Los Angeles Times, By James Verini
May 24, 2004
Movie and television stunt people basically fall into two categories: fighters (kung fu, swords, bar stools on heads) and drivers (police cars, Miami muscle boats, tanks). Debbie Evans is a driver. She can race, jump, incinerate or wreck just about anything on wheels. She’s jumped cars from docks onto moving ferry boats and torn lights off the roof of a San Francisco tunnel with the side of a Porsche. Her favorite vehicle, however, is a motorcycle. Thus it was fitting that at the fourth annual World Stunt Awards, an extravagantly deafening affair put on by Red Bull a couple of Sundays ago on the Paramount lot, Evans was honored for her balletic work on a Ducati in “The Matrix Reloaded.”
A pretty, petite blond, Evans mounted the stage in a simple silk dress, thanked her colleagues and God, and walked off. Stunt people are characteristically laconic, but Evans may also have been tired: Earlier in the show, she drove a Ford Mustang through a wall and into a spark-spitting pit on the stage.
“It feels incredible,” she said after the show. The rush of winning, she noted, was not unlike performing a stunt. “I was a little nervous at first, but once I got up there, I could feel the crowd with me. They were just so for me and happy I won it. You hear actors talk about loving to do stage work because of the crowd response, but it’s not until you feel it that you know what they’re talking about.”
Of all the categories that evening, only one was for a female. Men received awards for fire stunts, work with a vehicle, and “high work” (wires, cables, cliffs), among other things, but “best overall stunt by a woman” was a hodgepodge: motorcycles, sword fights, defenestrations and one flying leap onto a moving hearse, all in one category.
The stuntwoman award came toward the end of the show (which will be broadcast Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the Spike TV cable channel), hours after the opening number, in which hosts Dennis Hopper and Carmen Electra parachuted from a plane while being chased by a helicopter, and was further overshadowed by the presence of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who presented the award for action director of the year (to Jonathan Mostow, who directed “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine”). The governor admitted he owed his career to stuntmen.
An old profession
If this all sounds silly, remember: Stunt people, most of whom are much larger and stronger than you, take it very seriously. These are the Academy Awards of their profession, which has been around as long as Hollywood. Geniuses of the early cinema such as Buster Keaton, the Melies brothers and Charlie Chaplin were all stuntmen of sorts.
Evans, who stands a few inches over 5 feet and is soft-spoken — even demure — in person, has been a stuntwoman for nearly 30 years. She started in television in the 1970s, crashing cars on “CHiPS.” In 1978, she got her first movie job on “Deathsport,” one of the high-speed, sci-fi death romps (most of which seemed to star David Carradine) that were briefly in vogue at the end of that decade. She jumped a cheap Yamaha dirt bike over a 30-foot ravine.
The next year, she played an Olympic athlete who got thrown around the plane in “The Concorde: Airport ’79″; after that, she rough-rode horses in the ill-fated western “Heaven’s Gate.” The good news was that it added lasso tricks to Evans’ considerable repertoire. She’s worked virtually nonstop since, appearing in more than 100 movies and in more than 40 TV series, according to the Internet Movie Database.
Dirt bike beginnings
She began racing dirt bikes when she was 9, at the prompting of her father, a former racer who was “heavy into” the sport. She played the motorcycling old mail lady Miss Tisdale in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and she rode Lynda Carter’s motorcycle on “Wonder Woman.” On “The Jerk,” she jumped a bike through a wall of fire in fishnet stockings, burning the pattern into her leg. The scar took years to fade.
More recently, she raced a souped-up pink Honda on the streets of Miami for “2 Fast 2 Furious” and drove a Shelby Cobra in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”
In both films, she was close to twice the age of most of the stars. Evans will not even hint at the year of her birth (among stunt people, even more so than actors, age is perceived as a career killer), except to admit that she has a 23-year-old son. Of course, such things are relative. She spent the weekend before the awards at a motorcycle racing camp in Las Vegas.
“I like new challenges,” she said at rehearsals a few days before the awards. She was wearing a jet-black wig and a ruffly pink skirt to resemble Michelle Rodriguez in “The Fast and the Furious.” With stunt people, the word “challenge” is usually parlance for something really dangerous.
“I’m not really a daredevil. I’m a performer. I always ask, ‘What’s the character I’m playing?’ I car act.” As she said this, Evans pantomimed a series of driving positions, sitting bolt upright, slouching, leaning one arm lazily over an imaginary dashboard. “Is this character a beginner? Is she young? Is she drunk?”
Unlike many stuntwomen, however, Evans never wanted to be an actress. “I hate cold readings. I get too nervous. Just sitting in a room with a bunch of people looking at you.” Her preference is pure cinema: movement, action.
She grew up in Long Beach. Her father, an electrician, encouraged her taste for extreme activities. “When I was 11, I was watching a nature show on TV,” she said, “and I saw these guys climbing up coconut trees. I thought it looked fun, so I went outside and shimmied up the lamppost outside our house. Well, my mom came home from the grocery store, and she freaked out. I wouldn’t come down, so she called for my dad. He came out, looked up at me. ‘Can you get down?’ he asked.
” ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Well, stay up there as long as you want,’ he said, and went back inside.”
From her first moments on a set, Evans knew she wanted to be a stuntwoman and nothing else. “I really think this is what I was meant to do,” she said.
The injuries just come with the territory.
In addition to spending weeks in a burn ward after the accident on “The Jerk,” she has shattered her wrist (on “CHiPS”), broken an ankle (on “Batman & Robin”) and sustained enough back trauma that she must visit a chiropractor regularly. She missed being crushed by a truck by about a foot on the “Matrix” set.
How does she keep from cracking up?
“I know that God gifted me to do what I do for a living and that he’s protected me all these years,” she said.
Still, no matter how much work or respect Evans gets, her job is a day-to-day proposition. Evans does not have an agent or a manager to look after her interests. She often gets cut without notice from final production credits. She does not get the same Screen Actors Guild pension benefits as actors, and she is virtually uninsurable.
(To help offset that shortfall, the sponsor of the World Stunt Awards, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, set up a foundation that periodically pays benefits to injured stunt people and their families. Last year, it paid the family of Harry O’Connor, who was killed when he parachuted into a bridge while filming “XXX”).
A family affair
Evans’ sister, Donna, also is a stuntwoman. Debbie is married to stuntman Lane Leavitt, whom she met at a motorcycle school in 1976. The two racing champions already knew each other by reputation. Their son, Steve, has been doing stunts on television shows since he was 10.
This is common: Stunts are a family business. When Evans got started in business, her mentor was Jeannie Epper, the grand matron of Hollywood stuntwomen, who is in her mid-60s and still working. She took young women such as Evans under her wing, shielding them from producers for whom safety often took a backseat to tight production schedules, helping them get work. “She was like my stunt mom,” Evans said. Epper’s father was a stuntman, as are her brothers, sisters and children. At last count, the clan numbered 12.
Only slightly less numerous are the Rondells. Debbie Ross Rondell, who was nominated along with Evans for her car work in “The Matrix Reloaded,” is married to stuntman R.A. Rondell, the son of stuntman Ronnie Rondell Jr. (Burt Reynolds, whom Rondell doubled like a shadow in the ’70s, presented him a lifetime achievement award at the recent show). His late father, Ron Rondell, was a stuntmen in the days when westerns were still shot in Monument Valley, when stuntmen actually rode horses, shot guns and won bar fights before coming to Hollywood to do all of it on the screen. They surfed and practiced wheelies on dirt roads that are now suburban Valley boulevards.
When Evans started, stuntwomen were all but unheard of. Producers were more apt to put a stuntman in a wig and a dress than use a stuntwoman. Now, of course, they’re fairly common, and a new and different generation is emerging. Stuntwomen such as Angela Meryl and Zoe Bell, who were nominated for the sword versus table-leg fight in “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” are trained in martial arts and kick-boxing. They do complex wire work with fight choreographers imported from Hong Kong and double for sinewy actresses such as Jennifer Garner. They are super-trained athletes, products of gyms and personal trainers, as streamlined as the computers that enhance their scenes.
But Evans, who figures she has about five more years of stunt work in her, is proudly of the old school. She came up through the ranks crashing cars and hanging from cliffs. No one can ride a motorcycle like she can. Which is why it was so satisfying to watch her win.
Not that she is completely fearless. By her own admission, she is not.
Evans still looks back on certain moments and gets, she says, “that awful feeling” in the pit of her stomach. “You can’t be fearless and stay alive. You have to have some amount of fear. Jeannie taught me that. She taught me to always have an exit, a plan B. Think of what can go wrong and think of a way out.”