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Stuntwoman Gaëlle Cohen: From Layer to Hollywood Action Heroine

Someone’s got to take the bumps and bruises for the Hollywood elite. Someone’s got to take the bumps and bruises for the Hollywood elite.


There’s an old saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. A similar notion describes the career of professional stuntwoman Gaëlle Cohen.

This French beauty is often scantily clad and wearing heels while performing death-defying feats for films like Zero Dark Thirty, Rush Hour 3, Sahara and Babylon A.D. Then there was the time she had to dive into a castle’s moat for the TV show Largo Winch during a blustery Parisian winter.

“The moat was there since the 17th century and it was freezing,” says Cohen. “The actor wore a smoking jacket over a tuxedo. And the actress was wearing a black spaghetti-strap mini-dress. So the stunt guy had a full dive suit on underneath and I had nothing but panties. We jumped in the water and did it in one take.”

Stunt people regularly get hit by cars, fall off cliffs and get set on fire. Ironically, if they’re doing their jobs, the audience doesn’t notice their presence. It’s not the most glamorous profession, and it’s a far cry from where Gaëlle started — practicing law.

“I focused on medical ethics and Internet copyrights,” she reveals. “But I barely practiced, like only two or three months after I got my degree and that was it. I’m never going to be a lawyer again. I really have an artistic mind. It’s something you can’t fight.”

It was precisely Gaëlle’s fighting spirit and experience on the French national fencing team that propelled her into show business and coordinating projects like the Oscar-nominated World War II film Outside the Law and the horror flick Martyrs. Her next appearance is in the upcoming CBS series Beverly Hills Cop starring Eddie Murphy.

Cohen reveals to Rosebud what it took to become Hollywood’s hottest new stuntwoman:

Rosebud: How often do you get put in these tiny costumes for stunts? Have you ever rebelled against wearing them?

Gaëlle Cohen: I could write a book. It’s so funny. Sometimes you wonder if the costume designer is reading the script. One of my jobs in Europe, there were two girls playing bodyguards to a big businessman. In the real world, you’d be wearing a pantsuit and flat shoes to be able to run, kick, react, whatever. Nope. When we came for the fitting the costume designer showed up with super-high heels and skirts that were up to the crotch. I was like, “OK, it would look super-cool if we were in a club. But we’re supposed to give big kicks.” So I did a huge kick in the air in the costume and she was like, “That’s not possible.” You could see my crotch!

Women are always put in heels. We have to do everything with no pads or very little pads. Men are so lucky. They always have coats, big suits, but women have to jump over a table in less.

Sometimes the costume designer is like, “OK, I’m going to put you in a mini-skirt.” And I have to say, “I have a lot of scars.” And then they’re like, “OK, wow, pants then.” It’s part of the job. You get scars because you get hurt. Even simple stuff, like a man grabs you and slams you on a table, and you might do it well and get up feeling fine. But part of the metal might have caught your arm and you’re bruised. It’s no big deal, but I have scars. I hope no one ever shaves my head.

Rosebud: What was it like working on Zero Dark Thirty? What sorts of stunts did you perform for it?

Cohen: It was one of the best experiences of my life. When they called me it was a super-secret project. They told me I’d find out when I arrived to Jordan. So I showed up and I thought it was a Mummy-type movie and the production manager told me that Kathryn Bigelow was the director and my heart stopped. They were actually shooting the scene where the Navy Seals were entering Osama Bin Laden’s compound. I played one of the women in the restaurant during a big explosion. We were all on wires crossing the room. That was a tough one. The conditions were not as protected or padded as in L.A.

But then I got to meet her. Oh my gosh, that lady! When [Bigelow] enters the room there’s a silence. She’s so powerful, but she has a very quiet voice. Everybody’s afraid of her. One of the costume girls was like, “Don’t look at her or talk to her. Talk to her assistant.” But we had a friend in common. I had just finished coordinating [The Tall Man] with Jessica Biel and we became close friends. She told me, “If you ever meet Kathryn tell her hello from me.” So when I introduced myself, [Bigelow] had a big smile and she was super-nice. She had just shot a commercial with [Biel]. After we finished the scene she came and shook all our hands. I hope I can work with her again.

Rosebud: What are some common misconceptions about stunt people that you’d like to squash right now?

Cohen: When most people see me, they say, “Oh my god, you look good! You look like a woman!” They have an idea of bulky truckers. They think you have to be manly to do stunts. It’s the exact opposite. If you look like a man, there’s no way an actress would accept you as her double. People think stunt people are invincible and you get put in situations where you’re like, “Se-riously, dude? We’re still human beings.”

[In] one of my first movies I was getting killed by having a wall fall on me. And it was a real wall, so there was going to be a puppet underneath. Then the first assistant director was like, “So you’re going to lie here and then we’ll give you a countdown before the wall falls.” And then the stunt coordinator came over and said we were using a puppet. He said, “There’s no way that wall is falling on her.” And the AD (assistant director) said, “Well is she a stuntwoman or not?” There’s this attitude of, “Oh, they can take a bullet.”

Rosebud: What was one of the scariest stunts you’ve ever executed?

Cohen: I am always worried before a stunt — a stair fall, high fall, burn, getting hit by a car, jumping from one horse to another. I always have that little pinch and for me I think that’s good. It means I’m still focused and careful. The scariest was a roof fall with someone else in Spain. We were actually falling from a roof onto another roof together and then falling on the ground. The guy I was doing it with was not very aware of his body so I was scared, not because of the fall, but because of the fall with him. The night before I was like, “How can I make sure I am safe with that guy with me?” He arrived on the ground first and he landed badly. He almost fell on his neck and I landed next to him flat. But if I had been heavier than him he would’ve landed on me.

Rosebud: Stunt people are like professional athletes in that it only takes one accident to end a career. What was your worst injury?

Cohen: One of my worst accidents was when I had to jump from a roof onto a car. Everything was rehearsed, so for me it was not scary. When I arrived on the car my leg just exploded, shattered. My tibia was broken in three pieces and totally twisted. I have no more side bone on the tibia. My meniscus came out. I had to lie down and not do anything for 10 months. It’s a very expensive price to pay when something goes wrong. It could’ve been worse; you could be paralyzed or die.

Rosebud: Have you ever been close to quitting?

Cohen: I’ve never thought about quitting, but I get fed up. The only thing that would make me quit is to have a baby and start a family.

Rosebud: You’re used to battling bad guys to save the planet, but what about in real life? In what ways have you fought for the environment?

Cohen: I have given money to organizations like Green Planet. If everybody is responsible, then everything will be better. Now we have on set someone who’s in charge of making sure everything is green. It’s really cool. I always try to be respectful of stupid everyday things, like don’t use too many towels at hotels, recycling, and thinking about the environment. It’s not as big in Europe as it is here. My sister composts and I’m moving into a house with a garden soon, and I was thinking about having a compost pile. It’s better than putting it down the drain, then you can use it as a natural fertilizer. That’s the best.

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A look at another stuntwoman earning a tough living in Hollywood.
Last modified on Friday, 21 June 2013 20:11

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