting yourself.
Sonia Jo McDancer: ‘It’s a Job I’d Never Trade’
How she got started: I grew up in Burbank, Calif., and my father, who was in the Golden Gloves, taught me about boxing. I bought my first car when I was young, and I’d race guys for money. My uncle was a prop man. He’d bring me to sets and say, “Sonia Jo, do you want an acting job?” I would say, “I want to do what those guys and girls are doing, the fight scenes and the car stuff.” He wouldn’t let me do it, so I had to climb the ranks on my own.
Whom she has doubled for: I’ve doubled Fran Drescher, Julia Louis Dreyfus and Kim Basinger. I remember I had to get set on fire for Fran in a scene for “The Beautician and the Beast,” which can be quite dangerous, but I had on the right clothes. Jeans are always good around fire; they’re made out of thick cotton, and it’s not a mixed material like polyester, which will just go up in flames.
On dangling far above the ground: I was doing a stunt for a TV show called “Sliders,” and I had to hang off a window-washing platform about 400 feet above the street. It was raining, and the wind started going, and there’s a bit of an adrenaline rush. You’re swinging back and forth and you look down and the cars look so tiny. I bring my own equipment, my own harnesses and rappelling ropes, because you know that if your equipment fails, that’s it.
Safety first: I’ve been injured a couple times, no broken bones. I was knocked out once when I was thrown into a wall. Good thing I know martial arts, because I was doing a judo roll in midair. I triple check everything with the director and coordinator and do safety meetings. It’s a job I’d never trade for anything else.
Nancy Thurston: ‘Car Hits Are Pretty
Background: I trained as a gymnast and I used to be a professional high diver, so I already had the aerial awareness. Once I got the concept of how to hit the airbag, I went up the ladder quickly.
Specialties: I’ve got a high fall and a fire burn on my business card.
Whom she has doubled for: I’ve doubled for actresses as young as 8 years old and as old as 98 years old. Some of my favorites were Holly Marie Combs on “Charmed,” Hayden Panettiere on “Heroes” and “Ally McBeal,” and Emily Procter on “CSI: Miami.”
What it was like to be in “Titanic”: I was one of the women who jumped off the ship. It was 40 to 50 feet high. We’re working in the middle of the night in the dark. It was a little eerie, because you’re re-enacting something that happened to people.
On getting hit by cars: Car hits are pretty dangerous, because you can never guarantee how you’re going to get spit off the car. When you’re hit and you start to flip in the air, there are so many variables. Having aerial awareness has probably saved my life.