Stuntwoman Deven MacNair On Becoming Hollywood's Rape Choreography Expert In The #MeToo Era [Interview]

Stuntwoman Deven MacNair didn't set out to become Hollywood's foremost expert in rape choreography. When she arrived in Hollywood following a career as a professional wrestler and second generation "Glow" Girl, she initially wanted to do Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy or maybe a Disney movie, she revealed in last year's harrowing LA Weekly piece about the growing subdivision of rape choreography in Hollywood. But rape is increasingly in demand on TV and in the movies, and that means MacNair will likely be on the job.

"I feel I'm doing a service," MacNair said in a phone interview with /Film. "But yeah, they're not my favorite."

Rape choreography, sometimes called "intimacy choreography," is just like it sounds: It's the part in production when the crew has to coordinate how they're going to film a sexual assault scene. The process is not unlike filming a fight scene — the stunt coordinators block the actors, block the camera, and practice. But unlike a fight scene, choreographing rape can take more than just a physical toll, it can take an emotional toll as well. And there's no safeguards in place for that.

"The lighting guy is there to light the set and nothing else... The make-up people are there to put the make-up on, put the blood in the right place. There's no one checking in with the actress, it's no one's job besides stunt coordinators and sometimes the first AD," MacNair said. Her official job title doesn't have the word "rape" or "intimacy" in it because she — like the stunt industry — fell into the job by circumstance.

"If they found the scene to be violent enough they would have a stunt choreographer there to work on the fight choreography of the rape scene," MacNair said. "And that's how I got involved."

But not all rape is violent, MacNair argued. And in the wake of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, Hollywood is finally starting to realize the same. HBO was the first major cable network to require an "intimacy coordinator" on set to serve as a mediator among actors, directors, producers, and crew. Other networks and studios will likely (hopefully) follow suit. But the stunt industry still has a long way to go to not only best represent the vulnerable actresses but the female stunt performers who are working closely with them. MacNair is at the forefront of helping to enact that change, working in rape choreography as well as advocating for greater female representation in the stunt community with her sex-discrimination lawsuit against wigging, a common Hollywood practice in which stuntmen put on wigs and dresses to double for actresses — shutting stuntwomen out of potential jobs. It was a polarizing lawsuit that resulted in MacNair becoming temporarily blacklisted from the stunt industry.

I spoke with MacNair about specializing in rape choreography, her advocacy for female stunt performers, and how — after decades — the stunt industry is finally beginning to see some change.

I remember reading the LA Weekly piece and being stunned to learn about the existence of rape choreography. But then I realized it should be considered an essential part of productions.

Yeah, it's starting to be.

Do you know if rape choreographers have been a part of productions for a while, or are they a fairly new addition?

God, you know, I realize that we should be the experts on this but I think this is such a new topic. I would say at best, and this is how I got into it, if they found the scene to be violent enough they would have a stunt choreographer there to work on the fight choreography of the rape scene. And that's how I got involved. And what's interesting is, and this is just a horrible true fact, is rape isn't always violent. Sometimes rape isn't violent, people can't get away and they're just trying to self-preserve and go along with an intimate moment to survive. But that's how molestation [happens]. It's really sick to talk about, but sometimes it's men or women in relationships who know the person will get violent if they don't give them want they want. That is rape. And it's not always violent. People have forgotten because it's still a really, really intimate moment and I think we're finally realizing that.

How did you get to specializing in rape scenes?

I didn't set out for it, that's for damn sure. I believe there's very few female stunt coordinators out there, still to this day, and in my career I've never worked for one. I've only 100% worked for male stunt coordinators. And when there's a rape in the scene, you can go one of two ways: you can hire the male stunt coordinator who's a 6'4" linebacker or if you know of a female stunt coordinator that would help make the actress a little more comfortable [especially] if they're half-naked or naked.

So producers asked me to do one, next thing you know you do more. And I did one this summer with actually a 14-year-old girl who got sexually assaulted. So we had to coordinate and make sure everyone was comfortable including the parents, the studio teacher, myself, the director, and just mentally prepare.

So is there still no official designation for rape choreographer, it's just whatever female stunt member is on set?

No there's no mandate. The only mandate is HBO has mandated it. And it protects everyone, it protects the actress. Because people — why would they understand it? The lighting guy is there to light the set and nothing else. The producer is there to make sure the budget works and nothing else. The make-up people are there to put the make-up on, put the blood in the right place. There's no one checking in with the actress, it's no one's job besides stunt coordinators and sometimes the first AD that are there to make sure the actors are safe.

Have you found that since the #MeToo movement began, the way that productions approach rape has changed?

Not only rape, but everything. Hiring more females for the protection of [actresses]. For instance, recently a stunt coordinator invited me to work to help an actress get into her harness. Sometimes actresses will do a scene where they get levitated, let's say, 10 feet in the air. We make sure we do it safely, but meanwhile we got to get them into the harness, and that's usually all but their underwear and bra on and we're securing them into a harness over their clothes. Sometimes there's no stuntwoman on set, it's all guys rigging, the stunt coordinator who's a male, and next thing you know someone's got to help this actress into her vest. And for liability alone it's just easier now that everyone's aware of this, is to have a stuntwoman on set. And before that, that hadn't happened.

The Deuce

A lot of critics have noted an uptick in rape scenes in movies and TV recently to the point that it's become gratuitous — is this something you have noticed in your work and has it affected your work?

No. I agree with this and did a piece on it for radio. That being said, when I'm on set, production has already gone the extra mile to make sure everything is kosher because they've already hired the intimacy coordinator and the stunt coordinator. So I haven't seen gratuitous scenes that I'm working on. Yet, are we showing violence for violence's sake — maybe? I don't know how to judge that. I will just say they are being much more respectful on sets.

Can you tell me what goes into setting up and choreographing a rape scene?

I would say the most important part is weeks before the scene. The first thing I do is break down a scene, talk to a director and explain to a director that I want to sit down privately with the two actors in the scene. I'll talk about their comfort, and what's their goal in all of this, and get them mentally prepped. Many actors want to stay in the moment, meaning they don't want to be interrupted. They're literally sobbing and yet we have to say cut because we got to do the scene again to change camera lenses or something like that. And they don't want to be approached by people because they want to stay in character. And I'm okay with that, but the thing is you're yelling out, "No, no, no, please stop." When we say cut,and I see any problem, I'm going to check in with you. And I will do it really discretely, I will make sure no one else checks in with you.

In fact, at one point this summer there was an actor and he was very upset that his character was sexually assaulting somebody. And in one of the takes, he goes, "Can I please go up to her and tell her I'm sorry?" And I said, "Nope, remember again prep. She didn't want that. I'm the only one who's going to speak to her, and we're okay with this because that's what we decided in prep." It's about just keeping everything kosher.

Right, establishing the rules beforehand.

Yeah, and don't get me wrong, if we need to, I'll break all the rules if something goes wrong.

Does choreographing these scenes not only take a toll on these actors but on you as well?

I feel I'm doing a service so I do like being there for the fact that I'm doing a service. But yeah, they're not my favorite.

How do you hope Hollywood will shift practices in relation to rape scenes?

I think they already are, it's starting. HBO is here having an intimacy coordinator for any scene. And don't get me wrong, they're also doing it to protect themselves. By having an intimacy coordinator there, not just the actors and actresses are being protected, but producers are being protected. Because then actresses can't come weeks later and say, "You know what, I was groped in that scene." It's like, "No, no, no, we talked about it weeks before, where you were going to be touched, where you weren't." Plus, after every take the intimacy coordinator should check in with the actor and if there was a problem it would've been stopped right then and there.

You said before that you've ended up specializing in rape scenes because you're a female stunt coordinator. Do you think your gender has affected you in this community?

I mean, the best way to say it is, by being female I'm not going to get the same opportunities. And in fairness — let's just say with... Pirates of the Caribbean, they flew in 300 stuntmen to be pirates. There was no female pirates, there's no female military people. And you know, work begets work. And that alone is one of the reasons why there's so few women [because] the need is so few.

Then the other issue, to me the real sick issue: Although statistically women are the ones getting beaten up at home, nobody wants to see that. Therefore the man gets punched or the man gets hit. And actors can punch, but when you're punching somebody that's when a nose could get broken and that's when you want somebody doubled. So once again, women aren't getting hit onscreen, they're just getting hit in real life. So I'm always just like, if women are getting hit in real life, can I at least get paid then as stunt people?

You've recently shaken up the stunt community with your lawsuit against "wigging." Can you tell me what this practice is and why you think it's so harmful?

Well it's harmful because first and foremost it takes the job away from a woman immediately. And it also shows precedent to the crew that this is normal. Because here's the interesting thing: when they're wigging a man to do a woman's job, possibly there's no stuntwoman on set to even protest. We can't protest what we don't know about. So editors have come forward to me saying it happens quite commonly enough that they see it, and more importantly as editors, when they see it, they can't use it because they can literally see it's a man doubling for a woman and the footage is no good.

This practice is not commonplace but it [has] happened enough. And everyone thinks it's just funny: Oh look at that man in a dress, how funny! And they would take pictures. At least now, yes it might still be happening, but the men and crew at least know to be embarrassed by it and not put the pictures up on social media.

So I know that the frequent explanation for wigging is "safety concerns." I think you've talked about this in the Deadline piece, how you feel that rings false?

In this day and age, with the women athletes out there [this is just an excuse]. Unfortunately, they could probably say that in the '60s and '70s because gosh, girls were actually encouraged not to do P.E. I mean there were rules in basketball that girls could only go 20 feet and then they'd have to pass the ball. If in this day and age if it's too unsafe — and this is where I've been able to work with film insurance companies — would it be unsafe for a man to do?

Right, it's a double standard.

Yeah, if that's their excuse then no one should be doing it. But to me, that's not the real reason: it's laziness, it's hiring your buddies, and it's convenience.

I do want to note that the stunt industry has come under more scrutiny in the wake of deaths on the sets of Deadpool 2 and The Walking Dead due to lax safety regulations. Do you think that safety regulations are in need of an overhaul of some sort?

You might find this fascinating but there's no qualifications to be a stuntperson or stunt coordinator in America. Zero. If you have a SAG card, you can be considered a stuntperson. There are zero qualifications to being a stunt coordinator.

Do other countries have more qualifications?

Yes, in Australia and England there's tests you have to take. Let's just put it this way: the caterer on set has more licensing than the stunt coordinator.

So do you think that with having all the conversation happening around the stunt community these days — a lot of which you're at the forefront of with rape choreography, with safety regulations — that there is change coming for the stunt industry?

Oh yeah. In 2020, SAG is trying to put in place the slightest of qualifications to be a stunt coordinator. So that is good.

What do you hope will be changed about how the stunt industry is being operated?

I think it's time. This has been an old boys network. This is one of the very few and last professions where you don't need a high school diploma, you don't need any qualifications other than if you're the stunt coordinators' cousin and the stunt coordinator wants to be loose with safety on set — which some of them are — you too can be a stuntperson and make crazy good money. Really good money. Stupid money. So it's going to change.

It's kind of crazy that the stunt industry, which has been around as long as movies have been around, has been relatively the same for the past 100 years.

Mhmm. It's changed drastically in the past 10.

So after you've become a pioneer about rape choreography, and wigging, and female representation in this industry, where do you personally want your career will go? Because I know you've said you don't want to do rape choreography forever.

I had to question, with getting slightly backlisted for a year to do, I had to think about what I wanted to do next. And interestingly enough, I want to produce. I want to produce a movie about slavery and bring awareness to the laws on the books that protected men against being accused of rape by slaves.

Can you tell me more about being blacklisted? Is that still going on and to what extent did that happen?

I would say I'm on the other side of that now. I'm working tomorrow, how's that?

I was not aware how controversial [the wigging lawsuit] was going to be. My first inkling to how controversial it was, was when women came forward to say that they too wanted to report what happened and literally they all backed out. There are still some stuntmen and stuntpeople that think what I'm doing is incorrect, but more importantly, there are stuntmen and stuntpeople who actually believe this is what we should be doing and are very supporting of what I'm doing. But it's hard to change a system that's been around for so long.

And hasn't changed much until recently.

Right. Here's an example of why this would happen: You're in Minnesota and you've got your five guys and two riggers who do the rigging. So you've got five men on set, but then you realize that you have to fly in that girl because there's a car crash. But producers love to save money, so the stunt coordinator's like, Ted's already here, keep Ted on the payroll, Ted puts on a wig and we do the crash. And that's just how it went. And nobody cared. Also, when you have mostly male crewmembers, maybe they don't see the issue with it either. But that too has changed, everything's evolving right now. I didn't realize how much this happened, but female crew members are coming forward and giving me evidence of when and how this is happening so often.

Are there other any major things you hope will change in the industry?

I'm not hoping anymore, I mean the industry's changing. It's just going to be a long process. Rome wasn't built in a day.