Alumnae Bulletin
November 2010

Thinking on Your Feet

Tell Us: Stuntwoman Shelby Swatek looks forward to using her film experience as a stepping stone to producing films.

Shelby Swatek graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in English and is now a professional stuntwoman for film and TV. She has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including Jackie Chan and Christian Bale, and doubled for a number of leading actresses, including Mira Sorvino, Jane Alexander, and Gena Rowlands. Shelby and her fiancé, Michael Long, also work as stunt coordinators helping directors get their vision on screen, and train aspiring stunt performers in their industry-leading Stunt Boot Camps.

Alumnae Bulletin: How did you get your start as a stuntwoman?

Shelby Swatek: I pretty much fell into it. After graduating from Bryn Mawr I was in New York City pursuing acting gigs and getting nowhere. I learned stunt people were needed for some big movies about to be shot in New York, figured out a way to get my SAG card, and got on doing stunts on big budget productions like Die Hard With a Vengeance and Money Train.

AB: Was there anything in your background or early history that suggested this was a career you were going to pursue?

SS: No, but I was always athletic, and also loved dance and theater. My Mom actually showed more early signs of being a stuntwoman, and would have been a great one. She grew up in Oklahoma and was a rodeo rider and trick roper as well as an actress. She graduated from Wellesley.

AB: What backgrounds do most stunt people have?

SS: It used to be that most stunt people were circus performers or rodeo cowboys who made their way into the film business. Now they come from a lot of different backgrounds, including gymnastics, martial arts, football, snowboarding, and BMX biking, etc., while some are actors who are athletic and a have good sense of timing, as in my case.

AB: What is the most surprising thing you could tell us about stunt people?

SS: How well educated and intelligent many stunt performers are. The industry attracts a number of folks interested in the engineering aspects of stunts. And you won’t last long if you don’t have a really good head on your shoulders. Things change fast, and you have to be able to think on your feet to keep yourself and others safe.

AB: Do you specialize in any particular kinds of stunts? Are there stunts you avoid?

SS: I have specialized in doing fight scenes and hitting the ground, as they say in the business, but I aspire to do more stunt driving, which is my passion. Recently I lived my dream when I got to do all sorts of stunt driving for three weeks on the film Drive Angry in which I played a character driving a Bronco in hot pursuit of Nicolas Cage. I don’t do high falls, which can be one of the deadliest stunts and are best left to folks with really good air sense.

AB: What was your first stunt job?

SS: A stairfall down steel stairs in tandem with two other stunt performers on the film Passenger 57. It was the director’s first film, so we had to do the stairfall from the door of the plane to the tarmac seven times so he could get all the coverage he wanted. Then on top of it, the extras were either early or late. After the first couple of takes they stopped asking us if we were okay. I was padded up, but still got bruises all over, and my ankle finally gave out on the last take. Luckily that gig has paid extremely well over the years, thanks to good residuals.

AB: What is the most dangerous stunt you have ever performed? The scariest?

SS: The most dangerous was probably the ratchet 70 feet into the air on Terminator Salvation. Right before I did my first test another stunt guy came up and told me about someone who had nearly been killed when he got yanked into the crane they rigged off of. It actually wasn’t scary but really fun, since I didn’t go into the crane. I went from the ground to six stories up in about four seconds. The scariest was when I was dropped into the container in the next shot. They had us up about 50 feet in the air above an opening in the metal container, with almost no margin for error, and dropped me in a freefall onto an 8-inch pad. I was supposed to be slowed to a stop in the last few feet, but the stunt guy I was rigged next to was getting hung up, so they dropped me onto the pad at full speed. It started getting really tense when the wind kicked up and started blowing us off our marks right before the drop. Everything was fine, thank God. But it could have gotten ugly.

AB: What challenges do you have as a female in a male dominated field?

SS: One thing we have to get used to is being referred to as “stunt girls” as opposed to “stuntwomen” in the industry. One day on Drive Angry the stunt coordinator asked for the “stunt guys” on set, and that included me. That was awesome because it meant I was holding my own with some of the top male drivers in the business. It is very frustrating that more women aren’t used to play cops, or military, or SWAT team members, when there are plenty of women in those roles in real life. Women are getting hired as stunt coordinators more frequently these days, which is great.

AB: You have been a stunt performer for nearly 20 years. What is your secret to having that kind of longevity in the business?

SS: I’ve been lucky in a way, but I’ve also made my own luck. I wasn’t so lucky as to be the size of most actresses, typically 5’5” to 5’7”, size 4-6. I’m 5’8” and a size 8, so able to double some actresses but not most. You have to capitalize on who you are and what you offer, and you can’t worry about who and what you’re not. I am good at fights and driving and have focused my energies there. Obviously you have to stay in good shape!

AB: How do you see your career evolving from here?

SS: I look forward to learning the stunt coordinating side of the business working with my fiancé, Michael Long, who is one of the best in the business. As a coordinator you work directly with the producers, directors, and actors, and it’s a lot of responsibility. I also look forward to using my film experience as a stepping stone to producing films, which was how I originally justified my stunt career choice to my parents. My father, Phillip Swatek, a former journalist, wrote a book titled The Pontotoc Conspiracy, and I am working with him to develop his screenplay adaptation so we can get it on screen.

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