She's the daughter of a stuntman, she's the most recognized Wonder Woman stunt, and she's been in business for decades, she's JEANNIE EPPER, a Wonder Woman herself, in an exclusive and interesting interview with WONDERLAND, divided into two parts.

Jeannie Epper, stuntwoman and Lynda Carter.Jeannie Epper, stuntwoman and Lynda Carter.

Q: How did you come to be the subject of a film about stuntwomen? Did your work in “Wonder        Woman” cause you to be well known?

A: Well, I think how it originally started was the company, Runaway Films, had approached me to do a documentary on stuntwomen, and as they started to interview stuntwoman and me they decided to go in my direction, not just because of “Wonder Woman” but because of my body of work period. But “Wonder Woman” was one of the hooks I think that got them, and when they decided to split it up and make it “Double Dare” they went with Zoe Bell who doubles “Xena” and that’s how that got started. I think when they started out they were not quite sure which way they were going to go, and they needed to get some focus and once they met me and my family and started finding out all the stuff that I did, I think they just felt like I had an enough information, and they couldn’t do too many stuntwomen, the movie can only be so long. It turned out to be kind of interesting, you know, not to say we’re old, but the older version of a superhero into the “Xena” type superhero for women. They thought that would be an interesting way to go.

Q: There has been a great deal of comparison on the internet between “Wonder Woman” and “Xena” about who would win in a fight.

A:  Well, I have a feeling “Wonder Woman” would because she has more magical powers, and she has the plane, and Xena has more the raw toughness, and I feel like the character of “Wonder Woman” has different types of powers, so, that’s my opinion.

Q: How did you become a stuntwoman? It is not a usual choice for people, especially for a woman?

A:  It came about because my father let us children sort of explore and do a lot of above and beyond kind of things that most kids were not allowed to do like ride their horses and jump them over things and jump on them off moving trains…we were kind of like the “Wild Bunch”. And we’d trick each other by riding the horse underneath branches and we’d jump off the branch and try to land in the middle of the horse…we were just kids, playing really.

Q: Was your father a stuntman?

A:  My father happened to be at that time a racehorse trainer. He was a thoroughbred trainer; he came over here from Switzerland with aspirations of just…nothing. He came to America, came from a wealthy family, came here to dabble and didn’t know…just to explore America in the 1920’s. It was not his idea to become a stuntman, in fact he opened a riding academy in Riverside Drive in Hollywood where stars used to come down and horseback ride. So my father ended up meeting stars and ending up in the business because he could do something…he went to deliver a horse, and ended up, the guy couldn’t do the stunt on the horse my Dad delivered so my father got on the horse and made it jump over this car, and that’s how my father got in the business. So once that happened he started working with these people and got hooked up with a lot of power people. They liked the way he was direct and honest, and he said if he could do a stunt he could do it and if he couldn’t do it he’d say no.

So when they needed a child to double  somebody on a movie he was working on, they came to him and said out of those 6 wild kids that you have one of them has to be able to do this stunt and be this age, and it happened to be me. It wasn’t that big a stunt, it was riding a horse bareback down the side of a cliff, although the average person wouldn’t have allowed his child to do it. Then every one of us kids started working in the movie industry. My younger sister Stephanie became the little double for all the children, boys, girls, anybody that needed a horseback rider they’d bring her in. So we just sort of, you know, got in, then I went off to Switzerland at 13 and was educated for 3 years by my fathers family, came back, and with all this education I knew down deep inside I wanted to do something sporty or athletic. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, so the stunt business seemed to be right up my alley. It was what I wanted to do. I stood in a lot, worked as an extra, in those days you did all that, and I ended up doubling this person and that person, and my career was on its’ way. I have a lot of my fathers integrity, which is, if I can do it, I can do it, and if I can’t, I’ll tell you I can’t.
Q: Was it hard to turn down stunt roles if you knew that could hurt your career?
A: Well, you know the pressure can really get on you when you are the daughter of a famous stuntman. They would say, “Oh, you’re Johnny Epper’s daughter, oh you can do that,” and some of the things I learned to do on set taught me that I did very well under pressure, and it wasn’t the cell phone era, when I could pick up the cell phone and say “Dad, how do you do this?” I had to go back to around the dinner table when I would hear him telling my Mom or one of his friends how they set up this stunt, or did that, and it was kind of like he was in my little computer brain. So I sort of winged my way through in the early years.
Q:  What was the first film or tv series that you remember doing a stunt in as a adult?
A:  I think I ended up over on the Warner Brother’s lot during the era where all those wonderful fascinating tv series like “77 Sunset Strip” and “Hawaiian Eye,” “Maverick, “ all those shows were shot at Warner Brothers, and if I remember right, my first over-18 job was on “77 Sunset Strip.”
Q: What was the stunt?
A: I had to do a car hit, run out in front of a car, doubling an actress. Her name was Diane McBain, I don’t know if you remember her? Even in the 60’s they had a lot of what you would call “under contract” actresses that would work on every little tv show, and then I worked a lot on “Hawaiian Eye” and a lot on “Maverick.” I just started getting more and more jobs.
Q: What were the jobs on the westerns?
A: Oh, falling off a horse, being rescued from a runaway stagecoach, we had learned from my Dad how to drive a single horse, two-up team, but that was something a lot of young girls didn’t do as stunts, then it changed, they quit making westerns. Everyone had to go out and learn how to spin cars around and do high falls and ride motorcycles. I happened to be in my twenties then this all changed, and I was able to re-invent myself, you know, train myself, and luckily for me I had run into a friend of a friend named Bob Yurkas whose back yard had everything set up for falls and wire work, where I could learn new things.
Q:  So what were the main types of special stunts that you were doing by then?
A:  Mostly horse work and car work, fight work, high falls, fire gags, which means you get lit on fire or where you’re involved in some kind of burning fire. When we did “Towering Inferno” or “Earthquake” there were those huge movies being done in the 60’s and 70’s where it was all about toppling buildings or disasters, remember “The Posidon Adventure”? We all sort of worked together. Do you remember a movie called “Soylent Green”? I was one of those people they scooped up in the trash, got flung in the back and became little green wafers. It’s funny because my sister and my two brothers, two of my sisters, it was like of us were involved in that particular sequence. It was pretty raw and dangerous, it was a very strange movie, but you know, when you’re young you just go and do, you’re just so excited that you get a call and you work, and we weren’t even making that much money in those days.
Q:  Were you paid scale or so much per stunt?
A:  Yes, that’s right. It’s always been, since they formed the union, there’s always been a basic daily rate, and then you’d get an adjustment or a bump or whatever you want to call it if you renegotiated with the stunt coordinator to do another stunt. Even before the stunt coordinator was popular there was just a unit production manager, and you’d go to him. And I learned always from my father to always negotiate in advance, because after they have it, then they might not want to pay you as much, so I learned to be somewhat of a smart businesswoman early. If I knew it (the stunt) was going to be done 15 times I would say I want $75.00 each time you scoop me up and throw me in that. And that particular movie (“Soylent Green”) there were a lot of stunt people that had to get paid. That was a wild learning experience for me.
Q:  Especially for you being so young!
A: Well, you know if you‘ve got the talent and it’s your niche in life, you just seem to do it OK.
Q: Were you ever asked to do stunts that you felt were just too dangerous, or that you knew that you weren’t able to safely do? Did you ever feel the pressure was too much?
A:   Yes, I am sure there were many times when I wanted to quit, but there’s something inside of me that doesn’t allow me to quit. I would never push myself beyond the point of my talent. I never allowed myself to do something I knew I wasn’t well-trained for. I’ve been suckered in to doing things where we’ve been on location where I’ve said, “OK, I’m not doing a high-fall higher than,” and then all of a sudden in the middle of the afternoon the director decides he wants it a little different. I’ve had to renegotiate and think about it, but I know my limits and if they call me and say “Jeannie, nobody else in town wants to do this 80-foot high-fall, will you do it?” I would say absolutely no way, and I have said no.
Q:  Can you recall any particularly dangerous stunt before your work in “Wonder Woman”?
A:  Too many to mention, tons and tons of things. I was pretty well seasoned by the time I got on “Wonder Woman.” I was in my early thirties when I started on it, and I’d had ten years of stunts. But you know, you never stop learning. I’m 62 years old and I’m still learning. I’m still asking questions. Like how much fire can I take, you just have to because maybe some people hope and guess that its going to go ok, but it isn’t good, because I’ve seen some of my friends get killed. I’ve been on set when people have been severely injured and, I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen to me, it could, maybe I just had the luck of the draw that it didn’t happen. I believe that my guardian angels are just going to kick my butt when I get to heaven because they protected me a lot!
Q:  How have you tried to keep safe?
A: It’s usually when you panic; I have this ability to work calmly, and I know that once I’ve committed myself to do it I’m focused, I’m on the money and I know I’m going to pull it off. I don’t go in hoping, I just can’t imagine doing a stunt under those conditions.
Q:  Especially where things can get out of control.
A:  And the things that you get out of control with are like water and fire, because you’re not in control, somebody else is in control, of the amounts of water they are going to pour down on you. On “Earthquake” we did the sequence in the sewers where tons and tons and tons and gallons of water came in on us and we didn’t really didn’t really know how much until it sucked us up and flung us down and that was a very scary job.
Q:   How true! There was a similar stunt done for the silent movie “Noah’s Ark” where people were actually killed. That must have been when a stuntmen’s union was formed for safety’s sake.
A:   Yes, my father was in that era, and he used to tell some pretty wild tales about the early years. He was one of these guys who would walk off the set if things weren’t proper, if he didn’t feel they were comfortable for him to do, and he was really a ballsy, all out, kind of guy. How other stuntmen survived the stunts I don’t know, you know the actors were expected to do tons more of the stunts than they are today, they had to come in, figuring they had to do most of the hard stuff, and I think as the years have gone by the technology is better, the safety factor…you know, people can actually come out on the set and watch to make sure that things are the way you want them to, so you don’t get in the mix of someone saying “Well, Jeannie Epper’s too scared to do this,” and they fire you, and it gets all around Hollywood. There’s a lot of things that you have to learn, and I didn’t learn them right away, it took me years to be able to say “No, I don’t like the way this gag or stunt is set up, I want to change it a little. You’re dealing with egos, too. And as a woman a there’s a very, very fine line between right and bitch, and some of my good schooling years in Switzerland came out to give me finesse to explain to people that it didn’t have nothing to do with my being scared, I was just not stupid!
Q:  So you were able to tell the powers that be that a stunt could get you killed, and you refused to do it.
A: Yes, and high work is…more people get hurt doing that more than anything, because there’s no margin for error when your are flying through the air, you don’t hit the air bag correctly or the mats or whatever…did you know that air bags have been known to toss people off, or when you hit them incorrectly they bounce you right back off onto the concrete?
Q:  Well, that leads me to the question, were you ever hurt so badly that you had to be hospitalized?
A:   No, I have not, Praise God, I always say that my angels are going to knock me around when I get up there because they’re going to tell me all the times that they protected me. I have had stitches and bruises, but nothing where I couldn’t come back to work the next day. On “Wonder Woman” a couple of times I twisted my ankle, but it was OK, I could wrap it back up and go to work. But we were dealing lots of times with mini-tramps (trampolines) where we would jump down off of something and sometimes it would be almost blind. The pads sometimes are a little springier and you might be a little close to the pad and roll your ankle, and stuff like that, and those things take forever to heal.
PART II of this long interview will be featured on the next update.
Special Thanks to JEANNIE EPPER.
Interview © 2003 by WONDERLAND • The Ultimate Wonder Woman Site. All rights reserved.

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