This article, Part I of II, appears as part of Visual People, a Q&A series devoted to profiling visually in-tune folks who work in a diversity of industries. Subscribe or follow along on Instagram. #visualpeople
When she’s discussing the art of stunts, Stephannie Hawkins is unknowingly giving us sage life advice. “One important stunt rule to remember is: Don’t look back,” she says. “When you’re falling backward, it is key to not look in that direction; it’s built into us to want to do that, but it’s bad performing. That, and putting a hand out to catch yourself.”
This wisdom comes as no surprise: Hawkins is a seasoned stunt double who has made an extraordinary career out of falling from buildings, crashing through windows, and withstanding hard knocks for actors in big-ticket blockbusters. Her talent as a shape-shifting stunt-double-to-the-stars has landed her applause-worthy opportunities in films like Cinderella Man, Red, and most recently X-Men: Apocalypse wherein she doubles Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner. Being based in Toronto, a popular shooting destination for local and international producers, has also meant that she’s found herself performing physical feats in some beloved CanCon: Murdoch Mysteries, The Border, and Orphan Black to name but a few.
Listen, readers: Stunt performance is theatre. It’s physical. It’s brave. It’s the consummate visual illusion, and behind it is a buzzing network of creative artists and voices whose mission it is to provide a visual slight-of-hand for the sake of a cinematic story. Over the course of our discussion, it becomes clear that stunt-doubling is not for the timid. Indeed, it requires a complex set of skills: transforming your body to appear more like the actor you’re doubling; performing multiple takes of physical feats with the ongoing potential for injury (while maneuvering in full makeup, wig, and costume); and a deep understanding of character, plot, and directorial vision. Perhaps, most importantly, you have to be relatively fearless, and all the while, never looking back.
During this extended Q&A, we talk Toronto as a popular film industry destination, our mutual appreciation of Bruce Willis, creating visual illusions, and stunts-gone-slapstick. Stay tuned for Part II, which will appear in next week’s edition of Visual People.
SM: You’re a hard lady to pin down because you’re working a lot. What was your last gig and where was it?
SH: I’m lucky to be working a lot. My last gig, which is also my current gig, is the movie Shazam!, being shot in Toronto. I have a small acting role in it, as well as a big stunt!
SM: Your work takes you all over the place, but you work and train predominantly in the GTA. You’re also in a fair amount of CanCon that shoots here. What is it about this city that makes it such a popular shooting destination?
SH: Toronto certainly has an ‘every city’ vibe, and filmmakers also have the ability to head into northern Ontario and suddenly it’s a vastly different landscape. You can film for a few days pretending it’s New York, and then head north and suddenly you’re in Fargo. Toronto also hosts some fantastic studios to support this kind of filming which has helped the city grow tremendously. Plus, the tax credit doesn’t hurt.
SM: It’s true about our landscape: Canada is visually ‘all the things’.
SM: It’s no mystery that as a stunt performer, what you do involves visual creativity and illusion. But before I dig deep there, I want to ask you: How did you end up dodging bullets, jumping off cliffs, falling from buildings, and taking knocks for actors for a living?
SH: Back in the day, I was a kickboxer and I grew up doing gymnastics. I was also very into drifting cars with my best friend Scott (I’ve had a drift car longer than I’ve been doing stunts and I still have it!). Initially, I set out to become an actor but ended up getting into an indie fight movie because of my boxing background. Working on that set made me realize that stunt performing was an actual career that I hadn’t considered before. With the background I already had, and my desire to be an actor, the stunt path was the perfect one to take.
SM: What came next for you in terms of getting your feet wet as a burgeoning stunt artist?
SH: One of the first major projects I worked on was a Trident Splash commercial, followed by several CanCon television shows like Murdoch Mysteries, The Border, and Flashpoint. I think the first big-budget film I worked on was Cinderella Man, which was great because it was a lot of work and I learned so much, not necessarily about stunts, but about being a professional in this industry in general.
SM: Ah, a classic Russell Crowe flick. What were you tasked with doing in Cinderella Man?
SH: The stunt was really minor – I’ve definitely done much more serious ones! But because I was there as myself, and not doubling someone else, I ended up being part of the continuity, which meant I had a lot of set days just because my face was visible on camera. It was incredible to sit with Rance Howard (Director Ron Howard’s father) and generally learn about how many small details go into producing every part of a movie. Cinderella Man was great because I had so much time to be there observing the movie machine.
SM: These are big name people! Were you star struck when you first got into the business and does that intrigue wear off after a time? (Like, Gurl, you doubled on Red with Bruce Willis, and even as a consummate stunt professional, that is something I’d ‘fan girl’ over.)
SH: Star struck, yes! And sometimes, still yes! I think what I get star struck about now is seeing talent. I’m so impressed by talent.
SM: I’ve told you how jealous I am about Bruce!
SH: [laughs] Don’t even get me started on Red! Never mind, I’m starting: I doubled Mary Louise Parker for part of the film; I replaced her original double who had to depart for another job. This opportunity was fantastic for many reasons but mostly because I love Bruce Willis. He’s a talent, a great action star, he plays it cool, and he also has incredible comedic timing. I wish I could have been in Die Hard! On the set of Red, he tackled me in a scene, just once. I did the scene with his stunt double for the rest of the takes, but that one take was truly a ‘fan girl’ dream come true.
SM: I have officially turned green with envy.
SH: Another ‘fan girl’ moment: One time during a scene, Ben Affleck kissed me on the cheek! It didn’t make it into the film though (Hollywoodland). I wish I had that evidence!
SM: Your industry relies upon a huge network of visual creators who unite to make that movie magic. Directors are certainly a part of it. Are there any directors you’ve worked with who really understood stunts and how to capture ‘the physical’ in an effective way?
SH: There are many directors who have amazing vision, but they don’t always end up directing the stunts. For big-budget films, there is usually a Second Unit Director who has discussed vision with the Director, and who most likely has experience as a former stunt performer or coordinator. Or, there may be a stunt coordinator who understands the angles and best ways to sell a stunt. However, I’ve read that the director of John Wick [Chad Stahelski] was a former stunt performer, so he would really understand the nuances (and those movies are amazing, stunt-wise).
SM: I think that’s so important: Having creators and directors who have some kinaesthetic empathy for what you do, which is highly physical and at times pretty dangerous. There has to be trust there, even just from a safety perspective.
SH: Tons of trust!
SM: Being a stunt performer is not only performing feats; it’s also creating the illusion of being the actor and/or character, mannerisms and all. How do you study up?
SH: Normally I will stand behind the camera and watch my actor do her thing so that I can get into the same position and mimic what she’s done, either before or after the stunt I’m doing. Hands down: I want to make her look good, and this makes me look good, too. Also, depending on the stunt, I’ll train with the actor, rehearse fight choreography, and try to get a feel of how she moves or how the character would move. And it really does vary considerably: Sometimes I’ll double someone who is supposed to be a trained fighter, a ninja, an assassin, or something else. Sometimes I’m doubling someone who is being attacked, who maybe has no skills, or has an arm in a sling.
In addition to watching and mimicking, I may ask the actress or the director how they feel about the scene. Occasionally I’ll do something in a shot that the director will love, and then get the actress to mimic me. An example: I was doubling an actress whose character was masquerading as a boy in a football game; she had to run a play, catch the ball, and get a touchdown. I had done it so many times that on the last take when I caught the ball and did the touchdown, I did a little dance. It was a silly gesture at the end of a long day … but the director loved it! I don’t think the actress liked it, but it sure was cool for me!
Aside from that, I have my own regular training routine: Groups of stunt people in the community will get together to work on different skills at parkour gyms, and we video ourselves and each other to improve by getting movements on film to see yourself. It’s hard to see yourself while training, so capturing different moves and running through fight choreography on video is great for studying up.
SM: I guess that, for films like X-Men: Apocalypse where you’re doubling Sophie Turner, you’d also do some reading-up on characters and comics.
SH: Yes! It definitely helps to read upon the character, the storylines, and the nuances of the whole X-Men enterprise in order to truly know what you’re going into. And then watching Sophie Turner’s interpretation of Jean Grey just adds to the education.
SM: I’m intrigued by actors so dedicated to their craft that they transform their bodies for roles (think Christian Bale in The Machinist vs. him as Dick Cheney in Backseat). As a stunt performer, do you train your body in some ways, or lose or gain weight, to shape shift for a role (to look more like an actor)?
SH: I’ve certainly lost weight a few times to look more like the actor, especially if the actor has purposely lost weight for the role. When I first started as a stunt performer, I was told that I was too bulky to double, so for a while I changed my workout routine to include more cardio and Pilates, and less weights and boxing, just to get the upper body down in size. I’ve also worn padding to try and look curvier, which is pretty fun. I’ll change my hair colour if it seems necessary, and I am often wigged. The best is when you’re on set and someone actually mistakes you for the actor. It’s a huge compliment, not just because they’re gorgeous, but because it means that you’re a good double (being a good double and being versatile are huge).
SM: Because your job is to look the part and deliver the illusion, I imagine you have to develop a thick skin because you are being judged visually all the time. What’s the casting process like and how do you navigate it?
SH: It’s true: I am judged visually all the time. In terms of casting, it’s funny because with technology as it is now, casting people will say, “Just send a current selfie”, “Full body”, “Something tighter”, “How long is your hair right now? Send a pic”, etc. It’s funny to get messages like that, but you get used to it. Sometimes you’ll go to a go-see because they want to assess whether you can you move like an animal, a zombie, a monster or a werewolf. Other times, production requires you to come in and be checked out by the actor herself because she wants a say in who will be representing her physically. It feels a little like you’re not a person anymore, because you’re kind of not! You’re vying to be another person. The process is much easier once you accept that it’s not personal.
SM: I don’t think most people understand how many hours it requires to create the visual magic of movies. It’s such an investment of time and can create a stressful atmosphere on set for anyone involved.
SH: I worked with this newer actress a couple of times on two different shows. She was so friendly and welcoming, trained hard, was serious about her craft, and didn’t complain. I love that in an actress, just being hardworking and genuine, and understanding that your partnership is valuable and working together will make the illusion perfection.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Stephannie Hawkins, appearing next week in the Visual People series. Parts I and II are dedicated to Darren Shahlavi, a family friend and extraordinary stunt and martial artist who passed away from complications from atherosclerosis. Proceeds earned from this post will be donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
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*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the heart of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process(es). A blockbuster Thank-You to Stephannie Hawkins for donating her expertise, time, and know-how, and giving her permission to use the above images and videos for the purposes of this article.