Stuntwomen then and now


A woman dressed in tall black boots, arm and wristband, and a black bustier with a short skirt kicks one leg high in the air and one arm extended in a punch.
Archival photo of a trick rodeo rider, as she hangs by one leg from a running horse in a crowded ring.

Photos top to bottom:
Zoë Bell doubles for Xena
Rodeo rider Polly Burson, 1949
Jeannie Epper, former stunt double for Wonder Woman, poses with Lynda Carter. Photo courtesy: Jeannie Epper

So You Want to Be a Stuntwoman….
If leaping from buildings and crashing fiery vehicles sounds like a good day’s work to you, here’s how to get your foot in the industry door.
  • Be willing to move to Los Angeles and work long hours to to get started and get a jump on the competition. There are not enough jobs available in the film market for all the stunt performers who want to fill them, so competition is fierce.
  • Perfect your skills. Some novice performers get valuable experience by working as non-union stunt performers at local Southern California amusement and theme parks such as Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Medieval Times, honing tricks in fires, fights and falls.
  • Work out. Get in shape and be well rounded. According to stunt coordinator Lynn Salvatori, “the more rounded that you are in sports, the more hirable you are.” Salvatori suggests learning any or all of the following: gymnastics and tumbling, martial arts, fencing, scuba and high diving, trampoline skills, horseback riding, climbing and rappelling. Enroll in any number of martial arts, rock climbing, driving, trapeze and circus, or motorcycle training schools to learn more. Aspiring stuntwomen often study with trainers to practice their high falls, car stunts and fight sequences as well.
  • Get a SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) card. Requirements include being an extra or a performer on a number of SAG shows, or being a member in good standing of an affiliate.
  • Get a headshot, compile a resume and start networking to gain contacts in the industry. Persevere. Dropping off resumes and headshots at professional associations such as SWAMP, V10 Women Stunt Professionals and the United Stuntwomen’s Association is a good start.

Stuntwomen: Then and Now

 “I’ve been doing stunts for almost 50 years. It’s all I really know, outside of being a mom and grandma. Retirement’s not for me.”
—Jeannie Epper

“People keep saying to me, ‘What would you do if you didn’t do stunts?’ Seriously, I wouldn’t have a clue.” 
						—Zoë Bell

Stuntwomen Then

During the first half of the twentieth century, in Hollywood’s early days, stuntmen often dressed up as women to perform stunts in movies. But not all stunt doubling was done by men. In the silent era, many film actresses performed their own stunts. In serials, a popular film genre that was action-oriented and modeled after stories found in women’s magazines, “damsels in distress” often saved themselves from danger by jumping onto moving trains, leaping from speeding cars and scaling sheer cliffs.

One pioneering stuntwomen of the serials was Rose Helen Wenger, a trained rodeo rider who doubled for actress Helen Holmes from 1914-1917 in the series The Hazards of Helen. When Holmes left the series, Wenger not only continued performing the action sequences, but also took over as the lead actress, re-named as Helen Gibson by the studio.

In early Westerns, stuntwomen not only doubled for women, but also for men. Skilled cowgirls stood in for smaller male actors, and like Polly Burson—Jeannie Epper’s stunt mentor—were leaders in the rodeo world as well. By the 1960s, stuntwomen like Kitty O’Neal—a world record-setter in waterskiing—were performing death-defying stunts in television shows such as The Bionic Woman.

But by the time Jeannie Epper and 20 other women formed the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures (SWAMP) in 1968, not much had improved for women in the stunt industry. Men still outnumbered women in the stunt world five to one, and stuntmen still doubled for actresses. As the women of SWAMP joined forces to improve working conditions for stuntwomen, the entertainment industry was slowly changing. In the 1970s, Wonder Woman (1976-1979) was the first, longest running and most successful syndicated television show with a serious female action hero. Twenty years later, Xena: Warrior Princess proved that a show with a powerful and complex female hero could indeed be a worldwide hit. But despite the successes of individual stuntwomen, gender disparities still exist in the stunt industry today.

Stuntwomen Today

Debbie Evans in The Matrix

Hollywood’s infamous double standards are well in place within the stunt industry, with stuntwomen rarely being promoted to higher positions such as stunt coordinator. “If my name was Gary Epper instead of Jeannie Epper,” says the veteran stunt performer, “I probably would be second unit directing and stunt coordinating jobs all the time.” Instead, women working in the male-dominated stunt industry, run by a closed “boys’ network,” fight to prove themselves to male and female directors alike and struggle to get the respect they deserve. Stuntmen who are Epper’s age often transition to stunt coordinating or directing, but few women receive such opportunities. Instead, Epper must continue to compete with younger women for available jobs. The increased use of computerized special effects and the desire to coach actors to perform their own wire work, in movies such as The Matrix and Charlie’s Angels, has also left less work open for professional stunt performers.

Stuntwomen are expected to do everything that stuntmen can—in less clothing and high heels. Not only must they be strong and in good enough shape to perform stunts, but they must also be thin enough to double for Hollywood actresses, who are notoriously slim. Decades ago, when Jeannie Epper tried out for Wonder Woman, she had to audition in a bathing suit. As Lynda Carter’s stunt double, Epper had to not only struggle to maintain a slim figure, but also performed stunts such as leaping off of airplanes dressed in a corseted leotard and high-heeled boots. For stuntwomen, performing in revealing costumes is often a liability. Skimpy clothing leaves no room for the padding that many stuntmen wear while performing. Epper performed countless high falls, car crashes and fistfights while practically naked. As Jimmy Scourer explains in DOUBLE DARE, “The girls do have a tougher job, just because of the costumes they’ve got. Just bare midriffs, bare arms, bare legs… whereas the men can pad up. They’ve got baggy pants, baggy shirts and jackets.”

Now in her sixties, Epper struggles with the invisibility of older women in Hollywood, and contemplates getting plastic surgery in order to receive more work. In DOUBLE DARE, she advises Xena: Warrior Princess stunt double Zoë Bell to lie about her weight on her resume, even though the twenty-something Bell is in excellent athletic shape. The challenges Epper faced on the set of Wonder Woman might seem outdated today, but they still persist. As Xena lead actress Lucy Lawless explains, “The first rule of women of film is that they have to look good, apparently.”


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