Female Stunt Performers From ‘Hawkeye’ to ‘Kung Fu’ Talk Kicking Butt and Trouncing Stereotypes on TV

The increased focus on female butt-kickers on TV has been a positive step for feminism and in trouncing stereotypes.

Series as vastly different in tone as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” zombie franchise to the martial arts-tinged “Cobra Kai” on Netflix and the CW’s “Kung Fu”to Disney Plus’ Marvel Cinematic Universe spinoffs like “Hawkeye” and Starz’s wrestling family drama “Heels” have all highlighted stunt work of female characters.

“There are a lot of female stunt doubles and stunt performers and there have been for a lot of years,” says Heidi Moneymaker, the stunt coordinator on “Hawkeye” who is also known for doubling Scarlett Johansson in several “Avengers” movies.

Moneymaker says that “one of the issues right now is that there’s so much content out there and that is creating an extremely high demand for performers. That gives an opportunity for younger people to step up and get some experience in a role that they might not have had in the past.”

Also, stresses Tammy Nera, who is the double for Olivia Liang ’s lead on “Kung Fu,” the trickle- down effect of Hollywood greenlighting projects with more racially diverse characters means that “it’s opening up opportunities for female stunt performers of varying ethnicities to have the opportunity to double leads and to double big characters on TV shows and movies.”

A spokesperson for SAG-AFTRA tells Variety that the proportion of female-identifying stunt performers in the union hasn’t grown that much in recent years. At the time of the SAG-AFTRA merger in 2012, stunt performers who identified as women were at 19% — however, since 2012, the number of female stunt performers who are members of SAG-AFTRA is up by 93%.

But it also seems like what’s expected from female performers has become more inclusive.

Taylor Towery, a stunt performer on “Heels” who has also played a zombie no less than 10 times on “Fear the Walking Dead,” comes from a family of stunt performers. Both of her parents have worked in the profession, with her dad Russell Towery serving as stunt coordinator on productions including “The Walking Dead” and USA Network’s “Queen of the South.” Her brother, Dawson Towery, is a stunt performer and coordinator. Her mother, on the other hand, “didn’t have that same experience.”

“Sometimes [women] got to do things, but a lot of times, you’re riding shotgun and you’re not letting the females drive the car,” Towery says.

Moneymaker, who broke in with such jobs as doubling Drew Barrymore on the movie “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” says that her side of the industry has “turned into more of a performers’ game. Instead of coming in and being tough and knowing how to fall and knowing how to do big gags, you actually have to perform the whole action scene.

“There’s been a whole flow of the different fight styles,” she continues. “With ‘The Matrix’ era, we got into some kung fu and then in more recent years, there’s been a little bit more of an [interest] with MMA. There is this realism now where they really want to see the actors doing a stunt. So they want to see really gritty — not so spectacular — stunts. They want to see something that looks real.”

Part of this might be that audiences have gotten savvier at watching stunt work and seeing if they can tell the difference between when a lead of a show is doing something versus that person’s double.

Nera got into the job after a decade as a professional dancer. Now as a stunt performer with a passion for wire work and training in martial arts, she says she’d actually be fine with people giving “Kung Fu” star Liang credit for her work.

“Secretly, that would be kind of cool if everyone thinks that Olivia is doing it,” she laughs. “That means her and I are slotting in and out and switching out seamlessly.”

For a stunt coordinator like Moneymaker, this also means that she’ll spend “time trying to figure out the safest way I think we can do this with the [lead] actor. And then, depending on how much time I have with them and how much training I can do with them, we often make a very actor-friendly version.”

Nor should there be an assumption that all stunt performers are good at all stunts.

Towery was a Level 10 in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Program, the highest level, but she didn’t know much about wrestling before she worked on “Heels.”

“I think the biggest thing that they had to teach us is the way that you perform in a wrestling ring,” she says of the experts who work with her on that show. “The way that you sell a hit, and the way that you take what they call a bump — when they’d hit the ground really hard — is different.

“In stunts, it’s all about how am I going to throw this punch to where it sells for the camera,” she continues. “But in the wrestling ring, it’s how am I going to throw this punch or this kick so that it sells for the audience, which is all around.”

Such nuance of character, story and world is key for all shows. “If somebody kicks me in a real fight, my reaction is going to be different than if a superhero kicks me and now I’m going flying,” Towery, who has also worked on Fox’s “The Gifted,” says.

Either way, these women have mastered how to take a punch. And throw some good ones of their own.

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