Jénel Stevens on Stuntperforming, the MCU and Viola Davis’ Woman King – The Hollywood Reporter

There are two things Jénel Stevens said she wouldn’t do as a stunt performer. They also happen to be her two biggest accomplishments. There’s getting hit by a car while doubling for Gabrielle Union in 2018’s Breaking In, which — while confidence-boosting — “wasn’t my most proud stunt,” she says. That title goes instead to a swan dive on the scrapped pilot for the Get Christie Love reboot, from atop a yacht more than 30 feet in the air and into the ocean in thigh-high-heeled snakeskin boots. She nailed it in one take.

It was a stunt Stevens only learned about halfway through the four-week job. Luckily, one of her coworkers knew a dive instructor. Soon after they connected, the stunt performer and martial artist wrangled up just six hours of instruction across two days at an Olympic platform diving pool. “I’m talking to the coach and the first thing he says is, ‘Alright, are you comfortable with this? Because you’re entering the water at 44 miles an hour and at that height, if you enter wrong, you can break your back and not surface,’” Stevens recalls.

Despite its challenging nature, she’d work her way up to a single 10-meter dive before being asked to rehearse the jump on set. “After we did that, the director comes over and is like, ‘Oh, my God — I thought you guys were gonna jump in feet first!’ I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Stevens says, breaking into laughter. “But that’s what we do with stunts. We train hard and, of course, safety first. So we make sure we have the pads and we ease our way up to things.” 

The experience captures how Stevens — most recently a stunt double for Viola Davis in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical actioner The Woman King — has navigated her entire career: with a healthy understanding of danger and absolute refusal to surrender to fear.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’re just a daredevil. You’re fearless.’ No, I literally operate in fear most of the time. So my biggest motivation and my drive in my career is to overcome fear,” says the stunt performer, who counts Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the Fallout adaptation as among her upcoming credits. “When you are too scared or you’re really nervous and you go into a stunt like that, that’s when you get hurt. So you have to give it your all.”

While stuntwork is something Stevens says “was never on my radar,” much of her life points to it being a natural choice. The movie lover was an athlete through her young adulthood growing up on Long Island with her parents and brother. She played on teams for softball, bowling, basketball, football, swimming and tennis when she wasn’t training as a martial artist — Karate and Taekwondo in childhood, and then later, styles like Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. By way of her early athleticism, she built the kind of physical and mental agility necessary for her current calling.

Jénel Stevens on the set of ‘The Woman King’

Courtesy of Subject

Despite those numerous physical and mental trials, her senior year of undergraduate at Canisius College, where she attended on a basketball scholarship, offered one of her truest tests. “I couldn’t straighten my leg out for four days,” she recalls of an injury she developed during “one of the hardest years of my life.” Coupled with emotions around the end of a four-year relationship and the graduation of many friends, coming back from it all that last year “forged the person I am now.”

After earning both a bachelor’s in business management and master’s in sport administration, she was hired as a trainer before going on to work at an Equinox gym in New York. It was now 2009, and Anderson’s Martial Arts Academy — a place she now calls home — had relocated near her then-workplace. “I was there all day, every day,” she says of the gym where she apprenticed and eventually helped run classes alongside its husband-and-wife owners. Then, by another twist of fate, the New York stunt community started coming in. After watching them any chance she got, Stevens finally expressed interest in trying it out, and a friend told her to get a headshot and résumé together.

“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Résumé? I don’t have a résumé for stunts.’ But another stunt friend came along, and he’s like, ‘Just write down everything that you do for fun.’ So I started writing down skydiving, scuba diving, regular driving, horseback riding, my martial arts background,” she says. “It was like, wow, I’ve been training for this career my entire life without even knowing it.”

Early work on Madam Secretary, Bull and Orange Is the New Black led into one of her earliest high-profile productions, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. It was on that set in December 2015 that she heard whispers of a new, exciting project: Black Panther. “In my head, I said to myself, ‘I’m new in this industry and that sounds like a cool thing, but I probably won’t get that,’” she remembers. “That’s something to aspire to in my career. My day will come.”

Unbeknownst to her, several colleagues had submitted her, leading to a call from stunt coordinator Andy Gill, who asked if she could audition in Atlanta. As it is for all who join the Marvel universe, the studio was secretive about the gig, which nearly led to her turning it down. But once there, Stevens faced a sequence of events familiar to Black women working in Hollywood stunts.

“When we were doing the audition, the coordinators are like, ‘Wait, you’re from New York? People like you exist?’ It was like, ‘Yeah, we exist,’” she says. “I was in a room full of Black female martial artists and gymnasts and pro-this, pro-that. Doing that movie, everybody started realizing that there are Black performers — Black female performers. Then everybody started going crazy because there were no other performers for the other shows that were filming at the same time.”

Stevens had experienced a similar thing on Luke Cage, where she says the body count of the action series meant the production was “burning through” stunt performers. It also meant that like Black Panther, the billion-dollar box office hit that showed Hollywood Black performers could sell out theaters in the action genre, it was generating new opportunities for Black and brown stunt workers.

Those shortages weren’t necessarily the fault of the productions themselves, but that of entertainment’s stunt performer pipeline, which has seen Black women go underrepresented due to a mix of few onscreen opportunities and historically exclusionary policies. According to Stevens, it has left at least one female veteran she knows hesitant to retire, concerned that no one will be able to replace her specific skill set.

To address these hiring gaps, stunt work has relied on practices like “wigging” and “painting down,” or the use of wigs on stuntpeople to resemble actresses and the darkening of a stuntperson’s skin tone to match their actor’s. “Stunts are an interesting beast because safety, obviously, is the number one thing, but there are times when the search isn’t big enough to find a Black woman to do a specific thing — either they’re booked up or they can’t find the person,” says Stevens.

Stevens acknowledges that it’s a controversial subject and one she’s been in the middle of at times as a light-skinned Black Hispanic performer who “can be five different shades.” But more training and job opportunities — while ensuring someone is on set so actors are trained well and safe, in the meantime — can be how to address it. “Colorism is a big piece of this conversation and it has started shifting for the better with people now more confident to speak up about it, but it’s not 100 percent,” Stevens says. “A conversation needs to be had to make sure coordinators know that Black women exist and you can call more than the five you do know.”

Back on the set of Black Panther, where she appeared as a member of Wakanda’s elite female-fighting force the Dora Milaje, she worked on her first predominantly Black stunt ensemble from 2016 to 2017, and there was no being one of the only. It was also a job that catapulted her career, opening doors in the busy superhero genre at-large. (Stevens’ comic book credits include doubling for Danai Gurira in Avengers: Endgame, Simone Missick in Luke Cage, as well as Tatiana Maslany and Jameela Jamil in She-Hulk, alongside working on Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy and DC’s Joker and Black Lightening.)

Jenel Stevens and Jameela Jamil

Jénel Stevens and Jameela Jamil on the set of Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law

Courtesy of Subject

It’s a corner of the industry Stevens says has offered the most work to stuntwomen of color. “Marvel is one of the biggest action-producing companies in the world,” she tells THR. “They’re the ones giving the opportunities for Black actresses to come along.”

And opportunity would strike again in September 2021, but this time, with a project outside of the MCU: The Woman King. With it, Stevens found herself making a 180-degree turn from some of her earlier experiences, like being the only girl on a co-ed baseball team in middle school and spending 2014 and 2015 in Muay Thai fight training sparring against only men at the behest of her coach. Now, she was working on a set predominantly made up of and led by Black women. After prepping in Los Angeles for a month, she flew out to South Africa, where stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez put Stevens in positions of authority amid the ensemble’s eight to 10-hour training days.

That included leading the film’s South African stunt performers, most of whom hadn’t done stunts before. It also saw her representing the stunt department in the video village, where director Prince-Bythewood would turn to Stevens for her opinions.

But even before she was giving a seasoned director her thoughts on scenes, Stevens says, the production’s first rehearsal revealed the “unbelievable” gravity of what they were doing. “I stepped into the room, and they looked at me with so much respect. They looked up to me — I was taken aback,” she recalls. “I felt this sense of responsibility in teaching the classes because they had been led by white males the entire time.”

On set, everyone was driven to “work their asses off,” with a leading ensemble that did “98 percent” of their stunts — a more functional, straight-to-the-kill approach to fighting versus the more elaborate moves of the MCU. Getting to work before their call time and hanging around after rehearsals, the experience resulted in personal growth and bonding among the performers. It also delivered a rare moment on this scale for Black women working in Hollywood, and was something star Davis played a key role in shaping.

Describing the Oscar winner as a humble powerhouse who doesn’t “hide behind a curtain,” Stevens says she was made to feel as an equal to Davis, who spoke openly and freely. “The respect she had for me as a martial artist — she had seen my work. She knew what I could do. She had to approve me, so she trusted me,” Stevens explains.

And should Davis have moments of doubts, the actress’ double would make sure to return that grace. With Davis watching “like a hawk” during rehearsals, Stevens and the Woman King star went over fight moves again and again, not only bonding but building the actress’ confidence in her own abilities. “She didn’t really think that she could be this person on camera,” Stevens explains. “But she was so driven — all these women were — that all ego went out the window.”

Jénel Stevens

Jénel Stevens and Viola Davis training for The Woman King.

Courtesy of Subject

At one point during filming, that commitment became clear as the cast found themselves in boats pretending they had just come out of the water. “They had to dump water on their bodies and they started complaining,” Stevens recalls of the onscreen ensemble. “All of a sudden, Viola — doesn’t say anything — takes a bucket of water and pours it on herself. Then they started throwing water on themselves.”

“With Viola leading that charge,” she continues, “it was like iron sharpens iron.”

Just as Black Panther paved the way for her experience in South Africa, The Woman King has now primed Stevens for her next big movie: Kerry Washington’s Shadow Force. Thanks to a call from one of the movie’s executive producers, whom she also worked with on Breaking In, the stunt performer worked yet again this late summer and early fall with one of Hollywood’s Black female power players.

Only this time, it sees her venture into new territory with her first major acting role. Offered without an audition, the part still sees Stevens fighting, but with a few more hair and wardrobe changes. It’s onscreen work that made her feel “empowered” and one that will, in its own way, test her ability to handle the fear that can come with yet another unexpected career turn.

“This is the job I signed up for. This is what I love to do. This is what I’m going to do,” she says. “So I’m going to prepare for it to the best of my ability and then when they call action, I’m gonna go for it.”

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