Katie Rowe is a former world-class swimmer from Long Beach, California. Whether she found herself at the beach, in the surf, on a pool deck or racing between the backstroke flags, Rowe cuts a eye-catching figure. The all-around waterwoman turned to Hollywood after her academic studies were over. Anxious to enter the school of hard knocks, the powerfully lithe backstroker and IMer soon became a stuntwoman.
Her education included everything from shooting guns and jumping out high places to driving cars and pillow-fighting (see Rowe playing Helga in video below). “Bouncing on a bed whacking away with a pillow was way more tiring than any swim workout that I have ever done,” recalled the former national champion.
As the President of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, she is like a Michael Phelps in the pool – totally versatile with a skill set that spans the sport. “I do a little bit of everything, but I specialize in fights, ground pounding, and water stuff obviously. When I hung up my swimsuit, I got my Black Belt in Kenpo-based mixed martial arts. I am usually the one on call when a big bad girl has to fight a guy, but I’m still waiting to win a fight,” she smiled mischievously.
“I always lose! Ground pounding means taking big hits and falling hall or getting tackled or being knocked down or into stuff. The kind of things the audience watches…and winces at. There are a few really tall girls I have doubled, but generally I play my own character: the bully, the biker, the prison matron, the mean gym girl…”
Despite her fighting and ground pounding, the swimmer still is forever toweling off at work. “Water is my main thing. I am also a scuba instructor and I have trained a lot of actors and stunt people how to dive and swim.”
However, swimming in Hollywood studios and set is definitely much more than butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. “It can be swimming out of a sinking car, or through extremely rough water, under a lake that is on fire, or tied to a chair in a room that’s flooding.” She no longer entertains thoughts of streamlining or foggy goggles. “You are often trying to get non-swimmers to do things a lot of swimmers would be uncomfortable doing. I am always amazed how many adults can’t swim at all, or very little! And they generally can’t wear a mask or goggles, and they are entirely dependent on their stunt safety to help them when the scene is cut so it’s especially unnerving for them.”
Danger is always possible and risk is ever present. “We do everything possible to minimize any problems. I normally test the stunt first and then advise the director on what the actor will and will not be able to do. If the stunt is too hard for me, then it is probably not going to happen with the actor, and possibly not with the stunt double either.” Like a stern coach pacing the pool deck or a gruff pilot on a escort boat, her experience and demeanor commands attention and respect. “I am strict with the people I train because I want them to be safe and do a good job. A lot of big actors don’t like to listen to people telling them what to do. But I often remind them they could die – that gets their attention.”
The self-discipline and mental strength that Rowe developed going back and forth as a competitive swimmer has served her well. “Swimming with [Olympian] Tim Shaw certainly got me used to spending a lot of time in the water. Generally a day on set means 12 hours – which often means 12 hours in the water for me. And, unfortunately, not warm tropical water. We work in swimming pools, giant tanks, the Pacific Ocean, duck ponds, and even a dirt hole they dug and filled with water. I took a long time off from training when I retired. I was just too burned out from training 20,000 meters day in and day out. With my job I need to be in shape because I often have to drag the actors around in the water so they can stay fresh and not use up all their energy.
Currently I swim 3 days a week indoors with a masters team in Long Beach run by some of my old age-group teammates, and a day or two in the ocean in Seal Beach with another group. I’m considering competing in a few ocean swims again this summer. So far everything I’ve tried to do I’ve ended up working that day.”
Hollywood being Hollywood, illusion, drama and entertainment are the end goals. But not everything can be computer graphically engineered. And while Rowe can used wigs to impersonate other actresses, she has had to endure the nitty-gritty world of risk-taking stunt work. “I am really not a big fan of heights, so high falls are not my favorite. I can fall or jump from 50 feet (15 meters), but that’s it, which is not much in my world. I once got dragged out to sea trapped in the mouth of a life-size foam shark with my arms pinned over my head. I was in a streamline position with a tiny scuba regulator hooked up to a tiny scuba bottle. The actress and the stunt double chickened out as it was pretty terrifying. I felt completely claustrophobic and I have never had a problem with claustrophobia. There was no way to free yourself if the air setup failed. And the director wanted me to pretend to be getting eaten by the shark so I had to be thrashing and kicking. There was no way to signal the safety team if I got in trouble. The best part is it ended up on the editing room floor.”
Fortunately, through a combination of athleticism, preparation and a pinch of good luck, Rowe has never been badly hurt. But she has ruptured 3 disks in her back and 2 in her neck wrestling. Sometimes, the injuries are self-inflicted. “I’ve knocked myself out a few times, once falling on my head doing a butterfly kick – the martial arts kind, not the swimming kind – with an actress holding one of my legs. I also got a yeast infection in my ear on the movie Poseidon from being in the water 12 – 15 hours a day for 3 months. Plus the usual bumps and bruises and cuts all stunt people get.”
And those bumps and bruises happen all over the world. “Movies and TV are filmed worldwide now, not just in Hollywood. People now have video cameras on their phones better than what used to require a giant camera and carrying the VCR on your side to record the footage. So it’s much more competitive in every sense. We all worried that CGI would put us out of business, but people tend to like to see actual people in movies. It’s turned out CGI has just enhanced what we do – a high fall can be a mile high now and that car can jump the Grand Canyon, Spiderman can swing across town – and it looks good.”
It is not only her physical talents that are showcased, but also her verbal skills. “We grunt and yell when we are punched, kicked, shot, cut and run – but sometimes the audio is done separately. Sound is usually recorded, but the action of the sequence often makes it impossible to get what they need, especially in big scenes involving a lot of people or cars and noise. So occasionally they will call you in to do it in Post-Production where you stand in a booth with headphones on and watch the edit of the scene without any sound. They give you timed cues to make the appropriate shouts and grunts and groans. It’s actually quite amusing – ugh! ahh! Ooof!…
I’ve gotten to do so many things. On my birthday this year I was working in the water with 2 really well-known actors, swimming in Corona del Mar, and a giant pod of whales swam by us a 100 yards away. I dove with thousands of seals at Santa Barbara Island on a free-diving commercial. I’ve driven 100 mph in a cigarette boat. I’ve swam through the upside down ship they used on Poseidon, and submerged crashed airplanes, and dove out of sunken cars and buses. Nothing too insane and it is all great to me: basically I get to dress up and play for a living – I get paid to swim.”
And the pay is part of the allure. Stunt people are members of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and paid according to union contracts. “We are considered principals, just like the actors. We can (but not always) receive stunt adjustments, kind of a “degree of difficulty” extra payment. There’s no set formula to that, but it tends to involve how dangerous the stunt is, how many times you have to do it (how many takes), and the skill involved to do it. For instance, you may get no adjustment to trip and fall in a big crowd scene, but you will probably get quite a bit for a big fire burn or car hit or 100-foot high fall. It also depends on the show if it is a low-budget student film or a huge $200 million dollar feature. Sometimes it’s not the stunt that’s hard, it’s having to do it four, five, six times, and knowing it’s going to really hurt every time.”
And like a channel swim or training for a 400 individual medley, planning and preparation are key elements of success. “Stunt people HATE to be called daredevils. We try and calculate every detail of what we need to do and what could go wrong with every stunt. We usually plan and rehearse every stunt, which can get pretty complex in big fight sequences or car chases. We also plan where we can bail out. If we are diving out of the way of a car for instance in what we call a near miss, what if the car slides 10 feet too soon? You need to know your escape and the escape of those around you.
The Stunt Coordinator is responsible for setting up the stunt and helping execute the director’s vision of the action. He or she will find the stunt person who looks like the actor, both in height and weight and body type. Hair and face shape are a plus, depending on the stunt. Then they need to have the right skill. This can be tough: you might need someone 4’ – 9” who weighs 220 lbs. and can do a backflip while riding a unicycle. That’s one reason most stunt people train to be jack of all stunt trades, at least a little bit. Hopefully as the stunt person you have a few days at least to practice or refresh your skills on what you need to do, although there are a lot of things that are hard to practice, like car hits. There are also lot of departments involved in every stunt: they have to build a set, furnish it, light it, set cameras, wardrobe the stunt people. Everything must be considered. If you are crashing into a table, it might need to be breakaway. Glass is replaced with candy glass. Lights have to be set so we don’t run into them. Cameras have to be where we won’t hit them or injure the camera operators.
Wardrobe is often the biggest issue, especially for women. Guys fight wearing plenty of pads under their wardrobe like knee and elbow pads, back pads. Women often fight in bikinis, mini-skirts, tiny shorts. There is not a lot of room for pads. The next time you see a woman falling down stairs or getting hit by a car in a tiny dress, she’s pretty much really getting thrown down the stairs or hit by a car. You also have to watch out for stuff like bobby pins in your hair holding your wig on; they tend to poke into your scalp on high falls. And nylons will melt onto your skin in a fire burn.”
It’s a tall order, but the statuesque Rowe fits the bill…and loves it. “I have the best job in the world.”