From Halle Berry to Brad Pitt: How Amanda Foster became a stuntwoman
She was Halle Berry's stunt double in Die Another Day and found herself lying beneath Brad Pitt in World War Z. Yet the personal story of Amanda Foster, the UK's first black stuntwoman, is in many ways every bit as extraordinary as any film plot.
A single mother with three young children, Amanda Foster was carving out a meagre living as a supply teacher, part-time model and film extra.
Then, on the UK set of the Harrison Ford's film Patriot Games in 1991, she heard something that changed her life - there were no black female stunt actresses in the UK.
"I was pretty sporty so I thought, 'Oh, OK, I'm going to train'," says Foster, who lives in Essex.
Now 46, she has worked with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle and Steven Summers and been the stunt double for Halle Berry, Beyonce, Whoopi Goldberg, Vivica Fox, Naomie Harris and Nia Long. Her performance in Die Another Day as a double for Berry - the Bond girl who took the bumps - won her the Taurus World Stunt Award.
Her career is an unlikely outcome, she says, for a girl whose childhood was spent in children's homes and who had three children by the age of 21.
Probe a little deeper though and the connections between her childhood, motherhood and career become clear.
From her earliest days, she grew up without the safety net of parents or extended family.
"At the time it was like 'you've got this, deal with it'.
"I was grateful for my children. I was raising myself and three children. I needed company, something for myself. I was really still a child with children.
"The big thing for me is that they did not end up in care like I did. I think that is where my impetus comes from to make something of myself."
When she began stunt training in 1991, Aaron was nine years old, Azizi, seven and Femi, five.
Qualifying was a lengthy process. She would take on extra work where she could to pay for her various classes which in turn had to fit around her children's schooling.
Foster had to become qualified in at least six areas across a number of fields. These included fighting, falling, riding and driving, agility and strength and water skills, such as swimming or diving.
"It took six years because I was a single mum with three kids. And I mean single in its entirety with no help - financial, physical or emotional - I was single in the very essence of the word.
"And that was quite difficult, especially with the training.
"The children were young so I had to take them to some of my lessons, like my fencing classes, and I'd have all three of them line them up, then I'd sit them down in a row.
"It was the same when I was doing the trampolining lessons and I would be trampolining up into the air whilst pleading with them to sit down.
"Looking back it was absolute madness."
The UK stunt industry
- There are about 300 stunt performers in the UK
- A register of stunt performers is published by the Joint Industry Stunt Committee, made up of stunt people and production company representatives
- The register has three categories of membership - Probationary, intermediate and full - which recognise the different levels of experience members have
Only it was not madness, because Foster did not feel she had a choice. And that, she says, was down to the sink or swim instinct engendered by growing up in the care system.
"It was either I go forward or I stand still and stagnate. For me, I had to make something of myself. It felt like it was something I had to do."
And while some parents might advise their daughter against a career as a stuntwoman, Foster had no elders, parents or worldly-wise aunts to rein her in.
The setbacks were many and varied.
Sometimes they were caused by people, such as when her children were banned from fencing because they were messing about.
Sometimes they were caused by nature, such as a 200-mile drive to Wiltshire for hang-gliding only for the instructor to "go to the top of the hill and declare 'no it is too breezy today', and that would be it".
"At one point I did think I wasn't going to make it," Foster says.
"But I carried on. It took a long time."
Her first stunt role came in 1997 in A Knight in Camelot, in which she was the stunt double for Whoopi Goldberg.
What did the children make of it?
Now aged 30, 28, 26, all three have told Foster how proud of her they are.
But as they were growing up, they knew no different.
They say they were not really aware of anything unusual about going to lessons.
"They were kids, they'd see the weapons and they'd try and pick them up and play with them. Kids are kids and kids do kid things.
"They knew I was training and on the whole they were pretty good.
"Kids are really funny. I don't know whether they really took it in.
"When I was doing the Bond with Halle Berry and Pierce [Brosnan], I brought my daughter in. Every day that I was going in Halle Berry wanted to meet my son Aaron.
"Which man out there would turn down meeting Halle Berry?
"The answer is my son, who kept saying he would come tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Only he never did. Go figure."
None of her children voiced concerns about her occupation.
The same cannot be said of her grandchildren, however.
Seven-year-old Chari, for example, gets very upset when she hears about her grandmother getting bruised.
"She doesn't like it.
"She will see bruises on me and she says she doesn't like them. And she will tell me off - 'I don't like you hurting yourself Nanna' - and I will say 'honey, it is my job'.
But Chari, who has an older sister Imani, eight, has got a point.
Stuntwomen often have less padding than the men. Foster might find herself in a mini skirt and high heels. Or a swimming costume. And in a swimming costume, the only padding you can expect is a small piece of foam to protect the base of your spine.
"With the women, we're usually scantily clad so there's less room for padding and we take the brunt of it.
"I've fallen down stairs in a hospital gown. The stuntwomen get a little more difficult than the boys.
"A lot of us women over-compensate to try and make ourselves invaluable in what is still a bit of a boys' world.
"It has been a long, difficult and interesting journey.
"And I'm still on it, I'm still working towards something, I'm not there yet, wherever 'there' is.
Her expertise has brought unusual familial benefits. She is, if you will excuse the expression, an "action gran".
"I can climb trees and ride motorbikes with my kids and grandkids.
"It's wonderful to be young enough and fit enough to climb trees, swing on ropes and jump into rivers."
And Foster accepts there is something about her job akin to retrieving a stolen childhood.
"Being a stuntwoman is like being in a giant children's playground.
"Although to an extent we are living crash test dummies, we are still playing with all the toys like the cars, the motorbikes, the weapons, we get to hang off things, swing on things, crash things, roll over things, burn things, blow up things I mean, seriously, it is a dream job for certain people.
"I still have that excitement for crazy things."
But it is a craziness professionalised. And while many women might wonder how they would handle proximity to a star like Brad Pitt, for Foster there is a strict etiquette.
"I was working with Brad Pitt on World War Z. I spent three days on top of Brad, biting his face dripping blood into his mouth. People were like, 'Oh my God, you were on top of Brad Pitt' - but I didn't see it like that, he's an actor and I'm a performer.
"I looked at him and yes, he's a cute guy, he's a good guy, but this is professional and I just want to do a good job."