So Many Questions: Gaëlle Cohen finds her passion in fights, falls, stunts
Imagine a day job that requires you to free fall off a building, sword fight or skydivie. Welcome to the world of professional stunt woman Gaëlle Cohen. For the past 16 years, she’s worked in a world where accidents and injuries are part of her day-to-day routine. With a resume that includes credits in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Rush Hour 3” and “Sahara,” it’s hard for her to imagine doing anything else.
But life wasn’t always this thrilling for the internationally acclaimed performer. Born and raised in France, she was on the path to becoming an attorney when the universe intervened with one of those clichéd “fateful phone calls.” Answering the request to fill in on stage as a favor to a friend, a chance encounter backstage with stunt men changed her course in life. For the former member of the French National Fencing Team, it quickly became evident that a career in law wasn’t going to happen. Sixty film and television productions later, it’s pretty obvious that she made the right call.
Question: How did you get into this business?
Answer: It’s quite an original story. I was to become a lawyer, and I did all my law school, (and) was to be a full-time lawyer. And I was seeing myself miserable for the rest of my life. A friend called me one night — she had an actor placement agency and she needed someone at the last minute who could fill in for the position. She called and said “Hey, I’m in trouble, I need someone who can go on stage in front of 1,500 people and won’t be afraid.”
So I did it, and backstage there were some stunt people rehearsing a sword fight. While I was in law school I was on the national French fencing team. So when I saw those guys I said, “Hey, I can help you because it’s not good what you’re doing right now.” … So I trained them, and they went on their way, and I went on mine.
A few weeks later, I received a phone call from the stunt coordinator of the show. He said, “I’d like to meet you because those guys did a great job and got hired for the movie.” And I had no idea about stunt work, but I said, “OK.” And I got hired for my first sword fight on “Highlander.” And on Day One on set, I knew this was for me, and this was what I was supposed to be. So law was out of the picture.
Q: How do you train for this line of work?
A: It’s a career where you become what you make out of yourself. The more you learn, the more you know, the more you can get hired. If you only do martial arts, you’ll be called for martial arts movies and not for all of them. But if you do horse riding and trick riding and motorcycle and skydiving and high falls and stair falls and martial arts and sword fights, then your skills are needed in a lot of movies, and you can really live off that job.
What I did is, I looked at the most action-packed movies at that time, and I looked at what skills were needed. Everything I was attracted to and everything I thought I was able to learn, I did it. I think for a year and a half I was learning from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and then I was working at night to make the money to pay for all those private classes.
Q: Is there ever a time when your adrenaline just doesn’t kick in and you’re petrified?
A: Petrified, no, because I think there’s a difference between someone who’s an adrenaline junkie who has no boundaries regarding the danger and a real stunt person who’s really aware of the danger and you’re willing to do dangerous things but you know you have the skills to perform them. When you’re scared, it’s too late. It’s just too late. It’s not fear; it’s just awareness. You know the dangers, you know the risk, and so it helps to be focused and really 100 percent focused on what you’re going to do. There’s some times where after I’ve done something, I’ve thought, “Holy crap! What did I just do? What just happened?” I think if you’re afraid of something, you’re not confident. You’re not giving it 100 percent, and that’s when the accidents happen.
Q: Any stunts that you absolutely won’t do?
A: Free running. It’s very in right now — all the jumping from one building to another. Everybody wants it in their movie now. But, it’s something that requires at least your legs to be perfect and in absolute shape. And one of my legs, I broke my tibia in three places, so those things are absolutely out of the question for me. But I’m way too old for that! Now, if someone wants to become a stunt man, you have to learn free running. But for us older stunt people who already have a career, you have to learn new things, but you have to also accept that you’re not 20 anymore, and your body carries injuries that you can’t ignore.
Q: You must have had quite a few close calls. Was there ever a time when you thought, “OK, enough. I’m done with this?”
A: Yes, it happened. And it usually happens after the first good injury. First of all, injuries are part of the stunt job — you can’t ignore it, and you can’t think you’re going to be lucky all your life, and you’re going to be going through all those dangers with no scratches. Accidents are a natural selection, I’d say. After the first injury, some people are like, “No, no, no, that’s it, I’m done,” and that happens to a lot of people.
My first big injury happened after five years of work, and it was in Spain on a big TV show and, basically, my body was just tired. It wasn’t really dangerous, but I had been working every day for six months on that TV show in the south of Spain in the desert. … I was completely ignoring the warning signs my body was telling me. And one day, my knee blew up. So it was really bad.
After that, I had a very strange feeling. I felt betrayed. I was so mad at myself and my body, like “What happened?” And I felt that I wasn’t going to do stunts anymore, but it passed. It really passed quickly.
Q: So, if you woke up tomorrow and had to take a normal, nine-to-five job, what would it be?
A: I’m a very passionate person. I really believe that what you do for a living has to be something you really enjoy. There’s no pleasure or reward in what you’re doing, there’s no point in doing it. You only have one life. I don’t know! I would, for sure, aim at something that would give me some kind of pleasure. I really have no idea what I would do! I would probably end up being a florist because I like flowers. It would be something not related to the movie business because other than stunt, there’s nothing that attracts me, and I would go for something that just brings me pleasure and bliss in my life.
Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-8515.