February 22, 2013 in Features

Falling to the top of her field

Stuntwoman’s jumps make her master of ‘dying art’
Richard Verrier Los Angeles Times
 

Stuntwoman Heidi Pascoe jumps head-first from scaffolding while training with Joe Witherell in Sylmar, Calif., last December. She is one of the few women willing to jump from heights more than 100 feet.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – Before climbing the scaffold, Heidi Pascoe checked the wind – throwing a handful of dirt into the air to see how hard it was blowing. Pascoe, satisfied that conditions were safe, weighed her options.

Should she do a backfall (falling backward), a header (rolling over) or a suicide (landing on her back)?

She settled on the header, then climbed 40 feet, hand over hand, to a small platform overlooking rooftops in the Sylmar neighborhood and the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. She stood erect at the edge of the platform and stared at the 10-by-15-foot air bag on the ground below.

“Are you ready?” a colleague shouted.

“OK, I’m good,” said the 5-foot-2 Pascoe.

“Three, two, one – action, Heidi!” Pascoe yelled before diving toward the air bag.

If she missed the giant X in the bag’s center, she could bounce onto the ground and be seriously injured. If she rolled too far forward, she could break her back.

Pascoe, a veteran of nearly two decades of stunt work, is a rarity in Hollywood. She’s one of the few women willing to jump from heights of 100 feet or more.

She has completed about 100 high falls for movies, television shows and commercials. She’s jumped from high-rise office buildings, bridges, cliffs, cranes – even an oil rig – often wearing a skirt and high heels and sometimes acting as if she’s been shot, stabbed or pushed.

One especially challenging stunt involved falling from an 11-story building in downtown Los Angeles as she played a character trying to prevent someone from committing suicide. It was one of the few instances in which she jumped with the aid of a cable attached to her body, causing her to decelerate in the air rather than land on an air bag.

“Every time I look down, I say to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing this for?’ ” said Pascoe, high-fiving her buddies after the 40-foot practice jump in Sylmar.

So why does she do it? The money is decent. She earns $1,000 to $4,000 a jump. But the real appeal is the sheer joy she gets.

“There are times I feel like I’m floating. There is absolutely a sense of exhilaration when I jump,” she said. “I’m happy when I’m in the air and when I’m flying through it. I have no other explanation for it.”

In an era when stunts increasingly are created on a computer screen, Pascoe is a throwback to a time when daredevil stunt performers sometimes lost their lives performing falls without safety harnesses or cables.

“There are very few women who can do what she does,” said her mentor, Banzai Vitale, a stunt coordinator who worked with Pascoe on HBO’s “True Blood” series and has hired her for several other productions. “It’s a dying art.”

Aside from falling off buildings, Pascoe’s been clocked in the head, thrown through office windows and rammed by speeding cars.

“I don’t get the easy jobs,” she said.

Raised in the small Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre, Pascoe was drawn to two things that would be elemental in her career: heights and water.

“When I was a kid, I would wrap a green towel around my legs and swim in the pool,” said Pascoe, an only child. “I thought I was a mermaid.” She would eventually double for one in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

At 24 she became the first woman to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championship, held in Mexico. The 90-foot dive was especially difficult because Pascoe had to jump out far enough to avoid the rocky shoreline below.

A television producer saw footage of the competition and was so impressed he hired Pascoe to jump from an 80-foot cliff on Catalina Island as a stunt for a show called “Worst Case Scenarios.”

“I hit the water so hard I had bruises for days,” she said.

She earned $3,500 for the job, received her Screen Actors Guild membership card and soon found more work on movies and television shows. She would double for actresses Reese Witherspoon, Anna Paquin, Elisha Cuthbert and Holly Hunter.

Pascoe has won several awards for her feats, including sharing the coveted Taurus Award in 2011 for a stunt in the movie “Predators,” in which she leaped from an 80-foot cliff in Hawaii, doing a double flip turn and a half twist before plunging into the ocean.

Her highest fall to date was from an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara for an episode of the TV drama “Alias.” Pascoe, acting as a stunt double for actress Amy Acker, leaped off a platform to evade a spray of simulated machine gun fire and dropped 115 feet into the ocean.

It was so high up, Pascoe couldn’t judge how far down the water was. She asked that a personal watercraftbe placed in the water so she could see the surface of the ocean and time her landing.

“When I jumped all I could think of was looking at that Jet Ski,” she said. “If you miss your landing by one second, it feels like hitting concrete.”

On very high jumps, like the ones for “Alias” and “Predators,” she’ll wear a spine protector and a girdle for extra padding.

She sometimes uses special booties to protect her feet.

If she’s jumping into water, she checks the temperature first: Cold water is thicker than warm water, and harder. A certified scuba diver, Pascoe also puts on her wet suit and dives in beforehand to check for dangerous reefs or rocks below the surface.

Usually gregarious, Pascoe has a rule that no one talk to her right before her jump. The silence helps her concentrate.

“One time I was jumping off a cliff in Malibu Creek State Park and a P.A. (production assistant) starts yakking at me about shoes. Normally I would talk about shoes any day, but I said, ‘Can you be quiet? I’m trying to jump off a cliff.’ ”


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