Location: Austin, TX
Marital Status: Married
“I’d challenge any 25 year old to a race, because I’d win.” says FOF Cheryl Wheeler Duncan. She’s not bragging; it’s just the truth.
At 50, Cheryl has a body that would make any 25 year old jealous. A Black Belt Hall of Fame kickboxing champion, Cheryl is the go-to stunt woman for A-list starlets including Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner and Cameron Diaz. “Stunt doubling for a much younger actress could make her uncomfortable, but that’s never really happened to me,” says Cheryl. “They’re like ‘I wish I were in your shape.'”
But, it wasn’t always this way. In 1989, Cheryl had a debilitating accident while filming “Back To The Future Part II.” She was dropped 20 feet off of a cable onto concrete—her face was crushed, her right arm and hand shattered. Even after five reconstructive surgeries, Cheryl worried she’d never be able to work in the industry again.
That’s when she met Dr. Lindsey Duncan, one of the world’s leading naturopathic doctors who helped heal her back to health. Cheryl was his patient for several years before the two began dating and eventually married. “It was a blessing in disguise,” says Cheryl, whose own life, incidentally, plays out like a movie script.
How long have you been in the stunt industry?
Where do you live?
I lived in Hollywood off and on for 18 years. I loved living there, and it was my base for doing movies, even though I ended up traveling all over the world. Now, I live in Austin, Texas. I’ve been there about 9 years. My husband is originally from Texas, so that’s where he chose to move his vitamin company when it began to grow.
Where are you from originally?
What was your childhood like?
I had five brothers and no sisters. Always wanted to do just what my macho, active brothers did. My father was one of those old-school, very chauvinistic men who said ‘You’re a girl; you can’t do that.’ I think I’ve spent my entire life proving to him that not only could I do it, but most of the time I could do it better than the boys.
Did you attend college?
I went to two years of junior college in Florida and was majoring in physical education when I got the opportunity to move to Los Angeles to compete in kickboxing professionally. I took some journalism and creative writing classes at UCLA, but once I got into stunt work, I never finished college. I was too busy making money, jumping off of buildings, you know… One of these days I’ll probably go back and finish my degree.
Are you married?
Yes. Dr. Lindsey Duncan is my husband. We met because I got hurt really badly on set, and he was my doctor and nutritionist at the time. I was his patient for several years until the timing worked out where we started dating and eventually had a family. We’ve been together now almost twenty years.
It’s not great that you got hurt, but it is a great story…
At the time I was like, ‘Why me?’ This wasn’t my fault. The special effects guy made the mistake. But, after the accident I started taking charge of my health. When I met Lindsey, it was such an eye opening experience. I’ve been an athlete my whole life but never delved into nutrition as much as I should have. The accident made me realize that I can’t be a stunt woman forever, but I can help people with nutrition for the rest of my life. I was so inspired, I went to a two year school in Colorado and got my nutrition degree. Now I consider myself a lay nutritionist. I don’t have an office where I practice, I’m more about helping people through word of mouth and good nutritional products and diet.
So you’re still doing stunt work…
I’m still doing stunts. I recently doubled Rene Russo on Thor, and before that, I doubled Cameron Diaz on Night and Day. In between, I worked on a television series in Dallas.
How did you break into the stunt industry?
When I began competing in kickboxing, I met quite a few stuntpeople, mostly men. They encouraged me to get into the industry. It was back when all the ninja movie were gaining popularity and there were few women in the field. They said, if you’re good you’ll work full time and double every major A-list actress out here. It was true.
What was the first movie you were in?
It was a very nondescript movie called Night Stalker, like one of those movies you see on HBO at 2 AM.
How did you get involved with Night Stalker?
I was teaching martial arts at a health club called La Fonte in Pacific Palisades, California. A director who worked out there was looking for a stuntwoman for his movie. He told me that he thought I’d be great. I auditioned and ended up getting the part.
Was that your biggest break into Hollywood?
It was certainly a big break for me, and I met a lot more stunt people on that film.
So it sounds like you were in the right place, in the right time with the right skills…
Well kind of. One thing that truly got my career going was when I doubled Brooke Shields on the movie Brenda Starr in 1985. I got that job through networking. A friend worked for Bally Fitness and Brooke Shields was the spokesperson at the time. My friend passed along a letter I wrote to Terry Shields, who was Brooke’s manager. Well, Terry gave my letter to the stunt coordinator, and, not knowing who else to use, he called me. It really shows you that you have to make your own breaks. It’s about perseverance and trying every angle. After doubling Brooke, I honest to goodness never stopped working.
Besides the kickboxing and martial arts, did you learn most of your stunt skills on the job?
There are some things I did to enhance my talent such as attend a race car driving school in Northern California. Learning how to handle a car at high speeds was something that did not come naturally. I taught other people martial arts and they’d teach me something I didn’t know like high falls. Still, there’s no way you know how to do every stunt you get called for. On the sequel to Brenda Starr, the stunt coordinator said, ‘I want you to do a perfect swan dive off the twenty foot bow of a boat.” I had done plenty of diving but I certainly had never done a swan dive. I got up on that twenty foot bow of that boat and executed a damn near perfect swan dive in high heels! In addition to being athletic, you have to be versatile with a good dose of confidence.
Does being over 50 give you an edge or a disadvantage in this industry?
Probably a disadvantage. The younger stunt coordinators might not call you for the real tough jobs because they know that your bones are 50 years old. Overall, I think you just heal a little slower, and move a little slower getting up. My wish is not to be doing crazy physical stunts as I go into my late 50s. On the other hand, for things like stunt driving, age gives you more experience. In that sense, the stunt coordinators know you’ve been around the block and if you say you can do something you’ll be able to.
Can you be a stunt double for an actress of any age?
A lot depends on the stunt and your size. Four months ago I doubled Jessica Alba, and I think she is twenty-something. She is about 5’3” and I’m 5’9”. The only way I got away with doubling her was because I was in a car. Six months ago I doubled Shirley MacLaine and that was an interesting job because she is much bigger than me, so I just kept padding up until the director was happy with my size.
What’s the most risky stunt you’ve performed?
I think the most dangerous stunts I’ve ever performed are around explosions. I’m very cautious about stunts like these because you have someone else’s finger on the trigger. On a movie called Night Fighters, I did a stunt where I had to jump off a train trestle after a train crashes into a police car stranded on the tracks. A huge explosion follows. When I practiced, there was no train. When I actually did the stunt, the train was so huge it was shaking the trestle. You don’t know that sort of thing until you are in the midst of the stunt. I had trouble getting my footing to launch off the bridge. I did it, but if I couldn’t jump off at the right time, I would’ve been blown up.
It sounds like a dangerous profession.
It can be. You have to be tough skinned. You are going to get bruised. A lot of what you do is taking falls, tumbles, getting pushed down stairs, hit by cars. It’s not all martial arts fights. Things can go wrong. You have the equipment to minimize injuries but honestly my best friend at the height of my career was my chiropractor, with a close second being my masseuse. I’d go into my chiropractor’s office and he’d say “Oh my! This injury is not in the book.” But, honestly I’m 50 and I don’t take any pain medications and I feel good when I get up in the mornings—no aches and pains.
Who is your chiropractor?
In Los Angeles it was Kevin Michael. He used to travel around with some of the celebrities on set. They all just love him. He is a very intuitive, practiced healer. I go to a chiropractor here in Austin too. His name is Dennis Bullock and he is wonderful. He puts me back in alignment after I do some crazy stunt work.
What is your workout routine?
I have two daughters, 11 and 13. So I juggle my workouts around their schedules. I’ll do a long jog with my dogs while the girls are at basketball practice. Then I’ll do a lot of isometrics and stretching. I like to have a lean, supple look. I don’t want to look too big, which too much heavy weight training can do to you.
It sounds like you are super busy, what do you do to relax or rejuvenate?
Massages and hot baths. Sometimes at night it’s hard for me to relax because I’m so active during the day. I drink this amazing nutritional drink called Relax Me by Genesis Today before I go to sleep. It’s natural and made out of cherries which have melatonin. I drink it and sleep like a baby. Some people drink wine to relax at night, this is my substitute.
What advice do you have for women over 50?
Fifty is young. Age shouldn’t put limits on you. Any fifty year old can achieve anything she wants. We just have to stack the odds in our favor through good nutrition and exercise.