Sisters Heidi and Renae Moneymaker are dressed in floor-length, formal gowns—Heidi in red, Renae in white—at a swanky mansion party. Their hair is done. Their heels are high. A fight breaks out and suddenly Heidi tackles her sister over a balcony railing, sending both women crashing onto a DJ booth below. 

Then the director of Furious 7 yells, “Cut!” and the Moneymaker sisters smile at each other, knowing they nailed the stunt. 

Watching the film, it looks like actresses Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey are throwing down, but it’s really Heidi and Renae executing the moves and taking the fall.

Fight sequences, gun battles, car crashes, and high falls bring heart-pounding action to the big screen, but the faces of the women doing this dangerous work are often unseen—until now. Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, a new documentary premiering on digital platforms Sept. 22, pulls back the curtain on the daring athletes behind film and television’s most thrilling scenes, from Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels in the ’70s to Captain Marvel and Black Widow today.

Behind the scenes of “Stuntwomen” (2020)

“A lot of boys grow up jumping off things and thinking it’s funny to get hit by cars and things like that,” Heidi Moneymaker said. “So it’s a lot more of a boy’s personality to go into this industry, whereas for a female, you have to think a little bit differently.”

The Moneymaker sisters got into stunt work through gymnastics. As a kid, Heidi was always jumping off her bunk bed, trying to reach the desk or dresser. Her parents enrolled her in gymnastics as a way to channel her energy. Renae followed her older sister into the sport—both were collegiate competitors—and into the stunt world. Falling off the bars and high beam turns out to be great training for a stunt performer.

“You don’t get to be a high-level gymnast and do multiple flips on a four-inch beam without crashing a lot,” Renae Moneymaker said.

Most stunt performers working today have a gymnastics or martial arts background. Stuntwoman-turned-director Melissa R. Stubbs advises those interested in the industry to learn a variety of martial arts: “Not one style, but all styles,” she said. “I call it film fu.”

Fight choreography and action scenes have become more stylized over the years. But in the 1970s and ’80s, athletic ability and a daring attitude were the only prerequisites.

Growing up with five older brothers, Melissa was a born risk-taker.

“I was always the first one who volunteered to try something,” she said. “I was the one who was put in a sleeping bag and pushed down the stairs.”

She remembers watching TV shows like The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman and telling her dad, “I want to do that.”

“I had no interest in being an actress,” Melissa said. “I didn’t want to do the talking or the love scenes or the crying. I wanted to do the cool stuff.”

A stint as an extra on Rocky IV eventually led to her first performance opportunity in 1987.

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“I got killed a bunch of times. I cracked my ribs. And I said, ‘Wow, this is what I’m gonna do,’” Melissa said. “I never looked back and never stopped working.”

But much like Ginger Rogers doing Fred Astaire’s dance moves, only backward and in heels, female stunt performers face challenges men don’t.

Tumbling down a flight of stairs or landing on cement after crashing through a plate-glass window hurts, but women’s costumes usually don’t allow for the kind of padding that can be hidden inside a man’s business suit—or Batman suit. Picture the leotards Lynda Carter or Gal Gadot wear in Wonder Woman—not a lot of places to sneak in covert cushioning.

“I did a T-bone on a motorcycle and a nose-wheelie in a cocktail dress and ballet slippers. No pads,” Melissa said.

Melissa R. Stubbs at work in “Suicide Squad”

Heidi Moneymaker, who doubles Scarlett Johansson in the Avengers films, has asked for costumes to be made slightly bigger than necessary so she can fit some padding inside. She also has small hip pads she can slip under even the slinkiest dress.

The high-heel issue is also real—and poses a serious risk for ankle and knee injuries. Renae Moneymaker, who doubles Brie Larson in Captain Marvel and Margot Robbie in Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, said she consults with costume designers early in the process to request a wedge shoe or lower heel instead of a spiked stiletto.

Stuntwoman Sharlene Royer, whose credits include X-Men: Days of Future Past and
Dolemite Is My Name
, recalled a stunt requiring a 60-foot descent on a wire and landing on a hard floor in high heels.

“I said, ‘No—I’m going to bust my ankle!’” she said. The stunt coordinator supported her request for different shoes.

Regardless of the outfit and footwear, injuries are part of stunt work. There’s no way to practice falling without actually falling; no way to simulate getting hit by a car without actually getting hit.

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“We’re really doing that stuff,” Renae Moneymaker said. “There’s real fire. Those are real explosions. We’re really flipping a car or flipping through the air.”

Sharlene fell off a horse and broke her wrist while doubling for Paula Patton on Warcraft, then got back up—literally got back on the horse—and continued working.

“I just taped it up like there was no tomorrow,” Sharlene said. “I had the makeup guy paint the tape the same color as my skin so no one knew about it.”

Stunt performers typically train year-round so they’ll be ready when a project comes up. Besides boxing, running, weight training and acrobatics, there’s stunt-specific vehicle training: learning to drift a car or slide a motorcycle, then stop on a mark.

 Heidi Moneymaker’s favorite onscreen trick was rolling a car in the 2013 film The Host.

“It was the most terrifying and most thrilling, amazing stunt I’ve ever done,” she said. “In the last few years, I’ve done some really cool car work. I’m into driving now for sure.”

Sharlene, too, added driving to her skill set. She bought her own slide car, had a mechanic install an emergency brake and practices between projects.

“I got myself a bunch of tires and a bunch of cones and there’s a parking lot I go to, especially when it’s raining, to save my tires,” she said.

Next, she took on motorcycles and dirt bikes.

“I bought myself a supermoto and did the same thing with the supermoto that I did with the car: set up cones and practice my precision with it,” she said. “There’s a lot you have to do on your own.”

Despite extensive training on par with the guys, female stunt performers still face discrimination. Just as women are outnumbered in nearly all aspects of filmmaking, they’ve yet to achieve parity in stunt work. 

Even crowd scenes are still disproportionately male, Sharlene noted. 

“As a woman, you have to push all the time,” she said. “You have to remind them that, yeah, you could have some women in the crowd. It’s our responsibility to remind them about real life.”

As TV and film casts become more diverse and more women are cast as action stars, there are more opportunities for female stunt performers of different ethnicities and body types.

“Twenty years ago, it was very rare that you had a lead with an ethnicity you could visually see,” said Sharlene, whose first stunt-performance opportunity came when a director needed a double for Rosario Dawson. “That’s why, in Montreal back then, it was difficult to find a Black stuntwoman or a Latina stuntwoman—there were none!” 

It’s still a challenge for female stunt performers to move up in the industry. The natural evolution for stunt performers is to become stunt coordinators, action designers, and directors—jobs held almost exclusively by men.

“It’s changing, but there were no female stunt coordinators and it was a male-dominated thing,” said Melissa. “Women in that role were not respected. It was like having a female quarterback on an NFL team.” 

She made the transition after years of hard training and a few serious injuries. Royer and the Moneymakers are charting a similar course.

Renae (left) and Heidi Moneymaker (right) on the set of “Captain Marvel”

“It’s hard for me still to think about not performing, because I’m still flipping around and doing crazy stuff,” said Heidi, 42. “But it’s very important—I’m getting to the age where, if I’m going to do this, I need to move up and on.”

Sharlene continues to perform, but she recently began working as an assistant stunt coordinator as well.

“The reason you want to transition is because you’ve been hard on your body for so many years, and at some point you want to give it a break, like any professional athlete,” she said.

Melissa has been designing action sequences and assistant directing for more than 20 years. She joined the Academy as a member-at-large in 2007 and is among those pushing for a dedicated branch for the artists who create and execute stunts.

“We’re an extension of the director, to help realize their vision and then elaborate on it with our expertise,” she said. “We’re not just the people who fall down stairs and get hit by cars.” 

Indeed, the stunt performer’s job is to contribute to a character and further a storyline through eye-popping action. 

“Stunt performers—people think they’re superheroes and they’re indestructible, but they’re not. They’re sensitive people who have trained their asses off to be prepared for those moments,” Melissa said. “They get hurt, they get hurt bad, and they don’t say a word. They go home and ice their knees and ice their backs and show up to work the next day and do it all over again. There’s some magic to the movies with visual effects and wires, but those are real people doing those things with passion and hard work.”