TR Interview: Zero Dark Thirty and Highlander Stuntwoman Gaelle Cohen

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I’ve interviewed many a director and actor in my day, but when it comes to so many of the movies we like, there’s a key reason they kick ass figuratively and literally that I’ve never really been able to explore: the stunt people.

It’s a fascinating world they inhabit, in which life and limb are put on the line every day, not for queen and country, but for the sake of entertaining us all. So when the chance came to speak to stuntwoman Gaelle Cohen – whose credits include Zero Dark Thirty, Brotherhood of the Wolf and Martyrs – came up, I took it. I think you’ll be glad I did. Read on to learn about the differences between realistic and stylized action, the superheroes she likes and would like to be, and how stuntwomen really feel about Quentin Tarantino turning Zoe Bell into a lead actress.

Luke Y. Thompson: You got your start on Highlander: The Raven, right?

Gaelle Cohen: Yes, I did, in Europe. It was shot in Europe. It was shot in France, mainly, and that’s how I started with swordfights.

LYT: Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?

GC: Not at all, total coincidence! I had finished law – to become a lawyer – and then I worked on a show where stunt people were working, and they were rehearsing a fight, a swordfight, and we became friends. I said, “If you want I can train you. I can put a fight together for you,” because they had an audition; they were preparing for an audition. So they said “Yes,” we put up a fight together, and train them, and off they went to their audition. And then one day I received a phone call, and it was the coordinator of their show who wanted to meet me, because he really liked what I did. So I said “OK, I’ll meet you, but I have no idea what your job is. I’m not at all in the movie industry.”

That was 16 years ago already. I met him, and he said “I’m doing a show called Highlander, and there’s a lot of swordfights. Would you like to work with me?” I said, “If you think I could do a good job, yes. Otherwise, no.” So I started doing fights, doing all the bad girls in there, all the females who were killed, and so I got addicted. I thought, “My god, this is what I want! This is really what I want to do.” So I trained for a year and a half. I learned everything and anything that could be useful for stunt work, like, I did the national circus school; I was already a very good horse rider; I was doing shooting and stuff like that. I trained martial arts, trampoline, all that, diving, then after a year and a half, I started working and I never stopped.

LYT: How did you know how to put together that first swordfight? Did you just make it up?

GC: Well, I was – that’s the thing I forgot to tell you, I should have started with that – I was on the national fencing team for many years; I’m a national champion. So fencing was natural for me, I was doing it every day, five hours a day, so that’s why it was natural for me.

LYT: Is there a gender bias? Do you mostly work with guys, or has that changed?

GC: In the past, many, many years ago, there were not so many stuntwomen; in the ’60s, not so many stunt women. So men were doubling for men and women. And then women became more interested and started training. So then it became, why wouldn’t women be able to do what men are doing? So they started training, and they started being respected by coordinators who thought that finally women could do the job, and it actually looks better than the men with the wig, because he’s not shaped as a woman! So it became natural for woman to double woman. It’s still a very manly world, but women have a big place, a big influence. In the stunt coordinating world, I read that there’s not, there are barely women, so I’m super happy to be one who is coordinating, which is really rare, because it’s still very manly.


LYT: Would women be used more often to double for a kid or a teenager?

GC: All that depends on the shape, your shape. Even if you’re a woman, if you’re 5’8″, you can’t double for a tall kid. It’s all about the shape. You have small women who are small and thin and they can double kids, and it’s great, because a lot of kids need to be doubled, so it’s perfect. But in general, our job needs require muscles, so being extra thin could look good for an actress, but it’s not safe – you need your muscles to protect you.

LYT: Are there kids who do stunts for kids?

GC: Yes, you do have – stunt coordinators’ children usually are raised in the stunt world, and since they were three would jump on trampolines and fly on wires with their dad, so yeah. I know one of them, his name is Bob Brown, is a famous stunt coordinator, and I did a movie with him called Babylon: AD, with Vin Diesel, and his son was one of the stunt people. He was with us, falling off a submarine into frozen water and ice. And there are great, talented kids. They’re living in the stunt world, so they’re in the best place to become the best.

LYT: I noticed on your resume that there are some movies you wouldn’t necessarily think of as stunt movies, like Fat Girl.

GC: Actually, there is a scene where the mother is in the car, and a guy comes from the woods and just destroys the windshield with an axe, and she’s inside, so it’s exploding on her. Also, it depends on the editing. Sometimes the movie is written with action scenes, and sometimes they’re not in the final product, they’re cut. So sometimes it looks like there’s not so many stunts, but actually they were but they got cut, or they’re for the unrated version, the uncut version.

LYT: Do you have a preference between doing a more “realistic” stunt that looks like something that’s real world, versus something like jumping off of a submarine or off of something exploding or something more super-powered?

GC: You know, they all seem real to me, because I’m living them! (laughs) What do you mean by more realistic?

LYT: I mean, a movie like Fat Girl that is set in the real world, versus a Michael Bay movie, or a superhero movie where you’re flying through the air and you’re shooting fireballs or something.

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GC: You know, you get your pleasure, a different pleasure in both of those worlds. In the reality one, what’s very interesting, especially as a stunt coordinator, is to create the most realistic scene as possible. For example, when I did Martyrs, which was a Pascal Laugier movie about torture – I’m super balanced, I’m a super well-balanced person, but it was very interesting for me to look into how far human nature can go to torture people. So that’s very exciting, and when you get science fiction movies, that’s exciting because you get to do everything that you dream to do when you’re a kid – fly, and have super powers and all that. Both are exciting. I have a great job! I think I have the best job in the world.

LYT: When you were a kid, were there any specific superheroes that you wanted to be?

GC: You know, until I was 12, I really thought I was Wonder Woman. I was trying to get the suit on me, twirling and spinning behind my drawers, hoping that I would change into Wonder Woman. It never happened, but I really believed that I was, so I love Wonder Woman! (laughs) I’m a huge fan of Batman. You know, all superheroes are cool. Silver Surfer is fantastic. A lot of them are cool.

LYT: So if they ever get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground, that would be something you’d want to do.

GC: I would love to! There was, unfortunately, a TV show that started to be shot last year, or two years ago – I can’t remember the name of the actress – but it looked very promising, and it died. They never aired it. I don’t know, maybe they shot the pilot and one episode, but they never went further, so I really hope they’re going to do either a feature or a TV show – that would be great.

LYT: I think they’re trying a new one. It’s called Amazon.

GC: Really? Wow! Oh my god, that would be fantastic! I’m going to look into that. (laughs) I think the audience loves when women have strength and powers. Besides Black Widow, and Elektra, I don’t think there were that many movies shot with a female superhero.

LYT: Lara Croft, if you count her.

GC: Yeah, it was great, and Angelina Jolie, I think, was awesome. It was a good show. I wish she would do another one.

LYT: If they do another one, they’ll do a younger one.

GC: Yeah, I’m sure. The thing is, the character is fantastic, but you also have to have an actress that you really believe in. And even if Angelina is super thin, so thin that you think she has no muscles, at least when she’s giving a punch, at least in her face, in her acting, you really think she’s giving all she has, so that’s why I like the Tomb Raiders.

LYT: Singling out her as being very realistic, as someone who can sell it, what other actors are really good at selling the action and looking like they’re really doing it?

GC: A lot of them. I can’t talk for people I haven’t worked with, but as a member of the audience I think Jason Statham is fantastic. Mark Wahlberg is great. The guy who did The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon, is really good too. And of course, the model of them all is Daniel Craig, he’s fantastic.

LYT: Are stunt women jealous of how Zoe Bell got elevated into acting roles by Quentin Tarantino?

GC: No, we’re not. Again, I can’t talk for everybody else, but for me, I think it’s fantastic, because she’s a great stunt woman, and she’s a great athlete, and she’s pretty, and she’s obviously talented as far as acting goes, and I think it’s great that a powerful director/producer like Tarantino gave her a chance. I think it’s a model. I think some stunt women want to become an actress eventually. I don’t. I like stunt work, and I like being a bad girl in movies, which is acting, but it’s mainly stunts. For a stunt woman who would like to become an action actress, I think it’s great.


LYT: With the Oscars recently, we [film critics]did a poll on one of the movie sites. A lot of people said that if they were to add a new category, stunts should be the new category. Do you think they should do that, and if so, how would they award that one? Would it go to the coordinator, the stunt person? What would you like to see if that were to happen?

GC: That whole thing just blows my mind, because if you look at all the shows that were nominated, let’s say the past five years, they’re all loaded with action. I think it’s cool to give an award for hair and make-up, I think it’s cool because it’s a big part of the movie. But when you see that stunt work is not even recognized as a big part of the movie – which is hypocritical, because second units are mainly actions, and they’re on most big productions – I think it’s really, really unfair, and completely not understandable. Nobody understands. And I think even just the stunt coordinating, if there was a stunt coordination award, that would be great! We don’t need to have stunt performers and all that at the Oscars, just best stunt work by a coordinator. You will have Gary Powell for James Bond – the guy should have 10 awards already! So, yeah – stunt coordination, best action on a movie.

LYT: You were a big part of one of this year’s nominees, Zero Dark Thirty, so tell us a little bit about the experience of doing that one.

GC: It was a dream come true! When they called me, I was on a movie in Europe, and when they called me, they just said “Are you available to come to Jordan for a movie?” They didn’t say the title, they didn’t tell the directors, it was – not secret, but usually they say “It’s for this movie from that director, would you like to come?” This time, there was no title, nothing, so I didn’t know what movie I was going on.

So when I arrive in Jordan, I find out it was Zero Dark Thirty with Kathryn Bigelow, I thought I was dreaming. She’s one of the people I was dreaming to work with, and to get to do that big explosion scene on her movie, and to get to talk with her, because we have a friend in common, Jessica Biel. It was a dream! I was like a little girl at Disneyland, taking pictures with Mickey Mouse. She’s beautiful, she’s powerful and you feel strength in the room when she’s there. It’s incredible. So we had that big explosion, the one in the restaurant, so we were three stunt people being, what we call “ratchet,” which means on wire, when the window next to us explodes, and we were ejected with everything, all the furniture and all that would fly through the room. It was great action, on a great movie, with a great director. I’m so proud of it!

LYT: Have you gotten any crazy injuries when you’ve done stunt work, or have you managed to escape reasonably unscathed?

GC: No, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid injuries when you are a real, active stunt person, because you are trained, the coordinator takes care of the maximal safety, but some actions are really, really dangerous and so you get hurt. Or you’re tired that day, and you get hurt, or something is not working well with special effects, or props, or whatever and you get injured. So I’ve had my share of really big injuries.

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LYT: Sometimes you talk to people and it’ll be really little things: they kick down a door and they break a toe.

GC: Well, those are not stunt people, those are actors! (laughs) No, my injuries were on big actions. I got my entire tibia broken, everything exploded in small pieces. I was jumping off a building, running on the roof, and I was jumping onto a car that was passing to escape, and when I did all the rehearsal, everything went great. But the day of the shoot, when I jumped on the car, I caught the car well, but when I jumped on the car, I caught the car well but my leg just exploded, it shattered. So yeah, that was bad. It was on Labyrinth, with Lambert Wilson. It was screened in the States, and I think they kept the scene! (laughs) I never watched it, always refused to see it, because it was really painful.

LYT: When you mentioned Jessica Biel, I remember the trailer for Easy Virtue – you could still-frame it and see that it was a guy doubling for her on the motorcycle. He hadn’t shaven that day!

GC: (laughs) I know, I know. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Is there a stunt woman who can do that exact action? Which I think nowadays most women can do everything that men can do, except if it involves real strength, like weight lifting. So for me, there is no way I would put men to double Jessica Biel, when she’s so – she’s thin, but she’s curvy, so there’s no way. (laughs) Also, she’s a great action actress, she’s really kicking ass! I had to slow her down, I had to tell her “No, you will not do that. Let your double do that.” But most of the things she had to do on The Tall Man, she did an incredible job, and she’s really tough. She’s really good.

LYT: I have a book of superhero workouts that actors have done when they play superheroes, and the only woman in it is her.

GC: That doesn’t surprise me. She’s incredible. She’s very athletic, she’s extremely flexible – she was a dancer and a gymnast – she’s also extremely coordinated, she’s been doing sports since she was a little girl, and she’s a good actress, so she puts acting into her action, which makes it even better than if it was just a regular stunt performer.

LYT: Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you want to do?

GC: There are so many things I haven’t done! There’s always something new, like if you do a high fall, for example, it could be a suicide, so it’s a certain fall. And then it could be someone pushes you, so it’s another fall. Or you could grab someone and you both fall over. Everything is different, so of course there are so many things that I haven’t done. I did crazy things, like on Sahara, we were riding camels, chasing the train, jumping onto the train, so this is incredible. How many people did that in their career? There are so many things I haven’t done, I couldn’t even tell you right now what I wish I could do, because whatever they ask me to do, I would be happy to do it.

LYT: You hear a lot of interviews where actors complain about being in wire harnesses, and they hurt. When you read that, do you think “Oh, they’re such wimps!”

GC: Not at all, because trust me, if you get to spend just 20 minutes in the harness, hanging somewhere, you’ll see how uncomfortable and painful that could be. So no, no, no, they’re not wimps! I mean, my opinion as a stunt coordinator is they are not wimps. It is uncomfortable, and the buckles and all that – even if you make everything to protect your actors, for the metal nuts that bite into their flesh, you’re still hanging somewhere, tied in a corset, and you barely can breathe, and they ask you to make some crazy twist, and jump, and fall, and all that in there, all day long for how many days, I don’t know. That’s why you have stunt doubles, because it’s not comfortable, sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes it’s dangerous. So let’s protect the actor, let him do his acting scenes, and when it’s wire work, you put a stunt double. That’s why it’s a good collaboration between actors and stunt people.

LYT: What’s coming up next for you?

GC: Projects – I’m waiting today for an answer for a movie in New Mexico, with Forest Whitaker – I would be coordinating it, so I’m waiting for that answer. And there are a lot of projects that are going on in town, so I think most stunt people will be on them. I can’t tell you I’m going to be on it, so I can’t give you titles, but there are a lot of productions, like Spider-Man is in New York, you have The Avengers and Captain America that are going to start shooting in LA soon, so I think there is going to be a lot of work for a lot of people, which is good.