Interview With Stunt People Andy Armstrong and Jennifer Caputo

By Ruth on April 4, 2017 in Interview, movie, television
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Thanks to the Artemis Film Festival (to which my daughter and I will be heading soon enough), I recently had an amazing opportunity. In the world of stunts, Andy Armstrong is practically a legend due to the longevity and success of his career. His wife, Jennifer Caputo, is also a phenomenal stuntwoman in her own right, and both are being honored at the festival this year. Thanks to the generosity of both of these magnificent people, I am giving you a sort of “2-for-the-price-of-1” interview, and I am excited to share the unique perspective of both of these extraordinary stunt people!

RH: So nice to chat with you both today. I’ll go ahead and talk with you first, Andy. Weren’t you on the stunt panel last year at the Artemis Film Festival?

AA: Yes, I was on the panel. Jen couldn’t attend last year, but I was there.

Artemis Film Festival Stunt Panel 2016

Well, I sure remember you from the panel last year.

I was one of the few men there.

Yes, I think that’s why I remember you so well. Will both of you be at the festival this year?

Yes, we will. We both are being honored this year.

I was looking over the impressive credits both of you have, and of course, Andy, you’ve been in the business for quite some time. How did you get started with doing stunts in film?

I grew up in England, and for as long as I can remember–as a small baby really–I assumed I would race cars for a living. When I became a teenager, it became evident that all the people who race cars–at least in those days–came from really rich backgrounds. And I wasn’t wealthy. So I needed to do a rethink. So I transitioned to motorcycles ’cause a lot of the people I had seen who had been successful with motorcycles came from less wealthy backgrounds.

So I was competing with motorcycles, and when I was about nineteen, I had a really pivotal moment in my life. I was doing an apprenticeship as a mechanic, but I assumed that competing with motorcycles would be how I made my living.  But it was not easy to make a living racing motorcycles. Just about that time, my brother, who had gone into the film industry just a few years ahead of me, started stunt film coordinating on a  series shooting in the South of France. A stunt part come up where they needed someone to crash a motorcycle. He called me to come out, and I went out and did the job. It was sort of a lightbulb moment when I realized I could earn a lot more money crashing vehicles than I ever could failing to win races with them.

So that was how I entered the film industry. In those days, I was really only specializing in vehicles. Having spent some time on location on an international series, I realized that lots of the skills I had were good for production as well. I went in as an assistant director, and I had a very lucky rise that by the time I was in my early twenties, I was one of highest–if not the highest-paid–assistant directors in the world, and I was working all over the world on big action movies. That allowed me to start looking for work as a director.

So I found myself directing action sequences. And as a director, I discovered that a lot of the stunt coordinators I had working for me….I wasn’t that happy with their performance. So I started stunt coordinating again, and my career went full circle then ’cause I was known as a stunt coordinator, and that gave me lots of big movie offers as a stunt coordinator. It’s an odd career ’cause it went sort of full circle twice.

On set of Hoffa 1991 with Jack Nicholson.

It was an unusual career path, but it worked out very well for me because I picked up a lot of the skills as an assistant director working all over the world on a lot of very big action movies. Literally all over the planet from jungles to the deserts of the world to the Arctic Circle. When I decided to get out of assistant directing and try to direct, my first big break as an action unit director was Highlander. That was an enormous break for me ’cause I started the movie as an assistant director on the action unit. The director that was directing the action unit left, and I went into the producer’s office and said that I wanted to take over directing the action unit. I told them that if it was no good, I’d pay them for it. Although I had no ability to pay them if it had been no good. I would have been in very bad trouble. The producers agreed, and I came in the next day as a director of that unit. The movie was hugely successful, so things picked up in the area of action unit directing for me. That was around 1984, and that was when my directing big action sequences really took off.

Where were you living at this point?

I was still based in England at that time and even a few years after that. Most of the big international movies tended to be filmed in England. That still happens to a certain degree today, but much more so back then. It was a great time to be in the stunt business. I did three of the James Bond movies, and they were all over the world. By the time I was twenty-eight, I had worked in something like thirty-five countries. A lot of what I’ve done the past few years is action sequences in big movies shooting in odd places.

Since you were the only guy on the women’s stunt panel last year, I remember you had placed such a high value on women.

I always have felt that way. I have a daughter, and I grew up around very strong women. For no particular reason other than principles, I’ve always had a very hard time with sexism or racism or any of those things. I’m a big believer of people achieving and succeeding based on ability rather than sex or color. And that’s been a big driving force in my career. I’ve had stunt people from all over the world come and work with me–men and women. While I didn’t set out to do it, I’ve given a lot of women and a lot of people of color their big initial break doing some huge stunt.

I think some of what I believe and think came from my first marriage that ended very early. My kids were quite young–I have a son and a daughter. My oldest is a daughter, and I’ve always been very intent that she was given exactly the same opportunities as he was. I really objected to the mindset where girls were given dollies, and the boys were given “boy toys” early on. I always thought that sort of thing was absurd. For me, it seemed like a natural and important thing to not dictate a child’s interest based on their sex. A lot of stuntwomen see me as a positive force because I’ve been very much in their corner. It’s been no other reason really except that I feel it’s the right thing to do. I was at the tail end of that generation where people would spend thousands of dollars on the sons in the family, but not on the daughters because they were going to get married and have kids some day. I’m really glad that I’ve been a part of a generation that has helped women achieve directorships of companies, drive racecars, and all those sorts of things.

with Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield The Amazing Spiderman 2

I always appreciate men that have that outlook, especially since I’m a single mother, and I have a daughter who’s thirteen. As much as things have changed, there still are men and women both who try to put women into a box and say that this is what women are supposed to do. 

Absolutely! And sadly, so much of that force comes from women! It’s dreadful! When my children were small, my daughter was a much faster achiever than my son at lots of things. She rode motorcycles at four. She was driving boxcar buggies at five.  My son was able to learn those things after her. He was much slower picking up those things. A lot of other parents didn’t like their kids coming to play with mine because they were worried that their daughter might drive a buggy and get hurt. It was such nonsense, I think. There were lots of days my daughter was out in the mud and rain of England, riding a motorcycle, and often my son would come in and be painting inside. I always thought that was perfectly acceptable. You shouldn’t choose an activity based on their sex. I taught them early on how to change a spark plug and things like that. In fact, I remember something funny happened with my daughter when she was around seventeen. She had a boyfriend, and she broke up with him because on a rainy night, they got a flat tire. He didn’t know how to change the wheel, and she did. {laughs} And that was the end of him. It’s important, that kind of stuff. It’s such a Victorian thought to think that women who can do that are not attractive, sexy, or feminine. A woman who knows how to check the oil and the water and change a wheel on a car doesn’t have to be masculine. It’s only an education thing.

Jen Caputo, car crash stunt

And we’ve done the same thing in the stunt business. Some of the biggest car crashes that we’ve set up–Jen{nifer Caputo}, my wife, has been the one crashing the car. When I came into the movie business, I would constantly see this old, macho generation that if there was a woman in a car chase doubling an actress, when it came to the big, heavy crash, they would want to take the woman out and put a guy there. In reality, not only is it wrong morally, I feel, but it’s also wrong from a safety and a physical standpoint. In reality, in the same car crash, a big heavy guy is wrong for several reasons. One thing is you have to make the protection in the car–the roll bar–you’ve got to make it bigger to accommodate him and his helmet. So this means that the bars are out closer to the roof, which means there’s less room for the car to absorb energy. Whereas if you’re doing it with a smaller woman in the car, you can bring the roll cage lower. Therefore, there’s more room around the car for it to crumple. Just by the laws of mass and motion, the internal organs of a woman that’s five foot six are smaller and lighter than a man who’s six foot two. When they get into a violent situation involving tumbling, she’s having less damage caused to her internal organs than the man is. It’s sort of a fantasy that a big, buff guy is gonna be better than a woman.

And once you started talking about that, I remembered you talking about that very thing on the stunt panel last year.

It’s great because when you point it out, even some of the guys have to eventually concede that you’re actually right! Usually in the seminars, I show some big crashes to illustrate the point. And that’s just the laws of physics and gravity.  There’s so much nonsense talked about all this sometimes. A man punches a five foot two woman in the face, she’ll come up worse. But if they’re both being subjected to the same forces from the outside, then she’s in the stronger position. It’s a good thing to break these illusions that have been perpetuated in the stunt business for far too long.

My daughter is very excited to come with me to the Artemis this year. I told her everything I could last year about it, and she loves action films a lot more than I do. She always has.

There’s a lot of women into things now that guys were traditionally into. Oddly enough, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the “super car” and the “super motorcycle” market is women. I think a lot of this has come from divorced families where a lot of girls have grown up with their father, and they get interested in some of the things their father did. But also there’s a generation of women now who have become successful–CEO’s of companies and such–and their fantasy possession is not necessarily just a Cartier watch or expensive gown. Some of them do aspire to Lamborghinis and helicopters and 200MPH motorcycles. It’s not that these are made just for boys. It’s a good thing, I think. It’s how it should be. There’s a lot of top chefs who are men. It’s good to see women doing stuff that only men have done, but it’s also good to see men doing stuff that only women have done. Even in the film business. Script supervisors have been traditionally women, and there’s guys doing it now. None of those jobs are decided on ’cause a man or a woman couldn’t do it. It’s just silly tradition. It really annoys me when I see parents indoctrinating their kids with these silly folklore attitudes. “You can’t do that ’cause you’re a girl,” or “You can’t do that ’cause you’re a man.” It’s important that they should be able to do anything.

I agree with you completely. And that’s how I’ve raised my daughter. She hasn’t really had a father in her life. I didn’t push her into anything. I took notice of her interests, and I let her decide what she wanted to do. It’s worked very well for her. 

And I think that’s the most important thing because so many parents try to instill in their kids what they want them to do. It’s really important to let the kids do what they want to do. It’s very important to do something they are passionate about and not  just a job they do to pay the rent and the bills. It’s hard to find those things, and it’s even harder if you’re going to a limit a boy or a girl with these certain criteria. Sadly a lot of the stunt business is still like dinosaurs.

Both you and Jen are being recognized at the festival, right?

Yes, both with different awards. It’s very nice that they are recognizing us both. I seem to have gotten a lot of awards lately, which must mean I’m gonna die soon. {laughs}

Well, hopefully not.

Last year, I got the Taurus Lifetime Achievement Award. And now Jen is getting the Lifetime Achievement Award this year. So I guess we’re both gonna die soon. {laughs}

Well, let’s hope not. But hey, sometimes people get lots of awards and they still live for quite a while. 

I must say that those ladies who are running the Artemis, they really do a great job. They keep on top of things and promote stuff. It’s great to see this film festival about women in action grow like it has.

Last year, it was the Artemis that taught me about the struggles of women in film. I never had paid attention to it or thought about it, and because of them, I always pay attention to it now.

I think a lot of people who came into stunts in Hollywood…it sort of manifested itself out of the old cowboy era. As a group, there are very few groups who are more sexist than a bunch of cowboys. If you spend a lot of time with them, you probably wonder how the native Americans ever got beaten by them. They have terribly old-fashioned ideas, and those ideas are a hold-over to that ’cause that’s where the stunt business started. My own career started with vehicles in Europe, and it gave me a different insight. In Hollywood, the stunt business has been very hard on women for many years. It’s derogatory. It’s great now that there’s a few very high-achieving stuntwomen that are every bit as well-rounded and talented as any of the best stuntmen. There’s a whole new generation of stuntwomen that is coming up that are very accomplished. Hopefully those ancient ideas will fade away. It’s a very cliquish society, so changes take a little bit longer than they do in normal situations.

For girls like your daughter, it is very important that they see other women that have not taken the traditional career path. If you’re a kid, it lets you have some role model where you can go, “Oh wow, that’s interesting. She did this, and she did that.” It’s very difficult to come up with an idea or just have your parents tell you that you can be an astronaut or a racecar driver unless you have someone you can see driving a car around the track on the weekend or unless you see a woman astronaut getting into a space shuttle. Unless you see those role models, it’s very difficult for a young person to aspire to those. It’s good that you’re bringing your daughter so she can meet those people; those meetings can be life-changing for her. It can be her opportunity to ask these women questions. I still remember some of the great role models I had as a kid growing up and finding out more about them. I think it’s important for kids to have heroes and inspirational characters. And the great thing is with the internet now, if she meets someone she really likes, she can follow them on the internet and see what movies they’ve done and what stunts they’ve done and what achievements they’ve gotten. If a kid today has a will to learn about something, they can learn about it very easily.

Now, Jen is around too, right?

JC: Yes, I’m here.

Nice to get to talk to you, too, Jen.  Jen, what is the story of your journey in the stunt profession?

My journey. Well, I pretty much followed my brother. I was going to college out in Las Vegas finishing up a degree in hotel management. In 1992, my brother went to the Olympic trials for gymnastics. He didn’t make it, so he decided he was going to go to LA and be a stuntman. We were kind of partners in crime, and he called me and said, “I’m gonna go to LA and be a stuntman. Do you want to go?” And I said, “Yes.” So I met him out there, and that was twenty-five years ago now. I started off with a gymnastics background, and I got very interested in motorcycles. I ended up racing in the women’s motocross for a few years. That was the way I got into working. People tend to think that if you can race motorcycles, you can do other things. So I started getting a lot more opportunities. I’ve picked up lots of skills. I went from motorcycles to cars and getting more fight jobs. I got good in the rigging department about twenty years ago, and I continue to pick up jobs in all those different areas. The older you get, the more you try to stay relevant by picking up new skills.

Well, I think that’s the way things are now. You have to keep learning new things because otherwise someone else is gonna come along and do it better or before you. I think it’s like that in most professions now.

Isn’t that the truth? You have to keep getting better.

Emma Stone with her Stunt Double Jen Caputo

As a stuntwoman, have you had issues with sexism?

Yeah, not a major issue, but it’s an issue in certain circumstances. I’ve declined a few jobs and walked off a few jobs where things have been going on that I didn’t like. And men doubling women. It’s not good stuff and it’s just based on the old ideas.

AA: There’s still a subtle sexual preference. For example, if a woman goes in and rehearses something and gets it wrong on the first rehearsal, you’ll get a lot of stunt coordinators–if it’s a vehicle or something–they’ll say, “Do you want to step out and let one of the guys do it?” Whereas the same action, with a guy driving or riding the bike, they’ll be allowed to fail several times before anyone will ever think about replacing them.

JC: I’ve had it where the men have a rehearsal day and then they call me to come in, and I don’t get the rehearsal day, but there’s someone who can do it in the event that I can’t pull it off. It’s a man, and he’s had a rehearsal day.

AA: We have a very funny picture on the wall from Charlie’s Angels where Jen is doubling for Cameron Diaz in one of the racing cars. The script called for the bad guy to take off in a racecar around the circuit, and Cameron jumps in the car and takes off. Jen doubled for Cameron in the racecar. These cars were custom-built for the movie. They were sort of tricky to drive and very powerful and fast. The first time Jen took off after it, the car had a bit of a fuel surge, and it didn’t take off as aggressively as it should have. So we set it up to shoot it again, and the director–it was his first film as a director–came over, and I told him about the car issues. He asked who was driving it, and he wondered if I wanted to put a guy in to drive it. And in the picture we have on the wall, it’s me leaning into Jen, and I remember very clearly what I was saying to Jen at the time since it was “take two.” I am saying to her, “When you pull away this time, absolutely wring its neck.” And I told her what the director had said. And I told her, “This one is not just for you. It’s for stuntwomen everywhere.” And it’s funny because when she took off next time, she left two black strips of rubber burning all the way down the raceway. The same director was jumping up and down and really happy and over the moon with the performance. He’d forgotten completely that five minutes before he suggested replacing the woman with a man. Even though he didn’t know the woman or anything else, he just assumed that the man would make the car go faster.

That is something! It’s like they set the woman up to fail.

AA: Oh, they do with a lot of stunts. I don’t think it’s done maliciously; it’s done subconsciously. I have never worked out if they are threatened by the woman or if they just don’t feel the woman is as high-achieving. It really bothers me that people still feel that they can tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t do. I sure don’t want them telling my daughter what she can and cannot do.

JC:  Growing up in my family, we didn’t have a choice about musical instruments. It wasn’t whether we were going to play a musical instrument… it was what musical instrument we were going to learn. And I wanted to play the drums. Basically they said, “No, you can’t play the drums. We’d really like for you to play the French Horn.” For the first time in my life, I had to stand up and say, “You know what? If I don’t get to play the drums, I’m not playing an instrument.” I got to play the drums, and I actually put myself through college playing the drums. I got a scholarship, and I played in the band for four years. So an interesting thing. This was a time when young girls weren’t supposed to take an interest in drumming. There was another girl who did percussion with me–she was more into the marimba and more musical stuff like that. And I was more the drumset, snare, and all that. It was kind of blazing a little bit of a path. Obviously men were always able to play the drums. Now you see a lot more little girls playing the drums.

AA: You see women doing all sorts of stuff now. The woman that helps me with my book publishing stuff, she is studying welding. I think it’s kind of interesting. There are some other women in the class. She is studying all different kinds of welding. It’s cool that she’s doing it, and it’s cool that other women are doing it as well. It’s gradually opening up in all those sectors. I’m always fascinated with women pilots. I think it’s great that Israel has some women fighter pilots. For years, they said they didn’t want women in the front lines because they’re going to be tortured and all sorts of stuff is going to be done to them. When you’re fighting where the enemy is chopping everyone’s head off and burning them to death, what difference does it make what sex you are?

You know, in these action movies, invariably the hero will be in a leather jacket and pants or jeans. The woman will be in mini skirt and high heels. When the action sequence comes, they will both have to fall down the flights of stairs. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who is the toughest of those two. I’ve done some stunts with some amazing stuntwomen, and they have had to wear these mini skirts, bare arms, and heels.

JC: I was in Fear the Walking Dead recently. I was a correctional officer. I had long sleeves and long pants. The outfit was a bit big ’cause they’re made for a man. I put every single pad on whether I needed it or not. Very few times have I gotten to wear that kind of outfit when doing a stunt.

AA: A lot of stuntwomen do very tough stunts wearing almost nothing. Years ago I did Universal Soldier, and the chase at the end, I was driving the big truck. The stunt girl who was doubling the actress literally had a mini skirt on, bare legs, bare arms and at one time had to get kicked out of a speeding bus into a load of desert cactus with me chasing her along behind in a huge semi truck. Donna Evans was the stunt girl. She did it brilliantly and landing in that cactus gives a whole other meaning to the word tough. You’ll see these women getting knocked over by a car while wearing a tank top. They can’t hide any pads for protection. Often a lot of what they do is tougher than what the guys do.

I could listen to the stories you both have told me for hours. This has been such a great chat, and I want to thank you for taking the time, and sharing your perspectives with me.

AA: Our pleasure. Thank you, Ruth, for taking the time.

JC: We will make it a point to see you and your daughter at the festival.

 

with Iran’s only Stuntwoman Mahsa Ahmadi with DITR Award and Jen Caputo

For me, this was such an engaging interview. Andy and Jen were both so gracious, and I could sense the passion that both of these exceptional artists have. And yes, I do consider them artists because anyone who can get up in a movie and do the mind-blowing stunts they both have done countless times in their career–heck, that’s art! Andy is one of those enchanting people who is not easy to forget (I still remember so much of what he said last year on the panel even to this day), and Jen is such an affable and warm woman who chooses to focus on the positives of her career without dwelling on some of the more negative aspects. Together, these two are an indomitable team, and they are quick to support each other and always have each other’s backs. Andy is one of the few men of his generation (and practically any generation) who genuinely believes in promoting women and diversity in film as well as life in general, and it overwhelms me to meet a man who is probably more of a feminist than the majority of women I know. Jen is one whose actions speak louder than her words, but no doubt the stories she could tell….

I invite everyone to check out all the links below for both Andy and Jen. I can think of a handful of “power couples” in the acting world, but here is the stunt world’s POWER COUPLE who probably are more of a force in the stunt industry than a whole room of some of the purported power couples in the acting universe (you know the ones I mean–the ones who are often in the tabloids and are the subjects of the rumor mills). I am looking forward to officially meeting them in just a matter of weeks, and what I have learned from both of them has shaped and even changed my perspective forever!

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About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
43-year-old single mother of an active 14-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

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