When you watch Scarlett Johansson's Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova flipping and fighting her way through the Avengers franchise or Michelle Rodriguez dive off a tanker onto the hood of Vin Diesel's car in the latest Fast and Furious installments, you're actually seeing the work of veteran stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker. After attending UCLA on a gymnastics scholarship, the 36-year-old parlayed her skills (and her curvy 5'3" frame) into a gig doubling Drew Barrymore on Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Since then, she's also taken punches for Jaime Pressly, Keri Russell, Emily Browning, and even Malcolm in the Middle—Frankie Muniz anyway—on an episode of All That.
Gymnastics may have launched Moneymaker’s career, but she’s shaped it by learning to fight, handle weapons (both conventional and extraterrestrial), do wire work, and stunt drive. Maxim caught up with Moneymaker while she was taking a break from filming Avengers: Age of Ultron, the fourth movie featuring Black Widow, to talk about her career, relationship with Johansson, and limits.
Can you describe what you’ve been up to this summer without giving away any Avengers spoilers and incurring the wrath of Disney and Marvel?
Typical Marvel, big-action stunts and fights. We had so many great characters out there, so many great actors and stuntpeople, so there were a lot of great fights and a lot of great stunts, fights, and explosions.
How did you get into this line of work? This is not the sort of thing they teach at UCLA.
I was on a gymnastics scholarship at UCLA, and I had a few friends who got into stunts. I started getting calls from friends saying, "They need a gymnast to double this girl on this movie or TV show. We're not in gymnastics shape anymore. Can you do it?" That's how I got into SAG and into the business. Once I started working a little bit, I realized there was more to it and started training in martial arts and cars and motorcycles and all sorts of other stuff.
Was there a community you could tap into to get more training or jobs? Is it easy to get into that way?
I wouldn't say it's easy to get into. There are a lot of different facets to it, a lot of different places you can train. There are a lot of motorcycle schools and driving schools, not all related to stunts, but there are a few actual stunt-driving courses that teach you 90-degree turns, stopping on a mark, reverse 180s, and all these fancy things you see in movies.
A lot of people go to gymnastics gyms and practice flipping and falling, or studying different martial arts. Yeah, I travel around. There's not a one-stop shop. You have to seek it out. I just ask around and everybody is pretty good about giving advice and saying where they went.
How do you prepare for a big gig?
I'm constantly preparing for these films and continuing my education, training in different arts, upping my skill level and keeping in really good shape. Usually, with these movies, your all-around ability takes you through the whole film. If there's an aspect to it that's a little obscure, they'll let you know what it is or you'll do some extra training for it. They’ll even bring in a specialist if it's a really specialized thing. For Charlie's Angels, all of us doubles doubled the girls throughout the whole film through the fights and the wire work, all that stuff, but there was a huge motocross section that was insane and amazing, and they brought in professional riders to do all that.
What kind physical training do you do to take a punch or withstand wire work or all the other unnatural things you have to do?
In all honesty, it's one of those things where you have to train it to do it. You have to do a million head takes and a million reactions to the ground to get your body used to hitting the deck.
How much work goes into making you look as identical as possible to the star you're doubling?
It depends on the film, but generally a lot of work goes into it. Usually, body type and size are the most important because we wear wigs a lot, and having the same wardrobe on really does help. Body type, height, size are the most important. They put a ton of work into it. I've had costumes where I have a different body type than the actress, so they've added some hips to me. Or they've face-replaced me on some films if they want to see more of the fighting, a little more intensely. Also, as a stunt double, it's partly your job to do your best to hide your face. That's usually the biggest problem is seeing that it's not the actor's face, so we spend a lot of time trying to get hair in front of our eyes or looking down.
How often do you train alongside the actor?
It depends on the film. For example, I doubled Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow for the last few Marvel films, and we've been able to work together pretty tightly because she really wanted to get in amazing fight shape. We worked really hard with her to perfect the choreography and a lot of the moves. We get weeks and weeks to work with her usually that way, when we get to the fight, the choreography is down: She gets it, I get it, and we've already created this seamless pattern of movement.
So what are the biggest misconceptions about your line of work?
Often when I talk to people and I say that I'm a stunt double, a lot of times they say, "Oh, really? I thought stunt doubles were really thick and butch and muscular." There's a big misconception there, because we double these tiny, beautiful, in-shape actors, you have to be the same size.
What are some of the more dangerous stunts you've done? Is there anything that would really scare the crap out of most other people?
One of my bigger stunts recently was I did a cannon roll in a car, where they put this thing in your backseat, you drive down the road, hit your mark, hit the button, and there's a dowel that's pushed through floor and it launches your car into the air and you flip in the air. That was a little on the dangerous side.
How about ones that don't involve cars?
Often there will be explosions going off near you and obviously they're very dangerous. You have to be in the right spot to not get hurt but close enough so it looks like it almost could have caught you. A lot of times jumping through windows where they're popping tempered glass when you fly through, you usually get a little bit nicked up because glass is glass. Sometimes you're on a cable hanging 75 or 80 feet above a building as they drop you 40 feet or something.
A lot of times, stunts can be a bit painful, you get banged up or bruised up, but there are definitely times when a stunt is very dangerous and, if not all the players have their cards lined up in a row, you can get seriously injured.
Do you draw the line at any kind of stunts?
I don't do nude stunts, so there's that. Actually, I was asked to double Jennifer Aniston one time and be covered in bees and I said no. I'm not allergic, but I just didn't feel like I wanted to be covered in a bunch of bees.
Are you booked for the rest of these Marvel movies?
I will decline to answer that.