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Action woman: meet the Dorset stunt woman who's "died" 20 times
She’s been stabbed, strangled and run over – but still stuntwoman Annabel Canaven goes back for more. She tells Miriam Phillips about her life as a double for Hollywood stars – and why being set on fire is really rather peaceful
It’s not every day you meet someone who has been brutally killed more than 20 times.
Then again, it’s not every day that you meet someone quite as brave as Annabel Canaven.
Violently stabbed to death, strangled, thrown off a building, pulled out the back of a van going 30mph and being burnt to death are just a few of the horrific ways Annabel has died in front of the big screen.
Her love for the extreme and physically demanding side of stunts has led her to perform as a stunt double for Hollywood stars such as Helena Bonham Carter and English actress Sheridan Smith.
She’s worked on Harry Potter, Skyfall, Great Expectations and Woman in Black, to name just a few.
It all started when Annabel was a child living in Winfrith and her parents let her indulge in her passion for horseriding, trampolining and any other sport she could cram into her day.
“I had a real love for anything kamikaze and crazy, “ she explains to me, whilst sitting in the comfort of her West Stafford home.
At just 5’3’’, beautiful, graceful and charming, it’s hard to believe that this is the same girl in the photos I’m looking at. In one she’s being blown up in an explosion and another she is completely on fire.
Interestingly, Annabel explains that being set on fire is one of the most exhilarating and peaceful of all her stunts.
“It’s hard to explain and really being set on fire is magical in a way,” she says.
During these scenes, such as one she did for Woman in Black, Annabel would typically wear three layers of suit, fire gel on her skin and a breathing mask, which is closed off during the time she is lit on fire with a blowtorch.
“You can’t see or hear, you are completely relying on the stunt team, then you take one last breath before you are lit with a blowtorch. Rather than being petrifying it is oddly calming, everything is very quiet.”
But still with all the best laid plans in the world things can go wrong and that, Annabel explains, is the very essence of why stunt artists are so sought after and paid accordingly.
They do the shots no actress wants to do, they walk in front of a speeding car and they throw themselves down a flight of stairs at the request of a director.
Annabel has never been one for a cosy office 9 to 5 job. At 25 she entered the very male-dominated world of jousting whilst working for Lulworth Castle. Being the only female jouster she had the perfect training ground for brave stunts whilst she was jumping on and off horses at galloping speed and fighting in front of crowds.
Her current training regime means she takes part in four or five sporting events a day such as windsurfing, riding, Tae Kwon Do, free running and trampolining.
One downside to this exhilarating job is that she must stay in shape to be able to double for the slight figures of most Hollywood actresses.
In the last ten years, she has luckily only fallen off a horse and cracked her ribs in training. But the dangers of the job are very real. In 2009 during the filming of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double was paralysed after an explosion went wrong.
Annabel went on to take part in the next Harry Potter film but only acted in a short fight scene.
But it’s hardly surprising that Annabel tells me her mum has sleepless nights and can’t bear watching the gruesome or scary stuff on screen.
Annabel explains that her love for the stunt itself and perfectionist attitude means she is always more worried about getting the stunt 100 per cent right, rather than worrying about what could go wrong.
“You are just so out of your comfort zone because really it’s mental to make yourself fall in front of a car, allowing someone to strangle you or throwing yourself off a building but you just have to change your mindset.
“It can be really scary and dangerous, but other times just great fun. I get to do sword fighting all day long, rolling down hay bales. And climbing down drainpipes.”
Being in close proximity of A-list stars such as Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes is one giant perk of the job, Annabel happily explains.
Her personal highlight so far is doubling for Helena Bonham Carter in Great Expectations.
After explaining about the precautions she takes when being chucked around in a fight scene, such as the film Kiss Ass 2 when she was a stunt double, or being blown up in Casualty, she seems surprised that I might think she is brave.
“Brave?” she asks, puzzled. “I think it’s more that I just love my job, but yes, I probably do have quite a high pain threshold.”
And that’s the typical humble response from this graceful 32-year-old who thinks nothing of coming home from a day’s work and icing her bruises before embarking on a training schedule that would make most people shudder with fear.
- Kick Ass 2
- John Carter
- Thor 2
- Great Expectations
- Woman In Black
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
- Sherlock Holmes Game of Thrones
- Nanny Mcphee and the Big Bang
- Dr Who
- Call the Midwife
- Silent Witness
- Holby City
- Tracey Beaker returns
- The Jury
- Law and Order