Few people in the world become Olympic Gold Medalists. Fewer still become a professional stuntperson. Meet Dana Hee, an extraordinary woman who’s done both.
From Olympic Gold Medalist
To Hollywood Stuntwoman
By Scott Shaw
Photos Courtesy of Dana Hee
Few people can claim the honor of winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games. Fewer still can claim having won it in a sport that is dominated by the country which founded it. That person is Dana Hee, and the sport is Tae Kwon Do.
In a field of competition which spanned the globe, Dana Hee took home the gold medal for the United States in 1988, when Tae Kwon Do made its debut as an Olympic demonstration sport. Though there was a tough field of competition at the 1988 Olympics, Hee used what she calls “mind games” to emerge victorious.
“I was behind a lot of the competitors because I had only gone into the competition aspect of the sport two and a half years before,” she states. “The main reason I won, was because of my mindset and my ability to control the game. Every time a competitor thought they were going to attack, I would attack. Every time they would think I was not going to do anything, I would do something. I frustrated them to the point where they couldn’t be effective.” Hee reminisces about her winning of the gold, “It was my dream to win the gold medal. So, I trained for three years. That goal, however, seemed so lofty, so unobtainable, that by the time I was actually standing on the platform, being awarded that gold, it was like, ‘Oh that’s nice.'” She attributes her winning of the gold medal to “Taking a goal and succeeding in it no matter what the cost.” She believes that far too many people have goals they do not actualize because once the going gets tough most people give up. And she applied her same success strategy to moving into a career as a stuntwoman.
For two years after winning the gold medal, Hee traveled around the world as a spokeswoman, promoting the sport of Tae Kwon Do. After that she was looking for a new direction in her life. Stuntwork came knocking at her door. The production company for the film “Undercover Blues” called her. It was just days before the shoot was to begin and they needed a woman who was highly proficient in the martial arts and could double for the actress Fiona Shaw. Dana took the job and launched a whole new career and direction in her life. While working on “Undercover Blues,” she attributes much of her newfound understanding of stuntwork to the film’s veteran fight choreographer, James Lew, who worked her through the tough spots. “I got the opportunity to work with this great fight coordinator of the industry on that film, James Lew. It was such a good experience that after the shoot was finished and I went through a few changes in my life, I moved down to Los Angeles and decided to pursuit it as a profession.”
Additionally on “Undercover Blues,” Dana got to work alongside renowned stuntwoman Cheryl Wheeler, a former kickboxing world champion with a powerful list of A-list credits. Wheeler who was Kathleen Turner’s stunt double on the same film, was a very positive influence on Hee.
“She was just incredible,” says Hee. “We worked out together and became very good friends. Cheryl and I are the same height and weight. Normally, that would be the number one antagonist element between two stuntwomen” ‘Oh my God, she can take my work.’ But Cheryl was so nice and supportive. I have nothing but good things to say about her.” “Undercover Blues,” is one of Hee’s most memorable stunt experiences to date. She tells of the enormous amount of stunts that took place on the film — from a helicopter ladder hang to cliff drop-offs. Mostly, she reminisces about the big fight scene Wheeler and her had in the mud.
The Highly Competitive Stuntworld
Entering the highly competitive world of stuntwork was not an immediate process. “It takes a lot of hard work,” she says. Hee gets her stunt gigs through, as she puts it, “communication, politicking, networking and determination. It is a very, very, very difficult field to be a newcomer in, because it is such a tight-knit group of people doing stuntwork. “I’ll tell you, the only reason I feel I am a stuntperson today is due to the Olympic gold medal. It is my calling card, my foot in the door. From that, people will meet me, take me seriously, and think, ‘Well, yeah, maybe we can use her.'” Hee understands the skeptical view which most stunt coordinators hold towards unknown stuntpeople. “To hire someone that they never worked with, they are taking a chance, she explains. “Their name is on the line as well.”
She believes that due to her dedication to learning how to properly perform fight scenes for the camera, she does not let the stunt coordinators down. “If I wasn’t as versatile as I am, it would be very difficult for me to do fight scenes for the camera, because fighting for the camera is completely different than it is in real life.” Hee is not only a competent screen fighter. She prepares herself physically for the wide variety of stunts which are required for an active stuntwoman. She works out on trampolines to practice the spinning air techniques necessary for air falls. She goes out with stunt friends and practices high falls from platforms onto large air bags and stunt driving techniques. She continually works on horse riding stunts, as horses have been one of her deep lifelong deep loves.
All in a Day’s Work
Hee’s years of horse riding paid off in the film “Time Master.” In this film, the principal actors are raided by marauders. The stunt players, therefore, were called upon to do elaborate horse stunts; from running mounts and dismounts to falls. Hee recalls two of her stunts on this film. “In one scene, I was roped, knocked off of my feet, and dragged by a horse. In another scene, this stuntman comes rushing at me on his horse and kicks me full force. I go flying back to the ground.” Though these are the type of situations which the average person would find none too appealing, Hee laughs her way through descriptions of each dangerous occurrence.
In a recent commercial for Buick, Hee got to dress up in a Ninja outfit and repel down the side of the San Jose Civic Center. “It was incredible. It was just so much fun. Basically, I was 150 feet up, on a single line. I had to just let go and free fall, until I was close to the bottom, where I could slow myself down and stop right at the ground.” Hee describes, as she puts it, her “typical job” as one she had recently in the film “Stranger by Night.” “Oh, this was classic. I was being bitch-slapped. I was being whacked and thrown and it was so much fun.”
In the interactive video for the film “Johnny Mnemonic,” Hee again was teamed up with fight and stunt coordinator James Lew. For this piece, she not only was taught elaborate Capoeira moves (a martial art system originating in Brazil) by Lew, but had a scene where a stuntman is lit on fire. She and Lew had to then climb up onto this platform, where Hee is to kick him off. “The guy had flames coming off of him for three feet. In order to get enough of my foot on him to knock him down, I had to get my whole lower leg through the three feet of flames. After I did that, I looked down and my leg was on fire. So, I just patted the flames out and moved on.” At this point, one must inquire of Hee, “Do you really like doing this type of danger to your body?” “Oh, I love it,” she says without hesitation. “I love new experiences. I love a challenge. I love putting myself on the line.” In that case, she’s in the right business.
On the film “Terminal Velocity,” starring Charlie Sheen and Natasha Kinsky, Hee again got to put herself on the line. She was doubling Kinsky while a stuntman was doubling Sheen. “There was a seven-foot fence which we had to run at and somehow jump over, head first, and then hit the ground on the other side and get up and run again.” Even though a three-foot jumping ramp was built to aid in their assent, they still had five feet to clear, on their own.
“Unfortunately, the first time we attempted it,” recalls Hee, “the stuntman got the jacket he was wearing caught on the fence. I flew over beautifully, but he went tumbling down to the ground. The guy never heard the end of it. Like: “Oh the girl can make it over and you can’t.” Even Charlie Sheen gave him a hard time, ‘Now wait a minute,’ Charlie said to him, ‘I’m suppose to be very gymnastic in this film and you go flying over like that.’ Eventually they reshot the scene and it went fine the second time.”
Stuntwork, obviously, involves an enormous amount of danger and risk-taking work, done solely for the enjoyment of the film-going audience. Nonetheless, Hee fondly remembers filming an elaborate stunt for the film “The Pack.” She and a stuntman were doubling two lovers plunging to their deaths. The stunt involved being propelled on an air ramp through a glass door, as the two held hands. Then over a balcony and plummeting to the ground, two stories below. “That was really fun,” she giggles.
A Humble Approach
Hee takes a very humble approach to her role in the film industry. “Sometimes I’ve had actresses become very uncomfortable with me doing things that they can’t do. They don’t like it. I tell them, my role of being here, is to make you look good. All the audience is going to see is some fantastic stunt and think that you did it.” Hee does admit, “Coming away from most jobs, you hurt!” Though she possesses this experienced understanding, she nonetheless is traveling fast forward with her stunt career.
“The thing a professional stuntperson learns to do is to look like you are trashing your body, without actually trashing your body,” philosophizes Hee. “Of course, there are times when you just have to go for it and let your body feel the consequences. It is like martial arts, you go in as prepared as possible, but once you hear ‘Action,’ you are not going for anything but making the stunt look as good as possible for the camera.”
Aside from wondering if Hee has a slightly masochistic side to her, she comes across as one of the most dedicated and energetic stuntpeople around. She has allowed her one-pointedness, which led her to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, take her onto her newfound home of Hollywood stuntwork.
This article appeared in a 1995 edition of KICK magazine in Germany.