Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Katie Rowe (right) works on a scene for sitcom Arrested Development with actor Jason Bateman, who is pretending to operate a mapping device
Katie Rowe (right) works on a scene for the sitcom Arrested Development with actor Jason Bateman, who is pretending to operate a mapping device. Photo by Pete Turner

Coastal Job: Hollywood Water Stuntwoman

You’ll never believe how your favorite ocean scene was filmed.

Authored by

As told to Laura Trethewey

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Katie Rowe is a Hollywood stunt coordinator who specializes in performing and managing stunts in the water. Since 1995, she has worked on hundreds of productions, shooting in the open ocean and in water tanks.

I’ve been swimming my whole life, starting at age five, and I was recruited for swim teams by universities across the country. After I graduated from the University of California, Irvine, I knew I didn’t want to sit in an office because I’ve always been very active, so I thought I’d try modeling and standing in for movies. While I was doing that, a stunt coordinator said, “You should get into stunts.” And I said, “That sounds great. What is ‘stunts?’”

I do the full spectrum of stunts, from driving to fighting, but I have a very particular edge when it comes to water. I feel very comfortable there, so I work with performers, teach them how to scuba dive or hold their breath, and keep them safe. Because the ocean off California is dark and has poor visibility, we generally only use it for scenes of people falling off boats. Then we may go to a pool or tank and film that person falling through the water.

The first water job I worked was a Missy Elliott music video called “She’s a Bitch.” Her dancers couldn’t swim, so they were not supercomfortable once the giant platform they were dancing on started to sink into a tank. There was lots of screaming and panicking, but no one drowned.

Most actors, even actors with a reputation for being difficult, tend to be pretty nice to me because they’re out of their element. Their lives can depend on listening and doing what I tell them. Also, people want to look good, athletic. They want to look like Jacques Cousteau down there.

A big part of my job is figuring out a way to do something that looks dangerous or scary but is actually fake. Water stunts put people in nightmare situations. You’re in a sinking car. You’re being attacked by a shark. Or you’re in a plane that’s crashed into the water and you’re trapped inside.

When I’m coordinating or performing a stunt, I’m always looking for the escape in case something goes wrong. Because actors are simulating distress, it’s hard for them to signal, hey, I’m actually drowning. I just think they’re acting. So instead, we work out a signal like not moving or tapping their head.

The scariest stunt I’ve ever worked on was the Wayans brothers’ parody movie Dance Flick. The scene is basically a girl running on a beach and a shark comes out of the water, grabs her, and drags her into the ocean. We rigged a breathing regulator inside a big foamy shark. The stuntwoman was supposed to slide inside the shark and grab the regulator with her mouth because her hands would be trapped by her sides, and then we would pull her out to sea.

The first stuntwoman said, “I’m not doing it.” We tried a second woman; she said no. Then my boss was like, “Go put that bikini on. You’re doing it.” So, they stuffed me in the shark. I went as hard as I could, thrashing my legs around, but as they were pulling the shark with me inside it, the regulator kept getting yanked out of my mouth, and finally I was like, “I’m done.” They ended up cutting the scene.