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Ashlee Fidow, Mulan’s Stunt Double, Talks Safety on the Set
Safety

Ashlee Fidow, Mulan’s Stunt Double, Talks Safety on the Set

By James Tehrani October 26, 2020

Ashlee Fidow kicks butt for a living. Literally.

Don’t believe me? Watch her stunt reel.

Fidow is a stuntwoman, who transitioned to the high-flying, staged-fighting, adrenaline-rushing career path about a decade ago. Her background is in martial arts. Those skills definitely come in handy when she films fight scenes. In 2018, she filmed her biggest role to date as Liu Yifei’s main stunt double in the Walt Disney film “Mulan” in which Liu plays the title character.

But then COVID-19 hit, and the movie, which was primed for a March 2020 release, got pushed back to July, and then it got pushed back again. So even though the big Hollywood premiere took place in March, Fidow, who lives in New Zealand, had to wait six months longer for the official release, which finally occurred in September.

Performing stunts is a seriously cool career path, but it can be a seriously dangerous one as well. That’s why stunt coordinators and performers spend hours and hours practicing them before they are performed.

Still, accidents happen—and some severe ones at that. In “The Wizard of Oz,” Margaret Hamilton who played the “Wicked Witch of the West,” was severely burned in a scene when fire came too early during the scene where she makes a dramatic exit, and Sylvester Stallone broke several ribs while jumping from a cliff onto a tree in “Rambo.” Even more seriously, an Australian stunt performer had to be placed in a medically induced coma for two months after a stunt went terribly wrong during the making of “The Hangover II.”

Between 1990 and 2014, there were “at least” 194 serious accidents from stunts at U.S. studios, and 43 fatalities, according to the Associated Press. And last year, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined a motion picture company $9,472 for failing to provide adequate head protection for a stuntman.

But thankfully, those types of incidents are the exception rather than the rule, especially when you consider Hollywood alone creates about 6,000 stunts per year, according to film researcher Stephen Follows. Or at least it did in the pre-COVID-19 days.

To learn more about stunt work and safety, and to learn about an incident she actually experienced during the filming of “Mulan,” Spark caught up with Fidow earlier this year. You can read an edited transcript below or listen to the full podcast as well.

Listen to the podcast


Spark: Tell us about yourself.

Ashlee Fidow: I’ve been doing stunts for the past 10 years professionally, and I crossed over from martial arts. A friend actually that was in the industry at the time, he said there was auditions looking for new female stunt performers, so that was my first foot in the door. … Crossing over from martial arts into film was quite an adjustment. You had to make sure that you have a plan. You ?have fight choreography that you create with the stunt team and with the person that you’re performing it with. It’s just hours and hours of rehearsal and practice until you perfect it and get it down to a T, and then obviously making sure that you’re both safe while performing it.

There’s open communication with the actor and with the stunt team, like, ‘Hey, I’m not comfortable doing this. Can we make this a little bit easier?’ Or, ‘Hey, I’d like to add this in and that in,’ so it’s about being lenient, but about knowing what the boundaries are, and obviously, delivering what the script entails or what the director wants. So you’re having to please a lot of the people at the same time, but then coming up with an awesome product.

Disney's MULAN..Mulan (Yifei Liu)..Photo: Film Frame..© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Disney’s MULAN. Mulan (Yifei Liu). Photos: Jasin Boland. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spark: How much collaboration is there with the actor? Do they check out how you perform the stunts, and say, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and then they go in? Or so they say, ‘There’s no way I would do that. I need the stunt double now.’ How does that work?

Ashlee Fidow: You get a bit of both. Like I said, it [depends] on the actor. If they’re very confident and they do have some sort of physical background, those actors tend to be quite easy to work with, because they have that base already. If you’re teaching them a fight, they might be able to pick up those skills pretty easily, and they’re a dream to work with. Otherwise, you might get actors who aren’t comfortable doing particular things. It’s a matter of the stunt double jumping in and doing it all or changing it so the actor can do it themself.

Ideally, you want to make sure that you have awesome choreography, you have an awesome product, so you don’t want to be changing too much. It’s just a matter of being a good mentor as well with the actor, and then just coaching them as much as you can to get the particular piece of choreography just going from there.

Spark: I know you’re really excited about ‘Mulan.’ Tell me about working with the star of the film, Yifei Liu.

Ashlee Fidow: She was an awesome actress to work with. She had a physical background. I think she did a bit of dancing. I’m not sure exactly, but you could definitely see it come through in her performance. She had to learn all of her fights. She had to have them down, and she had two stunt doubles, which was myself and another stunt double from China that came in to cover Mushu, specifically. I did a lot of her wire work stunts in the film that you’ll see. There’s more than one Mulan that makes the one whole Mulan.

Spark: The triple Mulan. Interesting.

Ashlee Fidow: Plus, she had a horse-riding stunt double as well. Yeah. It’s cool when you think about it. The collaboration of different people that make one character. It’s awesome.

Spark: I understand you did a water stunt in the film. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ashlee Fidow: That was one of my favorite stunts to do. Won’t give too much away, but it involved me doing a brief hold under water. So I had the full costume on. I had the heavy cape. I had the armor, the little boots, and I even had a sword in my hand while I was doing the sequence. All of those factors made it—

Spark: How heavy was all that?

Ashlee Fidow: Quite heavy. Really, really heavy, especially when you’re getting in and out of the water, and you’re wet the whole day. You’re carrying an extra 15 kilos around with you most of the time. The challenge, I think, was trying to get out of all of that to go to the bathroom and then put it all back on when it was soaking wet. That’s not fun.

Spark: Did you have to put on a dry costume each time that you did the stunt?

Ashlee Fidow: No, I mean, they do have duplicates of the costumes, but I had to put on the same costume soaking wet. Then you [have] to consider continuity and all of that. There’s so many factors that a lot of people forget about stunts that a lot of the times you need to do the really uncomfortable stuff, the icky, yucky stuff that you’re like, ‘Oh, who wants to do that?’

That was a challenge, but the stunt itself, it was pretty cool to do, the build up to it, because there was a dive team that they had there to specialize in the water stunt. I spent a bit of time training with them and doing scuba diving training, and then free diving training to build up to do the scene. The whole process I enjoyed so much. That’s what I love about stunts is the rehearsal time and the people, again, that you get to collaborate with and learn new skills from.

Safety in Action: Ashlee Fidow, Mulan’s Stunt Double, Talks Being Safe on the Set
Disney’s MULAN. Mulan (Yifei Liu). Photos: Jasin Boland. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spark: In a stunt like that, how many scuba divers are around you, and how often are they asking you, ‘Are you tired? Do you need a break?’ Because it’s got to be exhausting to go up and down, up and down, up and down with all that, the costume and the props you’re holding onto.

Ashlee Fidow: Yeah, 100%. Well, at the time, there was about five guys, five divers down in the water. When I hit the deepest point, they were there ready with regulators, with air supply, just in case I did all of a sudden panic or I got water in my mouth. I had to make sure that I knew the signals for asking for air supply or asking for help or saying that I’ve had enough, I want to resurface right now. That was all inclusive in the training.

Then also, a shout out to Australian stunt guy Andy Owens. He was our stunt safety guy, and he looked after me when I was in the water. He was there as my mentor, kind of like a coach as well. I’ll come up to the surface. He’d be like, ‘It’s OK, Ash, just breathe, just calm down. Let the crew know if you need more time. There’s no rush.’ … After a while, I became confident, and I was actually having fun in the water. That’s when I realized, oh, this is easy.

Spark: I understand you might have been concussed at one point. It couldn’t have been that easy.

Ashlee Fidow: Well, yeah, I forgot about that part.

Spark: How did that happen?

Ashlee Fidow: So one of the takes, they needed to see me enter the water, so I had to jump off a scaffolding that was made, and it was a plank, and it was a narrow plank. So I was pretty much squished on this little plank, had my heavy costume on, and, at the same time, having to throw myself backwards on top of this wax that was made by our art department that is supposed to look like ice, that was pre-broken. It was pre-broken so I could fall through it smoothly. I think it may have been the first few takes, because I hadn’t gone through it yet, so I think the first or second time, I hit my head quite hard on the wax, and I felt a bit concussed as I was falling deeper down through the water. Once I hit my head, I kept on getting dragged down.

I just realized that it hurt so much, and my head was pounding in the water. But the only thing I could do was stay calm knowing that I had the safety team down at the bottom of the water, but that was something that’s quite scary—and you’re the only one that has control over it really.

Spark: Are there concussion protocols on the movie set? Do you have to get evaluated by a doctor? Do you just not tell anybody? What do you do at that point?

Ashlee Fidow: Yeah, it’s a gray area. I mean, obviously, you as a performer are in charge of your own well-being, so, if you are hurt, you have to notify the team. You have to notify your own department. There’s an on-set doctor, a safety guy that’s there as well, just in case you do need anything, and I was getting pain killers from him throughout the week.

Spark: Just from the general soreness.

Ashlee Fidow: Yes. Just from the general— But you do have that control to say, ‘Hey, can we just stop this for a while?’ That’s definitely an option, but I’ve realized in my 10 years doing stunts, there’s a solid stunt culture that’s just toughen up, just suck it up, get on with it. You get proverbial medals for it, you know? She’s tough or he’s tough.

Spark: Has there been a stunt that you’ve said, “No, I can’t do that.”

Ashlee Fidow: Yes, there have been in the past. I can’t remember exactly what, but yes, there have been. You get that gut feeling when there’s only so much preparation you can do, but then sometimes the risk outweighs that potentially. Like you could get hurt, you know? Iit’s just up to you as a performer. If you’re going to put yourself out there, you have to deliver.

Meg Image
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Spark: When you were filming ‘The Meg,’ you actually saw somebody get knocked out during a scene. Is that right?

Ashlee Fidow: Yeah. One of the performers that was on a wire— I mean, there was a few of us that were on wires. We were on these platforms, and we pretty much getting thrown up in the air and into the water, and it was just one of those accidents that happened. Because if you’re doing something multiple times, sometimes you’re going to get varying outcomes, and we try not to do that. In stunts, you’re trying to plan something so you get similar or the same outcomes each time. I’m not sure exactly how she did it. I think it’s just the way she did the landing and went headfirst, but it was just the impact that got her.

Spark: I think that speaks to how much has to go into preparation.

Ashlee Fidow: Yeah, preparation but then also communications between different departments, because sometimes that’s a mess. We forget that we are working with multiple crews who don’t know too much about what we’re doing as well. So it’s making sure that you’re telling them, ‘Hey, this is our plan from our side. Do you have this? Is that going to work with you? Cool. We’re working with you.’ It’s just all about the cross-communication that sometimes gets all up in the air.

It’s up to people in your team to make sure that that communication is getting delivered across to those other departments that aren’t even thinking of the safety. They’re just thinking, ‘Oh, those are stunt people. They know what they’re doing. They’re cool.’

It’s common sense, really, and some people do lack that, surprisingly. Yeah.

 

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Spark: Obviously, one of the most dangerous stunts is involved when there’s explosions involved. Have you had any experience with that, and what kind of preparation and safety goes into that kind of situation?

Ashlee Fidow: Not with explosions. I haven’t really had too much experience, but I have been on set when explosions have happened. But official effects teams do deal with that a lot, doing fire stunts. Yeah. I’ve only done that in training.

Spark: You’ve done a fire stunt?

Ashlee Fidow: Yeah, but only in training. That was just to kind of learn about how to actually get them on fire, what you need to wear, the gel that needs to be applied, but other than that, I haven’t done it on a job. I haven’t done it in a film before. So yeah.

Spark: What went into that training, though? I’m sure there were people there with fire hoses and fire extinguishers and everything to just make sure that everything was safe.

Ashlee Fidow: One-hundred percent. You’ve got multiple people around you. Obviously, people that are trained in doing this as well. Like stunt coordinators, they have all the different products and different fire gels and what to put on in different layers, and then the actual clothing that you need to have on, the full body suits, the extinguishers. They have other people that [are] trained to make sure that they’re on standby in case anything does happen.

Safety in Action: Ashlee Fidow, Mulan’s Stunt Double, Talks Being Safe on the Set
Disney’s MULAN. Mulan (Yifei Liu). Photos: Jasin Boland. © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spark: Was the fire suit part of it, where you actually catch on fire, or is that something you’ve never tried?

Ashlee Fidow: Well, there are full jumpsuits that you wear, and then particular fire gel that actually does ignite when you light it on fire, and then you’ll just go up in flames, depending on where this gel is applied to.

Spark: Is there any particular stunt out there that looks very simple but is very… the complexity of pulling it off is difficult? Something that seems like it isn’t hard at all, but actually, it’s really complex when you come down to the safety aspect of it?

Ashlee Fidow: I think doing major battle scenes or fight scenes, where there’s multiple stunts happening at one time. I think that is one of the hardest things to do because you might have a few people that are on ratchets, on wires, that are flying up in the air that need to be landing at different times, and be landing next to an explosion that might be going off at the same time. Then you have the guy on fire that’s running past. I think the scenes with multiple stunt players are hardest. [It’s] one of the trickiest things to control, just because there’s so many risk factors to involve.

I’ve been in big battle scenes and big fight sequences before, and one person’s timing might be off completely, and that might be like a domino effect. Once that person’s timing’s off, then the other person that is really on that person’s timing to hit the mark, they’ll be affected, which will affect the next person. The results might end up devastating. You just never know. It’s all about trying to eliminate and control those risks.

Spark: Is there a particular role that you always get cast for as far as like stunt work? Like a particular actress or even an actor, for example? You’re like the go-to stunt person for this particular actor or actress?

Ashlee Fidow: I think with stunts, since you have to be physical and you have to know how to fight, you have to know how to do all this cool, badass kind of stuff. I think you end up naturally getting pigeon-holed into the villain type roles anyway, because you are acting a lot of the times. And if you’re a stunt double, you have to embody the character just as much as the actor because when it comes down to action, you have to move like her, you have to move like the character. You can’t just move generically, depending on what the style is, so you become that character just as much as the actor becomes their character.[/vc_column_text]

Mike Oleshko contributed to this article. He is Sphera’s digital designer and video producer.

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