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Woman at Work: Jess Harbeck

Stunt Coordinator

What does a day in your work life look like?

In my business, no two days ever look alike. One day I might set people on fire, the next we could flip a car, film a fight scene, or make it look like a person is riding the dead body of another person like a jet ski through the ocean, propelled by the dead body's farts (this is an actual sequence we pulled off in the film Swiss Army Man). 

Did you complete any training? If not, how did you learn your trade/skill?

Stunts are tough to get into because there isn't an official path, certification, or school that exists. The entire business is based on word-of-mouth reputation and building one is difficult because coordinators hire performers they know and trust. Building that trust when you are a fresh face can be a very long, uphill battle. It takes a thick skin, dedication, and a stubborn mindset. I came to LA with a diverse athletic background but learned quickly I had a lot of training to do if I wanted to make it to the top of the game. Being a stunt performer requires the ability to adapt, pick up different skills quickly, and go with the flow.  

What do you want people to know about being a woman in your field?

I am a member of The Stuntwomen's Association of Motion Pictures, which formed in 1967, primarily to demand we had the right for "Women to Stunt Double Women!" Sadly, we still battle this gendered stigma known as "wigging" as well as "paint-downs," in which light-skinned performers are "painted down" in order to double for performers of color. These practices are wrong and have no place in our business, yet the battle continues.

Womxn* also face pay disparity in stunts because men run shows and men hire other men. When designing action sequences, specifically large crowd scenes, coordinators need to hire many ND (nondescript) stunt performers to fill these roles. Womxn make up only a small percentage of these steady working roles. And when we do get called for larger, less steady, projects, typically to double the lead actress, we’re on set with 30 stuntmen for the run of the film. 

This will change as the face of the stunt coordinator changes. Our work is to diversify the stunt department and pull other womxn up as we climb this mountain together.


What's the biggest challenge you have faced in your work?

The biggest challenge we face as stunt womxn is moving up from stunt performer to stunt coordinator/second unit director. There is a glaring lack of female representation when it comes to leadership positions, which is often attributed to a lack of experience. However, this experience is nearly impossible to gain if you aren't given the opportunity to learn. I attribute it to a lack of visibility and opportunity.

Those of us who have been privileged to lead and are in a position to break the glass ceiling face a multitude of challenges once we get there. Some issues I've personally faced are: dealing with stereotypically male-dominated department heads not giving me the same respect they give to men in my position, directors and producers questioning whether or not I'm "strong" enough to coordinate bigger action sequences regardless of my resume and level of experience, actors in action hero roles who aren't interested in taking movement advice from a womxn, other department heads assuming men I've hired are the stunt coordinator, and more.

What are you doing when you’re not working hard?

Lounging hard with my lover and my cats, taking trips in our van, hanging with my nephew, and enjoying patio time.

Do you have any special projects or cool things you want people to check out?

I was lucky enough to perform a pipe ramp car jump in the movie “Birdbox” last year when Sarah Paulson's character wrecks the car with Sandra Bullock inside! I also coordinated a feature last year called "Follow Me" that comes out this year.

What does workwear designed for women mean to you?

My entire adult life has been spent rummaging through the men's sections trying to find something tall and skinny that skater boys might fit into and then spending money at the tailor having those same items altered to fit just right. Workwear designed for womxn has been a missing piece in my life. I love knowing I'm supporting a company owned and operated by womxn making clothes that actually fit our bodies. Dovetail Workwear is showing the world there is demand for womxn in the workplace. It's validation for our above-average work and it's about damn time. 

*Jess’ pronouns are they/them. They use the word ‘womxn’ here to describe their gender identity. Read more about that word here and here