La Faye Baker has had a successful Hollywood career spanning over 20 years. Though her name might not be familiar, you’ve probably seen her work in your favorite movies.
Free falls, fire gags, car chases and fight sequences are Baker’s speciality, as an acclaimed professional stuntwoman. Baker is one of the one of the few noted African-American stuntwomen in Hollywood and has doubled for over 40 of Hollywood’s top-tiered actresses including Angela Bassett, Regina King, Regina Hall, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Lynn Whitfield.
Baker broke into professional stunt work after a colleague in the probation field suggested it as a way to relieve stress. Baker’s innate athletic ability has allowed her to truly excel in stunt performing. Ten years into her career, she received a call from Halle Berry to serve as her stunt-coordinator for the award-winning HBO film, “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” making her the first Black woman to serve in this role.
Amid all of her success, Baker’s career almost ended abruptly in 1996 while on set for the Fugees’ “Ready of Not” music video. An accident caused her to brake her jaw and splattered her mandible requiring extensive reconstructive surgery with titanium plates and screws. But this accident didn’t stop Baker, whose impressive resume includes 20 movies, commercials, and corporate advertisements.
Baker’s work goes far beyond performing. In 2008, Baker founded Diamond in the RAW Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to empower at-risk girls between the ages of 12 and 18 through the arts and S.T.E.M. The organization aims to break destructive cycles by being a deterrent to gang violence, date rape, substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy and abuse.
Baker’s community involvement and pioneering work in the entertainment field has not gone unnoticed. This year she will be inducted into the Smithsonian Institute’s Entertainment exhibit honoring the contributions of African-American stunt performers.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
FH: I know you’ve performed hundreds of stunts, but which one is the most memorable?
I worked on the “Green Lantern” doubling for Angela Bassett in 2011. I had to fly in the air through a glass window and do a flip; it was a lot of fun! I have also worked with Angela on “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “Vampire in Brooklyn,” and “Strange Days” to name a few. Angela Bassett is an amazing woman and any time I get to work with her is awesome!
When you are performing stunts, what does a typical day on the set of a movie look like?
I always say they pay me to play, and days on the set are really fun. I report to stunt coordinator who manages all of the stunts on the project, and then I usually check-in for hair, make-up, and wardrobe so I can match the actress I’m doubling for. I’ll wait in my trailer until I’m called to the set to shoot my scene, but before I leave my trailer I always say a prayer. Then I shoot my stunts however many times the director needs me to.
In 1996 you were in a terrible accident while performing a stunt, what motivated you to continue your career as a stuntwoman after the accident?
I was working on The Fugees’ “Ready or Not” video. We were in Latigo canyon in Malibu and I was doing a motorcycle jump. I was wearing a helmet and goggles; I did the jump twice and it was fine. When I attempted the jump for a third time, there was a wall of smoke that wasn’t there before. There was some miscommunication on set and no one told me there would be smoke. I went to the right of the ramp and couldn’t see. When I landed my chin hit the speedometer and I broke my jaw and had other injuries. A helicopter had to fly me from the set to UCLA Medical Center. I had about 10 hours of reconstructive surgery; I had titanium plates placed in my jaw and chin, and had to have extensive dental work. Recovery took months, but after I was healed I went and bought a new motorcycle.
Sometimes it can be difficult to bounce back from accidents and injuries, and it also affects you when your friends are hurt. In 1994, an up and coming African American stuntwoman lost her life after completing a stunt. We trained together and when she died it was devastating. I immediately wanted to quit the business. I had to really pray and listen for direction. Through the grace of God I continued training and the jobs kept coming my way. I think about my friend all of the time, but it’s important to push through and continue to do what I love. You may be on the injured reserved for a moment, but you have to come back and reestablish yourself.
What is the most extreme or difficult stunt you’ve performed?
I was in Denver, Colorado shooting a car commercial for Chevy. Because of the altitude, breathing was more difficult; we even had a crew member pass out. I was driving a car, and had to drop to the left and right of the road with no guardrails, and also do several hairpin turns while hitting my mark. It was tough, but we got the job done and the commercial turned out great!
What was your experience like as Stunt Coordinator for “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge”?”
I was so proud to be the first African American woman to serve as a stunt coordinator on a big budget project when I was hired for HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” I also met Halle Berry while working on the project which was one of the highlights of my career. Working with Halle Berry was a joy; she was extremely nice, approachable and very down to earth.
How do you combat the phenomena of painting a white stuntwoman to double as a black woman?
Stunt performers have a small, tightknit community and oftentimes stunt coordinators working on a film or TV project enlist people that they know or have worked with before. It’s the stunt coordinator’s responsibility to cast the right talent and in some instances they may have to go the extra mile to find someone outside of their immediate circle. It is disheartening when African American stuntwomen are not given the opportunity to work and earn a living. That’s part of the reason I created the Action Icon Awards to highlight the work of all stuntwomen, and give African American stuntwomen more exposure to the industry.
Being that there are few Black stuntwomen in Hollywood, is the atmosphere among you all more of a sisterhood or competition?
As a veteran in the business, I look at it as more of a sisterhood. I try to share my experiences and help other women to prepare for the challenges they may face. A lot of people see African American stuntwomen as niche community so it’s best to pass information along and help each other as much as possible. It’s important to maintain our sisterhood and work together because there are so few of us.
Your organization Diamond in the RAW is doing amazing things for young girls, what inspired you to create this organization?
As an African American woman working in the entertainment business, I saw there wasn’t a lot of diversity. I saw that there was a void and wanted to fill the void. Most kids want to be in front of the camera, and don’t know about the myriad of behind-the-scenes job opportunities so it was important to expose girls to all areas of the business. And you never know who you will meet while working on a project, which could lead to an in front of the camera career. I also try to teach the girls that they need to crawl, walk and then run; anything worth having is worth working for and you have to pay your dues in this business. Girls that have gone through the Diamond in the Raw program are now interning with Studios, working on film and TV projects and doing things they’ve never thought of before. The Action Icon Awards honor stuntwomen and shows the girls in Diamond in the Raw the many woman who are having successful careers in the entertainment industry. I teach the girls that there are so many things you can do that are respectful and you don’t have to sell your soul.
How could a black woman break into a career as a stuntwoman?
Two words—preparation and opportunity. I was always athletically inclined; as a teenager I was involved in a lot of sports including gymnastics, cheerleading, and basketball. Once I became serious about being a stuntwoman, I trained a lot and began networking with people in the entertainment business. Anyone looking to break into the industry has to establish relationships with actors, filmmakers, and stuntmen/stuntwomen. You have to work out with stuntmen/stuntwomen and be in the same circles. You never know when the opportunity will present itself so you have to be ready!