It was a great treat to talk with Gaelle Cohen, the French fencing champion turned stunt woman behind some of the movies’ most remarkable action scenes. She told me the unexpected extra challenge faced by a woman doing stunts and which classic James Bond stunt she always wishes she had a chance to perform.
What was the first stunt you ever did in a film?
I actually started with a TV show, but in a film my first stunt was with a movie called Young Blades and it was with that actor Hugh Dancy, who is now the main actor in Hannibal. I think it was a twenty five feet tree, and I was sliding down the rope hitting a guy that was passing on horseback and we were both falling off the horse after that.
It was great. I started on the TV show called Highlander. I was a bad girl and I was getting killed. Their head was chopped off. Sixteen years ago and that’s actually how I started. It was just a coincidence that I ended up on that set doing a short fight. When I did it, I thought, “Oh my God this is what I want to do.”
So when you were a child were you a daredevil?
No, I was not. This is a question that I think almost all journalists ask all stunt people. And no, I was not daredevil at all. I was actually afraid of heights. I couldn’t go down stairs. I had to go down, you know, sitting on my butt and going one step after another. Then the fear just left. I was seventeen. I have no idea how it left. I think that one of the main qualities of a good stunt person is to actually be aware of danger. I think daredevils’ are, are more “Oh whatever, I just want to do it.” And we’re not like that. We are careful. We know what we’re doing and we analyze things before doing them.
What are some of the safety procedures that you think are very important?
It starts with yourself. You have to be trained and you have to be skilled. So, if you don’t have that it’s like jumping off a thirty feet cliff into the water. You have to be aware of your limits as well, know what you can do, what you can try to do, and what you really can’t do. So you’re responsible for your own safety. Also that on set you have a stunt coordinator who is in charge of the stunt people and in charge of the scene and of the safety of the scene, so you rely a lot on him. Usually I work with people that I know, I respect, I admire, and I put one hundred percent of my trust in their hands. And then, beside that there is a lot of pads, and equipment that you use on set that are there to protect you if you can use them.
For woman it’s very rare to be able to use the pads because most of the time actresses in movies, I don’t know why, they are wearing very little clothing….
Yes, I think I know why that is…
Oh you do? [laughter] I think I know too! So seriously we’re just fighting and being kicked out of cars in, in miniskirts and high heels, and so for us it’s really hard to pad up as men are able to do.
Do you have to spend a lot of time in wardrobe and hair and makeup to help you look like the actress you are supposed to be?
Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Actually it’s very enjoyable to sit in the chair, have someone, you know, make up your hair for an hour and then do your makeup. It’s the very girly part of the job that we enjoy. Sometimes it’s just make your hair the way she is and here you go. And sometimes the transformation requires more time and you spend between thirty minutes to an hour and a half in the chair.
Is there a stunt from a classic movie that you look at and you say, “Boy I would like to have done that one?”
Yes. Oh yes. It’s one of the James Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan. I think it’s the first one he did. There’s the big water reservoir? And he’s on the top of that and he puts a rope on his ankle and he’s just diving. I don’t know how high that fall was. It was played with what we call the descender, which is a wire connected to a computer that makes the speed of your fall go from really fast to slow, slow, slow until it stops at a certain point, so it’s very smooth. But it’s still a great jump so I would have loved to do that. It’s fantastic. It’s very elegant, the way the guy, the double dives. It looks so easy when we all know it is not.
Tell me a little bit about performing in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
It was literally a dream come true. I was shooting a movie in Europe and I received a phone call from one of the Production Managers who says, “Would you be available to work with us in Jordan from that day to that day?” And I say, “Yes, I am, sure. Um… But what is it for?” “Um… Um… It’s a movie… And well we’ll get in touch for the transportation and all that.” And I’m like, “Well what am I going to have to do?” “Oh I don’t know you’ll speak with the Coordinator.” So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go somewhere, do something and I have no idea.”
We’re used to that, but not knowing on what you’re working and what you’re going to have to do, that’s even weirder. So, I arrive in Jordan, in the middle of the night after three planes, and I arrive on the set which looks like a bunker, and I’m like, “What is that movie?” And I’m waiting for hair and makeup to seat me and say, “Yes, you’re good to go,” and I see her, [director] Katherine Bigelow coming out of that bunker, and I’m like a kid in a candy store. I swear probably my mouth was open because, when she won the Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh just one day… Just one day if I could get the chance to work for her.” And there it is. And I was, seriously, I thought, “I can stop now,” because she’s the ultimate female dream for me. And then I get to do the, uh, the biggest action scene of the movie. It was an amazing opportunity. An amazing movie… Fantastic lady… And a great action to perform, so… It’s one of my best memories. It was short, it was only two weeks, but, it was fantastic. Really.
What is it like to be a stunt coordinator?
It’s a completely different story than just being a stunt performer. Stunt performer you’re in shape, you know your skill, your art, you go in. You follow what the Stunt Coordinator does. You do your best and there you go. As a Stunt Coordinator, you’re really in charge of the action scenes of the movie, so have a real complicity with the director since day one of production. Personally what I like to do is see everything the director has done, to see his universe, how he’s seeing the world, basically. And I picture that to that vision. And then, you have meetings and, and you propose things. You propose fights. You propose things. You show them, on video or live. The director comes to your rehearsal place and you show him, and then he says no or he says yes or he says I like it but I want to change some things. So, you just adapt yourself to, uh, to his muse and his, uh, wish. You just have your stunt team with you and you try to make the double look as good as possible compared to the actor and, and you just do your best in creating the action scene based on what the director has in his head. The job of a Stunt Coordinator is more complex. It’s a work of creation. Basically you see a drawing, a storyboard, of a set, on the production table and you have to be able to create the whole scene with the actors in that area. It’s a more creative job. And also it’s a job with big responsibility. Beside the quality of the shooting that you are providing you also have the security, the safety of the whole set of your team, but also, you know, during the stunts, you have to make sure that the whole crew is safe. It’s actually more comfortable to be just the performer. You’re not responsible. You don’t have to deal with budget. You don’t have to deal with production. You don’t have to deal with the casting. You don’t have to deal with actors, [laughter] because you don’t have to train them for anything. You just come, do your stunts, and leave.
Are there still barriers for women in getting the Coordinator positions?
I’m from France and I moved in the States five years ago mainly for that reason. I was a Stunt Coordinating Assistant for many, many years and to a point where sometimes the Coordinator was not even there set up the scene and train the actors. He would just be there and go on set the day of the shooting, and it was, it was fine until a day where I said, “Why can’t I go with you?” And he said, “Because I’m the Coordinator,” and I said, “Yeah but I, I created that fight and actors trained with me and the Director knows me.” And he said, “Well, you keep your place, you’re an Assistant and I’m the Stunt Coordinator.” And I said, “Why can’t a woman be a Stunt Coordinator?” And he answered, “Woman… A woman being a Stunt Coordinator… That will happen when pigs will fly.”
Before that, I was not that interested in being a Coordinator, but, when he said that — now I think it’s my goal. I started getting some shows. And also, you know, I was pushed by some actors and directors, telling me, “How come you’re not in charge of the movie since you’re so good?” And I was telling them, “Well because, you know, I’m young in the business. Those guys have more experience,” and they were like, “It doesn’t matter. If you’re good at what you’re doing, you should, you should, step up and do it now.” So, I was pushed by people like that and I decided soon to do it. And after a while, I started receiving messages from Coordinators saying, “Oh you want to get… You want to take our job? Well fine then, you know what, you will never work again as a Performer for us. So, I was like, “Okay I’m going to start basically because those guys do not appreciate the fact that I’m becoming a Stunt Coordinator…” So, I decided to move, and work here, in a brand new country where nobody would judge me. And, actually in the States men are way more tolerant than in Europe. There are some really good stunt woman that are Stunt Coordinators. They are respected. Nobody would even think about, you know, trying to undercut them, or not work with them because they’re a woman.