It’s not your typical career choice to make a living from danger, but for Fleur van Eeden it was the perfect fit. This adventurous 33-year-old gave up a career in public relations for the chance to be set alight, jump onto moving carriages from horses and spend her days dueling in gunfights.
It’s just another day at the office for Fleur van Eeden as she stands in the hallway of a tall steel warehouse in Atlantic Studios, in Montague Gardens, Cape Town. Under the dim light she is surrounded by piles of timber and fake polystyrene rocks. Here, Van Eeden has found herself jumping from crypts made of foam and fighting villains in gigantic gilded tombs that glow golden and black.
It is a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse into the daily life of an unusual career. Van Eeden is one of the top stuntwomen in South Africa and currently acting as a stunt double for the role of Lara Croft in the up-and-coming Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander; one the latest action blockbusters to have been filmed in the Mother City.
“If you told me 10 years ago that I was going to be Lara Croft’s stunt double, I would have never believed it. If my career was to end now, I ticked the biggest box,” says Van Eeden.
“When they phoned me for the job I thought it was a joke… You don’t take anything too seriously until you are on the job because anything can happen. The film could disappear out of your country.”
What makes this career choice even more interesting is that Van Eeden came to it by chance. While studying public relations, a friend suggested she try out as an extra on the 2005 series The Triangle.
Van Eeden’s first day on the job saw her left stranded on a rubber duck in the Atlantic Ocean near Robben Island. The second, she was tossed out of a plane like a Caesar Salad.
“They attached a cable to me, said were going to call three, two, one, action and then were going to yank you up in the air. You’re going to free fall… I was as high as a kite; I loved it,” recalls Van Eeden.
More action was to come. Van Eeden was drawn to the thrill, including becoming the first South African female to do a full body burn – in other words, she volunteered to light herself on fire.
“It’s funny, a lot of people would think being set alight would freak me out. It genuinely doesn’t. Things like that don’t scare me. What scares me is if you’ve seen someone else do a stunt, and you know in your heart that you can do it, and then your stunt director asks you to do it… I can’t sleep the night before,” says Van Eeden.
There was little else for Van Eeden but the outdoors. She grew up in the small town Swellendam, a 218-kilometer drive from Cape Town. From the age of two, Van Eeden was climbing trees. In her teens she took up white-water rafting and horse riding and, as a young adult, she became a South African tug-of-war puller.
Even her 99-year-old grandmother approved of her career choice.
“She was my biggest fan. Can you imagine me saying to me my granny ‘I’ve just lit myself on fire’ and her saying back ‘oh, my word, if I was younger I would have loved to have done that’.”
Behind the stunt industry’s facade of mortal danger comes many, many hours of choreography. Van Eeden spent two and a half months, prior to shooting, building her body for the Tomb Raider role.
“It’s like a dance… If somebody tells you to do a stunt, and you are only willing to do it once, you should not do it. I was 20 and had nothing to lose. What most people don’t realize is in most cases stunts are done more than once… unless it’s a car roll.”
Van Eeden has played roles in all shapes and sizes. Along with working on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, where she trained with Charlize Theron, Van Eeden spent four years on the set of Black Sails, the historical adventure television series, where she played the role of pirates, boys and the red-haired character Anne Bonny’s double.
“On Black Sails, I was dressed as a boy riding a horse and jumping onto a carriage doing a fight scene and been kicked off the carriage. I wasn’t supposed to be doing the stunt. The guy who was supposed to do the stunt, got kicked off the carriage and hurt his neck, he couldn’t do it. The whole shot was at a standstill,” says Van Eeden.
The number of top female stunt actors are few, says Van Eeden. You can count a handful of South Africans who are making it. But it is growing, thanks to more movies choosing to shoot in Cape Town – a string of film crews have been using its picturesque landmarks as their port of call, like The Maze Runner, the TV series Troy: Fall of a City, and Tomb Raider.
“You can put five guys next to each other and you will always have one who is better than another. But the women are standing next to the guys, it’s not like there is a women’s side and a men’s,” she says.
By the time Tomb Raider comes out, Van Eeden will be long onto the next set. It will be nearly a year before she can watch herself from the comfort of a chair in the cinema.
A far cry from the dim warehouse where she flung her body in the face of danger.