Olympic gymnast Danusia Francis in costume for her performance in the opening scene of Wonder Woman 84
Credit: Danusia Francis
As Jess Hawkins put her foot on the accelerator and sent her Land Rover Defender flying off the ramp and 85-feet across the air, for a moment the high-speed chase scene felt very real. The adrenaline pulsated through her body as she and the car were suspended 12ft above the field where they were filming. For that moment, fiction and reality all blurred into one.
It is a thrill and a sense of heightened focus that Hawkins thought she would only ever find in a racing car. But when the funding for her driving career ran dry, it was stunt work that paid the bills – and bagged her the role of a lifetime in the latest James Bond epic, No Time To Die.
"I love it," Hawkins, 26, says. "At the time, racing was my world – and it still is. It was heartbreaking that I couldn’t continue. But then I found myself in this stunt world that I probably wouldn’t have found if I’d still been racing 100 per cent of the time. In a strange way running out of money was actually probably one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Hawkins is one of the original cohort of drivers from the inaugural 2019 W Series, the all-female and all-expenses-paid driver championship aiming to elevate women in motorsport. She openly admits she could not afford to race if it wasn’t for W Series fronting the bill for all of its drivers: "Normally, the level that I would be racing at, I would have to pay to go racing. Whereas the stunt world, it’s a job, and there’s more opportunities to work."
Currently placing 10th in the series rankings, ahead of the final two races of the year in Texas later this month, Hawkins has been juggling the demands of the track with the glamour of red carpets in recent weeks, rubbing shoulders with Daniel Craig and an all-star cast.
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Olympic gymnast Danusia Francis can relate. When filming for Netflix space epic The Midnight Sky, which stars and is directed by George Clooney, she came face to face with the Hollywood A-lister. "If I bumped into him now I doubt he’d remember me," Francis laughs. "But he was trying to show the other stunt double what to do and came right up to me – literally nose-to-nose. I was just trying to act cool. Afterwards all the other girls were like, well done. I wish someone had taken a photo – I’m never going to be that close to George Clooney again."
A former Great Britain gymnast, Francis competed at Tokyo 2020 for Team Jamaica, but like Hawkins is becoming used to blockbuster filming alongside her sport. By chance, she was approached on Instagram in 2018 by a stunt double working on Wonder Woman 1984. Not long after she found herself on the set of the $200m budget movie, swinging in the air with 10 other women dressed up as ‘Amazon Olympians’ for the opening scene.
From that opportunity, Francis is now beginning to build a career in stunt work. It is not all glamour, spending hours in uncomfortable harnesses and testing her core strength to the limit. But Francis enjoys it – and, like Hawkins, she has found it pays off. The two or three months spent filming a movie can fund extended training blocks, without the need to take on any other odd jobs. Ahead of Tokyo, she had six months to fully focus on her gymnastics: "That is a lot, lot more money than anything I’ve earned through gymnastics, and allows me to train full-time when filming is over."
Danusia Francis, right, has earned more as a stunt double in projects such as The Midnight Sky than she ever has as an Olympic gymnast
Credit: Danusia Francis
The 27-year-old says she has entered the business at a time when representation of black women has improved, as more women of colour are being cast in lead roles. "Where the movie industry is moving forward with diversity, naturally, the stunt doubles have to match the actors," she says. "In previous years, they might have been able to get away with like turning a white woman or even turning a man and putting a wig on him. Now that doesn’t really fly with where we are in the world. If you can find a stunt woman with the correct skin colour, then I think it’s only right that everyone gets the opportunity."
Both Hawkins and Francis would like to pursue stunt work as a potential career post-sport, but are aware of the years of training across six different disciplines – including gymnastics, trampolining, diving, horse riding, driving and a mandatory martial art – and up to £30,000 needed to get the appropriate qualifications to join the official stunt register.
For now, using their specific expertise is their only option, but one they are taking full advantage of. For Hawkins, chasing that adrenaline rush is what motivates her. "It’s very similar [to racing], as you’re always aware that you’re pushing yourself and the car to the absolute limit. You’re always on the edge of the risk. I’d never call my racing or my stunt driving work, because how could it ever be work when you enjoy it?"