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Padecky: Montgomery grads turn gymnastics training into stunt-double movie careers

Stunt women Heidi, left, and Renae Moneymaker attend a special screening of "John Wick" at the Regal Union Square on Monday, Oct. 13, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

BOB PADECKY,

The girl was 4 and tumbled out of the top bunk, deciding not to take the ladder. “I heard the crash,” her mother said. “She probably saw double.” The girl hit the bridge of her nose. Hit it pretty hard. Her parents freaked. She has so much energy, she gives off sparks. She needs an outlet. Let’s throw her into gymnastics. Let’s see what happens.

Thirty years later Heidi Moneymaker, 39, is Scarlett Johansson’s stunt double in all the “Avenger” movies.

Seven years ago, at Heidi’s request, her sister Renae went to Hollywood as well. Go ahead, sis, I think you’d be good at it. Give it a shot.

Renae Moneymaker, 30, now is Jennifer Lawrence’s stunt double in all the “Hunger Games” movies.

The Moneymaker sisters have added a new dimension to Robert Frost’s poem. They indeed have taken a road less traveled. They are professional athletes in the very real, physical and competitive sense. The “A List” movie star needs an “A List” stunt double, otherwise serious action comes off as slapstick and Johansson and Lawrence don’t want to be thought of as two of the Three Stooges.

“Heidi truly is,” stunt coordinator Thomas Robinson once was quoted as saying, “one of the best stunt women in the world.”

Both Moneymaker women — yes, that’s their given name — tip their proverbial cap to the sport of gymnastics. It was there they found their bodies enjoyed being airborne, the pretzel twists and those perfect landings that had all sound impact of a hammer pounding a nail.

“Heidi was magic,” said Ben Corr, a gymnastics coach who worked with both women when they were teenagers. “You’d stand and watch and think to yourself, ‘I wonder how a human being could make something so difficult look so effortless.’”

Dennis and Linda Moneymaker raised six children, five of them girls, five of them taking up the sport. Santa Rosa residents, four Moneymaker girls and the one son first began the sport at a Santa Rosa gym no longer in existence. They moved over to Rohnert Park Gymnastics, excelled and, more important, learned the value of hard work and commitment.

“Our monthly gymnastics tuition was more than our house payment,” Linda said.

What to do? Money wasn’t flying through the door, even if their name was Moneymaker. But Dennis saw the value of the sport. To reduce tuition cost, he cleaned the gym every Sunday. Took seven hours each time. From their dad, the Moneymaker kids learned hard work and integrity.

“The kids might be competing on a Sunday,” Corr said, “and I’d tell Dennis, ‘Go ahead. Leave. Watch your kids.’ Dennis wouldn’t do it. He had made a promise to me to clean the gym. When his kids weren’t competing Dennis would bring in his kids on Sunday to help him clean the place. He wanted them to appreciate what was being done for them.”

With no hesitation Corr was quick to add Dennis was not a stage father.

“The only thing he ever pushed was church,” said Corr, a Rohnert Park resident who now coaches gymnasts in the East Bay. “If the kids were going out of town for a Sunday competition he’d call a priest in that city and ask them what time Mass was the next Sunday. Dennis was always conscious of setting a good example.”

The kids loved the sport, although it wasn’t sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation. Visibility was low, if the goal was to get a college scholarship. The girls continued to excel in high school while at Montgomery. Renae was a two-time state, regional and national qualifier and earned a gymnastics scholarship at San Jose State. Heidi enjoyed the same benefit at UCLA.

Heidi, 5-foot-3, is the only woman gymnast in UCLA history to win NCAA gymnastics titles all four years in school. She is UCLA’s first-ever uneven bars NCAA champion. She was nominated twice for the Honda Award, which honors the top NCAA female athlete. Renae, 5-foot-7, was all-WAC while at San Jose State. Her coach called her “Money” for he dependable excellence. Heidi earned her degree in history, Renae in diet and nutrition.

Several UCLA gymnasts had tried their hand at stunt work. Sure, why not, she answered with a shrug. It was a way to stay in shape and, of course, she had the skills. All that was left was the drive to learn.

“I never have seen such a ferocious competitor,” said Mike Steffen, co-owner of Rohnert Park Gymnastics. “She has an insatiable desire to learn, to absorb.”

So Heidi trained in hand-to-hand combat. Took stunt-driving lessons. Learned how to handle weapons. She ran, did yoga, meditation. All of it helped her confidence. But nothing replaced how gymnastics taught her how to fall, twist and turn. Her first stunt was a gymnast’s nightmare but rated a perfect A+.

“I was asked to tumble down a flight of stairs,” she said. “The stunt coordinator said I could go down rolling sideways but it would be more effective if I went head-first.”

Gosh, guess which way she went down.

“In gymnastics,” she said, “you learn how to fall.”

And her sister added the necessary companion phrase: “You have to know the difference between being injured or something hurts.”

While Heidi may have competed in the harsh spotlight of NCAA championships, that spotlight was a cool breeze compared to the day she and Johansson hooked up for the first time.

“I was one of two women asked by the stunt coordinator to perform for Scarlett,” Heidi said. “She picked me.”

She said it with the same non-plussed tone one would use in withdrawing cash from the ATM. With the same calm, even dispatch, the 5-foot-3 Moneymaker described what’s it like to work with, arguably, the world’s most famous woman actor.

“We know each other so well,” she said. “I know Scarlett’s walk, how she carries herself, how she moves through a stunt.” It’s the yin-and-yang of physical movement, two people enveloped into one movement. Their body types are quite similar with Moneymaker wearing a blond wig and a padded bra.

Johansson told a trade journal: “We finish each other’s moves like other people finish each other’s sentences.”

While seamless on screen, Johansson and Lawrence begin to choreograph with their doubles months before filming. Renae is working on “Ant-Man 2” right now in Atlanta. She arrived May 17 to prepare the action choreography.

The Moneymakers are professional athletes. “My body is my moneymaker,” said Renae, unable to resist the phrase. Like all athletes, their bodies are machines. If the machine breaks down, they sit. If they sit too long, they sit forever. Stunt doubles have the same pressure to perform as a NFL player. Both have played through pain.

Heidi has separated an AC joint, torn calf muscles, sprained ankles, endured stress fractures but would like to say she’s way ahead of the game and indeed she is — she can still walk upright after doing 14 television shows and 61 movies. She works out six days a week, sometimes even on film day when there’s a pause on location.

Renae feels as blessed as her sister in terms of her health. She been in 21 movies and 37 television episodes but “only” has had three knee surgeries and a couple of torn muscles in her shoulder to show for it.

Considering what they have done in the good name of “Action!” that is a remarkably short list of pain and suffering. Heidi has been blasted by explosion through a window, tumbling 15 feet. She has hung from a cable 80 feet above ground and dropped 40 feet. She dove off a tanker truck to land on Vin Diesel’s moving car. Contained by a seven-point harness she was driving 40 miles an hour when she hit her flip mark at a 45-degree angle and then hung on as her Volvo station wagon did multiple barrel rolls.

“If it’s a risky stunt,” Heidi said, “I don’t tell my parents until after I completed my stunt. I worried my parents enough growing up.”

There was one movie that Heidi and Renae were more than happy to tell their folks. It’s the only movie they have been together. “Behind Every Great Man” is a 9:23 short made in 2014 that shows both women beating the stuffing out of three men. It can be seen on YouTube.

Of course, when someone reaches the strata as the Moneymakers have, over-wrought hyperbole is many times a given and received with an equal amount of glowing ego.

But read the following exchange.

“Renae, how does it feel to be an A-list stunt double?”

“Oh,” she said in a soft voice, “you’re so sweet to say that.”

You’d be right, if that response doesn’t sound like someone who has doubled for Evangeline Lilly, Jessica Biel, Olivia Wilde, Kate Beckinsale; Renae has done eight movies with Lawrence in the “Hunger Games” series. Renae never brought up those celebrity names. Neither did Heidi, who has doubled for Drew Barrymore, Michelle Rodriguez, Kerri Russell, Jennifer Aniston, Saoirse Ronan and Jamie Pressley; Heidi has done five movies with Johansson, as Johansson’s “Black Window.”

They may have flown around the world, worked next to the most famous people Hollywood has to offer, yet the young women are Dennis and Linda Moneymaker’s kids, stamped forever with values not always seen in the gluttonous narcissism that is Hollywood.

“If you had a teenage son,” said Corr of his time working with the Moneymakers, “these are girls you’d want to bring home. Brad Pitt, he’s just another guy they work with. Heidi was as tough a competitor as I’ve ever seen but she never pointed her finger at her opponent. Her biggest opponent was always herself. She would analyze what she did. And what she needed to do better. Everybody liked Heidi. You could always talk to her.”

And she would always remember the people she met along the way. Corr, for example, last coached Heidi in 1996 when she was a senior at Montgomery.

“Heidi called me when she was on location in Thailand,” Corr said. “She was eating lunch and a baby elephant wandered by and I had to hear about how the elephant was eating everyone’s lunch. She knows I love sci-fi movies so she sends me T-shirts from sci-fi movies. I never ask. But that’s who they are.”

They are completely comfortable in their anonymity. They are on the screen, yet no one sees them; their faces must be hidden at all time. They receive no public adulation, yet Johansson and Lawrence won’t work with anyone else. They are physically fit, as much if not more than most professional athletes, yet labor in anonymity. Such is the lingering effect of getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing the floor of the Rohnert Park Gymnastics facility with dad.

Which means the next quotation should come as no surprise.

“I had this movie with a scene in a strip club,” Renae said. “But I passed on that. No nude scenes.”

Heidi is OK with barrel rolling a car at 40 miles an hour but no thanks with working with creatures that sting.

“I was Jennifer Aniston’s stunt double and I had to be covered with the bees,” Heidi said. “I didn’t do it. I don’t like working with animals.”

Heidi and Renae Moneymaker like working with a predictable, anticipated response. At their centers the women are still gymnasts. Sure, they can fly through the air and bounce off stuff like cement is a trampoline and move their body like flexible rubber band. But, at their core, they still are gymnasts practicing their craft far longer than most, a true compliment to the their athletic ability. And if Renae was reading this right now, I know what she would say. I’m so sweet to say that.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.