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Stuntwoman leaps off tall buildings — and makes it look ugly

Heidi Pascoe is a rarity in Hollywood: a woman willing to jump from heights of 100 feet or more. She's also been clocked in the head, thrown through windows and rammed by speeding cars.

February 17, 2013|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Heidi Pascoe plunges from scaffolding as she trains with fellow stuntman Joe Witherell in his Sylmar backyard.
Heidi Pascoe plunges from scaffolding as she trains with fellow stuntman… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Before climbing the scaffold, Heidi Pascoe checked the wind — throwing a handful of dirt into the air to see how hard it was blowing. Pascoe, satisfied that conditions were safe, weighed her options.

Should she do a backfall (falling backward), a header (rolling over) or a suicide (landing on her back)?

She settled on the header, then climbed 40 feet, hand over hand, to a small platform overlooking rooftops in the Sylmar neighborhood and the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. She stood erect at the edge of the platform and stared at the 10-by-15-foot air bag on the ground below.

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"Are you ready?" a colleague shouted.

"OK, I'm good," said the 5-foot-2 Pascoe, dressed in black workout pants, a gray long-sleeved shirt and sneakers.

"Three, two, one — action, Heidi!" Pascoe yelled before diving toward the air bag.

If she missed the giant X in the bag's center, she could bounce onto the ground and be seriously injured. If she rolled too far forward, she could break her back.

Pascoe, a veteran of nearly two decades of stunt work, is a rarity in Hollywood. She's one of the few women willing to jump from heights of 100 feet or more.

She has completed about 100 high falls for movies, television shows and commercials, She's jumped from high-rise office buildings, bridges, cliffs, cranes — even an oil rig — often wearing a skirt and high heels and sometimes acting as if she's been shot, stabbed or pushed.

One especially challenging stunt involved falling from an 11-story building in downtown Los Angeles as she played a character trying to prevent someone from committing suicide. It was one of the few instances in which she jumped with the aid of a cable attached to her body, causing her to decelerate in the air rather than land on an air bag.

"Every time I look down, I say to myself, 'What the hell am I doing this for?'" said Pascoe, high-fiving her buddies after the 40-foot practice jump in Sylmar.

So why does she do it? The money is decent. She earns $1,000 to $4,000 a jump. But the real appeal is the sheer joy she gets.

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"There are times I feel like I'm floating. There is absolutely a sense of exhilaration when I jump," she said. "I'm happy when I'm in the air and when I'm flying through it. I have no other explanation for it."

In an era when stunts increasingly are created on a computer screen, Pascoe is a throwback to a time when daredevil stunt performers sometimes lost their lives performing falls without safety harnesses or cables.

"There are very few women who can do what she does," said her mentor Banzai Vitale, a stunt coordinator who worked with Pascoe on HBO's "True Blood" series and has hired her for several other productions. "It's a dying art."

Aside from falling off buildings, Pascoe's been clocked in the head, thrown through office windows and rammed by speeding cars.

"I don't get the easy jobs," she said.

Raised in the small Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre, Pascoe was drawn to two things that would be elemental in her career: heights and water.

"When I was a kid, I would wrap a green towel around my legs and swim in the pool," said Pascoe, an only child. "I thought I was a mermaid." She would eventually double for one in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

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Her best friend talked her into joining the high school diving team. Pascoe didn't win any state diving championships, but she was good enough to attend Millersville University in Pennsylvania on a diving scholarship.

"I loved diving," Pascoe said. "The higher I went, the better."

Through her college diving coach, she landed a summer job performing high dives at an Amish-themed amusement park in Lancaster, Pa., called Dutch Wonderland. As part of its "aqua circus," she would dive from an 80-foot-high platform into a 12-foot circular pool that was 10 feet deep.

"What made me a good high fall diver was training all those years to hit your mark," she said.

At 24 she became the first woman to win the Acapulco Cliff Diving Championship, held in Mexico. The 90-foot dive was especially difficult because Pascoe had to jump out far enough to avoid the rocky shoreline below.

A television producer saw footage of the competition and was so impressed he hired Pascoe to jump from an 80-foot cliff on Catalina Island as a stunt for a show called "Worst Case Scenarios."

"I hit the water so hard I had bruises for days," she said.

She earned $3,500 for the job, received her Screen Actors Guild membership card and soon found more work on movies and television shows. She would double for actresses Reese Witherspoon, Anna Paquin, Elisha Cuthbert and Holly Hunter.

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