Gaëlle Cohen is one of the busiest stunt performers and coordinators in Hollywood. She recently showed her skills in “Zero Dark Thirty”, and next up you’ll see her in the disaster thriller “Black Sky”.
From an accidental beginning in TV to working with some of Tinsel Town’s biggest names, this almost-fearless Frenchwoman talks to Moviehole about Hollywood, her demanding career and what makes a stuntwoman scream.
Q: You began your career as a lawyer. How did you make such a big change to become a stuntwoman in the film industry?
Gaëlle: Such a big change was really not intentional! At that time I had just finished law school when a friend of mine asked me to help her on a TV show. There, I met stunt people and they were practicing fencing and obviously rehearsing for an audition. Since I was on the National French Fencing Team for many years before that, I offered them to help them put a fight together. Next thing I know, the stunt coordinator calls me and offers me to work for him on the sword fights for a TV show called “Highlander”. I had not even the trace of an idea of what stunt work was, but I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do.
Q: Have you done any specific training, or are you just a natural daredevil?
Gaëlle: I am definitely not a daredevil. I am very well aware of the danger and the risks, but I know my job well enough to make sure that I have the right skills to be as safe as possible.
After my experience on “Highlander”, the only skill I had was fencing, which was a start, but not enough to be hired as a complete stuntwoman. So I started training full time to acquire all the skills that stunt people need to perform in movies. My training included martial arts, horse riding, trampoline and motocross. I also attended the National Circus School to learn trapeze and acrobatics. I trained for a year and a half before I considered myself “hireable” as a stuntwoman. This was 15 years ago.
Q: You recently worked on the Oscar-winning “Zero Dark Thirty”. Can you tell us about your experience on that film, and what it was like shooting in the Middle East.
Gaëlle: It was a fantastic experience and I am so proud of it. Kathryn Bigelow is one of the people I admire the most in Hollywood, and it was a dream come true when I found out I was hired to work on her film in Jordan. She is stunning – so strong and so quiet at the same time.
The scene I was to perform in, the restaurant explosion sequence, was also very exciting. We rehearsed for a few days, and on the day of shoot only one take was necessary. Kathryn was very pleased with it from the get-go.
It was my first time in Jordan. I had shot movies in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria in the past, but never Jordan. It is a very peaceful country, and very quiet – which isn’t what we were all expecting. The scenery there is amazing.
Q: Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (for “The Hurt Locker”). How much has gender been an issue in your career? Do you think it’s more difficult to be a woman in such a physically demanding industry?
Gaëlle: Gender as a stunt performer is not an issue. You need women to double women, or to play women. If you are good at your job, you get people’s respect. Good stuntwomen are as skilled and qualified as men. Our job is based on physical skills, so it’s important to train and improve. The “physically demanding” aspect of our job is what we love about it and why most of us do it!
Stunt coordinating is a different story, however – especially in Europe. I left France five years ago to move here [the USA], because I started coordinating shows and it upset male coordinators. They stopped hiring me as a punishment. One coordinator even told me “a woman would be a stunt coordinator when pigs will fly”. It pushed me over the edge and I really made it a point to show that a woman could do as good a job as a man.
Q: You’ve worked with both Penelope Cruz and Jessica Biel, who are very different to each other. Do you need to adjust your training or your own body shape to be a stunt double for different actors?
Gaëlle: I doubled Penelope Cruz a few times, and we have a very similar body, same long brown hair, etc. It’s important to look as much alike as possible as the actress you double, of course, but you do not need to be her exact lookalike. It’s more important to be a good stuntwoman who will be capable of performing the stunts and make (the actress being doubled) look good while doing it.
Hollywood actresses are very thin in general, so you can’t be bulky. I personally always made sure that I was never too “muscular” so I could be a good double, even with a tank top on. My main workout regimen when training for a role is doing a lot of cardio and some light weightlifting.
I didn’t double Jessica Biel, but I coordinated a movie (“The Tall Man”) where she was the lead in a very physical role with a lot of stunts. I trained her for it, and we rehearsed all the fights and stunts with her double.
Q: CGI is being used more and more in films. Does this mean there is going to be less work for stunt people?
Gaëlle: This is an interesting question. I remember many years ago when the movie “The Matrix” came out; I was still in Europe at the beginning of my career, and everybody was worried this was the end of the stunt work. We, stunt performers, would be replaced by CGI… they were fearing this new technology because they thought it would completely replace the human performance. But then we realized that even for CGI and motion capture, stunt people are still needed to perform on green screen. It’s more like a collaboration than an eradication as people feared (at least in Europe).
On a movie I did three years ago in Tunisia (“Outside The Law”, which was nominated for an Oscar that year for Best Foreign Language Feature Film), high falls needed to be performed. The visual effects team convinced the production that they could recreate the human bodies falling off a bridge. We ended up having real stuntmen falling off a sixty-foot-high platform in front of a green wall. That’s what I call teamwork!
Q: Speaking of teamwork, do you feel more pressure when you’re performing a stunt, or when you’re the stunt coordinator and everyone is relying on you?
Gaëlle: I feel pressure in both situations, just not the same one. I am a perfectionist. I always try to give the best I have. As a stunt performer, I want to make my actress look good, and I want the coordinator and the director to be totally happy with the result.
As a stunt coordinator, I deal with two types of pressure. I have to create, and have my team execute, the action that the director has in mind. He needs to be pleased with my ideas. At the same time, I am in charge of the safety of my team and the actors on set. This is very important to me. Safety before everything else. Even if the director insists on having the actor do his own stunt, and even if the actor himself insists on doing it, I won’t allow it if I consider the risk too high. Actors shouldn’t be taking risks. Their job is to act, and stunt people to perform stunts. If they can do it safely, then yes, I am all up for the actor performing their own on-screen stunts.
Q: Even though safety is paramount, is there a stunt that you’ve been genuinely afraid of? Does anything scare you?
Gaëlle: I wouldn’t say that I have been afraid of a stunt per se, but I am totally aware of the danger that accompanies the job. I think being aware of danger is different than being afraid. I have fears of course. Stunt people being fearless and invincible is a funny belief that the majority of people have. If I really feel like I can’t do a stunt, because I am not skilled enough or because it is too dangerous for me, then I will simply turn the job down and tell the coordinator the truth: I can’t do it!
Now, put me in a room with a spider, and you’ll hear the loudest scream ever!
Performing stunts on a “closed set” is different than real life. On set, you can have an incredible chase between cars, motorcycles and trucks in a “safe” environment. It looks dangerous, but you know your job and you have control over things. But I do not drive a motorcycle on the roads in LA. It is way too dangerous and unpredictable for me. So you could say I do get scared sometimes.
Q: What’s the worst injury that you’ve sustained?
Gaëlle: On a movie called “Labyrinth”, I broke my tibia in three pieces performing a jump from a roof onto a car. With help from a fantastic surgeon, 18 screws, a metal plaque, 10 months without walking, and 3 months of intense physical therapy, I was finally back to work. People often forget that stunts are dangerous. Little cuts, burns, small fractures, and torn ligaments are part of the job. But when you get injured badly, it reminds you that you are human and not invincible. This is why it’s so important to have the honesty to say no to a job if you don’t feel like you are 100% capable of doing it. The price to pay for failure is way too high.
Q: Considering your injuries, but also your positive experiences in the industry, if you had a daughter who wanted to be a stuntwoman, what would you say to her?
Gaëlle: I would tell her to go to college and do something else! Don’t get me wrong – stunt work is a passion, it is the best job I could have ever dreamed of. But it is also dangerous.
The best advice I could give to someone who really wants to become a stunt performer would be to train – to train really hard – and to learn as many skills as possible in order to ensure safety and quality. You need to be good at what you are doing, and you need to be safe while you do it. There is no secret, and luck isn’t something you can count on! I would also advise the person to have the honesty to say no to a stunt you can’t perform. There is no shame in knowing your limits.
Photo credit : Emma K Studio