In 1950, at the age of 9, Jeannie Epper performed her first stunt driving a team of horses in an old Western. Nearly 60 years later, she’s still at it — most recently, in the comedy “Blades of Glory,” she played an ice-skating judge who gets knocked over and landed on by Will Ferrell in the final sequence of the movie.
While most women over 60 would have moaned under the crushing weight of the 6-foot-3 actor, Epper describes the experience merely as “fine.”
“When I’m in the moment, the adrenaline takes over,” she says, though she does concede that “sometimes the next morning my body talks to me.” Epper, who received a lifetime achievement kudo at this year’s Taurus World Stunt Awards — the first time a woman has been honored with the award — is a pioneer in the world of women’s stunts, an industry that is now burgeoning.
Epper also devotes time to mentoring younger stunt women, such as Zoe Bell, a 28-year-old Kiwi who got her start doubling for Lucy Lawless in the series “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
Bell’s big break was taking the punches, martial-arts kicks and sword swipes for Uma Thurman in the two “Kill Bill” pics.
In fact, Quentin Tarantino was so taken with Bell’s talent, he made her a star in “Death Proof” — his segment in the two-part “Grindhouse” homage collaboration with Robert Rodriguez. Bell plays Zoe, who is notably pursued in a hairy car chase by a pedal-to-the-metal psychopath played by Kurt Russell.
Bell didn’t know she’d been cast in the film as an actor until she saw the script. “I saw my name on the front cover, and my first thought was that it was a joke,” she says. “But when I opened it, I saw pages and pages of dialogue with my name on it, and I was, like: ‘What are you thinking? You’re mad!'”
The hardest part of the film for Bell was “trying to not avoid the camera.
“I had to fight the urge to not get in the way of the camera and to put my hands in my face or get my hair out of the way,” she explains.
When Epper got her start, A-list directors certainly weren’t writing scripts based on her art, nor were women getting hired to perform stunts for actresses. Instead, they cast men.
Things opened in the 1970s with a greater number of action TV shows and movies casting female leads, such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Wonder Woman.” A man couldn’t quite pass for Lynda Carter, for whom Epper doubled throughout “Wonder Woman’s” four-year run.
“Actresses didn’t want hairy-legged boys as doubles,” Epper says. “They wanted pretty girls. It slowly started changing the order of things.”
Nowadays, the playing field is for the most part level. The only time a woman is not cast to double for an actress is if the stunt is physically impossible for a woman to perform, though rigging can most often be made to accommodate the situation.
Sexism hasn’t totally been erased from the equation, however.
“Most of the time it’s pretty subtle,” Bell says. “I feel like most stunt guys in this day and age, if they’re smart and good at what they do, look at people as tools and pick the best one, regardless of boobs or balls. But there are those odd moments when I’m aware I’m having to prove myself over and over with the same person or same group of people.”
Epper is sensitive to how tough the business is for women, and is always on hand to advise and lend support.
“I’m kind of a mother hen,” she says. “I like to help people. They can call me up on set. Not that I know how to do everything right, but I try to keep them from getting hurt, to keep women working. If girls go out and mess up, then guess what? We lose our space. They might start using guys again. I don’t think that will happen, though. We’ve come too far.”