Women of Action: Meet the Stunt Performers Who Help Scarlett Johansson, Evangeline Lilly and More Stars Kick Ass

by Mia Galuppo
December 06, 2018, 6:45am PST

When Johansson gets punched in the face, Heidi Moneymaker takes the hit. When Elizabeth Olsen crashes through a window, it's C.C. Ice who ends up with scratches. Hollywood's most unsung behind-the-scenes heroes star in a Hollywood Reporter photo portfolio.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON AND HEIDI MONEYMAKER

When Scarlett Johansson was first cast in 2009 as ballet dancer turned fistfighting superspy Black Widow in Marvel's Iron Man 2, she wasn't exactly prepared for the part. "I'd never stepped foot in a gym," she confesses. "I had no experience with any sort of martial arts or anything like that."

She turned out to be a quick learner, especially after being paired with stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker, who's been training with and doubling for the actress in Marvel movies ever since. So far she's had appearances in six of Johansson's films, with a soon-to-be-seventh gig in the Avengers sequel being directed by the Russo brothers. And there could be an eighth: a stand-alone Black Widow movie is reportedly in development. "[Heidi and I] got to create this side of the character and expand on it over this past decade," says Johansson, 34. "I don't know how many actors have the opportunity to play the same character over 10 years."

A UCLA-trained gymnast, Moneymaker, 40, started her career with minor stunt work on such TV shows as Angel and The O.C., working her way up the food chain and into features (doubling for Drew Barrymore in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and for Michelle Rodriguez in 2009's Fast and Furious). But she says no matter how big the job, she relies on her gymnastics discipline to help her get through the day in one piece. "The athlete mentality is definitely good to have," she says. "I've had so many people come up to me and say, 'I'm crazy, I'll do anything! I could be a stuntman or a stuntwoman.' Those are the kind of people that you don't want around."

Over her 15-year career, Moneymaker has learned that being a stuntwoman is in some ways even more hazardous than being a stuntman. "Wardrobe for women is tighter and skimpier," she explains. "When you get slammed into walls or hit by a car, it's harder to pad up. If a guy is wearing fatigues or something a little baggier, they have the opportunity to put more padding on." Finding work is also more challenging since action films traditionally have fewer female onscreen roles. "It's a lot of bros," she says of stunt-heavy sets. "Sometimes I just want to be around women. I'll go somewhere and there's women there, and I'll be like, 'Oh, thank God!'"

Recently, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, Moneymaker's and Johansson's work has had to accommodate an increasingly crowded screen. "As the films grew larger in scale, it became less hands-on for most of the actors," says Johansson, noting that shooting is now an intricate ballet of scheduling. "We have three to four units going at the same time."

For the actress, the trick to working with her longtime stuntwoman is simple: "I tell myself, 'Do whatever Heidi does. Just listen to whatever she says and she'll keep me safe.'"

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CANDICE PATTON AND ROCHELLE OKOYE

As difficult as it is for African-American actresses to find work on genre TV, it's even tougher for black stuntwomen. "I have seen [black] actors that have [white] stunt doubles come in and sit in the hair-and-makeup chair and they would be painted brown," says Candice Patton, 30, who plays Iris West in The Flash on The CW. "But it's not enough to check a box and say, 'We have a gay superhero or a black superhero or a Latino superhero' — you can have diverse content, but you have to back it up by hiring diverse people behind the scenes as well."

Rochelle Okoye, who doubles for Patton on the show, knows that a greater range of diversity on the screen means more doors open elsewhere. “When I first started doubling, there wasn’t a lot of women of color playing these roles," she says. "It is great for me and other stunt women of color because it means more opportunity." For the Vancouver-based Okoye, who's been doing stunt work for a decade, The Flash was nothing short of career-saving.

Five years ago, the now-33-year-old was badly injured performing a scene that involved jumping 14 feet while wearing 4-inch heels and landing on a mat floating on water. She tore all three ligaments in one foot. "The medical establishment told me my career was over," she says. "I actually still have only half-function in one foot." But Okoye, a longtime member of the Great Britain Gymnastics Team and a practitioner of Muay Thai and Brazilian jiujitsu, ignored her doctors' doom-saying, undergoing multiple surgeries and intensive rehab, getting herself back in shape and, as the stuntwoman puts it, "learning to trust my body again."

She adds: "As a stunt performer, you need that to have your career. It is all about longevity. When you are injured, you think, ‘How can I have this livelihood and have an income still?'"

Okoye got hired for The Flash two years after her injury, in 2015. It was one of her first jobs since the accident (other post-injury credits include X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Trek: Beyond). While taking note of broader changes in the television landscape, she also noticed smaller developments that came with inclusive casting. “The hair thing,” she sighs. "Hollywood was expecting us to always have straight hair. But over the last two years, I have seen women of color leads come in and keep their curls, and the hair department is learning how to do their hair. It's a little thing, but it is great to see the industry progress.”

These days on The Flash Okoye and Patton's biggest challenge seems to be keeping up with ever-growing demands of the character, who started out as a spunky journalist but has grown over the past three years into a savvy team Flash leader with action beats all her own. "It's, 'We are going to give you 20 minutes on set to figure it out before we shoot,'" says the actress of the rapid-fire pace of production. But fans, especially young women of color, have continually voiced their appreciation for the character, both in person and on social media.

"I didn't grow up seeing women that looked like me in genre television," says Patton. Adds Okoye, "And seeing them participate in the action is empowering."

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SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR, MICHELE WAITMAN AND MELISSA BARKER

Before Supergirl landed on the small screen, before Jessica Jones got her peak TV debut and before Veronica Mars was a hit, there was Buffy. From 1997 to 2003, Joss Whedon's teen vampire slayer battled demons, malicious spirits and other dark forces in what was the decade's (or at least The WB's) biggest cult smash.

Melissa Barker and Michele Waitman were there for it all — or most of it, anyway, after they came aboard as Sarah Michelle Gellar's stuntwomen about halfway through the show's seven-season run. "The first time I got to go through glass felt like heaven," laughs Barker, 46, who started her stunt career on the show (it was only her second professional job). "It felt so wrong and so right." For Waitman, 54, who got her start at Disney World's Indiana Jones stunt show, going toe-to-talon with vampires allowed her to partake in her favored hand-to-hand work: “I love to fight. I am very vocal and I love to get into it.”

And for Gellar, 41, having two stuntwomen on set was the best of all perks: "It was amazing. One could be preparing and the other sat with me and helped me with the stunt."

As it turned out, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just the beginning of a long-running collaboration. After the series ended, the trio traveled around the world working together on a slew of different film sets. They flew to Australia to shoot the live-action Scooby-Doo movies (Gellar played Mystery Gang member Daphne). They jetted to Japan to make The Grudge 2, spending some off-camera time together at a Tokyo tattoo parlor, where they all got inked. "I was crying the whole time while you held my hand,” remembers Waitman. Gellar adds, “I finally got to feel like the tough one. It was great.”

Barker and Waitman both met their husbands on the job — fellow stunt performers Erik Betts and Jimmy Waitman, respectively. Barker even found out that she was pregnant with her now-teenage son while shooting Buffy in 2002, where she ended up doing a stunt that had her getting dragged behind a car. "I was freaking out, begging everyone, 'Let me do it,'" recalls Gellar. "But Melissa hadn't told the rest of the crew [about her pregnancy], so they were like, 'I don't think you should do it.'"

Even today, 20 years after Buffy, the bond among the three is clearly very tight. "What people don't realize about an actor and their stunt double is that they are creating a character together," says Gellar. For the stuntwomen, helping create the iconic character still feels like something out of a dream. "When I was first watching Buffy, someone said to me, 'You could do that.' I was like, 'No way!'" remembers Barker. "And then it came true."

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ELIZABETH OLSEN AND C.C. ICE

As Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen doesn't have a mystical hammer or state-of-the-art suit. Instead, she flings bolts of energy at bad guys while bending and contorting like a Martha Graham dancer. But she still needs a stuntwoman for those tricky moments like when she gets thrown through a restaurant window.

"I love fighting, and I love wrecking through things," says C.C. Ice, the stuntwoman who got the job. "So if you want to throw me through that door, that's where I'm going."

Growing up in a small town in Missouri, one of 13 kids, Ice, 38, was exposed to stunts at a very early age, mostly at the insistence of her five older brothers. "Somebody would have an idea like, 'Hey let's jump down the staircase using a trash bag as a parachute. C.C.'s the smallest, let's have her try it!'" she recalls. By way of a gig as a magician's assistant (where she learned about blades, fire and how to fall through trap doors without getting hurt), she made her way from Missouri to the East Coast and then to Los Angeles in 2007, just in time for the writers strike. She remembers: “I was like, ‘I’m here!’ and they were like, ‘We’re on strike!'”

Ice found steady pay as a production assistant while training for stunt work on the side. She received her SAG card as a stunt performer in 2011, and moved to Atlanta, following Hollywood productions that were migrating to Georgia to take advantage of film tax breaks. That's where she ended up landing the gig doing utility stunts on Captain America: Civil War, after which she was paired with Olsen on Avengers: Infinity War, beginning with six months of stunt prep.

So far, the biggest challenge for both actress and double hasn't been smashing through windows — it's been pinning down the character's strange, twisted action moves. Olsen remembers director Joss Whedon visually demonstrating. "He would show us his knees bending lots of weird ways and his fingers going crazy," recalls the 29-year-old actress, who worked with choreographer Jennifer White on Scarlet's moves in Age of Ultron. "We were having a really hard time finding people who understood the physical language," says Olsen. "C.C. elevated us."

Olsen and Ice’s work will next be seen in the upcoming Avengers film, and, with the plot being kept under lock and key, Scarlet Witch’s fate remains unknown. But, according to Olsen, Ice wil be able to handle it all. “The crazy thing to me about C.C. is she can do anything you ask her to do,” says the actress. “I’ve talked about [her] to so many people.” On a recent set, another actress was recommending her stuntwoman to Olsen. “I was just like, ‘Girl, you don’t even know my stunt person. Let me know if you need a stunt person!’”

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EVANGELINE LILLY, INGRID KLEINIG AND RENAE MONEYMAKER
- by Lindsay Weinberg from reporting by Mark Morrison

When Evangeline Lilly was starring in Lost, she liked to do her own stunts. But two kids and a decade and change later, the 39-year-old actress had to reevaluate her priorities. “I had to let go of that young, egotistical pride that I’ll do it all, that nobody is doing it for me,” she says. “It was hard for me, I won’t lie. But I’m not 25 anymore.”

Making it a little easier for her on Ant-Man and the Wasp, Marvel’s first movie to include a female character in its title, were Ingrid Kleinig, 39, and Renae Moneymaker, 31, Lilly’s two stuntwomen. With multiple units shooting the film at the same time — one stuntwoman doing a car chase, another a fight sequence, while Lilly worked on an acting scene — the film literally could not have been made without them. “There were four of me in this film,” says the actress, including in her count the CGI-created version of her insect-inspired superhero character.

Kleinig is a trained dancer and acrobat — she performed in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics — who grew up in a car-obsessed family (her great-great-grandfather started the Australian Grand Prix and her dad was a professional driver for the army before she started racing cars in Australia). The two skills led to her landing gigs as Margot Robbie’s double in The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad and Brie Larson’s double in Kong: Skull Island and Captain Marvel. “I used to be the black sheep of the family,” she says, “but now I’ve redeemed myself.”

Moneymaker started out as a gymnast but got introduced to stunt work by her sister, Heidi. “I was hooked,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ I fell in love with all of it, with the amount of people that are involved [in making a movie], the preparation and executing the stunts.” Along with Ant-Man and the Wasp, Moneymaker also has done stunt work for Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Even though the three women were often working on different scenes, they formed a bond during preproduction training, practicing in front of a mirror by doing motions together in sync. And Lilly, whenever she could, kept a close eye on her doubles, giving her input on action scenes in “very long emails” to the producers and director (“I’ve seen the stunt videos you’ve mocked up, and I have a lot of notes”). Her biggest concern was that she wanted the action sequences to emphasize the femininity of The Wasp’s fighting style to show women don’t have to be “either the tomboy or the girly-girl. I consider myself the godmother of this character,” Lilly explains, “so I wanted to be on set anytime there was a stunt happening. I wanted to have eyes on it and have input."

Produced by Mark Morrison and Mia Galuppo.

A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.