Faking It: What It's Really Like To Be A Stuntwoman In Hollywood

Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.

Johnny Depp is an extremely graceful diver. Or, at least, that’s what I thought when, at the very impressionable age of 13, I saw Pirates of The Caribbean for the first of five times in theaters.

Eventually though (okay, after re-watching it obsessively for years after), I realized that while Johnny may or may not be a fan of aquatic sports, he is almost certainly not diving in this scene. Enter the stunt doubles, whose job it is to make the hardest, most intensely physical scenes look great.

For as long as there have been movies, there have been stunt performers. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the first professional Hollywood stuntman on record was one Frank Hanaway, an ex-US cavalryman who got a job falling off horses in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery.

It didn’t take long for women to enter the thus-far male dominated space. The first stunt woman is believed to have been Helen Gibson, a rodeo star hired to take over from actress Helen Holmes, who starred in an adventure film serial (119 12-minute episodes — think of it as the first binge-worthy series) called The Hazards of Helen from 1914 to 1917. In one installment, Gibson had to jump from a rooftop onto a moving train, which required precise timing and a keen understanding of physics. (Here, you can watch snippets from her wild ride of a career.)

As movies have gotten more action packed and high-budget, the demand for dizzying stunts has only grown. Mid-air rescues? Ironman's done that, and more. Motorcycle chase on a roof? Thanks, Skyfall. Running down the side of a Dubai skyscraper? Somebody call Tom Cruise!

Andrea Kinsky has been working as a stunt double for over 10 years. She’s worked with the likes of Pamela Anderson, Tori Spelling, Jessica Biel and Emily Blunt. In the Carrie remake starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Kinsky did the wire work required to make the poor, bloody prom girl fly. And remember that scene in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants where our girls cannonball into the ocean? If you look closely, you'll spot Kinsky in a yellow dress and dark wig, doubling for Alexis Bledel.

That movie, while a classic and a milestone for all of us, is particularly important to Kinsky: It was her first job as a stuntwoman. "I grew up doing ballet and gymnastics, so I always had that as a background, and then I met someone that was a stuntman and we used to just do crazy things together all the time: jumping off cliffs and riding motorcycles. And he was just like, ‘Why aren’t you doing stunts?’ I’d never thought of it as a career — I was doing personal training. He took me to set a few times, and I kind of got to know what it was like, and I just decided this is what I want to do. Why wouldn’t I want to all my athleticism, everything that I had, for a career?"

But what does that career actually look like? How does one become a stunt double? What goes into faking these incredibly demanding feats of strength and coordination? And is it any different for women than it is for men? I asked Kinsky to walk me through what it means to be actually work as a stuntwoman in Hollywood.

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1) Getting The Part

I always assumed that stunt doubles had to audition, like actors do, for parts. But it turns out that's not how it works. In reality, stunt performers establish relationships with stunt coordinators, who get hired by the movie or TV show in question and hold what's called a "look-see."

Basically, it boils down to height and weight. The stunt coordinator will go through his (because it's usually a him — we'll get to that) roster and calls in people he thinks will be a match, or have a similar body type as the actor or actress. Hair color doesn't matter as much, because as Kinsky proved in Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, you can always wear a wig. The stunt coordinator then narrows the pool down to two or through possibilities, and then the final decision gets made. "A lot of times they’ll bring you to set, where the actress is, and they might have you stand with the actress and then see who’s the best match," Kinsky explained. "Or, they might just have you show up, and then the director will come pick who [they] think looks the closest."

Like most things, it's about who you know. "You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do stunts,’ and then all the sudden you’re working and making money," Kinsky explained. "Besides your training you need to get yourself known by these coordinators so that when they have a job, [they call you.]"
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
2) Taking The Plunge

Once, when I was 11, I accidentally skied over a mound of snow at full speed, spending about half a second in the air (it felt like 2 minutes) before landing flat on my back. I thought I was a hero.After hearing Kinsky recount her most terrifying stunts, I have to reassess.

Two of them stand out. The first, on the set of Smallville, required her to crash through a wall at full-speed while hanging from a wire. Kinsky stood on a platform 25 feet away, held by a harness attached to a wire. The only catch was that they only had one wall to work with, so there would be no second takes. To make sure that the wall would break, the props team had scored the special wood, so that it would shatter on impact. It didn't.

"So all set '3-2-1 action,' and they jerk me back and I slammed into the wall, and the wall didn’t break! So I just slid down," Kinsky laughed. "So, they’re just like, 'Andrea are you ok? You got another one in you?' Unless something is broken or, you need to be tough enough that even if you’re jarred or you’re bruised or you’re tired, you need to keep going until they get the shot. So, they did it again and this time the wall broke."

And that's not even the real scary one. That would be the stunt Kinsky did for Final Destination 5, which required her to be hanging from a wire in front of a 100-foot green screen. In the movie, a bridge collapse causes everyone to fall into the water below in increasingly gruesome ways — the character Kinsky doubled for is impaled on a passing yacht.

"They put a big huge hundred foot green screen on a crane, and it was in a parking lot. They picked me [to the harness] and then they rode me up on a crane," she remembered. "So, I was a hundred feet dangling on this crane on two wires, that was it, and then '3-2-1 'they drop me, just like to three feet from the ground.” It’s a real mental game you know. You really have to be completely just mentally be there so you don’t freak out, you know? You just focus on what you have to do, and not, ‘‘If I drop I die.' You can't go there."
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
3) Training Day

But before you even get called in, you have to have the skills to back it up. And that means training — lots of it. Stunt performers need to be proficient in four main categories of stunts: fighting, falling, driving and wire-work. "If you get hired on a movie to stunt double a certain actress for the whole project, there will be some fights, but there will also probably be wire-work — it might be just getting beat up, or flying through the air," Kinsky said. "There might even be some driving, so you kind of just need to be well rounded.”

Fighting is pretty self-explanatory — with Marvel making a superhero movie every 2.3 seconds, stunt doubles have to know how to throw a punch, dodge a kick, that sort of thing. You can train for all of that. Falling is more intuitive, according to Kinsky. It's hard to teach someone how to fall down stairs and make it look natural. Luckily, stunt performers carry around huge equipment bags filled with every kind of pad imaginable. Driving is her favorite, but even there, you have to practice to be able to put your money where your mouth is — driving around the block doesn't count. Think less Little Engine That Could, and more Fast and the Furious. Wire-work, which sounds like my own personal nightmare, covers anything that takes place in mid-air. Performers are hooked to a harness, which itself is attached to wires and cables that can lift them up, drop them down, and basically any other kind of gravity-defying movement that would literally have me sobbing.

But you also have to know your limits. One time, Kinsky says, she got a call to do a "naked fire burn," which sounds terrible, and painful, and confusing. She said no: "First of all, I won’t do naked — and then naked fire burn?"

All this requires being in peak physical shape. Kinsky rides her bike for 20 miles four or five times a week, and works out with light weights, in addition to training for specific stunts.

This actually leads us to one of the most interesting aspects of stunt doubling. Because actresses in Hollywood are held to certain body standards (read: they have to be thin), the women who stunt double for them mirror those experiences. Kinsky's pads have to be thinner than a man's because the clothes she wears are tighter, making bulky protection gear more visible. She can't use dumbbells to train, because she can't get more visibly muscular than the average actress. And yet, she has to be strong. It's a double standard that Kinsky says is felt by many women who work as stuntwomen in Hollywood.

"There’s that catch with being a stuntwoman: you have to be strong, and yet a lot of actresses are tiny. I know there’s stuntwomen [who] don’t get jobs because they’re too big, or they lose jobs because they’re too big, and it’s nothing to do with them at all. It’s just [if] the actress is a size zero and you’re a size four, it’s not going to work. And you’re not a size four because you’re overweight, it’s because you’ve got shoulders.”

“I remember, I went for a look-see, and it was just me and the stunt coordinator, he looked at my thighs, because you know that’s what they do. You’re judged on your look and you can’t be sensitive to it. So, he looked me up and down and was like, ‘Her thighs are smaller than yours, but you’re the smallest one I’ve seen, so you've got it.'" For reference, Kinsky wears a size 0.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
4) Breaking Barriers

Think of stuntwomen as a foil of sorts for actresses. They wear the same costumes, get fitted for the same wigs, and share the same discrimination when it comes to representation on screen, and the Hollywood pay gap.

According to the Center for Study of Women in TV and Film, out of the 100 top grossing films of 2016, only 29% had female leading protagonists, and a mere 32% of speaking parts were held by women. Women make up 50.8% of the population of the United States, and 49.55% of the total world population. I'm bad at math, but even I can see those numbers don't quite match up.

In 2015, the world's highest paid actress, Jennifer Lawrence, made $52 million. Her male counterpart, Robert Downey Jr., raked in $80 million. Lawrence famously took a stand in an essay for Lenny Letter after finding out that her male American Hustle costars were making far more than she was. But unlike famous actresses, stuntwomen don't have the media exposure or public sympathy to make their case.

The Screen Actors Guild —  under which stunt performers are unionized — 2014 rate sheet states that weekly stunt performers would earn at minimum $3,479 by 2017. Obviously, there are no explicit differences in salary noted for men and women, but the gender gap here largely stems from lack of opportunity.

In an guest column for Variety in 2015, Molly Gregory, author of Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, explained that stuntwomen still receive less money for the same stunts performed by men. This is largely because women have trouble moving up in a profession that has been male-dominated since the early days of Hollywood. Think of crowd scenes, for example — it's fairly easy to put wigs on men and have them blend into the masses. And once they've established yourself as a professional, or aged out of the strenuous physical demands of the job, they can leave actual stunt work behind. "Stuntmen can count on their career path," she wrote. "After doing physical stunts for 10-15 years, men don’t have to keep hitting the ground, and can move up to stunt coordinator or to second unit director. Those same career opportunities largely don’t exist for stuntwomen. In the early 1980s, there were only four or five women employed as stunt coordinators in Los Angeles, and one informal study estimated that roughly 22 women did 'some' stunt coordinating from 1995 to 2005. 'Some' is not a career."

Kinsky confirms that this is largely consistent with her experience. In her field, things are largely run by men: the majority of stunt coordinators are men, as are the crew. But unlike Gregory, she's hopeful that things are moving in the right direction.

"If you believe in yourself and you’re confident, I think that goes a long way," she said. "As a stunt woman, people will look at you and will judge you because you’re a woman or because you’re small, [or because you've] got long blonde hair. But in order to get beyond that, do all the training that you can and make yourself be the best — that helps you with your confidence, so that you can be on the same playing field as the men. They’re not the only ones that can be in charge, or that can do the job well. So, if you show that you can and then when other women show that they can, I think that filters down."