Stunt Performer Annabel Wood is a Real Life Wonder Woman
When she hears the word action, Annabel Wood’s job is to take the command literally. She very often makes her living dying. All in all, Wood has died more times than she can count – and she keeps coming back from more. She’s a stunt performer, and one of the best in the business. She leaps off cliffs and castle walls, dodges speeding cars and motorcycles, and, dons prosthetics to become an ice zombie and charge into a camp prepared to do her worst. A few takes later, in a completely different role, Wood is now the victim of several ice zombies (children, no less) in one of the most ambitious episodes of TV ever.
Once, when doubling Milla Jovovich in 2015’s Survivor, Wood had to literally run into the side of a speeding police car and hit it just right to launch herself into the air in a spinning arc before hitting the ground. A millisecond early or late and the results could have been, well, deadly.
In the past three years alone, Wood’s filmography reads like a list of Hollywood’s biggest hits. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) are just a few of the megahits she has worked on, and she’s hardly slowing down. In 2017 she’s already got three major films under her belt—Patty Jenkins’ sensational Wonder Woman, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy. Since she first began performing stunts in 2012 (on Sam Mendes’ excellent Bond flick Skyfall, no less), Wood has honed her craft and elevated her game.
Yet, for all of her big screen success, it’s her work on the small screen that might elicit the most interest these days. For the past three years, Wood has been doing some major stunts for the television series, Game of Thrones. When we caught up with her, she was in the midst of working on the series’ upcoming seventh season, the plot details of which are as tightly held as a state secret (or perhaps more tightly held), but which has been confirmed to include some of the most ambitious stunts in television history. Wood was still happy to share her thoughts on working on GOT, these mega blockbuster films, and enthuse over her experience working on Wonder Woman, which gave her the rare opportunity to work alongside a predominately female group of stunt performers.
Let’s start with your work on Game of Thrones, specifically, that crucial scene late in season five when you doubled for Sansa, when she and Theon jump off one of the walls in the Winterfell, escaping Ramsay Bolton.
We actually got that in one take, which is pretty cool. For me, getting a stunt right in one take is what I like to do. It means we are happy with it. For this leap, it wasn’t something we rehearsed. Sometimes we might rehearse a stunt, but this occasion we didn’t. I jumped from an actual castle wall, up in Belfast, which was probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty feet high. I was jumping into a box rig, which we built earlier on in the day. It was the last shot of the day, too. And also, because I was jumping off with another stunt performer, he was doubling Theon, we really did do the stunt holding hands!
How did you prepare for the jump? And what’s a box rig?
It was really just making sure that I was prepared in my head and I didn’t overstep the ledge. I tried to keep quite calm as I stepped off the castle wall, but at the same time I was also trying to stay in Sansa’s mental state. You want to do the stunt so that you’re playing it how the characters are in that moment in the story. Sansa and Theon are in a frantic state, they’re running away. So I kept that in my mind when I was jumping off the wall.
As for a box rig—it’s actually an upgrade over a mat or an airbag. Air bags haven’t always been safe enough to fall into. Believe it or not, they aren’t very forgiving; you have to land in a certain way. Now they’ve come up with better air bags now, but generally box rigs are used because you can build them into any space you need. They seem to take the impact of the fall better, as long as you layer them the right way. You might need them to be three or four or five boxes high. It’s crazy, because you don’t really think cardboard boxes would be good for protecting you in a fall, but they’re really good for falling into. They just have to be built the right way, that there are no broken boxes or split edges because that can be quite dangerous.
Wait, they’re not just average cardboard boxes, are they?
They’re like the cardboard boxes you know, but with a very specific thickness. If they were too thick, they’d be way too hard, so if you hit a corner they could be really dangerous. They have to be a certain width.
Still, it seems like it would hurt?
It does seem weird. It’s all about the way they’re layered and put together, so they cover enough space, and then on the top there’s often a thin mat, and sometimes they’ll put a green screen over that. Once the box rig is built, it looks impressive, but from an outsiders' point of view, it’s still pretty bizarre. At first I thought, hmm, boxes, that’s not very reassuring. There’s something to do with the physics of the way you hit it, and they take the impact well.
What are some of your most memorable moments working on Game of Thrones?
I’ve had two fun scenes involving the Sons of the Harpy. One was during one of their attacks, there are all these people fleeing and getting stabbed, there were a few of us doing close-ups, and I was one of the people who got their throat slashed. I had a blood rig hooked on me, so when I had my throat slashed there was blood spurting everywhere. It was quite gory (laughs).
Another, also in season five, was when they ambushed Daenerys (season 5, episode 9) at the bullring in Meereen and the dragon (Drogon) comes in, I was one of the people getting killed, one of the civilians. Once again, I was getting stabbed in the neck (laughs) and I had both the blood rig and some neck prosthetics to blend the effect with my real neck, so I get stabbed and all the blood comes pouring out.
How many times have you been killed on GOT?
The throat slashing and neck stabbing were the most featured, but otherwise, I’ve been slashed and killed loads! I’ve probably been killed over a hundred times in total. I’ve played a Wight, for example. In the episode Hardhome, when it came to all the Wights breaking through to the Wilding camp, I was a Wight and I was getting killed over and over. We’d get recycled, and run in again and get killed again. You can’t tell that it’s the same performers because it’s all happening so quickly. I also doubled a Wilding in the Hardhome battle. I was one of the ladies who is fighting off a load of Wights while everyone is piling into the boats, and a Wight child kills her. That was me.
There’s also quite a funny one. I was the only woman stunt performer in this one scene in a brothel, when the Sparrows came in. I was playing a prostitute, and they had actors that came in to act with us. We were all in that scene looking as if we were getting frisky, then the Sparrows burst in and started getting physical, trying to close the place down. It was…different. Often, as stunt performers, we’re getting killed or killing other people, whereas in this scene, we were playing sexy, flirting, stuff like that, and then doing the stunts when the Sparrows came in. I got to wear a slim, sexier kind of costume. Some of the others were totally naked. It was an interesting scene to be a part of.
So it’s safe to say you have a good time working on the show?
For me, GOT is one of my favorite things to work on because I love watching the show anyway; it feels great to be a part of it. I get excited every time I get called back. It’s always a good team of stunt performers. The guys I work with are really good, and so it always makes it really fun. The stunt coordinator, Rowley Irlam, is really good to work for. He just won an Emmy for “Battle of the Bastards,” and won an Emmy the year before for “Hardhome.” It really is like working on a film.
Was the Sansa jump your highest so far in your career?
Actually, one of my other memorable stunts was on Generation Zed, a lower budget movie. It was a really challenging stunt. I had to run off the edge of a cliff into the sea, and the cliff was something like 55-60 feet high. It was the highest fall I’ve ever done, and it was a challenge to get my head around it. It wasn’t overly complicated, it was literally just me running away from zombies and running off the cliff and falling into the sea. Jumping from that height into water can be very dangerous. You can land badly. So it was all about prepping mentally and getting over the height. So I sprinted, I jumped, and I landed in the Mediterranean, off Malaga. My adrenalin was so high that when I hit the water, I didn’t really even feel the temperature.
Annabel taking the leap. Courtesy Annabel Wood.
What’s the right way to land from that height?
I did high diving as a discipline, so I knew that any jump from up high you have to make sure that your body is very tight as you hit the water, because if you relax you have the potential to break things. The impact is really hard. I was told before I did the job I’d be doing the jump twice; it would be two takes from two different camera angles, and both times it was really hard when I hit the water. So you have to gauge it and get a feeling for when you’re going to hit the water and stay as tight as possible. I’m used to doing gymnastics, so I keep my body tight. If I didn’t keep my legs tight and flat footed to break the water, there’s a good chance I break both my legs. Even if you’re in a slightly off position, you can be jerked in a really dangerous way. I treated it like I was doing a high dive. It was feet first, which is good.
Perfect form. Courtesy Annabel Wood.
So what was it like being involved in Patty Jenkins' world-beating Wonder Woman?
It was great to be part of such a female heavy team, because we got to train like the men! We had several weeks of sword fighting rehearsals, which was such an awesome opportunity, not only were we being taught by some of the best stunt guys, but we were also improving our weapons work, which women don't always get that opportunity to do because it's often men heavy for battles and things like that. I didn’t double anyone, but I played an Amazonian warrior. Being a stunt woman, it’s a very male-oriented job, so generally there tends to be a lot of work for the guys and less for us, but Wonder Woman is very female heavy. To get a job where there was a lot of fighting, even background fighting – that was great.
Were there any stunts in particular you did for Wonder Woman that you loved?
I was involved in all the clashes between the Amazons and the Germans on the beach, and some of the training sequences near the beginning, where Ann Wolfe [she plays Artemis] takes me out. It was very hardwork fighting full out on and off all day in the Italian heat, you have to make sure your timing is right, your angles and distance are correct, and you're giving your full energy—there's a lot to think about! I was so proud to have been a part of it.
How did you feel when you finally saw the finished film?
I really enjoyed watching the beginning bits, where you see the Amazons training, and I loved the bit with the initial clash fighting the Germans on the beach, when they invaded their island. I loved the way they shot the action bits! The alley way fight was great too, the way she shot the film gave a real dramatic feel to the fights. I just loved seeing all the stunts—it's so satisfying seeing the end result of a film when everyone's worked so hard on it.
You also worked on Jason Bourne and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last year—two very different films.
Bourne was a fun one to work on. There were lots of things to do. I went to Tenerife, and I was involved in the riot scene, and in the bike and car chasing, too. I would often be one of those people that were in the street and has to jump out of the way of vehicles coming past us. With the riot stuff, it was actually pretty good fun. They had some stunts with the police in their riot gear, and we really went at it full on, attacking the police, kicking the shields, there was nothing really choreographed, which was good. In that scenario, it was organic; you’re just kind of going for it, which is more natural. It was chaotic. There was a lot of fire, Molotov cocktails being thrown, lots of stuff on fire, cars that were turned over, and motorbikes that the rioters were spraying a huge fire hose at. There was a lot going on in those scenes.
Annabel on the set of Jason Bourne. Courtesy Annabel Wood.
How do you keep yourself from getting splattered by car in those types of stunts?
For the car chases, it’s all about timing, making sure you’re paying attention and looking out for my escape route. I’ve worked with a lot of the drivers on Bourne before, so I knew how capable they are. I just make sure I clear out of the way, because they’re going the way they are going, so it’s all about timing. If I feel like something’s going wrong, I get out of the way earlier. I know they’ve got their job to do, and they’ll be going where they’ve got to go.
For Fantastic Beasts, I was doubling Katherine Waterson, one of the leads. She didn’t have a massive amount of action to do, but she did have some wire-based work. Basically I rehearsed leaping over some of the magical beasts, which was interesting because when we’re rehearsing stuff like that, obviously there’s nothing there. I’m working with something imaginary, pretending that there’s some crazy magical beast I’m jumping over and reacting to that. The wires helped me to jump over the fantastic beasts, giving you a little pop so you float up over the beast and land on the floor in a knee slide. It was fun to get my head around working with things that weren’t there, which I wasn’t used to.
To finish up with Game of Thrones, how has your work this season compared to last? And star Kit Harington has gone on record saying that it’s the most ambitious season yet. Would you agree?
I was doing stunt work for background characters this season, with heavy prosthetics. It’s just gotten bigger and better, with more twists and turns. It’s very exciting to be a part of it!
For more on Annabel's story, check her out in this feature in the Sunday Times, published on July 2.
Featurd image: Kickboxing is one of Annabel's many skills. Courtesy Annabel Wood.