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Digging Into The Untold History Of Stuntwomen


It's not unusual anymore to see leading ladies taking all kinds of dares on screen, Angelina Jolie jumping from a train or Jennifer Lawrence taking an epic fall. And sure, sometimes the actresses do their own stunts. But more often than not, there are trained professionals behind all the daredevilry. Mollie Gregory dug into this particular world in her new book called, "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story." As part of it, Gregory interviewed 65 action doubles. They told stories of breathtaking jumps, near-death experiences and dealing with flagrant sexism. Mollie Gregory joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program.

MOLLIE GREGORY: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I was surprised to learn about stuntwomen who worked in the silent movies, in the very beginning of the film industry.

GREGORY: Well, I was surprised that they were back there too, but indeed they were. And most of the women who worked during this period could ride horses, or they were great swimmers. Or they drove cars.

MARTIN: Which was considered a stunt back in the day (laughter).

GREGORY: (Laughter) Yes, indeed it was. It was a wonderful period for women.

MARTIN: You write in the book that things changed, though, as soon as Hollywood became a big deal, when people figured out that there was a little bit of money to be made, that women were pushed out. Stuntwomen were pushed out.

GREGORY: All women - the period that had women producing, directing - all the women were, by the '20s - plus the stuntwomen, were kind of edged out of the scene because the men put on drag. They put on a wig and a dress.

MARTIN: Was that believable? Did audiences buy that?

GREGORY: Well, they did it quite well (laughter). As a newspaper reporter said at one point, if there are short men around and they're wearing a dress and a wig, they're assumed to be women. And this situation went on for decades.

MARTIN: Let's talk about a few of the women you interviewed for the book. In particular, I'd love if you can tell us a little bit about Donna and Debbie Evans. Donna was in a lot of films. She was a stuntwoman in more than 160 movies, including things really recent - "The Avengers," "Iron Man," "Jurassic Park.'

GREGORY: Yes, all of those. They're sisters. But they have found a way to do really classy stunts. All stunt people have a specialty. They start with a specialty, doing horse-work or car-work or whatever. Debbie started really on a motorcycle. She is a classic.


MARTIN: She's got this amazing highway motorcycle chase in "Matrix Reloaded."


MARTIN: You spoke with dozens of women who did this work. Did you notice any commonalities? What are the personality traits that all these women share?

GREGORY: These are women who are actors and athletes, sometimes award-winning athletes. And they're very, very good at it. I take my hat off to them.

MARTIN: After doing this book, is there one particular story or stunt, rather, that sticks with you?

GREGORY: Shauna Duggins jumped a car into a lake. And it was to sink down about - I don't know - 20 feet. However, the impact of the front end of the car sealed the doors and windows. And then she realized, I'm going to die in this car. And then she started to go through all of the what-if plans that she'd made before doing this stunt. She grabbed the steering wheel. And she used that and her body weight to press against the door until she finally broke the seal. And she worked her way out. And she found out that nobody on land knew what was actually happening to her. They saw her on the camera - dimly - she was sort of moving around inside the car. You know, they felt like it was perfect. The kicker is that this stunt wasn't in a big movie. It was, ironically, an episode of a TV documentary series to show how easy it is to get out of your car if it goes into a lake.

MARTIN: Oh, no (laughter).

GREGORY: I love that story.

MARTIN: Mollie Gregory is the author of "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story." Mollie, thanks so much for talking with us.

GREGORY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 1, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous headline and Web introduction to this story incorrectly gave the title of Mollie Gregory's new book as Guts and Glory.