Dozens of stunt performers have signed a letter sent today to the leadership of SAG-AFTRA calling for an end to “wigging” – the age-old practice of putting wigs and dresses on stuntmen so they can double for actresses – and “paint-downs,” in which dark make-up is applied to white stunt performers so that they can double for actors of color. “In the stunt industry, diversity and inclusion have long been overlooked and discouraged, and it’s long past time for these practices to end,” said stuntwoman Crystal Santos, who spearheaded the campaign.
In response to the letter, SAG-AFTRA said that it “stands in solidarity with performers whose opportunities to work in stunt roles have been denied or limited because of bias against women, minorities and performers with disabilities. SAG-AFTRA has long recognized the difficulties faced by diverse performers seeking to establish themselves as stunt professionals and has bargained into our main television and film contract language that requires producers and stunt coordinators to consider and endeavor to cast women, minorities and performers with disabilities for stunt roles. Our contract also explicitly addresses the practice of ‘painting down’ and provides that this practice is ‘presumptively improper.’
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“While discriminatory intent is often difficult and sometimes even impossible to prove, that has not stopped SAG-AFTRA from investigating and interceding when instances of ‘wigging,’ ‘painting down’ or other similar practices are reported to us. The specific complaint alleging that a SAG-AFTRA national board member has been engaged for a stunt doubling role in violation of these provisions and principles has only recently been brought to us. We are reviewing and will take whatever action is necessary and appropriate to enforce our contract. Our focus is on holding Producers accountable for their responsibilities under the collective bargaining agreement. The responsibility to hire fairly and in compliance with our contract and the law lies with the stunt coordinator and ultimately the Producer.
“SAG-AFTRA is pleased to see performers advocate for fair hiring practices in the area of stunts and urge an open dialog on this subject and the possibility of deeper cooperation in the pursuit of this shared objective. We have great respect for the amazing work that our stunt performers and coordinators do to bring so many incredible action sequences to life and we respect their commitment to safety and excellence. We also believe, however, that more should be done to broaden access to this work, comply with the non-discrimination provisions of our contract and ensure that the American scene is depicted fairly and accurately, including when stunts are involved.
“We have watched from the outside as white stunt performers are painted down, or men wigged in a grotesque simulation of those of us denied employment,” the letter says. “Modern-day blackface is Hollywood’s shameful secret.”
These practices, their letter says, have been going on “for decades,” with employers and stunt coordinators overlooking qualified women and stunt performers of color “via nepotism, racism, intimidation and slander,” while “our talents are overlooked, denied and discredited; our professional opportunities foreclosed, our careers foreshortened.”
“A job wrongfully denied is also dollars unearned,” the letter says, “meaning rent unpaid, food unsought, health coverage unachieved and a pension underfunded. A moment of discrimination can last a lifetime, seared in our minds, branded on our credits lists and inscribed in red ink on our bank statements.
“These employers and some of our own union brethren subject us to the indignities of discrimination even in the teeth of federal, state and local law. Our contracts require that coordinators hire us and/or should endeavor to do so, but many of them brush off this obligation as if it were just surplus verbiage.
“Finally, all of this contempt must end. We are no longer afraid and will no longer be silenced. Our community has reached a boiling point. It is 2020, and shameful that at this late date we must still fight within our own union for fair and equal treatment. But at long last, even in the stunt community the arc of justice must bend.
“We ask that the National Board condemn these practices, support our community and serve notice on employers, stunt coordinators and stunt performers that our contracts will be enforced and their mandates respected. We ask this topic be addressed on the agenda at the next National Board meeting. We also ask that the Board form a special investigative task force composed of members from both within and outside the stunt community, with appropriate racial, gender and geographic diversity, to report back expeditiously on specific measures to end these injustices once and for all.
“Given the history of these egregious acts, we realize that retaliation may be exercised towards those of us bringing attention to these serious matters. We are prepared, we will record any instances of retribution and we will report those who choose to retaliate instead of supporting our quest in the effort to make our future as stunt performers a better future for all that will follow.”
Stunt performers – all members of the union – who signed the letter include Santos, LaFaye Baker, Geo Corvera, Melissa Tracy, John Kreng, Janeshia Adams-Ginyard, Michelle Elise Shock, Erik Betts, April Weeden, Anita Clay, Diana Lee Inosanto, Ron Balicki, Jwaundace Candece, Dino Dos Santos, Robert Samuels, Laura Cordova, Edwin Garcia, Shawn Balentine, Manny Ayala, Keisha Tucker, Mikal Kartvedt, Wayne King Jr., Demetrius Angelo, Carrie Annie Bernans, Hymnson Chan, Evan Copage, C.C. Taylor, Arnold Chon and Kathy Jarvis. The letter was also signed by SAG-AFTRA members Robert Redfeather, Jason Crow and Henry Priest.
Santos, in a separate statement, said that participation in paint-downs should be considered conduct unbecoming a member of the union. “As a female Latina stunt performer of color, I am extremely disappointed in the perpetual acts of paint-downs condoned and accepted by certain members of the stunt community and our employers,” she wrote. “Paint -downs are unnecessary, antiquated, and lack moral decency.
“All members of our union deserve a safe work environment that will continue to foster and grow diversity and equality. Due to the hostile environment currently in stunts, I have been contacted by some of the newer stunt performers of color that were frightened and disenchanted with the blatant discrimination and harassment, as such, some of them have chosen to quit the pursuit of stunts. As a result, diversity in stunts is sadly stifled and this will continue to do irreparable harm to the stunt performers of color, LGBTQ+ stunt performers and stunt performers with disabilities communities if left unchecked.
“It is my hope that our union intercedes and helps to foster diversity in stunts and the entertainment community by holding its members accountable who participate in paint-downs, and standing firm with the law, our contract, and moral decency against the ongoing practice of paint-downs.
“It is my hope that our union will meet the expanded competitive needs of the entertainment industry’s goals for diversity and inclusion; and that we as performers will have our union’s solid support to implement diversity and inclusion throughout the industry and within our union.”
Stuntwoman Kathy Jarvis, in a separate statement, said that she has personally experienced “the ramifications and retaliations by stunt coordinators to either paint-down or have a male do stunts for females. I experienced being told by a stunt coordinator that a male would be flown in to do the vehicle turn over, but I would continue performing the driving, fights and falls for the actress. I stood up for myself, and after many threats to send me back home, and being told that I would never work again, I still stood up for myself and I performed the stunt without a hitch.
“On another show I was told by the stunt coordinator I would be performing the car hit on the show so I would have to be painted down, as he claimed there was no ‘qualified’ black female stunt performers. I said no thank you. He then went to the producer, who I had worked for many times, to come talk to me. The producer guaranteed that nobody would ever know it was me. I still refused the job due to the fact that I am not black. True to his word he has never hired me again.
“Due to these experiences, I decided no matter how hard it was, I would train, find mentors, and study to become a working stunt coordinator. As a female stunt coordinator, jobs have been very hard to come by, but I am committed to change. I have used the Taft-Hartley exception to find a double for an Eastern Indian female whose character was an elite climber; I have used it to find black extreme snowboarders; I have used it to find a Native American female athlete who I mentored and coached to become the show double for a Native American actress.
“I use this (Taft-Hartley) exemption for what I believe it is intended for, to provide inclusion of minorities and people in protected classes into our craft. We can make a difference if stunt coordinators make an effort to slow the hiring of their friends, family or established crew by playing the safety card. And when accidents happen, as the death on Deadpool 2, we don’t make it about gender or race, as when the death happened on The Walking Dead, we did not make it about gender or race.
“SAG-AFTRA must put into the codified agreement a system for determining why and when a stunt coordinator or producer hires a different race, gender, or sexual orientation then the character. And we as stunt coordinators must commit to mentoring people who have been denied opportunities due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.”
Stuntman Mikal Kartvedt, in a separate statement, said that “In nearly all cases any attempt to substitute gender or ethnicity in Hollywood today is nothing more than laziness at best, and racist at worst. We have a problem in the stunt community and that problem is racism; being led and sustained by white men and women at the top of our pyramid. They are destroying the trust and sense of community the rest of us are working so hard to achieve.
“In our end of the business when trust is not steadfast, members are injured or killed. Due to the dangerous nature of our profession there will be exceptions to any regulations the diversity committee sets down and I support guild oversight in those cases, which prove to be an exception. I proudly join Crystal Santos, our colleagues and all the performers of color in our community in calling for an end to the abhorrent act of ‘painting down.’”