The Marvelous Moneymakers

The characters in "Avengers: Endgame" and other Marvel films are out to save the universe. Behind the scenes, stunt doubles Heidi and Renae Moneymaker are out to save the superheroes.

Editor's note: This story originally published on April 26, 2019, and is being republished ahead of National Superhero Day on April 28.

Heidi Moneymaker was 3 years old when she attempted her first stunt. Full of energy at bedtime, she would climb out of bed and run around her room in circles. Needing sleep, Heidi's parents, Dennis and Casey, put her up on the top bunk, handed her some toys and books, and removed the ladder. Surely the railing would keep their child safely tucked away -- undoubtedly, the toddler would stay put and go to sleep.

That lasted all of 30 minutes. Heidi saw the wooden desk chair in front of the bed and leaped for it. She missed, smashing the bridge of her nose on the back of the chair, falling to the ground in tears.

Dennis and Casey rushed into the room to find their daughter on the floor. They picked up Heidi and inspected her nose. It was swelling quickly. Worried that she had broken it, they called their family physician. The doctor assured them that Heidi's nose would be OK. Because of her age, it was mostly cartilage. It was nearly impossible to break.

"She was fine," Casey says. "Denny and I were a wreck."

After that episode, they added another guardrail.

Heidi and Renae Moneymaker doing a little cardio on a trail in Hermosa Beach, California. Kyle Grillot for espnW

Thirty-nine years later, Heidi is still jumping off tall structures, though she mostly lands on her feet. And if she doesn't, it's on purpose. Usually.

Heidi, 42, is one of the top stuntwomen working in Hollywood. She is known most famously for her work as Scarlett Johansson's double in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), including "Avengers: Endgame," which released in April 2019. Her success created a blueprint for her younger sister, Renae, who is also a stunt performer. Renae, 33, has doubled for Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson and Margot Robbie, among others.

Stunt work is a male-dominated field, partly because of the nature of the discipline itself, and partly because of sexism baked into the film industry. When there's a big fight with a bunch of "bad guys," they're often going to be, well, guys.

"When the guys write the scripts, they write 'And they took to the beach' or 'The gladiators came down the mountain,'" says Chad Stahelski, the stunt coordinator, director and co-owner of 87eleven Action Design, a full-service stunt equipment and training facility for action films. "They're not writing 'female gladiators' or 'female soldiers in World War II.' They're not writing 'female ninjas.' It's what the writers write and where the studios go. They don't want to see your hero guy killing gangs or schools of women."

But there have been expanded opportunities for stuntwomen as more female action-driven films go into development. Black Widow, the character played by Johansson in MCU films, was the only woman on the first "Avengers" poster. She used to be the only female character of consequence who wasn't a love interest. Now, there are almost too many to name. The success of DC Universe's "Wonder Woman," released in 2018, and the MCU's "Captain Marvel," out last year, all but guarantee the continued growth of women in superhero films, if not in action films overall.

Heidi and Renae have been at the center of that growth. The past decade of Heidi's career was dominated by doubling Johansson as Black Widow. Renae doubled Lawrence in all four films of the Hunger Games franchise, and again in two X-Men films and the spy thriller "Red Sparrow." She doubled Evangeline Lilly in "Ant-Man and the Wasp" and Larson in "Captain Marvel."

The Moneymakers share a career; they've shared a home; and they co-parent their niece, Rosie. They might fight other people -- and sometimes each other -- for a living, but they are a team off-screen. With Heidi beginning to consider her career beyond stunt performance, Renae has hit her stride, booking blockbuster gig after blockbuster gig.

"They changed the face of what female stunt performers are supposed to be," says Hank Amos, the stunt coordinator of "Captain Marvel."

Heidi works out with Rener Gracie and Eve Torres Gracie at Gracie University, a martial arts gym, in preparation for future stunt roles. Kyle Grillot for espnW

Heidi walks into Gracie University, a famed martial arts center in Los Angeles, on a gray, January morning. She's training with former WWE Diva Eve Torres Gracie (who retired in 2013) and her husband, Rener Gracie. Rener's family has been teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu for three generations, and Heidi is looking to brush up on the style.

Standing at 5-foot-3, Heidi is dwarfed by Rener, and that's the point. Jiu-jitsu relies on positioning and quickness, which makes it perfect for fighting bigger bad guys, and it reads well on film.

The Gracies take Heidi through a series of punch-block sequences, a drill that focuses on the positioning necessary to block punches that are flying in.

Rener tries to come at her body using his elbows, Heidi traps his arms with her shins. He rises up to get more leverage, so she extends her legs to push him back. She kicks at him twice, stands up and backs away. Distance management.

"You're a natural," Rener says.

Heidi doesn't have any black belts to speak of, but she has built a strong athletic foundation. She started gymnastics at age 5 and began competing at the junior-elite level when she was 12. She was the first of her siblings to start gymnastics. Five of the seven Moneymaker children -- Heidi is the third in line, and Renae is the youngest -- participated. At one point, Dennis and Casey's gymnastics bill was more expensive than the mortgage of their Northern California home. To help defray the cost, Dennis would wake up in the middle of the night -- the time between the two jobs he already worked -- to clean the gymnastics gym.

Gymnastics training gobbled up Heidi's free time -- after school and weekends were swallowed whole. Her success in the sport earned her a scholarship at UCLA, where she was part of the 1997 and 2000 championships teams, the first two national crowns for the program. She won individual national titles on the uneven bars in 1998 and the beam in 1999.

"She's a legend," UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field says. "[Heidi has] always had the energy of a superhero."

Heidi got into stunts because of gymnastics. She had met a few stunt performers during her time at UCLA and done a few jobs on the side. She was working once a month without really trying, so she figured that she might as well give it a try as a full-time gig.

Her first big opportunity was "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" in 2003. Heidi was asked to submit a tape for a specific stunt that required her to do a backflip off the ropes of a wrestling ring and land on a man sprawled on the ground. The double for co-lead Drew Barrymore didn't have a gymnastics background, and Heidi's expertise would prove useful. The job went to someone else, but it wasn't communicated well. To make up for it she was invited to set for a few days, and then she stayed for the duration of shooting.

"Those four days [of filming] turned into five months. [I worked] as the second unit double for Drew," Heidi says.

The experience on Full Throttle became a crash course in stunts. The film's stunt coordinator knew that Heidi was green, but he also knew she was capable. She did a 40-foot fall, wire work, a stair fall and some martial arts on the project. "I did more stunts collectively on that film than I've ever done since," Heidi says.

After production wrapped, Heidi began investing in her training, which she continues to do. She took stunt driving classes, martial arts classes -- particularly judo because there's a lot of falling. "Having been such a serious athlete, [I thought] to be a professional, you have to train for years," Heidi says. "So, I was just prepared for this massive training haul."

Then Heidi met Stahelski, a prolific stunt performer and coordinator who has since moved into directing. She joined his team, and the two got romantically involved. They were together for 15 years and married for four. While training with Stahelski's crew, Heidi continued to book plenty of work but found that she couldn't quite break into fight scenes. "I was looked at as a gymnast and for some reason wasn't hired to do fight scenes," Heidi says.

That changed with "Iron Man 2" in 2010. Heidi had already worked with Thomas Robinson Harper, an MCU films stunt coordinator, on multiple projects. She also knew other members of the movie's action production team. Although Heidi had never filmed a fight scene before the comic book-inspired movie, Harper knew she could pull it off. Heidi was brought in with another candidate, and Johansson got to choose.

She picked Heidi.

Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, owns one of the movie's most memorable fight scenes, and it's the first time audiences get to see the character battling it out. The MCU superhero isn't a prominent character in the sequel, but she takes out 12 security guards while actor and executive producer Jon Favreau's character, Happy Hogan, fights a single guard.

"It was a good one to break out with," Heidi says.

Renae shares a laugh with niece Rosie Moneymaker after noticing a ladybug on her forehead at Hermosa Beach. Kyle Grillot for espnW

Renae is basking in the California sun at Hermosa Beach. After days of January gloom, light has finally returned. Heidi is off filming reshoots on the other side of the city but will reunite with the family at Renae's "surprise" birthday party that evening, the night before her actual birthday. Renae hates surprises, so she appreciated getting a spoiler warning about the evening plans, but also promised to act shocked.

Renae slings her arm around her then 17-year-old niece, Rosie Moneymaker. The teen has been living with her aunts, splitting time between their homes -- located less than a 10-minute drive apart -- in Redondo Beach, since the summer of 2017. Rosie's mother is their sister, and when she called to say that she needed help, Heidi and Renae stepped up. The two of them happened to be living together in Atlanta at the time, working on long-term projects. Heidi was filming "Avengers: Infinity War" and Renae was filming "Ant-Man and the Wasp," both released in 2018.

After a semester in Georgia, Rosie came back to Los Angeles with Heidi and Renae. They recently bought her a car, and call ahead to other parents if she's going over to a friend's house. They're her aunt-moms.

"It was a bit of an uprooting," Renae says of the move from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

"A five-hour-flight uprooting," Rosie says.

When both of her aunts are home, Rosie spends a week with one and the next week with the other. When one is on the road, it gets a bit complicated.

Rosie points to Renae's sock as her aunt takes off her shoes on the beach. "Those are my favorite socks!" Rosie says. "You always take my favorite socks."

Renae laughs and gently kicks a bit of sand Rosie's way. With their arrangement, clothes disappear and migrate frequently. Renae has found her jackets and shoes over at Heidi's. "Sometimes I've been looking for them for weeks," Renae says.

Heidi and Renae practice jumping punches at 87eleven. Kyle Grillot for espnW

When Renae considered quitting gymnastics in favor of spending more time being a teenager, it was Heidi who was there to offer advice.

"If you make it to college, you're never going to look back and wish you went to more dances," Renae recalls Heidi saying to her. Renae heeded her suggestion and attended San Jose State University, where she competed in gymnastics.

In Heidi's professional path, Renae saw someone who had made a good life for herself and found a career she loved. So, in college, she called Heidi and asked her if she knew anyone working on the show "Make It or Break It," a scripted program that aired on ABC Family (now Freeform) focusing on elite gymnastics.

Heidi encouraged Renae to pursue the job and helped her where she could. After filming a promo for the show, the coordinators were impressed with Renae's performance and hired her. While finishing school, Renae flew back and forth to film, and after graduation, she moved to Los Angeles full time to pursue stunt work. "I just knew," Renae says.

Heidi connected her with 87eleven, and Renae began to train in disciplines outside of gymnastics. Renae's height -- she's 5-8 and the tallest of the Moneymaker children -- made her a great fit for several actresses. Heidi went to the gym with her to train four to six hours every day. They worked on rolls and falls, body reactions, and basic punches and kicks. Heidi showed Renae how to hold her hands and properly throw a jab.

"She trained me from the ground up," Renae says.

Once Renae was advanced enough, she added judo and fight choreography classes to her training through 87eleven. Renae took taekwondo and combat class on her own. She immersed herself in preparing for her chosen career.

Renae's first feature film came when Stahelski told her she had a fitting the next week. Renae wasn't sure what it was for, but she got to the appointment and it was to be one of the doubles for Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games." Before this film, Renae hadn't taken on such a big project, but Stahelski had faith in her. "Having her be a Moneymaker and having Heidi look me in the eye and say, 'She can do this,'" Stahelski says, "that's a big thing."

The Moneymakers showcase the spoils of their training and healthy diets: washboard abs. Kyle Grillot for espnW

Renae sits at her dining room table. She's trying to be upbeat, but she's concerned. Heidi called her the previous day, after Renae and Rosie left Hermosa Beach, because she was en route to the hospital after knocking her head against a co-worker's skull. She was on a wire next to another stunt performer, and when they landed, their heads collided.

Heidi is concussed, and that makes Renae worry. It doesn't help that it's also Renae's birthday.

Days later, Heidi is recovering from her concussion -- it sucked that she was ailing, but the accident served as a reminder of the inevitable.

Stunts take a toll on a performer's body. Heidi has had multiple concussions, ankle sprains and other pains. She once tore her calf muscle in half. Renae tweaked her knee at the end of working on "Captain Marvel," then her shoulder at the beginning of her current job. Stunt performers might be good at jumping out of burning buildings and getting hit by cars, but that doesn't mean they're absolved of the pain of those actions. "It's hard to get through a whole show without something," Renae says.

Taking care of their bodies is a full-time job. There's physical and massage therapy and orthopedic treatments to be maintained. Between films, Renae gets a hyaluronic acid injection in her knee, which gives it a little extra fluid while reducing pain and stiffness. "I'm pretty bone-on-bone with that knee," she says. She also has had three surgeries on it.

Heidi and Renae juggle their appointments independently. There isn't a central gym with trainers and medical professionals on staff like the ones sports franchises employ. Movie studios do not do the same for those responsible for performing parkour over cars, intricate fight scenes and falling from tall buildings.

"Now that it's not just me," Renae says, "and I have a family that depends on me, I try to be smart with my training and not take unnecessary risks."

Renae also tries to eat a clean diet as much as possible. And in college, Heidi would drink lots of carrot juice and eat cans of tuna. No mayonnaise, just the tuna. Her former gymnastics coach credits her with changing the culture of nutrition at UCLA. "She made it cool to eat really healthy," Kondos Field says. "In our sport, a lot of girls think if they're skinny, then they're healthy. She showed that skinny isn't strong."

For stunt performers like Renae and Heidi, their ability to physically perform is directly tied to their income. Working on feature film projects does come with longer contracts, but those contracts are week-to-week, and the money isn't guaranteed. If you blow a knee in the middle of a production and can't complete the contract, you aren't compensated for the remainder of the film.

Renae compulsively saves so she's never in a position of having to decide between her mortgage and her health. After spraining her knee near the end of filming "Captain Marvel," she took time off to ensure the knee could heal properly, and turned down daily work once she secured her next gig. But in addition to living expenses, stunt performers also pay for nearly all of their training and maintenance costs, so that is something extra Renae and Heidi consider when figuring out their finances.

The sisters also have an insurance policy to protect themselves and their family in the event of a career-ending injury. If that were to happen, they would receive a payout that would cover them for a handful of years.

"It was really hard for us to qualify for," Renae says.

Most athletes don't have to worry about performing a stunt correctly for the 10th time at the end of a 16-hour day. "Even professional athletes don't jump out of planes," Stahelski says. "They don't get yanked 50 feet on a wire. They don't get thrown out to sea to see if they come back to shore."

What sets a good performer apart from a great performer is the will to get up after flying through the window of an exploding building, stare down danger and do it all again.

"I never thought that I would still be performing at the level I am at 41," Heidi says. "I felt like I would get to a certain age and things would start breaking down, but I feel like I could get better. It's hindered me, kind of, in my career because I've stayed as a performer."

Heidi just landed her first coordinating credit on a film she worked on in New Orleans. Stunt coordinating is the next step for Heidi as she looks to build a career outside of performing. Coordinators run the entire stunt department. They read the scripts and design the stunts as well as manage the budget.

"I took a chance," Hank Amos says. "I knew that Heidi was ready and I asked her to do this movie with me, and what happened over three months was mind-blowing. She was meant for this."

Stunt coordinating jobs are dominated by men, though that is slowly changing. Taking more coordinating jobs will also mean sacrificing other aspects of her career.

Renae, left, doubled Brie Larson in "Captain Marvel," and Heidi, right, acted as a double for Marilyn Brett, who played a Skrull warrior disguised as an older woman. Courtesy Renae Moneymaker

Heidi and Renae lean toward the mirrored wall stretching the length of the gym floor at 87eleven. The Moneymakers touch up their makeup as the area clears out. Renae laughs as she argues with Heidi about how to spell "literally." She walks over to a whiteboard hanging near the mirror and spells it out, just to check.

The two of them are at the gym for a light training session and to be photographed for this article. They don't usually wear makeup when preparing to do flips and throw a few punches, but you have to look suitable for the camera.

They warm up by jogging around the springy blue floor. "It's a real gymnastics floor," Renae says.

Heidi leans toward Renae to get a closer look at her face, her eyes focusing on Renae's nose. "Is it bruised, or is it crooked?" she asks.

Renae walks back toward the mirror to get a better look. "I did just get hit in the face [on a job]," she says.

"It could be your makeup," Heidi offers.

Renae shrugs and returns to her stretches. After a moment, she exclaims, "My nose is crooked!" as if she just remembered.

"How am I just noticing this?" Heidi laughs.

The sisters jump into a fight sequence. Heidi pieces together the choreography on the fly. Renae's torso caves inward in response to Heidi's push kick. Heidi flips over Renae's leg as she sweeps underneath. It's a dance. But instead of ball-changes and pirouettes, they're putting together kicks, flips and punches.

They aren't doing anything particularly challenging, nor are they going full speed. It's just Heidi and Renae Moneymaker messing around in a gym, but it's also Black Widow and Captain Marvel engaging in a light sparring session.

Heidi and Renae don't work together as often as they would like. They've never done a full job together, though they've overlapped on some projects. The most recent was during "Captain Marvel." There's a fight scene between Captain Marvel and a shapeshifting Skrull who has taken the form of an old woman. Heidi was the old woman.

Heidi points to a spot on Renae's right shin. There's a scab. Laughing, Heidi pulls up her leggings to reveal that she, too, has an abrasion on her right leg. Same spot, same mark. She tripped on a slippery grate and hit her shin on the lip of a sewer. Renae got nicked by a prop.

"This happens all the time," Renae says.

Heidi nods. "We're like twins nine years apart."

Katie BarnesKatie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter @Katie_Barnes3 .