Katie Rowe, A Hollywood Stuntwoman, On WOWSA Live

Sponsored by KAATSU Global, Huntington Beach, California.

On the IMDb, former pool and open water swimmer Katie Rowe from Long Beach, California has 83 credits as a Hollywood stuntwoman and 15 credits as an actress, ranging from Spider-Man 2 and Avatar, to Bubble Boy to Poseidon, and many television shows.

Rowe is a lifelong swimmer and a waterwoman who serves as head of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures. She has been a stunt driver and stunt coordinator, but also specializes in in-water scenes and has appeared in The Day After Tomorrow, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Bad Santa, as well as popular American television series such as CSI: Miami, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Poseidon, Star Trek: Enterprise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and JAG.

Utilizing the same work ethic that drove her to twice-a-day workouts and 20,000 meters of swimming a day at her peak, the 190.5 cm statuesque blonde with a quick smile and calm demeanor appeared in today’s WOWSA Live with former teammate Steven Munatones.

As the president of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, she is a versatile skill set. “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 explained. “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.

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.”

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.”

The self-discipline and mental strength that Rowe developed 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.

Rowe has long endured tough 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 and preparation, 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.

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.

I’ve gotten to do so many things. Years ago, 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.”

But, she loves her chosen profession, “I have the best job in the world.”

Her filmography is posted at IMDb here.

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