Hollywood’s Stunt Community is Receiving a Reckoning of Its Own

SAG-AFTRA is under fire for its inaction in defending workplace equality for women stunt performers.
Death Proof
By  · Published on February 7th, 2018

SAG-AFTRA is under fire for its inaction in defending workplace equality for women stunt performers.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the #MeToo movement, it’s that the conventions surrounding supposedly well-oiled machines in every industry need to be questioned. Sexism and various forms of workplace inequality have been happening years before the downfall of Harvey Weinstein shone a long overdue spotlight on Hollywood. As more ugly truths about the industry we love dearly reveal themselves, it’s important to deal with how every facet of Hollywood must change — in front of and behind the camera.

A new report from Deadline has pushed one particular case of workplace inequality in the stunt community to the forefront. Stuntwoman Deven MacNair filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC after experiencing an instance of “wigging” on the set of MGM’s upcoming film The Domestics. MacNair filed the charge in hopes of getting a right-to-sue letter to go up against both Domestics production company Hollywood Gang, as well as SAG-AFTRA.

“Wigging,” an industry practice that has gone on for far too long, involves stuntmen donning wigs and women’s clothing in order to double for actresses on set. Performed under the thin guise of “safety” for fellow stunt performers, the practice actually costs stuntwomen their jobs. MacNair’s case is but one example of this.

The facts are these: MacNair reported to the set of The Domestics to perform a stunt for lead actress Kate Bosworth’s character. Instead, MacNair found out that the film’s male stunt coordinator, Nick Gillard, had simply decided to dress as Bosworth’s character and do the stunt himself. Gillard defended his actions by saying that he was “[ensuring] the safety of cast and crew.” However, considering that “wigging” has systemically pushed women stunt performers out of an already male-dominated profession in the film industry, it isn’t really an acceptable excuse when able-bodied stuntwomen are definitely out there. “Wigging” also clearly goes against SAG-AFTRA’s own protections of workplace equality, which stipulate that studios “shall endeavor” to hire minority and women stunt performers in corresponding roles.

But, in MacNair’s words, this is what happened:

“I told Mr. Gillard that I was ready and able to do the stunt and that men should not do women’s stunt work. Mr. Gillard alleged that the scene was ‘too unsafe’ and refused to let me do it. This is a false statement. There was nothing unsafe about the scene. The car was pre-set with ‘squibs,’ small remote-controlled exploding caps commonly used in gun scenes. The driving required nothing more than screeching tires and driving away. In short, Nick Gillard performed the stunt dressed as a woman and refused to allow an on-set stuntwoman to perform the scene, a clear violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as 2014 AMPTP Agreement.”

For MacNair, this isn’t just a personal fight. Changes in these seemingly innocuous on-set practices need to happen in order for stuntwomen, in general, to even get hired. MacNair details that the Domestics stunt had been planned out and detailed on the call sheet the day before. This coupled with Gillard’s purported prior knowledge about the safety (or lack thereof) of the car they were going to use should have provided enough time to find the appropriate stuntwoman for the job… yet this did not happen.

The division witnessed with the stunt community over MacNair’s case is probably the least surprising thing about Deadline’s report, as it’s the same reaction that’s been replicated throughout any industry these days. When faced with the normalization of deeply-rooted oppressions, there will be some who will double down on efforts to preserve a system that’s worked for them, amidst the fight for a more inclusive future. The notion that a lawsuit would mean a discernible difference in regulatory practices for stunt performers is worrisome for some (male) performers who prefer to keep these grievances in-house. Yet despite any concerns about legal intervention, nothing has been done throughout decades of unseemly practices.

When it comes to risking lives for the sake of entertainment, there are many factors that rightfully require stunt coordinators and unions to consider safety first. But it doesn’t mean that stunt work should predominantly be a boys’ club. Stunt work takes skill and finesse, and can be considered an art form, according to stuntman Danny Epper‘s statement to Deadline; that’s at least something we can agree on. So why are certain demographics shut out completely? None of the four main stunt organizations in Hollywood have women as members. Entrenched sexism is revealing itself, even if we’re not primed to acknowledge it openly due to a presumed masculine nature of stunt work.

Reactions such as Epper’s to MacNair’s plight — and even Peter Antico’s to stuntwoman Joi “SJ” Harris‘s tragic death on the set of Deadpool 2 last year — are reductive. In Antico saying “Diversity got a woman killed,” the implication that only so-called “political correctness” would result in awful on-set accidents ignores the wider problem that women aren’t being allowed to do the jobs they’re trained for. Lest we forget what happened to Walking Dead stuntman John Bernecker, stunt work is dangerous for everyone. That makes extensive, thorough searches for the right people for the right jobs paramount. Yes, oftentimes these people will be women and minorities.

According to actress and stuntwoman Danielle Reierson, who came to MacNair’s defense in the message boards:

“I find it so interesting that a man’s take on giving women equal treatment in the stunt industry is that ‘our industry is now in chaos, it’s spiraling out of control’ and that the ‘profession is in the verge of being crushed.’ Really?? Men not being the only ones in control does not mean that everything is going to fall to shit.”

As MacNair states, “This should have been resolved when [veteran stuntwoman] Julie Johnson brought this up in the 1970s, but it wasn’t, so here we are.” When it comes down to it, women just want to do their jobs like anybody else. But more importantly, there needs to be some kind of trust and support system in order for women to do their best, especially in the realm of high-flying, life-threatening stunts.

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)