These Sisters Are The Real-Life Action Heroes Behind Your Favorite Movies

Courtesy Alex Duke

Alex tests a stunt for Christina Applegate's character in the new reboot of "Vacation."

Aby Martin is used to being the guinea pig. As the youngest of the three Martin sisters, she is always the first in line to be punched, shot at, thrown from a roof, or dropped from the ceiling. Her father, Anderson Martin, jokingly refers to her as "dead weight" because she is so often the crash-test dummy (sometimes literally in the driver's seat of a soon-to-be-crumpled car) when he's trying to teach his girls about the family trade -- movie stunt performance. Yet even the adventuresome 24-year-old is timid about today's lesson: How To Get Kicked In The Crotch.

"I don't want to do it," she says, pouting in a long blond ponytail, yoga pants and tank top.

"You're doing it," says her father, on his knees before her, sweat rolling off his nose as he jury-rigs ankle cuffs to a pelvic harness he's just strapped to his baby. "A stunt person is called in to be ready for anything."

Late-morning sun pours in through the open bay door of Anderson's dusty, 4,500-square-foot warehouse along the main drag of Carrollton, Georgia, a bedroom community about an hour outside of Atlanta. Ropes and harnesses are strung from the rafters. Air mats, pads and sheets of cardboard are spread across the concrete floor. Aby's older sisters, Ashley Rae Trisler and Alex Duke, look on from the sidelines, giggling as their father rises -- fairly confident that the makeshift device he's concocted is in place.

He's run a black strap from one ankle cuff up the inside of Aby's leg, through a loop in the pelvic harness and down to the opposite ankle cuff, forming an inverted "V" between her legs. The entire apparatus is snug enough to slip seamlessly beneath a pair of pants or a long skirt. The idea is that when an actor or fellow stunt artist steps up to punt Aby's privates, the point of the "V" will catch the leg inches short of her body and distribute the impact down to her legs and ankles. And in this instance, the kicker will be played by her father.

"Ready?" he says. "

No," says Aby. "I don't like this."

Heedless, Anderson lurches forward and starts to lift his leg in a deliberate slo-mo. Aby cringes and he stops.

Of course, the whole point of this exercise is that once the behind-the-scenes precautions are taken, it's time for the stunt artist to become an actor.

"You're scared," he says. "It's not like you have balls."

"That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt," she says.

"Well," he says, "that's why we use this device."

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Perhaps Aby is skittish because her neck is still sore from having been body-slammed for multiple takes last week on a super-secretive drama series. (Her father scolded her for making the rookie mistake of letting her head flop -- "But that's what the director wanted!"). Or maybe it's her broken and dislocated nose from a softball mishap last month ("I never get that seriously hurt while I work"). Or, it could be the fact that last fall, she had to be punched in the crotch by actor Skyler Gisondo in a Wally World melee for the blockbuster Vacation reboot (for a punch there is no fail-safe apparatus, just a little padding and a lot of praying).

In fact, it was that seemingly simple stunt that inspired Anderson's course in proper pelvic protection. After all, he doesn't just hang from the warehouse rafters all day, dreaming up ways to abuse his beautiful daughters. Every lesson stems from something he has personally encountered over three decades of performing and coordinating stunts on TV, commercial and movie sets from Georgia to Hollywood. Each director has his or her own idea of what kind of stunts are needed, whether it's dropping backward out of a helicopter (Black Hawk Down), flipping a school bus (Footloose), or falling off a horse (The Magnificent Seven). It's up to the stunt crew -- aka the second unit -- to figure out how to make it look as real as possible without breaking limbs or blowing anyone up.

The Martin sisters grew up on those sets. They started slipping onto the screen as extras or child doubles. Off set, it was natural fun to spring from the mini-tramp onto air mats, or get padded up before launching their bodies from a ladder or the front porch; it was almost cathartic when they were big enough to stand toe-to-toe with the old man for a choreographed fistfight. And when they were old enough to drive -- or close enough, anyway -- they were behind the wheel of a junked-out car, their dad riding shotgun, instructing them on the finer points of tearing up a homemade field course (in an actual field).

So by the time the Georgia state legislature triggered a Deep South Hollywood explosion with a series of tax incentives for production and filming companies in 2008, the Anderson sisters, with their skills and connections to a tight-knit industry, were more than ready for their not-so-close-ups.

Since then, Ashley Rae, 33, has doubled for Jennifer Aniston falling out of a tree (Wanderlust) and Christina Applegate getting tossed from a raft in Class IV rapids (Vacation). Alex, 28, has stood in for Betty White experiencing a heart attack and falling down stairs (The Lost Valentine) and has dodged a car crash in Furious 7. Aby has played a rebel in the Hunger Games and rammed a BMW head-on into a metal gate for Kristen Wiig (Mastermind, coming this fall). And all three have had semi-regular walk-on gigs as zombies on The Walking Dead.

Ashley Rae and Aby have been busy enough to ditch shifts as waitresses and stylists and do stunts full-time. Alex, meanwhile, took time off to have and raise her first child, a daughter, who has been through some health issues. Still, Alex has gotten enough work to keep her full SAG benefits and stay connected to the family business.

Courtesy Tony Rehagen

From left: Aby, Anderson, Alex and Ashley Rae in the family's training warehouse.

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Being a woman on the second unit is a double-edged prop sword. On one hand, there aren't many women in the business, so there's less competition, and women with certain specialties, particularly stunt-driving skills, are always in demand. But there are still relatively few action roles for women in movies and TV, and when women are portrayed in violent situations, it's still usually as victims.

Additionally, it's hard enough to be on the receiving end of a punch or pile driver to the concrete when you're padded up, but while actors can hide beneath loose-fitting pants and thick coats, actresses' costumes tend to leave a little less to the stunt coordinator's imagination. Bikinis, miniskirts and skin-tight jeans can't really hide a homespun crotch-kicking harness. When the script called for Ashley Rae to be thrown into a trashcan while wearing a cocktail dress and stilettos on an episode of LOST, she had to pile some cardboard in the bottom of the can and pray for a landing she could get up from.

With the general dearth of Sarah Connors and Wonder Women in modern cinema, much of the work for female stunt artists is in comedy. That's the slaps, the groin kicks, the awkward falls and dives. Directors want human cartoons, arms flailing and heads flopping, which is inarguably funnier -- and more dangerous for the double. "You can't look graceful, you have to be a wreck," says Ashley Rae. "Slapstick means the stunt people are getting their asses handed to them."

Another obstacle for women on second unit is that its onscreen performers are rigidly measured by physical appearance, even more so than the actresses. Jennifer Aniston has to look like any bombshell. Ashley Rae, Alex and Aby have to look like specific bombshells. (There are exceptions; Alex says that octogenarian Betty White was tickled to have a gorgeous twenty-something body double.) Ashley Rae remembers an instance when her audition was essentially having to fit into a certain actress's shorts. She didn't get the part. "I just lost out on two days of work because my butt is too big," she says. "But they're not thinking that way. It's not their opinion -- there's an actual physical standard."

Keeping in starlet shape would be reason enough for a rigid workout regimen. However, the sisters also need to be in top physical condition to do their jobs. They need the strength and muscle mass to endure impacts, and the dexterity to contort their bodies in midair to nail a landing. Yoga is a must. "There's a saying in the business that flexibility is longevity," says Ashely Rae, who spends at least 10 to 12 hours a week training. She and her sisters also run, do impact cross-training, hot yoga and high intensity interval training (HIIT) to build endurance. Plus, they add a few hours of kickboxing and mixed martial arts training to perfect their combat forms and make the roundhouses they deliver look more realistic on camera. The three are also constantly chugging BCAAs (amino acids) in their water to jumpstart muscle recovery and hydration. And they keep a makeup bag and a full set of pads in the car at all times, in case of last-minute call-ins.

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With CGI experiencing a bit of a backlash and directors hungry for grit and authenticity, it's a good time to be in stunts. There is so much work, in fact, that the Martins rarely ever work together. Finally, last fall, the family schedules aligned for Vacation.

Anderson did some stunts behind the wheel, and Alex helped set up and test certain effects. And while Aby's work -- including the aforementioned crotch punch, not to mention getting peed on -- are no doubt key comedic moments, stunt-wise, the film really belongs to Ashley Rae. One of her standout scenes is an obstacle course called the Chug Run, where Applegate's character is supposed to chug a pitcher of beer and then stagger through a Wipeout-type gauntlet. The climax occurs when, while running across a catwalk, Applegate gets punched in the face with a stuffed elephant. The camera cuts to Ashley Rae plummeting 20 feet from the walkway onto the ground.

Courtesy Alex Duke

Alex, left, looks over Aby's undead shoulder on the set of the TV miniseries "Coma" (2012).

Back at the warehouse, Ashley Rae is trying to show her sisters how it was done. She is perched in the rafters atop a 15-foot ladder. She has strapped on a chest harness, tailor-made for women ($1,000, which the sisters all pitched in on), which is tethered to a rope that runs through a pulley above and down to her dad's gloved hands. He's run the line through a descender, called a goldtail, that is designed to regulate friction, grabbing the rope and slowing the free fall just before impact -- if Anderson's eyeball calculations are correct.

The three-inch air mat below doesn't scare Ashley Rae; she performed this fall onto bare ground on set. And she did it 10 times before the director felt he had gotten the shots (Applegate herself told Ashley Rae that she was acting too athletic and needed to be more clumsy to make it look like Applegate). Each time, she just got back up, literally pulled grass from her teeth, and climbed back onto the catwalk. "As a stunt artist, you never complain," she says.

The key to this stunt is the landing. When her sisters pull the ladder away, Ashley Rae will fall straight to the mat; before she hits, she has to maneuver from a crouching position into a prone one, spreading her body as flat as possible to evenly distribute the impact. With the help of the goldtail, she has roughly two seconds.

"Ready?" says Anderson. "Three ... two ... one."

Alex and Aby pull the ladder away, Anderson lets loose of the rope, and Ashley Rae leans forward and takes flight, spreading her arms and legs like a skydiver, hitting the mat with her elbows, knees ... and face. All in all, a success.

Ashley Rae stands and starts unfastening the harness as Anderson resets the rig for Alex's turn.

On the Vacation set, the director took Ashley Rae directly from her 10th fall to another location, where they ran a tube of O'Doul's nonalcoholic beer up under her dirt-caked chin to shoot the post-race puking scene. Today, however, she's going to rest up -- she begins shooting an action movie with Jamie Foxx next week, and as usual, she's not sure exactly what stunts she'll be doing. But she does know there's a scene where a car comes crashing into a casino.

"I'm sure I'll be somewhere near that."

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