Article in a 1995 issue of Penthouse magazine featuring Lee-Anne

Lights, camera … ACTION!

PENTHOUSE | 1995 (p92-94)

She is a cocktail waitress at a pavement café on the hip side of the city. Her name is Lee-Anne. Day after day, hour after hour, she ferries drinks for the Yuppies and Yuppettes who come here to be seen by the passing parade. Nothing exciting ever happens in her life. Until now.

She hears the sound of roaring engines, and looks up to see two deepthroated American sedans churning up smoke and dust in the distance. They’re heading her way. Fast. KA-BLAM. Tables, chairs, drinks, and patrons go flying as the cars slam-bang onto the pavement, squeezed into a bottleneck by the freight train thundering in the opposite direction.

For a split-second, Lee-Anne is frozen to the spot with terror. Then she moves, leaping through the air and diving onto concrete as the fender of the big brown Chevy misses her floral-print catsuit by a whisker. Okay, cut. It’s another day on the set of Cyborg Cop 3, and Lee-Anne Liebenberg, 28, is doing what she loves best.

Falling, rolling, crashing, burning, kicking, punching, biting the dust, spurting blood, leaping over cliffs, collapsing in a hail of bullets. Hey, it’s a living. As one of South Africa’s most sought-after stuntwomen, Lee-Anne is riding high on the new wave of action film-making by Hollywood producers in South Africa. Her job: to make sure you never notice her doing her job.

Aside from her blink-and-you’ll-miss-me role as the waitress who takes a dive, Lee-Anne doubles for American actress Jennifer Miller as a runaway cyborg warrior who sets out to terminate two human private investigators on the trail of a mad nuclear scientist. She fails.

“I’m not quite sure how I die in this one,” confesses Lee-Anne, in a break from shooting in Newton, Johannesburg. “I blow up, or I melt down. You only really find out on the day.” Either way, it’s clear that the variables in Lee-Anne’s working life have changed a little since she quit her day job as a secretary for Douglas Green Bellingham three years ago.

A part-time fashion model with big-screen ambitions, she tried out for a bit-part in Leon Schuster’s knockabout comedy, There’s a Zulu on my Stoep. Then an item on her CV caught the casting director’s eye. “Springbok kickboxer’. Best performance to date: losing by a single point to the women’s world champ at Atlantic City.

Shrugs Lee-Anne: “it’s nowhere near as gruesome as it looks. You get knocked dizzy, but you don’t get knocked out. The skill is in control, in holding back on your kicks and punches. I just got into it because I grew up with three rough brothers in Welkom”.

That’s Lee-Anne lifting Schuster clean across the table with a foot to the face in Zulu, even if it’s all just camera angles, clever choreography, and sound effects. Not so easy to fake was her debut scene in the movie. Booted off a cliff by an ostrich, with a run-up of only two paces, she plummeted 40m into the deep end of Hartebeespoort Dam and the most dangerous profession in showbiz. How dangerous?

She thinks hard for a moment, twirling a long of her blonde double’s wig and squinting in the glare of the spotlight. In three years of intensive action, shooting movies in six-week spurts that allow no room for re-takes, she’s had to roll out of fast-moving cars, jump off exploding motorbikes, leap off buildings, run through flames, writhe and fall as blood-bags burst beneath her clothes, and ride in an open Landrover with a pack of hungry lions gnawing at the wheels.

Finally, she raises her palm, and brings it crashing down like a redwood tree. “The hairiest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she says, still wincing at the memory, “was fall flat on my face with my arms at my side in Zulu. Boy, that hurt.”

On-screen, with a red-wigged Lee-Anne doubling for the neo-Nazi villainess, the stunt was the punchline to a fleeting slapstick gag. Off-screen, it took hours of painstaking story-boarding, coordination, and rehearsal. But that’s not the secret of good stuntwork. The secret is making it look like it isn’t stuntwork after all.

“You’re in the air,” says Lee-Anne. “You’ve just been pumped full of bullets. You can’t think to yourself, ‘it’s okay, I’m only acting’. You’ve got to think, ‘I’m dead. I’m actually dead. Now how am I going to look when I hit the ground?’ You’ve got to make it look real. That’s the secret.”

Of course, with action directors demanding more realistic and spectacular stunts with every new movie, there’s a thin line between simulated carnage and mayhem, and the real thing. Lee-Anne, who learned her trade on a ‘crash course’ with stunt coordinator Roly Jansen, lengthens the odds by wearing protective body-pads, scientifically planning her stunts, and breaking her more convincing death-falls on nylon air-bags just out of camera view.

If a stunt involves being set on fire, or blown into the air in the aftermath of an explosion, she’ll wear fireproof clothing underneath and alcohol-based fire gel on top, forming a barrier of vapour between the material and the flames. “You just hope your hair doesn’t get messed up,” says Lee-Anne. For car chases and crashes, she’ll wear a safety harness, padding, and – as long as the camera doesn’t notice – a crash helmet. So far, no major injuries, no broken bones.

And yet, as she points out: “You never really know what’s going to happen until you’re right in the nitty-gritty of a stunt. It always feels different from the rehearsal. You’ve got to be able to strike a balance between your margin of safety, and that little element of the unpredictable that makes it look natural on the finished product”.

Even for a Springbok kickboxer, schooled since childhood in the steely discipline of the martial arts, stuntwork is a tough, dangerous, and physically exhausting business. That’s why she loves it. As her what keeps her going, why she is prepared to subjugate her own acting ambitions for a few seconds in someone else’s skin and a tiny credit at the end of a movie, and her answer is a shiver of unbridled exhilaration. Stupid question.

“The more dangerous the stunt,” says Lee-Anne, “the more excited I get, the more it pumps me up. It’s the adrenalin that drives me. it’s like …” She racks her mind for an appropriate analogy, but it only brings her right back where she started. “It’s like, when you’re racing in a car, and you suddenly lose control, and you’re spinning round and round, not knowing what’s going to happen next, not knowing how you’re going to survive … know what I mean?”

She knows. Setting up for a take, Lee-Anne hikes up her trouser-leg and fastens a crash-pad around her knee. In a world of her own, surrounded by men and women with megaphones, walkie-talkies, clipboards and Ray-Bans, she counts out paces, limbers up her neck and shoulder muscles, and twists her torso from side to side as the Assistant Director yells an order to clear the set. It’s quiet.

Just before the cameras roll, she has a second thought. She reaches down, rips off the knee-pad, and throws it to the side. She’ll take this one on the shoulder. “Action cars!” In the distance, the Chevy’s throb into life. “Action train!” The Spoornet diesel begins its slow glide down the tracks. “And … action!”

At the end of the take, conspicuously free of cuts, scratches, and bruises – “it’s not that I don’t get them, it’s just that I know how to hide them with makeup” – Lee-Anne brushes the dirt from her shoulder and contemplates her career path in the movies.

“My ambition,” she says, “is to play the lead in a nice romantic action movie, where I can do my own stunts. But please – no love scenes. Other than that …” She gets a dreamy look in her eyes. This is the big one. “… I’d really like to wing-walk”. What for?

“I just feel I haven’t done enough dangerous stunts yet,” sighs Lee-Anne. “I haven’t been pushed far enough. Basically, I’m ready for anything.”

Stick around Lee-Anne. There is always Cyborg Cop 4.

Posted in Penthouse.