LIVES: Cheryl Lawson, stuntwoman
"The scariest stunt I successfully completed was a spin-the-horn vault in a nun's habit. It was a trick riding stunt, but my horse was running out of control..."
I started as a rodeo trick rider. My first job was a trick riding sequence on a mini-series called "Dream West" in 1985. I was hired because I was a trick rider, and I was recommended for the job by my boss at the time, Tad Griffith; he was in charge of a [key action] sequence.
I didn't set out to become a stuntwoman. I'd have to say I fell into it, and kept on falling into it. I went to college to become a special education teacher.
I just kept taking opportunities that came my way. The next thing I knew I was living in Hollywood.
The biggest obstacle: First of all, getting a stunt coordinator to hire me. They won't hire someone they don't know unless you've been highly recommended.
I also needed more experience -- trick riding was definitely my calling car, but there's a lot more to being a stuntwoman than just trick riding; I had to learn how to use an air ram, wire work, martial arts, some gymnastics, learned how to take hits, give hits.
I went to a stunt driving school, practiced sword work, jumped off friends' roofs onto mats. I studied acting, too -- sometimes productions need stunt people who can also act.
I needed to learn about fire. Fire work should be taken very seriously. You need to know how to handle a gun -- a rifle, machine gun, hand guns.
You need to learn gun safety; blanks can kill you. You need equipment and pads to help protect your body.
I think a lot of stunt people specialize in one particular thing; if you're a champion at something, it gets you noticed. Sometimes that's your calling card, but to stay in the business, you need to be a well-rounded stunt performer. There's a lot of competition out there and good work generates more work.
Even so, I take gigs I'm comfortable with, or I won't take the job. I'm least comfortable with high falls.
There isn't a lot of horse work out there. I can't say that I practice riding for the job; I ride because I love my horses. If I had a job coming up that required something unique like trick riding, I'd tune up.
Ironically, these are actually the least controllable stunts, working with animals --- they have their own minds, and we don't always have complete control over what they decide to do.
I personally need to practice stunt driving. I've been to stunt driving school, but it's not something I get to practice often.
If I have a job coming up that requires stunt driving, I practice; either take the class again or find an old car we can practice with in a safe area.
Some things you just learn on the job, even if you get some rehearsal time first. For example, I did some wire work when I was hired to double Sela Ward on a commercial -- I trained on the job for that.
The more tricks you have up your sleeve, the more jobs you're capable of completing. The more you practice, the better you are.
A good stuntwoman is a talented athlete who is capable of learning all aspects of stunts, someone focused and mentally alert, with the courage to go when they say 'action.'
Mental training is important. You have to pay attention, memorize sequences, hit your marks, stay focused, and do your stunt -- all of this is mental, as much as it is physical.
Martial arts helps me mentally train. I have to memorize a lot of different forms in class and my instructor is a stunt man, so we practice routines that can applied to our work.
But fight scenes are different for the camera than what you use in practice sessions.
You want the hits to look real, but you don't want to really hurt anyone -- and sometimes you'll be using a weapon -- a gun, sword or knife. They'll usually give you a dummy weapon, in case somebody accidentally hits the other one, but it happens.
You try to exaggerate the hits a bit, and we do train in how to take hits and give hits so that it works onscreen. Fight scenes, in my experience, are usually choreographed so the actor can do the fight also. I take a regular martial arts class -- it keeps me in shape and helps me be mentally prepared for the job.
Here's a list of the top stunts we're usually asked to perform:
Fights: Fights are usually choreographed. For example, there might be a scene where two women are bad-mouthing each other, which leads to a fight.
One pushes the other into some breakaway table, the other one grabs her and pulls her hair, then they wrestle over the sofa; they break a vase made of candy glass, they hit the floor, one pushes the other off her, one grabs the lamp to hit her over the head -- when suddenly the daughter comes in and jerks the rug from under her mother to stop the fight. It's all sequenced.
Car work: The car chase. [The inclusion of a car chase scene] may involve a lot of other factors -- how big the budget is for the show, for example.
Horses: You need to be able to fall off your horse on cue -- the horse rears up, you fall off. Other elements: bucking horses, jumping horses, horses falling in tandem, and much more.
Falls: The top three are stair falls, high falls and low falls. Big high falls are not my favorite, because I don't have a lot of experience with highfall work. There are girls out there who are great in the air -- they should get these jobs.
Fire: For a scene where a building is on fire, you must run through the flames, maybe you catch on fire -- there are full burns, partial burns, where, let's say, your arm catches on fire. Lots more.
Wire work: There's so much to say here, that it would be better to talk to a rigger, to get all the details. You wear a special harness, usually under your wardrobe.
You're then hooked up to wire cables, then, depending on the stunt, you'll be pulled up or down, out and around.
They may use an accelerator, decelerator, descender, hand pull and other methods. This one is really a team effort, since different timing is involved, depending on the stunt. There's also a lot more to say about just setting up the stunt.
Water work: Anything that takes place in water. Falling off a boat, diving off things into the water.
For example: In the scene, you're being rescued by a helicopter. You're drowning in the ocean, they throw you a rescue rope or ladder, and you have to climb up to save yourself. "The Perfect Storm" and "Water World" have some great [illustrative scenes]of water work.
Explosions: We run from them, we drive through them, we jump away from them, etc. This can also be considered fire work.
[Shown: Stuntwoman Cheryl Lawson]
The most dangerous on the list: They're all dangerous if something goes wrong. That's why professional stunt people are hired to do these stunts. Stunt people have been killed doing a stunt.
A stunt that seems simple should be taken seriously, and stunt people who are not qualified should not do the stunt -- they can hurt themselves or put others at risk.
ON THE SET
Every stunt person arrives on set with a stunt bag with the tricks of their trade inside. I let my coordinators deal with the director.
If I have a problem I talk to the coordinator. Generally, things are worked out before we shoot. Our motto is “safety first”.
I think the directors have a vision they want to see on screen our job is to pull off that stunt sequence to his satisfaction -- safely.
If there’s a big battle fight and you’re basically in the background doing your fight, you might improvise things.
Otherwise, I’d have to say it’s pretty clear what you are doing beforehand, so people don’t get hurt.
The most important thing to remember when you’re about to complete a stunt is safety and the correct sequence of events.
I feel that it’s a creative endeavor. You’re trying to bring to life the vision the director and writer have. The sequences that involve stunts must have a flow that coordinates with the story.
So it’s a team effort, even though you may be the only person doing the stunt, let’s say, a horse fall or a stair fall, you still have a lot of other people involved that makes that stunt work for the shot.
THE FIGHT STUFF
You can get hurt doing anything. Fights can be great fun, but I've been kicked in the face -- that hurt. I once did a stunt that looks simple onscreen -- an actor grabs my throat during a fight scene.
He hit me so hard in the throat that I was hoarse for a week. It hurt, but you don't say anything. Why? It wasn’t intentional -- but that’s why I did it, not the actress, because accidents can happen, even though the fight scene looks easy to the audience.
Throwing a good punch looks easy, but it’s actually one of the things that a lot of people do badly, unless they’ve been taught how to throw good punches for the camera. I personally wouldn't call any of it easy.
I recently worked on the television show “24”. I was doubling an actress who has to take down a bad guy.
The frustrating part was no rehearsal time was allotted for the fight scene; it was added at the last minute.
Well, we switched a couple of hits for the second time for the director, which is fine – that’s our job -- but in the rush of things, I managed to hit my stunt partner with my weapon. He ended up with a bloody lip. I felt horrible.
Rehearsal times hinge on the complexity of the stunt or scene – but sometimes you get lots of takes, at other times it’s a one shot deal that you can’t mess up, because there’s just no time left on the clock.
For fight scenes using glass, there are different materials used, depending on what is breaking.
There’s something called candy glass that bottles are made out of, for when you get hit on the head. If you go through a window, it may be
tempered glass -- this is used with a light explosive device that helps break the glass as you go through it.
It makes for a nice shattering effect, but it can cut you. I've gone through tempered glass in little shorts and a skimpy top. I wound up with tiny little cuts all over my body.
In “The Scorpion King”, I was one of the warrior women -- we worked on different scenes for a couple of months: sword fighting, explosions, some horse work.
In “Oceans 11”, I play a cocktail waitress who gets run over by a frightened customer. I got hit and knocked to the ground about five times. There was more to the scene than just me getting run over, of course, but the whole scene took probably four hours to shoot.
I recently doubled Carla Gugino on a short-lived show called “Karen Sisco.” Most of my work was tackling the bad guys. Her character was a
Marshal on the show. It was a great show, don't know why it got cancelled.
I loved being Carla’s double -- hope she does more soon. I’ve also doubled Rachel Weisz, Sela Ward, Charisma Carpenter, Marlee Matlin, Rena Sofer and Catherine Zeta Jones.
“Spiderman 2” is just coming out. I have a scene in it, but I haven't seen the movie, yet, so I don't know if the scene made the final cut.
On “Scorpion King”, we were doing the big battle scene towards the end, when a huge statue behind us explodes.
We were working with real explosives, so people could have gotten get hurt – it was vital that we jump out of the way ON COUNT.
They later added bodies flying through the air to make it look more effective -- air rams were use for this effect. An air ram is a mechanical piece of equipment used to throw people into the air.
We had to worry about getting out of the way on cue, so we didn’t get burned -- or mess up the shot. This is not something you get very many takes to do.
The worst part of my job: Recovery after an accident. I’ve worked as a stuntwoman for 12 years. I wish someone had told me before I started that my body was going to be in pain for the rest of my life. Also, when it rains it pours -- you don't work for a while, then you get three jobs in the same week and have to turn something down.
I’ll keep doing stunts as long as my body allows me to, but if a friend or family member wanted to become a stuntwoman, I’d discourage them from doing it. If they were persistent, I’d try to help them. But it's a tough business to get into. There can be a lot of disappointment and rejection along the way.
The best part of my job: Paycheck. I don't mean to sound like I do stunts just for the money, but I wouldn't do stunts for anything less. If you do stunts long enough, things start hurting permanently. But when everything works out and you do a great job, it's a good feeling.
Most of my work lately has been in town. I recently worked on a soap opera called “Passions”. I seem to be getting mostly television shows these days, which is great, but I’d like to [work on another] big feature.
I don't have any great stories about unusual set locations. Sets in general can be so amazing. I love the set design work they do these days. Creating or recreating the look for the show can be something to see, especially if it’s something out of the ordinary.
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
The scariest stunt I successfully completed was a spin-the-horn vault in a nun’s habit. It was a trick riding stunt, but my horse was running out of control...
To set it up: I had to spin around backwards, vault off and vault back on. The stunt itself was tough enough, but it was the wardrobe that complicated everything; I had a pillow stuffed into my dress to make me look heavy. My horse was running away at top speed and a big oak tree was coming up.
I had to let go. I did a face plant. That hurt.
We did two more takes, and I finally got it. Everybody was happy and I couldn't believe I’d pulled it off.
This was the first and only time I personally had a producer tell the coordinator to give me a bigger adjustment than what was budgeted. Adjustments in this business mean money.
I’ve gone through recovery for several accidents. I think every stunt person that has done stunts long enough is crippled up. Some more than others.
I've broken my tail bone, I broke my ankle twice, underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Along with the usual bumps, bruises, sprains and cuts. Believe me, there are some horror stories out there that mine don't compare to at all.
I have respect for stuntmen and stuntwomen, equally. It’s true that most of the time we do stunts in high heels and a skirt -- but then,
we don’t have to worry about getting kicked between the legs, like the guys.
Working on the World Stunt Awards show was great. I was a spokesperson for the show; it was broadcast on national television.
Right before the end of my speech, I was dropped through the floor as a joke. This easily counts as my favorite stunt, because so many fellow stunt friends were there and it got a big laugh.
[Shown/header image: Stuntwoman Cheryl Lawson, on the set of "The Scorpion King"]
Bio: Cheryl Lawson has worked as a stuntwoman for 12 years. Audiences worldwide have seen her work in "The Scorpion King", "CSI", "Karen Cisco" and "24", "The Practice", "Ocean's Eleven" and "Enemy of the State". She has doubled actors Carla Gugino, Rachel Weisz, Charisma Carpenter, Marlee Matlin, Catherine Zeta Jones, Rena Sofer and Sela Ward. She is a member of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures.
Read interviews with other creative artists, in the August 2004 of "Arte Six".