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How 5 Hollywood Stunt Women Are Teaching Female Strength

With their new workout series, "Rough Around the Edges," five of the industry's fiercest female stunt performers are empowering women to find the power in their bodies and themselves.

© Getty Images   Woman working out

By Laura Studarus, Shondaland

You know the scene. Your favorite actor leaps into action, their hair flapping attractively in the breeze as they jump, punch, and defeat the bad guys. There’s a showy car chase, a few weapons are deployed, maybe there’s an impossibly large leap. Of course, it’s all movie magic. Without fail (unless you’re Tom Cruise, who famously claims to do his own stunts), behind each of these well-coiffed thespians is a stunt person, ready to step in when actor skill sets (and insurance coverage) falters.

Carving out their own place among an industry that's typically dominated by men is a cadre of women who show no fear no matter how big the jump, how fast the car chase, how intense the fight. Amy Johnston, Michelle Jubilee, Caitlin Dechelle, Thekla Hutyrova, and Corinne van Ryck deGroot ( plus Anisha Gibbs, who was on set and unavailable for this story) are five of Hollywood's most successful stunt people, between them having kicked ass on everything Marvel blockbusters to high-octane racing movies to action-packed TV series. Now, they're taking everything they've learned on movie and TV sets and bringing the health and wellness benefits to your living room with a new exercise series called Rough Around the Edges.

From the Openfit digital gym platform, the workouts consists of a series of high-impact, low frills half-hour classes made up moves plucked directly from the trainers’ personal workout routines.

Channeling and maximizing your strength is the guiding belief behind Rough Around the Edges, and while each program is aimed at all skill levels, they’re not for the faint of heart — I can tell you from personal experience. Now, let me say that I do enjoy exercises classes, particularly spin where I imagine literally leaving my anxieties in the dust. However, as anyone with a job that requires a large amount of sitting can attest, life as a part-time gym bunny doesn’t always translate to notable displays of strength. (I’m not proud to admit it, but in moments of desperation, I have asked men to open jars.). I have, in many HIIT classes, thrown a punch or completed a semi-decent roundhouse kick. However, when I took up a Rough Around the Edges class, it was humbling to realize I didn’t have the core strength to simply hold a pose mid-kick — one of the many exercises I was asked to try during their 45 minute sets.

So I had to ask myself: how does one go from couch to superhero? In order to get the answers, I went straight to the source. We chatted with Johnston, Jubilee, Dechelle, Hutyrova, and van Ryck deGroot, to learn more about their extraordinary careers. More than daredevils, we got insight into their roles in a traditionally male-dominated field, taking carefully calculated risks, and positive mindsets that have helped them move to the top of their games.


Amy Johnston

© Disney - Disney   Amy Johnston

Thanks to a childhood spent in martial arts competitions, dance, and gymnastics, Amy Johnston knew from an early age she wanted to be a super hero. “I grew up like a wild monkey,” she laughs. “I grew up doing martial arts and I watched martial arts films like no other. Those were the only films I watched — I missed out on a lot of great films.” But that obsession turned into a passion and, thanks to her ability to throw a punch and flip, she went on to doubled for actors on Deadpool and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In 2016, she achieved a childhood goal when she starred in the American-in-Hong-Kong martial arts film, Lady Bloodflight. (now available on Netflix).


On the fear of failure:

"If something seems challenging, I will keep working at it, and keep trying until I get it, from every angle that I can. That’s one of my favorite things about the job. It’s never boring because of that. But fear is definitely a thing. My dad used to say, ‘fear is false evidence appearing real.’ It’s truly just our mind."


On joining the stunt world:

"People constantly ask how to do it. I always recommend finding your group of people, training hard, doing all the research. I put a book together because people have asked this question so many times. I put together interviews from top professionals in the industry to answer this question. Because it is confusing. Thankfully, now the internet is the most powerful tool to get into the industry. That means showing what you can do, networking with people, studying things that you want to learn, studying more than what you’re doing and what you know already. Learning all the elements so you can put it all together."


On learning to teach:

"It was about getting in my head and remembering as a young child what I learned. Because we forget. We do this for so many years, we create our own styles and own movements. The basics of what our bodies are doing is something I haven’t thought about in a long time. I tried to put everything I thought into one sentence. That was the hardest thing, but I got the hang of it. I practiced at home while brushing my teeth, just trying to put my sentences into a smaller, more compact arena."


Caitlin Dechelle

Caitlin Dechelle has a black belt in three fighting styles: Chinese, Japanese, and Taekwondo. After a touring the world as a competitor she moved into stunting, most notably for the TV show Teen Wolf and the Gal-Gadot starring Wonder Woman. “The actual experience of it all was long and exhausting, because it was ten months of my life,” she says of her work on the iconic feminist film. “One day if I have a daughter it will be cool to say ‘Look, I did that! That’s mom!’”


On topping a male-dominated sport:

"Ever since I was a kid it was like, 'Oh, you can’t do this trick or win this tournament.' I’ve done some tricks that only a few women in the world can do, if that. I don’t know if there’s a man out there that has as many world titles as I do. I tell my students there’s probably going to be some kid in their class telling them, ‘You can’t do this!’ No, it’s been done — it’s possible. You have to train. You have to commit. You have to persevere. It’s something all of us have taken into every aspect of our lives."


On the on the job learning curve:

"Sometimes you get to a set and you don’t know what you’re going to do. Again, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t train to do it. So, you have to be prepared the best you can overall. And obviously, that’s where fitness comes back into it. You have to be strong and in shape and ready because you don’t know what you’re going to ask your body to do. We’ll go back to Wonder Woman and the shield slide I did across the room fighting the Germans — I had no idea how to do that. The first time I did it, I went sliding into the pad at 800 miles an hour between the rigger and myself. It was a disaster. There would be times where I would lose my balance or be in bigger shoes. So, I’d have to catch myself and my hair and wig was in my face. There’s never ten out of ten perfect takes. Normally it requires a bunch of people, not just yourself. So, it’s a teamwork type of thing. I think being prepared is the only way be prepared."


Thekla Hutyrova

© Disney - Disney   Thekla Hutyrova

With seven tae kwon world championships under her belt and a history of teaching and even a brief stint in Zumba (she laughs at the mention), Thekla Hutyrova has used her strengths on the sets of Logan, Deadpool 2, and Pacific Rim. And while she’s often asked to do something outside her initial comfort zone (recently it was doing a front flip down a steep incline), the stunt woman says that she enjoys rising to the challenge. “If something seems daunting at first, you try it out slowly, and you work through it and get to practice it a little bit,” she says of being asked to do the unexpected every day at work. “It’s kind of cool — you go in and it seems crazy, but you do it a few times and it’s awesome. If you’re physically and mentally prepared to do whatever, it helps.”


On staying busy:

"The independent contractor thing is really tough. I got used to it, finally. Sometimes you’ll be working and life is great — you have money coming in. And then the next day or the next week you’re like, I have nothing planed for the rest of my life that has any sort of viable income. That gets stressful every now and then. But I think learning to work on your own projects and train and do other stuff — I’m doing acting classes and writing — that helps. You’re like, 'Oh cool, I’m not working so I get to work on something else,' rather than ‘Oh s***, I’m not working, what am I going to do with my life?!’"


On living with the job:

"Sometimes it’s weird to draw the line between what’s free time and what’s not. Because we end up doing stuff like going to the gym, which could count as work. Or we’re going windsurfing. That could eventually be connected to work. So, that’s not really downtime."


On teaching and being taught:

"In general, with teaching or explaining stuff, you keep learning how to do it better or keep adding different ways to say thing every time you work with people. Every time I train someone, I have to work toward what they need out of it. You build this arsenal of different ways to explain stuff and consolidate into what’s the most efficient. That’s why I like teaching."


Michelle Jubilee

Although working as a trick driver on The Fate of the Furious and working as a motion capture artist on Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse — two franchises that have helped bring the art of stunt work into pop culture — Michelle Jubilee says that when she meets someone new, they usually make the same comment about her high-octane career. “The first thing people say is "'Oh my gosh! You must be such a badass!'” she laughs. “It’s a prerequisite of doing this kind of work.” Next up, in addition to her fighting, acting, and wire work specialties, Jubilee is adding horses to her to-do list. “It’s a work in progress,” she says of her expanding skill set. “Like all of us.”


On The Fast and the Furious Eight:

"We had all these incredible cars we were drifting and driving and doing crazy stuff with. I was like, ‘Wow! This this is my life!’ We were there for two weeks, completely sleep deprived and it was amazing. Why would you want to sleep? I was so excited and so grateful. It was my first big, active participation in a Hollywood blockbuster film. Smaller moments count and they’re all very valuable to me, but that was the big kick open the floodgates moment. Here we are! This is amazing! I’ve got into a place where people are choosing me! They’re choosing me to come in and do this. It's a special and unique feeling and it never quite goes away."


On what makes stunt women unique:

"You have to have something a little different in your head that says, ‘That dangerous thing? I can do that. I’ll make it look gnarly, but I’ll be fine!’ That’s not a really normal thing. But that’s what makes us such unicorns. We’re willing to figure out the science behind how to do it safely. It’s not about being crazy, reckless, adrenaline-junky-daredevils. What I found is that we’re very curious creatures. How do we design this action? And how can we do it in a way that we can do it more than once? Because if you do it once and have to go to the hospital — well I hope you got it on tape! I think that’s the thing that most people think, 'Wow, you must be a badass, I don’t want to mess with you!' Dude, I’m a peaceful panda."


On overcoming fear and failure:

"If we feel like we’re accepted and wanted there, we’re going to perform better. But if we feel like someone doesn’t like us, it puts an additional stressor and pressure on us, and sometimes performances suffer because of that. So, in that way, the fear of failure isn’t about, can I execute the stunts physically? I feel like a big portion of this industry is so psychological, starting from the inside with our own sense of value and worth and having done the work necessary for this job. Have I done my part in being prepared? If you do the work, that fear of failure is greatly reduced. At that point it feels like, Well, I’ve done everything in my power, and now it’s a matter of communicating what we rehearsed, what we talked about, and why you hired me."


Corinne van Ryck deGroot

Although fitness had always been a part of her life, when Corinne van Ryck deGroot became a police officer in her native Canada, an on-force boxing league tilted her career in a different direction. “I fought on three Mike Tyson undercards, and traveled abroad with Mike as well as Ray Jones,” she reveals. “I was number two in the world. After that, I became an American Gladiator. So, I was doing the stunts and having such a great time doing all the different games that we played.” After a win on 2004’s The Next Action Star gave her fitness ambitions a more cinematic edge, she transitioned into stunt work.


On starting big:

"I was on set and it was The Guardian. It was with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. It was my very first stunt job. I had to jump over a bar in the middle of the fight. I couldn’t believe Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher were standing in front of me and I had a scene with lines. It was super fun. Never thought it would happen. First day on the job!"


On finding balance:

"Most of my friends from Canada are a little more conservative. And so, at first they didn’t understand the journey. My mother still doesn’t understand the journey. You get such a different reaction. Some of it’s great and full on. And other people look at you like you haven’t lived the proper life because I’m not married with children. But I’m in a stable relationship with me — who I am and what my vision of the world is and what part I play in this world."


On teaching women their strength:

"When I talk to women I know have gone through quite a bit, I ask them to look back on their lives and see what was a hard point in their lives. What was the most challenging point in their lives? And then look at where you are today. You made it through, you got here, you’re surviving and still thriving. There’s no reason why you can’t do something if you put your mind to it, and you figure out what the steps are. It’s like a pyramid. The top is where your goal is, and everything down inside of that pyramid are the steps. At the bottom, you have all the steps you need. Then you just whittle it away until step by step, you get to the top. Anything that’s not in that triangle will just have to fall off the side, whether it’s toxic relationships, toxic people, negative thoughts, anything that does not apply, we don’t have that in our vocabulary."

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Career Magazine: How 5 Hollywood Stunt Women Are Teaching Female Strength
How 5 Hollywood Stunt Women Are Teaching Female Strength
With their new workout series, "Rough Around the Edges," five of the industry's fiercest female stunt performers are empowering women to find the power in their bodies and themselves.
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