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The Secret Lives of Stunt Women by COOP

Posted on July 30th, 2009
Posted on July 30th, 2009
(left to right) Meggin Penkal, Coop Cooper and Nikki Hester

(left to right) Meggin Penkal, Coop Cooper and Nikki Hester

Coop here reporting from Los Angeles. While I’m in town, I thought I’d find some interesting film industry folks to learn more about what they do. Luckily, I stumbled upon some old friends who enlightened me to a part of the business I knew very little about.

Of all the individuals in film, few are as mysterious and unique as those who do stunt work. Not only do these artists employ acting skills, they also harness fierce athletic abilities to achieve seemingly impossible (or painful-looking) feats. Those who perform stunts form a very tight circle in the business; and in the case of women, one of the tightest circles in the entire industry.

Meggin and Nikki

Meggin and Nikki

Best friends Nikki Hester and Meggin Penkal have traversed a unique set of circumstances in order to achieve different, yet equal successes as Hollywood stunt women. In fact, they form an inseparable team, providing moral support and a shoulder to lean on while searching for new job opportunities. They credit each other for their increasing success in one of the most difficult film disciplines to crack.

Despite their striking similarities, the two friends come from different backgrounds and promote their own specialized skill sets:

“My parents are in the (film) business. I grew up as a dancer and played a lot of sports… I just started auditioning and fell into it,” said Nikki who boasts skills on her resume ranging from roller derby, to water skiing, to motorcycling. She is regarded in the industry for her outstanding versatility with the ability to perform a wide variety of stunts. “I had to get certified to handle an automatic rifle while playing Sarah Connor at the “Terminator” show in Universal Studios Florida. They put you through this training and you have to learn to field strip and clean the guns.”

In regards to her dancing background, I asked her if she could demonstrate “the robot.” Nikki immediately jumped up and obliged, resulting in some applause from nearby patrons.

Meggin laughed and added, “This girl (Nikki) can do anything.” As for Meggin’s own experience, “I’ve been doing gymnastics all my life. After competing across the country, it brought me all the way from Pennsylvania to out here

This girl can do anything!

"This girl can do anything!"

 (Hollywood)… After that I heard about USA Stunt School and thought, I can do that!” Known in her field for her strength, acrobatic skills and superior balance, Meggin excels at tumbling and doubling for actresses playing cheerleader or gymnast roles.

Meggin met Nikki while they were both on their first stunt job. Soon after they became fast friends and have helped each other find gigs ever since. “We have this ritual…” says Meggin, “When one of us has a gig, we wear this shirt.”

“…It’s got hot air balloons, clouds and stars. It says ‘feelin free’,” says Nikki. “We share it. It’s for good luck.”

And when they both have a gig on the same day? “Whoever has the hardest, most important gig gets it,” laughs Meggin who knocks her drink into her lap. “That is so embarrassing. I always do that… I guess I talk with my hands.”

Nikki laughs, “It’s true, she does. See? Even stunt people can be clumsy.”

Often, luck is an important factor in the day-to-day life of a stunt woman. Injuries are commonplace, whether they are accidents or simply the wear and tear of constant training and performing. “I cracked two ribs at a live show in Japan… and my nose. People don’t realize that when you get tackled by a guy and crash into a break-away table, it really hurts… you have to be able to handle the pain. Advil helps.”

“Even when you know how to fall to keep from getting hurt, it still hurts… I’ve been taking judo to learn how to fall better,” says Meggin. Most of Meggin’s injuries result from her many years of gymnastics. “I’ve had two surgeries on my left knee and I don’t have anymore cartilage in it… But you can’t let anyone know when you get hurt. You have to tough it out… find a way to work around it.”

“It’s an unwritten rule,” says Nikki.

Nikki and Pink

Nikki and Pink

Despite the perils of their job, the two women believe the rewards outweigh the danger. Recently, they both scored some impressive projects. Nikki body doubled for the singer Pink in her video “Please Don’t Leave Me.”

“I’m really proud of the way it turned out. It’s at the end of the video when she (Pink) slips and falls backwards over a railing. That’s actually me doing a 1 and 1/4 flip off the balcony,” says Nikki.

Nikki also doubled for Drew Barrymore in her yet unreleased Roller Derby film “Whip It.”

“That’s something I really like about the job, getting to act too,” says Nikki. In addition to doubling for Barrymore, Nikki got her own small part. “My character was trying out for the (Roller Derby) team and it was hard because I had to act like I was bad at skating. That was harder than doing the actual stunts… I really hope they keep those scenes in the movie.”

Meggin has recently scored regular gigs as a stunt double in gymnastics-related TV shows like “Make It or Break It” and kid shows like “Sonny with a Chance.”

“There’s no telling when they are going to need me. Most of the time the actresses are just sitting at a desk or talking, but they don’t know gymnastics so they call me in for those scenes,” says Meggin. “But it’s nice to know I’ll get steady

handstand!

handstand!

 work.” Meggin credits her unusual athletic abilities for much of her success in the business. “I can put my hands on the edge of a chair, go into a pike (demonstrating the motion), then rise up into a handstand.”

“It’s her party trick,” laughs Nikki.

“I’d like to be able to show pictures and videos to my grandchildren and say, ‘Hey, look what Grandma used to do!’… Hopefully then I can still show them how to do a handstand.”

When they aren’t working, Nikki and Meggin are “hustling” or networking with stunt coordinators. Stunt performers drive around Los Angeles looking for temporary yellow signs that indicate to film crews the nearby location of a shoot. Referred to as “chasing signs,” the stunt man/woman locates a set and asks to meet with the stunt coordinator. When the coordinator is free, he/she will meet with the stunt performers and get to know them so they can be considered for future jobs.

“If an actor or actress tried to do this and meet with a director they’d get kicked off the set, but all the PA’s (Production Assistants) understand it’s part of what we do, so they let us on the set,” says Nikki.

“I got kicked off a set once (while hustling),” laughs Meggin. “A security guard escorted me off… He had no idea that it’s okay for us to do that.”

For those interested in breaking into the stunt biz, Nikki offers this advice: “You can’t get discouraged. There are times where I think, ‘Okay, I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard,’ but the support of friends (gesturing to Meggin), gets you through those tough times. Life is going to beat you down but you have to keep going if it’s what you’re truly meant to do.”

Coop as a stunt man?  Hmmm... Maybe he should stick to his other guns.

Coop as a stunt man? Hmmm... Maybe he should stick to his "other" guns.

And if they got injured and couldn’t perform anymore? Meggin says, “I’d teach gymnastics to kids. I have old instructors all over the place that say, ‘Anytime you need a job, you’ve got one here.’ It’s something I’d love to do… and if I got hurt, it’s something I know I can do.”

Until that day, Meggin and Nikki will no doubt continue to chase signs in Hollywood and perform thrilling stunts in many more TV shows, live-action performances and motion pictures. Next time you see an actress plummet off of a cliff or jump out of a moving car, keep in mind that person is not actually Angelina Jolie or Uma Thurman. It could very well be Meggin or Nikki.

 

-C

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