How Wigging Is Plaguing Hollywood Stunt Work & Erasing Minorities From The Industry
If there's one simplified takeaway from the #MeToo movement, it's that the gender and power dynamics in Hollywood are seriously imbalanced. Yet despite this growing awareness, there's a toxic work environment brewing in the background of our fave movies and TV shows, right in front of our eyes. It's no wonder that not many people outside the industry are familiar with the practices of "wigging" and "painting down" stunt performers on sets (i.e. having male and/or white stunt performers take on roles for women and/or people of color) — viewers aren't supposed to notice the nitty-gritty details of an on-screen stunt. And you're also apparently not supposed to talk about them, either, as I quickly understood while trying to learn about the allegedly exclusionary ways Hollywood stunts are often cast.
In 2018, the stunt performer world is still very much male-dominated and insular. While the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) didn't divulge its membership numbers of stunt performers to Bustle, stunt performer associations are largely segregated by gender and race, and everyone seems to know each other. There's the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures, the Stuntwomen's Association, the United Stuntwoman's Association, and Stunt Performers of Color, among others, with anywhere from 50 to hundreds of members in each group. Stunts Unlimited, meanwhile, seems gender and race neutral by name, but scroll through its member page and you'll find just one woman featured there — stunt coordinator Melissa Stubbs. (There is a directory with more female members, though it's unlisted for the public.)
Because many stunt coordinators (the ones in charge of hiring stunt doubles) are white and male, it seems people often choose who they already know, rather than search for new talent. (You don't necessarily have to belong to any of the stunt associations to get stunt work.) Because of that, female stunt performers and performers of color tend to be overlooked — or flat-out replaced, as stuntwoman Phedra Syndelle, who has done stunts on projects ranging from Avengers: Infinity War to American Vandal, tells Bustle via email, adding that she has never witnessed it, but has heard of both practices occurring on sets.
There's "wigging," when a male stunt performer puts on a wig (or a hat or a costume) made for a woman, in order to do a job that could have gone to an equally capable woman. And then there are "paint downs," when a white woman or man in what is essentially blackface does the stunt that a woman of color could have done.
In any other industry in the United States, subbing in a man for an equally qualified woman or painting someone in blackface instead of hiring a person of color would be a gross violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. It technically is verboten in the stunt world as well, as a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson told Bustle that wigging and paint downs are "presumptively improper and prohibited."
But workplaces prohibit a lot of things that people still do anyway, as we've painfully learned from the #MeToo movement. And none of the stunt performers Bustle spoke to — and even SAG-AFTRA — denied that wigging and paint downs happen. While SAG-AFTRA has protocol in place for reporting wigging and paint downs on set, performers who do speak out, at least the ones Bustle spoke to, say they've been retaliated against in the form of smear campaigns or not being called to work again. The first rule of wigging and paint downs, it seems, is to not question them.
Syndelle adds, "People don't get mad or bothered until it affects them. ... People are afraid to speak up because they feel it will affect their work." Julie Johnson, veteran stunt performer and coordinator for the original Charlie's Angels, wrote a book about her experiences with sexism and exposed apparent rampant drug abuse on the set of Charlie's Angels. She tells Bustle:
Stunt coordinating has become a sort of dictatorship, the power lies with the coordinators and they’re the ones who control the hiring. If you want to be hired, [the performers] know to keep their mouth shut. In the beginning, I was one of the examples. "You don’t want to end up like Julie Johnson, do you? So keep your mouth shut."
After speaking out about the lack of diversity and feeling unsafe doing driving stunts with people under the influence of cocaine while doubling Farrah Fawcett decades ago, Johnson claims she was all but blacklisted from the industry.
When contacted about all this, the aforementioned stunt performer organizations did not return Bustle's repeated requests for comment, with the exception of Stunts Unlimited, which directed Bustle to its members. Jwaundace Candece, on behalf of Stunt Performers of Color, said in an emailed statement to Bustle,
We decline any comments or statements about "wigging and paint downs." We represent a positive platform providing the stunt industry with qualified stunt professionals and stunt actors of color. We do not police the stunt community.
Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA told Bustle in an emailed statement that it "adamantly opposes the practice of wigging men to double for a role that is identifiable as female." SAG-AFTRA added, "Our decades-long efforts to eliminate this practice have effected positive change and reduced it dramatically, and our continued work will make it less likely that it will happen again." The union also informed Bustle of its reporting and investigation protocol in the case of someone witnessing what is essentially a contract violation. Since SAG-AFTRA's "Stunt and Safety Contracts Guidelines" say that coordinators are supposed to "endeavor" to cast stunt performers based on the race or gender of the character before starting to film, there should be no excuse for a man to put on a wig or a white woman to paint her face at the last minute.
The guidelines are also pretty clear that coordinators should "endeavor" to give nondescript roles to women and minorities in order to bridge the employment gap in the industry. When a role is nondescript, it just means that anyone, including "a green martian," as veteran stuntwoman Deven MacNair put it to Bustle, could do the stunt in the script. Think about an explosion on a city street in a movie: The innocent bystanders who flip and fly from the impact could be of any race or gender, right? These are the roles that stunt performers can use to gain experience while they attempt to make a name for themselves.
But endeavoring, or trying, to make something equal is not the same as actually making something equal. And prohibiting a practice, no matter how many times you say it in a statement, does absolutely nothing if those involved in wigging or a paint down aren't held accountable.
Take the case of MacNair, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against SAG-AFTRA and production company Hollywood Gang after witnessing wigging on the set of the Kate Bosworth movie The Domestics in 2016. As reported by Deadline, SAG-AFTRA did an investigation and concluded, "wigging a male stunt performer to double for a female performer is not acceptable and that this should not happen again." It added at the time, according to the same report, that the union would "remain committed to doing what it can to eliminate this practice." However, there was no fine nor any other ramifications for the producers or stunt coordinator. How will anyone walk from that experience knowing that what happened was wrong?
MacNair tells Bustle that it was the third instance in 2016 alone that she had seen a man dress as a woman to do what she says was a fairly commonplace stunt involving a car, and that she had enough when she made her complaint. She explains, "I was literally the only stuntwoman on set that day... So I said to [stunt coordinator Nick Gillard], 'I can do this stunt, I can do this for you, please don’t put on that wig.' And he said, 'No, the car is really unsafe, it's caught on fire many times." She says she protested, yet he went ahead and did it anyway, allegedly posting pictures of himself in the actual wig that she screenshot and shared in her complaint and with Bustle. As MacNair explains:
So, I directed traffic for him. Cut to months later with men saying how dare I make a stink because I was OK with it on the day, but I was not OK with it on the day. I talked to him in a [measured] voice, I never yelled, I never cried. I told him not to do it, and he still did. And I professionally still helped to perform the stunt. I love that somehow men have the nerve to say that means I was OK with it. Because once again, if I was crying and yelling on set, that would show how unprofessional I am and how I don't deserve to be a stunt person on set that day.
In response to MacNair's claim to the EEOC at the time, Gillard told Deadline:
If it happened again I would do the same thing. In the stunt business, if it comes down to hurting somebody’s feelings versus hurting somebody physically, then feelings are going to get hurt every time. ... Even if Deven were capable of doing the stunt, we wouldn’t have been able to use her as she is three-times the size of Kate Bosworth.
But MacNair says it wasn't about feelings. She tells Bustle that she could have driven the car despite her size, but even if her matching up more to Bosworth or her driving skills were the issue, Gillard should have called another woman in — or there should have already been someone ready on set to do the stunt, as per the SAG-AFTRA Stunt & Safety Guidelines. Coordinators are supposed to "endeavor" to fill the roles "prior" to filming. Although SAG-AFTRA didn't fine the production company, MacNair feels that she has been held accountable for speaking up, telling Bustle that she hasn't been called for work since. This year, she says, she worked on two feature films as a stunt coordinator thanks to a friend who hooked her up with the jobs, but that's it. After over a decade in the industry, she attributes her open schedule these days to her blowing the whistle.
"I did not wake up that day thinking, 'Today’s the day I'm going to implode my career,'" she says.
While some people in the industry point to stunt dangers as reasons to "wig" men or use blackface instead of hiring women and people of color, MacNair calls that reasoning out. If, say, the car on The Domestics set truly was too dangerous, "then we shouldn't be working with this car," she says. Why would any man, with the same amount of training as a woman, be any more qualified to get into a car that has caught fire multiple times before? Are men less flammable? Is anyone?
However, Melissa Stubbs, a veteran stunt performer and coordinator, thinks that MacNair and those who support her need to "settle down." Stubbs tells Bustle, "It’s not a racist thing, it’s not a man-woman thing, it’s a 'we gotta do what’s safe and right for everybody [thing].'" She adds:
You have to do what's safe so that nobody gets hurt. From a stunt coordinator’s point of view, we’re not trying to take work away from women or [people of color]. We’re just trying to do what’s safe and it starts with the writer, and then we create it. And you get who you get.
There's no question that stunt performing is dangerous and that more training should be required — but that's the case for both men and women. In August 2018, a male stunt coordinator who was called out on Facebook by his peers for reportedly wigging and painting down stunt performers on the set of CBS' MacGyver had an accident and was in a coma for almost a week, though he is now reportedly out of the intensive care unit and doing better, as per The Wrap. In 2017, stunt performer SJ Harris died on the set of Deadpool 2 when the "motorcycle she was driving went out of control and crashed," according to Deadline. Stubbs was there. She tells Bustle:
I watched SJ die because she was unqualified. Because she was black, they brought her out from New York to do this stunt [because they were] all upset and worried about the social pressure if they did a paint down. I was with her on her rehearsal days up until the day she died. ... I had told everyone who would listen that she was not ready ... It was a 50/50 chance that she wrecks, it was just a matter of how bad and she died the next morning... We killed somebody and I will never ever let that happen again.
Any injury or death as a result of accidents on set is tragic, and that sort of responsibility is not something anyone should have to live with. But MacNair takes issue with people blaming Harris' death on the fact that she's female, black, or didn't have enough experience. Says MacNair,
When a woman or a person of color has an accident, her gender and/or the person’s [race] gets called out immediately, When it’s a white man in an accident, it was "a tragic happening of events and the best man was there on the day and was qualified." And that to me is one of the most racist, sexist statements out there. It’s said over and over again, that because of diversity, because [they] were pressured into having a black woman on set that day, that’s why this accident happened. And no one says it when a white dude gets hurt. Never.
For Stubbs and many others, it all comes down to proper training and mentorship, but that's often hard to facilitate. Though SAG-AFTRA does have mandatory safety trainings and qualifications to be a stunt coordinator, performers don't undergo the same process. You can attend a driving, surfing, martial arts, or other specialty school, but, according to the L.A. Stunt Training Center, a lot of skills are simply "acquired on set." And as Stubbs notes, coordinators don't often have time to pass their knowledge onto the performers they hire.
"There are lots of people to learn from who are willing to mentor and help and have you apprentice with them, but also as a stunt coordinator, you’re extremely busy, so you can’t be spending all of your time teaching," Stubbs explains.
But cutting corners has real ramifications for someone's career. For one thing, when male coordinators only choose male stunt performers, women lose out on necessary work. MacNair cites the set of the upcoming Transformers spinoff Bumblebee where she says not one woman was hired for nondescript driving roles. One call sheet, obtained by Deadline in 2017, included a man who was to report to set "dressed in black with wig."
This incenses MacNair, especially since it was for nondescript roles. She says, "When [women] don't get the easy jobs it makes it very very easy for a stunt coordinator to say, ‘I've never seen a woman do any of these car stunts, so I need to hire a man for it, for the harder jobs.' If we don’t get the easy jobs, we’re never going to get the harder jobs."
She adds that she also recently saw a white, male stunt coordinator step in for a woman of color on another set. "Not only did they not hire a woman of color to double a woman of color, they didn’t allow for a woman of color to even shadow the person for the experience," claims McNair. "So once again, tomorrow when you need a woman of color, supposedly there aren’t that many qualified women. Well, of course not, they’re not even allowed to do the jobs they get."
To rectify the training and qualification gap, Johnson says that she crafted a roster system that she brought to SAG-AFTRA on multiple occasions. According to her guidelines, a performer — male or female — would have to "qualify for what they say they are. If they say they’re a motorcycle girl, then fine, they have to qualify that in front of, say, six judges, three women, three men, veteran stunt people."
Everyone would be put into a category, entered into a central database, and then "if you need a black stuntwoman to do a motorcycle job, you click on that and you got maybe 10, 15, 20 stuntwomen who can do that motorcycle job." Johnson adds, "The whole thing could be so simple, and it needs to be in the future. It should be the only place that stunt coordinators could hire stunt [performers]." But as it stands right now, Johnson says, "It’s ludicrous. ... It’s like we’re still second-class citizens and we’ll never be anywhere near equal."
Johnson is full of other fixes, too. In 2016, she conducted a survey of over 150 stuntwomen about their experiences on sets. Almost half of the women reported having seen men double for women and 11 percent added that they had seen coordinators "try and hide it." About the same percentages of stuntwomen reported having seen paint downs on set. Johnson's survey also asked about sexual harassment and verbal abuse, which over half of the women reported experiencing on sets.
Johnson wants SAG-AFTRA to perform a similar survey of all members, but claims that the union continuously ignores her even after being presented with her findings on many occasions since the completion of the survey in 2016. Claims Johnson, "[SAG-AFTRA leaders] don’t want to hear that; that’s probably part of the problem, because they know they have to deal with it. They have to deal with the issues if they see them."
When asked by Bustle if SAG-AFTRA uses anonymous surveys from stunt performers for feedback or what specifically the union does to curb wigging and paint downs, a spokesperson said, "Our union actively works to ensure that people working, and pursuing work, in our jurisdiction can do so free of unlawful discrimination or harassment. We will continue to engage with our members to develop relevant and responsive strategies to confront harassment and advance equity."
Yet because of the insular nature of the industry and the retaliation that she and others have felt, Johnson, for one, feels like a survey is the only way "the silent voice of the stuntwoman can be heard." Johnson hopes that regardless of SAG-AFTRA's future actions or lack thereof, more female stunt performers choose to be vocal about their experiences.
"Thank god for the women warriors who are finally starting to stand up, few and far between, but the more that will stand up and speak out, the better it will be," she says. "But there’s just not enough yet who feel powerful enough and secure enough in their jobs so that they can speak up."
What is certain is that with more women and people of color on screen in the coming years, there will be even more demand for female stunt performers and stunt performers of color. Now is the time for SAG-AFTRA, stunt coordinators, performers, and fans to demand solutions to the problem before it gets even more out of control. Stunt performers are the brave and badass people who send cars careening off cliffs and make sure heroes escape hordes of zombies without a scratch. Coming to an agreement on how to ensure everyone who's willing and able to step into those roles gets a fair shot should be worth the extra effort.