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Balancing Act

A stuntwoman finds her footing in the Toronto film scene

By Karen MacKenzie

Stuntwoman Alicia TurnerShe fends off her attacker with a series of swift jabs and ducks before he finally brings her down, hard, to the ground. Alicia Turner is out for the count.

Or at least that’s how it looks on film.

Behind almost every action hero on screen is a real life tumbler, driver or fighter, paid to make the stars look good and keep them safe.

Turner, a Montreal native in her early 30s, has been making her living doing just that, in Toronto, for the past five years. Since her first big break in an obscure science fiction series called Mutant X in 2001, to her current gig doubling Monica Bellucci in the Hollywood feature Shoot ‘Em Up, Turner has spun, fought and driven her way through hundreds of high-pressure shots.

“I like the anonymity of stunt work. Some girls want to be the star, whereas I don’t really want to be the star. I’m happy making the star look good,” says Turner, who has also worked on Land of the Dead, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Fool Proof.

The curly-haired brunette has been working in the industry on and off since moving to Toronto in 2000, making ends meet with the occasional restaurant job. Although she says lately it has been more on than off, she’s reluctant to admit to her growing success, perhaps due to the meandering path she has taken to find the job she loves.

After studying journalism in Kansas, the gymnast and diver began doing live high-diving and stunt shows. A $500-a-week live stunt show in Indiana led to Taiwan. She then headed to mainland China for similar acts before her eventual return to Montreal, and a job in a restaurant, “which is almost what everyone else does in this industry.

“You always try and focus, but it gets hard to stay focused when you’re really getting nothing and you kind of waver. You train, and train, and train and then motivation sort of dwindles,” she recalls.

After struggling for over a year, she left Montreal for the larger film scene of Toronto. But things didn’t get easier, and she was faced with another dead-end job.

“I met someone at a wedding, and I was drunk, and I was bitter that I hadn’t gotten a job yet in the film industry. It just so happened that I was bitching to one of the writers on a sci-fi show that filmed in Toronto, and he said, ‘Oh, you know, give me your stuff. I went out and met with [stunt coordinator Paul Rapovski]. I did the next three episodes, and every time I went, I would think, ‘I’m getting fired – today is the day they fire me.’ It seemed too good to be true.”

It wasn’t. Turner landed the gig for two more seasons.

She is now part of Rapovski’s successful stunt “cell,” one of a half dozen such groups working in the city. Each specializes in a different genre of work. Some work with motorcycles, others with cars. Turner’s group is renowned for its acrobatic work and Hong Kong-style fighting moves.

“I like doing more acrobatic stuff. Stuff you’ve trained your whole life to do that takes a certain level of capability. A lot of the time I feel like I’m only using one-twentieth of my capability, and it sometimes feels unfulfilling when you’ve worked your ass off and you just have to fall down,” says Turner, who spends about six hours a week on cardio activities, besides various classes and training sessions.

Her commitment and zeal for the job has earned the respect of her co-workers. “She’s the best. She’s one of those people that are very easy to get along with, and she’s not one of those people who says she can do something she can’t,” says Cheryl Quiacos, a long-time co-worker and friend. “She gives her 200 per cent to every shot.”

The two women met in the early days of both of their careers, and first worked together on Mutant X. “We had this big muddy cat fight in a prison of lesbians and we rolled around in muddy jeans,” laughs Quiacos, who has a background in gymnastics, martial arts, dance and theatre.

Both have found their own niche while working for the same stunt coordinator. “She kind of covers all the white girls, and I cover all the ethnic girls,” explains Quiacos, one of a few Asian stunt women working in Toronto.

While physical training and rehearsals keep injuries to a minimum, Toronto’s stunt-working community is no stranger to workplace tragedy.

“There’s always a story about someone dying on set,” says Turner, remembering Chris Lamon, an experienced stuntman who died while doubling Steven Seagal in 2000. But, she explains, in the macho world of stunt work, bumps and bruises are simply a matter of course.

“If you can fake it, you generally fake it, pretend you’re okay. You have to hold it together. Rule of thumb is, you don’t really say anything.”

While the film industry was the path she chose, Turner’s athleticism is a family tradition, says younger sister Natalie Turner, a gymnastics instructor in Mississauga, Ontario. “Our dad is an awesome swimmer, skiier, mountain biker. He usually outruns us. It’s actually embarrassing.”

Their mother, a gymnastics instructor, “was more of a dancer when she was younger. Being in the ’50s, she said there wasn’t the same variety of sports. But she was always a daredevil. People would dare her to jump off things and stuff,” she adds

The family’s physical prowess has translated into an annual tradition. On St-Jean-Baptiste Day, while other Québécois families gather around the barbecue for beer, food and simple fun, the Turners stage their annual triathlon – complete with an 800-metre swim, 10-kilometre bike ride and five-kilometre run.

“Alicia placed second last year. She beat the pants off me,” says her sister.