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Dangerous dames

There’s work-life balance, then there’s trying not to kill yourself at work. A peek into life as a Hollywood North stuntwoman
Maja Aro | Photo: Richard Lam

Maja Aro has been shot, blown up, beaten and hung out of a helicopter. She’s been thrown off buildings, stabbed and dragged behind a horse. She’d like to crash a speeding car off a ramp. That’s high on her to-do list.

Aro, 32, is one of a growing number of Vancouver-based women who are, literally, kicking ass in the world of stunt performing.

“I luckily have not been injured that much. I’ve had a few small ones – we all do because we’re dodging stuff constantly,” Aro says after a day on set.

“We get scratches and bruises but those are to be expected for a stunt performer; those are just part of the job.”

A self-described “tomboy,” Aro grew up in Williams Lake, B.C. She was an avid athlete who competed on the national and international stage as a downhill skier and mountain biker.

When she moved to Vancouver, it was to pursue a career in fashion design. That was the plan.

Then she met some women working as stunt performers in the city’s film industry. The plan changed.

“I was like,‘That’s a job?’” she says.

That was 13 years ago.

She began training in martial arts, stunt driving, scuba diving – anything and everything that could come in handy when you fight, get blown up and crash cars for a living.

Her first job was on a TV movie called The Concession, but her first “real” stunt was on the series Smallville, about the teenaged Superman.

It was not so long ago that men in wigs stood in for female actresses when the punches started to fly on film. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.

Aro has racked up an impressive list of credits, including The Cabin in the Woods, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and five seasons of the television series Once Upon a Time.

In April, she was awarded the inaugural Stunt Warrior Award at the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival in Los Angeles for her work.

She co-directed two short films last year with directing partner Sara Irvine-Erickson and just won a Motion Picture Production Industry Association of British Columbia short film grant.

“I absolutely love my job,” says Aro, who is married to stunt performer Jeffery Aro.

Business is booming in the Vancouver film industry, and women like Aro are cashing in.

“These are good times,” says Alvin Sanders, president of the Union of BC Performers.

Last year was a record year. The city of Vancouver alone had 353 productions that spent $2 billion. That included 26 feature films such as the blockbuster Deadpool and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond.

Beyond the array of beautiful backdrops, Metro Vancouver has one-of-a-kind studios for special effects and a highly skilled workforce, Sanders says, including stuntwomen like Aro and Sabine Varnes.

A Richmond-raised former gymnast, Varnes was a “ski bum” in Whistler when her former coach suggested she go into stunt work. He had.

She was 25 when she decided to give it a try.

By 2001, she landed a job working for Universal Studios in Japan, playing Sarah Connor in the live stunt show Terminator 2 3-D.

After a little more than a year, hooked on the business, she was back in Los Angeles, hustling work.

“I’d get in my car, get my Thomas Guide – this is before I had maps on my phone – and you cruise downtown L.A. and look for the signs where movies are happening,” she says.

Headshots and resumé in hand, she was hunting jobs.

“You kind of either gracefully get on set, sneak on set … just get in, find the co-ordinator, handshake and out. Wrap it up in a minute. That’s the art of the hustle right there.”

Her first big break was the Ben Stiller movie The Heartbreak Kid, in which she doubled both lead actresses, Michelle Monaghan and Malin Akerman.

“That was my foot in the door,” she says in an interview before heading out to work on the ABC miniseries When We Rise, a follow-up to the Oscar-winning film Milk.

Her long list of credits includes the latest instalment of the Jason Bourne films, Underworld: Awakening and the Superman revival Man of Steel.

One of her favourites, though, remains the HBO series True Blood.

“Such a hard day. I had to work with a shirtless Alex Skarsgard. Poor me,” she says, laughing.

A single mother, Varnes works a little less than she used to so that she can be home with her toddler son.

“The job is intense,” she says. “When I come home I have this little quirky, silly goofball who’s saying hilarious things to me. And that just brings me back down to playtime. My whole life is my son.”

Most stunt performers don’t have managers or agents. They book their own jobs, juggle appointments, keep the books and pay the bills themselves.

For Varnes, the support of her family has been vital.

“My mom is my rock. She is someone I can count on 100 per cent,” she says.

“It makes going to work easier and without stress … The baby is fine. I have no worries and I can go focus on work and enjoy my work, because it’s supposed to be fun, too.”

As far as women have come in the stunt industry, it can still be “Boys Town,” Varnes says. On one recent project, there were eight women among the 40 or so stunt performers on set.

Diversity overall remains a challenge in the industry, Sanders says.

“Just like a number of other industries, it’s a male-dominated world. Particularly on the stunt side, so much of that is, if not men actually doing the work, men making the decisions about who does the work,” Sanders says.

Things are a “little more PC these days,” Aro says, but women face some gender-specific challenges.

A female body moves differently and has a different centre of gravity. Then there are the outfits. They don’t leave much room for padding.

“We’re often in high heels, a tight skirt,” she says.

“I’ve had a few of them [stunt co-ordinators] be nervous for me, saying, ‘You’re going to jump out of the car and you’re in a skirt and you have no pads on?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s what I’m doing. That’s my job.’”