More Casting Ethics: The Stunt Performer Dilemma

Penelope Cruz and her stunt double. Works for me!

Penelope Cruz and her stunt double. Works for me!

To recap: This month, we have already debated a wide range of casting ethics controversies…

The position of Ethics Alarms is identical in all three controversies. The only consideration in casting a role should be the director’s artistic assessment of who will do the best job meeting the artistic and commercial demands of that role, under the constraints of the project, which can include budget, locale and workplace conditions. Ethnicity, race and off-screen appearance should be secondary, and better still, irrelevant. Efforts to substitute political, diversity or affirmative action goals  for artistic ones undermine the integrity of the work, and are unfair to the audience as well as the work itself. Make-up is a tool of the performing arts, and is unrelated to blackface, which was a convention designed to denigrate African Americans. Confounding make-up used to allow a performer to play a character of a different ethnicity, race or skin shade with minstrelsy and blackface is intellectually dishonest or ignorant.

Now comes a new issue in this spectrum: the use of white, male stunt performers to substitute for black or female stars.

This article, in The Telegraph,  begins with the assumption that the practice is inherently unethical:

“For decades, white stunt performers would paint their faces and bodies black to double for black stars. Similarly, it was not uncommon for stuntmen to put on heels and wigs to double for women. This was not happening in a vacuum: all the while, black and female stunt performers were pressing for recognition and the right to work in the jobs for which they were best suited….There is an understanding within the studios that such incidents don’t look good and need to be kept hush-hush.”

If, as the article and the Hollywood activists it interviews assert, the practice of “blacking up” white stunt performers is designed to exclude qualified black stunt performers from working, then of course it is unethical. Given the close-knit stunt performer community, described as a white, male, “old boys network” in the essay, this is certainly possible, even likely. Nevertheless, the assertion that there is anything intrinsically unethical, unfair or wrong with using a disguised white stunt performer to substitute for a black star, a male stunt performer to substitute for a female star, or any other variation imaginable is, as with the Hispanic and Afghan complaints, based on non-existent ethical principles.

The only legitimate considerations in stunt work is how well  the stunt double can do the desired scene, and whether they be made to resemble the actors involved. Race? Ethnicity? Gender? Skin color? Facial hair? Age? All of these and more are simply a matter of practicalities, and discrimination should have nothing to do with how the stunt is handled. In stunt work, shots are typically taken from a distance, or featuring rapid movement, or even digitally altered later.  If a film can find a single stunt performer whose size and build allow him or he,  with a change of costume, make-up and hairstyle, to stand in for every star in a film who has a dangerous scene, there is nothing wrong with allowing that stunt performer to do so. Men can effectively stand in for women. Whites can convincingly step in for blacks. The issue and only issue is whether they can do the stunt. What the article calls “blacking up” and compares to blackface is in fact benign and pragmatic, and no different from placing a stent performer in the same costume as the star.

There is an ethics problem, though. What if men and whites have an inherent advantage as stunt performers? It is easier to black up than to white up, presumably, and and the right size man can be more easily disguised as a woman than the other way around. Yet gender and racial differences are not unethical, not is acknowledging them and acting accordingly.

How do you distinguish convenience from discrimination or racism, however? One black stunt man tells the author, Hoartia Harrod, “Believe when I say race plays a major part, because why hire blacks when you can paint your own boys down to emulate us and give them the work while we starve.”

Writes Harrod,

“For decades, white stunt performers would paint their faces and bodies black to double for black stars. Similarly, it was not uncommon for stuntmen to put on heels and wigs to double for women. This was not happening in a vacuum: all the while, black and female stunt performers were pressing for recognition and the right to work in the jobs for which they were best suited.”

Wait: why are they “best suited” for those jobs, if all it takes is a wig or make-up to eliminate that advantage? “Best suited” means the unalterable characteristics and abilities necessary to do the stunt and appear to be the star. In “Jurassic Park,” a famous stunt involving a juvenile female actress was accomplished by using an adult female stunt performer and digitally superimposing the actresses face over the older woman’s. Would a teenaged girl be “best suited” for the stunt, instead of the older pro? Not really.

The Screen Actors Guild has a guideline designed to spread the stunt work around, and make it easier for minority and female stunt performers, stating that the “stunt coordinator shall endeavor to cast qualified persons of the same sex and/or race involved.” That’s a legitimate policy decision, but it should be understood that this is unrelated to the quality of the film or the integrity of the stunt work….or ethics.

Using white stunt performers for black stars is unethical and discriminatory if a black stunt performer could do a better job that would improve the quality of the product, or if the choice is intended to exclude minority professionals. Using race or gender as a criteria for hiring when race or gender is irrelevant to the final product is itself discriminatory. Unfortunately, this leaves white and male stunt coordinators with an inherently advantage because of their versatility.

That condition, and its results, are in the “life is unfair” category.  A film maker taking advantage of it, however, is not being unfair, or unethical, even if it creates a hardship for non-white, non-male stunt performers. The stunt coordinator may choose to hire three stunt performers for his black, white and female stars when one could do the stunts of all three, but he is not ethically obligated to do so.


Facts: The Telegraph


12 thoughts on “More Casting Ethics: The Stunt Performer Dilemma

  1. We’ve disagreed on related issues in the past, but I’m right there with you on this one. My first reaction to this story is that it sounds ridiculous, but I have no idea if minorities are discriminated against in the stunt-man world in the same way that I believe minority actors are discriminated against in the acting world.

    • The acting world requires someone qualified to play a particular role, to have the ability to perform ably as far as possible… The stunt-“man” world (as you put it) is just that: it requires someone usually with what we think of as characteristics both male (physical strength), and female (agility), plus courage and enough ego to remain out of the limelight — to perform tasks the actor is not physically able (or his agent or insurance papers say he’s not able) to perform without risk to life, limb or precious fingernails. For the most part, they are specialists: they fight to the death, drive vehicles into hell, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and so on.

      In other words, the whole argument is ridiculous: yes, the stunt people need to resemble or be made to resemble the actor in certain ways, but beyond that it doesn’t matter — The Casting Director doesn’t hire stunt-men or -women, the Stunt Coordinator does, and he is going to hire, as often as possible, the people whose work he knows and trusts. [Yes “he” – As far as I could find out, all Stunt Coordinators are male — and I’m betting they’re all white-ish, too]

      For instance, several major actors have their very own stunt-doubles who are automatically hired with that actor. Few actors are allowed to risk doing their own. (One of my favorites, Michelle Yeoh. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does her own stunts. In that sense, it certainly is a form of discrimination; one that saves lives (a stunt gone wrong can cause danger for others too), as well as money and reputation for the film. This kind of complaint, as far as I see it, is akin to little persons complaining they are discriminated against because they aren’t allowed in the ring to wrestle sumo champions.

      Check out these 12 (noting that the black male of the group is one who gets a lot of work both in and out of the Iron Man mask (The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained for two).

      • What about the ethics of steroid use in Hollywood. Ugh. Looks more rampant than in professional wrestling. Awful. What are those guys doing to their bodies for a few bucks? And people flock to the movies to see these guys juiced and blown up like Ken Caminitti. Unethical all around.

      • Casting of stunt people appears to be an even more closed incestuous family circle than regular casting. I can’t recall the sources, but remember reading it’s old news that being anything other than a white guy who already is known (I think one article mentioned you had to be related to the right families) makes it almost impossible to break in, even at an indie level.

        • Networking is a source of all kinds of advantages with racial implications…but can you really ban networking? In my last (hopefully not final) production, I cast 12 actors whose talent and work habits I knew and trusted from both personal and professional interaction. Is that wrong? It indeed rules out those with whom I’ve never worked and played—isn’t that life? Doesn’t that process help us all at some point? No doubt: in a majority white community, it makes entry difficult. That’s not the intent of an otherwise good system, though.

          The solution is for those who use the network to recognize the benefits to all of making it more flexible and open, not to declare networking unethical.

          • Networking isn’t unethical, per se; agreed. I’m just saying that stunt casting, for a longgggggg time, was really, really closed. It sounds to me like not networking, but refusal to ever open up. Networking can’t be excised from the biz. Although sometimes when you let new people come around, they don’t suck.

  2. Maybe the solution is if the actor/actress has the huevos to do it, is for them to do their own stunts. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and the actress from twilight all do their own stunts. I’m sure Mike Tyson would not need a stuntman to throw a few punches if he was featured in some action movie.

    • Budget and insurance and contracts. SOME stunts are performable by the stars, if all 3 of the above can be made to work together. Michelle Yeoh has all the training/skill required, and it’s known enough that they easily get the 3 things in line. Angelina and other big stars get many of theirs, but not all. I think even Jackie Chan has aged out of some of his own, which happens. And each production has a different math, whether all entities are old pals with lots of movies together or not. And Mike Tyson wouldn’t be trusted by any stunt coordinator worth his salt, because Mike Tyson can’t keep it together in a traffic accident. I wouldn’t let him throw a fake punch at me, because I wouldn’t trust him to have learned/USE any stunt training on set.

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