2004. Monica Staggs stands on a ledge in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, surrounded by a paradise of tropical fauna. Cameras are rolling for "Love Wrecked," and she's doubling 18-year-old Amanda Bynes. Later Staggs will riff on the spray tan, 17 years and significant curves she has on Bynes, but at the moment, she's too terrified to distract herself with humor. She takes a deep breath, glances at the stagnant water in a rock pool an impossible distance away, and mentally recites something Gary Wayton, her fiance and the "Love Wrecked" stunt coordinator, told her years ago: "It's not fear, it's adrenaline, because my body is prepping to do something extraordinary." Usually this works like a charm. She takes a tentative step forward, reaches for a bird's nest — her character is shipwrecked and in search of edible eggs — bends her knees and inadvertently jumps.
"Shit, I jumped," she thinks. She was supposed to stumble. Free-falling 50 feet takes longer than she'd expected. She has plenty of time to panic about having to do it again — to arch her back rather than absorbing the impact with her knees, so that her body slams into what she knows must be liquid but what feels like concrete. She shoots through the depths, and just as Newton's third law promises, the pain rockets up — all the way up, through her spine, through her ribs. Frantically, she claws for the surface. She gulps the warm, welcome air, paddling towards a lifeguard, convinced that her back is broken. Either that, or she's punctured a lung.
"It was a huge mistake, a two-hour reset," she said, recalling the event eight years later. "My wig had to be dried, curled, primped. My clothes had to be dried. We were in the Dominican Republic. It's not like we could call anyone." Wayton had hoisted her out, saying, "What the fuck was that?" She realized that her legs worked, so her back probably wasn't freshly broken. A take and a successful stumble later, Wayton drove her to a hospital, and she was X-rayed and handed a bottle of Vicodin. No one could tell her exactly what was wrong. No one spoke fluent English.
Staggs has appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows, largely because the vast majority of her stumbles don't require retakes. As a professional stuntwoman, she lives in Los Angeles with Wayton, whom she married in 2010, but she spent half of her life in North Little Rock. She graduated from Sylvan Hills High School in 1988 and did the college circuit for a few years, trying out the English and drama departments at the University of Arkansas in both Fayetteville and Little Rock and then at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. In 1996 she dropped out of UA Fayetteville, three credits shy of graduation. She had just been hired as a stand-in for Brenda Bakke in "Shelter," a low-budget gangster film being shot in Little Rock. Call times conflicted with class time, but Staggs' gamble paid off. Bakke balked at riding shotgun in a reckless car, so Staggs volunteered for the gig. It was a rush, zig-zagging through woods, nearly torpedoing into a ditch. At the time, she didn't realize two things: the car literally had no brakes, and this experience would jumpstart her career.
Wayton, the driver of the brakeless car, was a seasoned stuntman, 12 years her senior. He was smitten with the 26-year-old leggy blonde, with her on-set fearlessness and her off-set goofiness. When "Shelter" wrapped, Wayton hired Staggs for a Hollywood gig he was coordinating, stunt-doubling Sheryl Lee in "Angel's Dance." All she had to do was run off a ledge, turn mid-air and fire a shotgun. For a girl who once rode from North Little Rock to Missouri in the back of a flat-bed pick-up, a leap and a few rounds were, as Staggs puts it, "cupcake." She returned to Arkansas just long enough to break the news to her family — she was moving to California.
Sixteen years later her credits include "True Blood" and "CSI," doubling Sandra Bullock in "Crash," doubling Charlize Theron in "The Italian Job," and doubling Daryl Hannah in "Kill Bill Vol. I" and "Kill Bill Vol. II." Staggs is quintessentially Hollywood. She's successful but insecure, brazen but paranoid (especially about stalkers), and she expects all media to come with stylists and contracts. She was two hours late to her Arkansas Times photo shoot. When she finally spilled out of her father's tan sedan, alongside three suitcases of props, she was pale and sparsely made up, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail and her bottom half swathed in inexplicable pink tulle. At first impression, Monica Staggs is a train wreck.
But 20 minutes later, on the crowded patio of a Hillcrest pub, Staggs is beaming and relaxed, despite the fact that the closest the waiter can produce to Reposa Tequila is something professionally labeled that he calls "moonshine," and that, until another table opens up, we have to shout over the drone of an archaic air conditioner. When a group of tipsy older women gawk at her ballet skirt, she drapes her arm around me, obligingly posing for a photo.
"Are you from out of town? Are you here for the literary fest?" one of them asks.
"No, I'm here from L.A. I'm visiting her. She's my best friend from college," Staggs says, tilting her head into mine and smirking for the camera.
This isn't true. We've just met and though she doesn't look it, Staggs is 10 years my senior. But there is something comforting and familiar about her. She laughs like a down-home girl — head back, mouth open, Virginia Slim wagging between two fingers. Her candor is endearing, and she brims with celeb-studded stories. She talks first and recants later, which is probably not the best method of dealing with Hollywood-sized egos. It also explains her anxiety about press. "Monica's a straight-shooter. In a business where people are careful not to step on toes, she says what's on her mind. She's kind of like a female Rhett Butler," said Noelle Retes, Monica's Los Angeles manager, via phone. Her younger sister, Amy Staggs, puts it more bluntly: "Monica's always had a crude sense of humor."
Staggs has been in Arkansas for several months. She came to spend Easter with her parents and to recover from persistent sinus infections. But Staggs will tell you that primarily, she came because she was invited to talk on the radio.
It's a Tuesday night and like most Tuesdays, Argenta's Starving Artist Cafe is packed. Each week the nationally syndicated radio program "Tales from the South" is recorded here. Staggs waits in the hallway for her introduction, and then covers the restaurant in four determined strides. She defies every stereotype I have about what a stuntwoman should look like. She's 5'9," a willowy knockout in a flowing black top and dark jeans. She adjusts the mic and lifts her palms, raise-the-roof style. Her vocal range is incredible — her crowd greeting begins at a normal register and 10 seconds later, volleys somewhere between nose bleeding and glass cracking. "Hi. Hi, c'mon this is gonna be on radio, let's make it loud," she squeals.
Then, for the next half hour, she sips a Rock Star and lobs self-deprecating recollections of her "redneck" childhood and the trashy beauty pageants of her teen years, alongside more recent anecdotes about being a "death doll" in that "100 mile high school" out west, L.A. In half an hour, she's managed no less than five edited-for-radio beeps and titillated the crowd by labeling Quentin Tarantino something entirely un-airable. Later, at the Hillcrest bar, she's forgotten that she said it. "I didn't call him that, did I?" she groaned. "OK, well, they'll bleep it out, won't they?"
"I think she says things that are off-color, and then she gets uncertain, especially in the context of Arkansas," said sister Staggs. Two years Monica's junior, Amy is now an internist in Denver, Colo. "When we were growing up, no one did anything off. It was very conformist, that hardcore '80s, Izod thing. Monica wants to shock people, wants people to know exactly how she is. But when she thinks someone is going to sit back and judge her, that's uncomfortable."
According to Amy, her sister never fit into any one clique. She was smart, but she was too much of a partier to qualify for nerd status. She was athletic, but she wasn't a jock. She was too ornery to be the homecoming queen type. She was creative and in some ways, a classic rebel. "Our mom is a schoolteacher and a rule follower, and Mom's expectations made Monica even more nonconformist," Amy Staggs said. "But our parents were actually pretty good about letting her do stuff. They let her go to Spain, they let her move to Alaska and work in a fish factory. They were never like, no, you're not doing that."
And Monica Staggs has always been resourceful. Once at an audition she was told that a dance needed to incorporate more isolation movements. So she went to a club, snagged the best pop-and-lock freestyler on the dance floor, and told him, "I'll give you $50 to teach me to pop in the parking lot." He obliged.
She crashed that same audition to land her third Hollywood role, that of Eve, the sexy alien-woman in "Species 2." "It was supposed to be closed," Staggs said. "You had to be with an agency, and I wasn't. So I just went in and signed the agency above me." Later, Staggs received a call from an irate agent — "Who the hell are you, why did you put that you're from my agency?" the woman thundered. Then she said, "But, sweetie, they want to see you back." That same agent, Lyn Baldwin, still represents Staggs today.
Wayton is impressed by how quickly Staggs wedged herself into the competitive stunt-world. "She basically got a rep early on as, hey, she's skinny, but she's a ground-pounder. That really propelled her career," he said. At the time, there were only a few other stuntwoman with a similar build, and years of dance lessons had instilled Staggs' lanky frame with an uncanny agility. Her stunt training consisted of acing a driving course and trusting her boyfriend. In the early years, Wayton brought her onto the sets he coordinated. Before each new trick, Wayton and Staggs practiced obsessively at home. In 2000's "Four Dogs Playing Poker," Staggs had to leap 12 feet between two rooftops, 70 feet in the air, with nothing but a furniture blanket and 15 feet of piled cardboard to break a potential fall. She dubbed it "the death jump." Wayton set up the stunt in their living room, measuring the distance exactly. During practice, Staggs consistently made the leap, with exactly six inches to spare. On-set, just as in practice, she cleared the leap on the first take — by exactly six inches.
There's an "abilities" category on Staggs's resume. It reads: "wire work, fights, driving, ratchets, stair falls, high falls, boxing, fire burns, some martial arts, will hit the ground hard." That final quality, she confesses, is actually the most problematic. She hates getting hurt, but she rarely turns down a stunt. "I don't want to be embarrassed, and I do pretty much think I can do anything," she said. "You have to pretend you're a little kid and that excitement you have when you're about to do something gnarly, that's all it is. You have to trick yourself, because if you walk off that set, that's a big deal."
Staggs is 42, but she looks 25. Actually, in her Madonna "True Blue" era outfit (she's tugged a ripped sweater over the tulle, and she's wearing red fishnets), she looks about 16. She picks at her heart-of-palm dip and grows reflective. "Obviously, I didn't mean to be a stunt woman. I meant to be an actress, but I lucked into stunts," she said. And, despite her estimate that she's had maybe 10 concussions over the course of her career, Staggs seems to mean this. The scary jobs have been padded with awesome jobs. She once doubled Angelina Jolie on U2's "Evil" video. She was strapped into a harness and safely flown 75-feet overhead, while one of the biggest bands in the world performed just beneath her. She loves working on location because, "people get more loosey-goosey, and there's a big party every weekend because nobody has anything else to do. Everybody just bonds." In the film "Iwitness," cast and crew were put up in a five-star beach hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hotel had an attached club that wasn't being used, so the group threw their own dance parties, playing CDs over the sound system. Staggs and Portia de Rossi became regulars at a bar in Old San Juan. Any afternoon that they weren't filming, they were they drinking, Staggs recalled. And there have been other perks too, such watching B-films in Tarantino's private screening room and being the 2005 co-recipient of the World Stunt Award for Best Fight and Best Overall Stunt by a Stuntwoman, which she shared with Zoe Bell, for the opening fight in "Kill Bill 2."
Sometimes, the good and bad intermingle. During the taping of that renown fight, Staggs fractured a vertebra. When Bell, doubling Uma Thurman, swung off a bar and planted both feet on Staggs's chest, Staggs flew backwards into a piece of stereo equipment that was supposed to break away. It didn't. "I just thought she broke my ribs because it hurt like hell. I had heard from my other stunt friends that breaking a rib was no big deal. So it was just, OK keep going," Staggs said. "And we had just started filming, too. It seemed like, in all of my stunts, I had to land on my back." A year later, the healed fracture was discovered when she was X-rayed for another injury. "What were you doing this time last year?" the doctor asked her.
But her worst injury had come three years earlier, in 2001, when, doubling Leelee Sobieski in "Joy Ride," she busted the orbit of her skull and cracked the rest of the skull in three places after being slung off a moving semi-truck. "I wasn't thinking about the stunt," Staggs admits. "I had an audition the next day. We were shooting in Bakersfield, and all I cared about was getting back to L.A. to try out for this improv group, or "Mad TV," or something really bad-ass." She botched the landing, hitting the pavement head-first instead of tucking and rolling. That time, Staggs knew it was a big deal. Narcotics and a concussion are never a good idea, so Staggs was sober and mostly awake as doctors stitched first layers of muscle, then layers of skin back together. She remembers the blood, so much of it that it ran into gutters on either side of the road. A few weeks after her accident, Staggs was offered a gig dancing atop a moving train for an NSYNC video. She knew a hard whack to the skull would kill her. She also knew that in Hollywood, to stay visible is to stay viable. She took the job.
Now Staggs is at a career crossroads. She's been thinking a lot about the hazards of her job, in light of 92 concussion-related lawsuits recently filed by over 2,450 NFL players. "We know that head injury is linked to many different types of diseases," said Dr. David Hovda, director of the University of California Los Angeles Brain Injury Research Center. "If you're had traumatic brain injury, your chances of acquiring Alzheimer's is higher, as is your chance of acquiring dementia, depression, post traumatic stress or Parkinson disease." And for health care providers, getting a particular industry to admit the risk is nearly impossible. "It took me 20 years to get through to the NFL," Hovda added. "Stunt people are just like athletes and soldiers — they lie. You ask them how they're doing, they say 'I'm fine.' The movie industry doesn't want to write a disability clause in the contract, and stuntmen and women don't want to lose their jobs. So the best way is to get people in the industry to communicate to their colleagues that this is a problem. It may not be a real big problem, but nobody knows, because nobody's taken the time to take the data down."
Zoe Bell, who may be the highest profile stuntwomen today, got her start on "Xena: Warrior Princess." But on the set of "Xena," she fractured a vertebra and continued to work for a week. Then a chair was broken over her back in another scene, and she became totally incapacitated. In 1995, another stuntwoman, Sonja Davis, was reluctant to attempt a 42-foot backward free-fall for "Vampire in Brooklyn." Davis initially turned down the stunt, but once the studio raised her pay, she acquiesced. She performed the stunt perfectly, but her body bounced on the airbag, slamming into a building, and then into the ground. Davis died instantly. In recent decades, there have been cases of airbags splitting ("Love Serenade," 1996), cables breaking ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," 2009, and "Transformers 3," 2010) and explosions gone wrong ("Charlie Wilson's War," 2007, and "The Expendables 2," 2011), just to name a few.
According to a 35-year veteran stuntwoman who asked to remain unnamed, in the past decade the number of catastrophic on-set accidents have increased, despite more regulations and better equipment. She thinks incentives that give productions bigger tax breaks to hire locals are directly responsible. "So many people are flying themselves to other states, staying there for a bit, maybe even renting an apartment and hiring themselves out as 'locals.' Because lots of films say, 'local hire only.' So you're not getting the best, most experienced stuntmen," she said.
While she was working on "Green Lantern" in New Orleans, a man in special effects sustained internal injuries after being hit by flying debris. He is suing Warner Brothers. When she started working in the mid-'70s, she estimates that there were only about 25 stuntwomen, and everyone had a specialty. "If you were called for a horseback job and your specialty is motorcycles, you'd send them to the horsewoman. Now everyone thinks they can do everything, and there's over a thousand people fighting for work. There's way too many people and not enough jobs."
The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that there were four deaths in the Motion Picture industry in 2010 and 1,390 injuries. Yahoo Finance names stunt performer among the 10 most dangerous jobs in the U.S., with 2.5 on-the-job fatalities per every 1,000 workers. In some ways, Staggs is lucky. Her "Joy Ride" catastrophe was similar to what happened that same year, on the set of "Exit Wounds," when stuntman Chris Lamon struck his head while rolling from a moving van. He died six days later.
"For about a year after the accident, I was mentally slow," Staggs said — something Retes, her manager, and Amy Staggs, her sister, staunchly refuse to acknowledge they noticed. But in the years directly following the accident, Staggs worked as much as ever. Then in 2005, her lean frame — one of the key reasons she had been such a viable performer — began to thicken.
"I don't know why I was gaining weight. I wasn't eating much," she said. "My sister, the M.D., told me to write down everything that I ate. She said, 'You're eating more than you think. Something is making you fat,' but then we looked at the list, and there was nothing." From her usual 120, Staggs ballooned to 157. "You can't double many actresses if you're a size 10," she added.
"I've seen young women with head injuries that have gained enormous amounts of weight," said Hovda. He attributes this to pituitary gland and hypothalamus trauma that don't always show up immediately. "The majority of head injury patients that were normal for a while, and then all of a sudden they get late symptoms, if they go to an endocrinologists and get a simple blood test ... about 30 to 40 percent of these individuals can be aided by hormonal supplements. Depending on their age, their emotional problems go away, their weight problems go away."
Ultimately, Staggs decided that her body wasn't betraying her; rather, it was protecting her. "It was letting me know, enough is enough," she said. Staggs was constantly tired, irritable and depressed. These are symptoms of head trauma as well, according to Hovda, along with lethargy, headaches, dizziness, disorientation, sleep disturbances, emotional outbursts, anxiety attacks, vision problems and inner ear problems. "And if there's an injury that they've had earlier in life, when they get around 35 or 40, the brain starts to atrophy, and you can have symptoms or deficits that suddenly appear. Maybe they were going to appear anyway, but because of the head injury, they appeared sooner," he said.
Staggs knows that stunt performers have an expiration date. "You can't do stunts forever. Your body can't take it," she said. Since she's been home, her parents have been incredibly protective. Staggs had to beg her dad to loan her the car rather than drop her at our second meeting, at 10 p.m. at Vino's. "My parents are so worried that something's going to happen, and I'm going to hit my head again. My dad doesn't even want me to do ground falls, where you just trip, because it jerks your neck. And last night, I lay down on my bed, and I was so tired, I rolled off and did hit my head. Today my skull feels mushy." Staggs tentatively fingered the left side of her head.
At Vino's, Staggs appears more put-together. She's dressed in jeans and a blouse, and she's coiffed and made-up. She was up early in the morning for doctor's appointments and meetings, and she's been attending a two-week real estate course. She plans to take her licensing exam in both Arkansas and California. "My husband wants me to hustle for Angelina Jolie, since I'm thin enough again," she said. "But I just want to do cupcake stunts. You're not supposed to go around saying that, but I think I made it pretty clear at the last [Hollywood] function we had." She's also written a handful of screenplays, and as a former slam poet, she's considering writing a loosely fictionalized poetry chapbook about stunting in Hollywood. She'd like to do more acting. She's had bit roles, most recently in an indie flick called "Hesher," starring Natalie Portman. But she's never had a major acting gig, and according to her manager, it's hard to break in once you've established yourself in another field. "Everyone thinks of Monica as a stuntwoman, so sometimes her other talents are overlooked," said Retes. "And there are less roles for women in general, because there are less female writers."
It's also harder for women to make the transition from stunting to coordinating. "Her husband does stunts too, and now that he's older, he can coordinate. You'd be surprised, all those shows on television, there's a stunt coordinator, even though it may seem like there are no stunts," Amy Staggs said. "Monica has coordinated a few things. She did 'White Oleander' because they made this big deal about making it all-women. But in general, those jobs automatically go to men." Closer to home, Staggs coordinated 2007's "War Eagle," written by Arkansan Graham Gordy and shot in Eureka Springs.
According to the veteran stuntwoman, "Monica is just at that age. She's probably just finding out that this is when they start going, 'Oh no, you're not for stunts anymore.' I do coordinating, and I got my D.G.A. (director's guild) card, but even women producers will say, 'Oh no, we can't have a girl stunt coordinator.' Producers just think it's this big, groovy, macho deal. There have been a lot of women that have broken the industry's glass ceiling — there used to be not be one female camera person or grip — but it's still really hard to get in, in some places."
Sometimes Staggs worries that she hasn't accomplished anything. Amy Staggs wishes that her sister could recognize how impressive her life has been. "All the time, people text me to say they just saw Monica in a movie. L.A. is one of those places where 10,000 people are trying to get anywhere, and Monica has definitely gotten far. As someone that's outside of it, I think Monica has been so lucky. But what's hard is, she expects more of herself. But then, expecting more is the normal human condition," Amy said.
According to Hovda, everyone's brain changes throughout their life. "You grow neurons and new connections. Your environment and experiences anatomically change the brain, and that results in new pathways and new skill-sets ... Patients get frustrated because they want to be the way they were before. It's really hard for them to accept the fact that I don't want you to be what you were before. I want you to be better and go forward."
An hour and less than half a beer into our conversation at Vino's, Staggs's head and eyes grow heavy. She rests her forehead on her palm. After trailing off mid-sentence, for the fourth time, she grows annoyed. "Maybe I am brain damaged," she said, with only a twinge of sarcasm. But more than anything, she just seems extremely, extremely tired, so we decide to wrap things up. Staggs promises she can make the 20-minute drive home, if she grabs a Rock Star from the convenience store first. I can't help but root for North Little Rock's mercurial superwoman. In Hollywood and beyond, her career isn't over. These days, it's just a bit more figuratively than literally up in the air.