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The Stuntwomen Working to Change the Face of the Entertainment Industry

Two stunt performers talked to us about how they make sure more women are included in their productions.

Frederick Blichert

Frederick Blichert

It's hard to gauge the full effect that Wonder Woman's success will have on the film industry. Studios and producers will no doubt have noticed that investing in a female-driven summer tentpole payed off big and that the conventional Hollywood wisdom that says women can't carry a blockbuster just doesn't apply anymore—if it ever did.

While the industry moves slowly, some waves are already being felt. WIRED has suggested that we're seeing a "Wonder Woman effect" in the form of women-centric films dominating at the box office this summer. The Wonder Woman effect has also been invoked to describe everything from a sense of hope for the future of women in the industry to increased sales of leather outfits by the film's costume designers.

(Yes, I know Wonder Woman didn't invent the strong female character, but the industry has been incredibly risk-averse with action projects foregrounding women and finally broke new ground by financing Wonder Wonder as it would a male-centric superhero picture, while also hiring a woman to direct.)

What remains to be seen is how many more big budget action films will feature women both in front of and behind the camera. Atomic Blonde hasn't been as big of a hit as expected, though it's on the verge of overtaking its male counterpart, John Wick, at the box office. We can only imagine how well it might have performed with a Wonder Woman-sized budget of $150 million instead of its modest $30 million.

A lot of talk has focused on actor salaries and production budgets, but the long-tail effects of Wonder Woman's success will likely run deeper in the industry. To get a sense of where the action is headed, VICE caught up with two women who have worked as stunt performers and stunt coordinators in a variety of films and TV shows, including some superhero fare.

While women in directing and acting roles are getting more attention (and money), the women behind these films' biggest action scenes tend to stay in the shadows. And their work is some of Hollywood's most under-celebrated. After all, they have to do the same intense stunts as men but often in heels and skimpy clothes. "Guys are always wearing big baggy jackets or a loose shirt; women are always wearing skin-tight clothes," says stunt performer and coordinator Atlin Mitchell. "We do have pads. They're just really low-profile."

Mitchell came to stunt work with a background on the Canadian national gymnastics team and a six-year stint as a Cirque du Soleil performer. She co-coordinated the stunts on last season's Supergirl on the CW, while also working as Melissa Benoist's stunt double in the title role.

Supergirl's Atlin Mitchell grabbing a coffee between takes. Photo courtesy of Atlin Mitchell

Maja Aro has been a stunt double in TV shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Bates Motel and has done stunts in movies including Cabin in the Woods, Godzilla, and War for the Planet of the Apes. For the past two years, she has been the stunt coordinator on ABC's Once Upon a Time. She echoes Mitchell's comments. "The guys forget about it sometimes, especially the male coordinators. You'll be doing the exact same stunt as a guy, but you're wearing, like, no clothes, or you're in six-inch heels," she says. "I've definitely done a lot of things where you don't get to wear nearly the amount of protection that the guys do. But we signed up for it. We said yes. We love our jobs, and we want to do our jobs."

The very real dangers of the trade came into sharp focus on Monday morning when stunt performer Joi "SJ" Harris died during a motorcycle stunt on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2. "It is very tragic and happened so fast," says Mitchell, who was elsewhere on set during the accident. "Stunt performers take on dangerous and skilled work to tell a story. We are always trying to play safe and get home to our families at the end of the day. This is a time to reflect again on safety and our roles in the industry. Our whole community has been struck by this tragedy and we send our heartfelt condolences to the family of Joi."

Despite the high number of productions in Vancouver, Mitchell and Aro are still part of a small, tight-knit community of stunt performers. The community gets even smaller when you narrow it down to just the women. While directors and actors are getting more money and recognition, these women also deserve some credit.

Unions tend to help regulate the salaries of stunt workers, unlike actors and directors, but bigger budgets do have an obvious effect. "It will allow us to budget bigger for some of those stunts and pull in more women to be in those spots," says Aro. "Now, you've got something big on your résum, which will lead to more work."

A change in mindset makes a difference, too. Wonder Woman (and the faith that Warner Brothers had in it) didn't happen in a vacuum. The industry as a whole is mandating greater diversity. Rules are in place to avoid men doing stunts for women, or white stunt performers doubling for actors of color. It's still not perfect, as was highlighted in 2014 when FOX had to backpedal on using a white stuntwoman in blackface in Gotham, a practice sometimes euphemistically called "painting down."

Jennifer Morrison and Lana Parrilla in Once Upon a Time, ABC

"I've been lucky on a show like Once Upon a Time, where most of the leads have been strong female characters, so it's helped, I think, push that ripple effect across the show," Aro says.

A lot of stunt work is also gender non-specific. "Nondescript" parts, or NDs, are roles like cops or soldiers, where anyone could play the part. Traditionally, these roles have gone to men. Or the few that have gone to women, frankly, tend to suck (a server spills drinks, a woman trips while running away). Sometimes there are narrative reasons for that. "If there's a bar scene where people are getting pushed around and thrown over bar tables and smashed with bottles, you're not going to have women in that fight," Mitchell says. "As a viewer, if you're watching that movie and you see a guy punch a girl in the face in a bar fight, you're going to think, Oh my God! That guy just punched that girl in the face!"

Those scenes don't account for all of the male-dominated stunt roles, though. "Any time there's a cop shoot-out, it's going to be nine men and one female cop," Mitchell says. This means women often rely on stunt-double work rather than going for the scarce ND jobs. When you land a regular TV gig, that means steady work, but narrowing the field like that reduces the total number of jobs available by a lot. "It's different for guys and girls. Guys can make a career off of being 'ND Cop #5'—showing up and then shooting a gun and falling down."

Mitchell definitely pushes her teams to fix that imbalance. "When I was co-coordinating on Supergirl last year, we legitimately would look at a scene and think, How come that has to be men? Let's throw some extra girls in there. And sometimes we'd even have more females than we would men because it just didn't matter," she says.

Atlin Mitchell, Simon Burnett, and legendary stuntwoman Corry Glass performing a simultaneous triple car flip, a scene that "usually would have been three guys." Photo courtesy of Atlin Mitchell

Aro has a similar approach, pushing for the changes she wants to see. "Whenever I have spots on the show when it's nondescript, I always make sure it's half men and half women," she says. "For me as a coordinator, I try to put the girls in those better spots." Aro is well positioned to enact that kind of change. Her role as coordinator carries weight, and Once Upon a Time has a lot of wiggle room in terms of representation. "It's a world where men and women could be any of those parts, which is kind of fun," she says. "So I pushed the producers and said whenever there are some of these parts, I'm going to put girls in the better spots because it's not what usually happens."

While that marked a change in standard operating procedure, all it took was for someone to stand up and point to the problem. "It hasn't been a hard sell at all, actually. They've been really receptive to letting me do it," Aro says. Similarly, Mitchell has also had supportive teams. "I was surprised how many times, if I forgot, they'd be like, Let's just throw a girl in there. Why not?" she says.

Supergirl's Atlin Mitchell "getting comfortable on the rigs." Photo courtesy of Atlin Mitchell

It's hard to imagine these changes happening in a strictly protected boys' club. You sometimes need to break the pattern to notice that it was there in the first place. "It's a ripple effect, for sure. The more women are on set the more people think, Oh, everybody can do every job. And the more women are in leadership roles, I think, they'll push for more women to be in more of the other roles," says Aro.

The faster these industries normalize the presence of women on set, the more it will become second-nature to include women on-screen, and that's already happening. "Every year that goes by, I feel like I see more females in the crowd than just the hair, makeup, and wardrobe," says Mitchell.

"Hopefully, in the next five years the next generation of women will have more women to look up to, something relatable," Aro says. "I feel like there will be more and more times where I walk in a room and people won't be like, "Oh, you're the stunt coordinator?" I still get that a lot."

None of this is to downplay the effects of Wonder Woman itself. It scored huge with audiences and critics, and that's sure to leave a mark. "You've seen an example of it, so you're not the first person taking the risk," says Aro. "It needed to be a good movie for political reasons in Hollywood."

It's a film that now carries weight as a cultural milestone. That may seem like an overstatement, but the ripples are very real. "I actually had a director come to me the other day, we had an opening fight scene, and he used the example—he's like, 'I want it to look like the training camp in Wonder Woman,'" says Aro, "so it's becoming a pop culture reference."

But of course, some double standards are still so firmly entrenched that it's hard to imagine a road forward. "Let's just have it be across the board and not have it just be these gorgeous women in these tight sexy costumes that are beating up guys," says Mitchell. "Paul Rudd [who plays Marvel's Ant-Man] is a good-looking guy, but he's not the biggest stud in the world. Let's start having characters like that play these superheroes."

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