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Marengo native works as stuntwoman in popular movies, TV shows

Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Shawnah Donley (left) is the stunt double for “Chicago Fire” actress Teri Reeves on the Chicago-based TV show, “Chicago Fire.”

Among the townspeople fleeing Smallville and downtown Metropolis in the upcoming "Man of Steel" film is Marengo native Shawnah Donley.

The 25-year-old worked as a stuntwoman on the film, her first big-budget project since she began performing several years ago.

In downtown Metropolis, she races out of an office building, rushing down a stairwell.

"When you've got 100 people in a stairwell you have to make sure you have stunt people scattered throughout," she said.

"We'll be dodging helicopters and aliens, I believe," she said. "There are going to be a lot of special effects, where buildings look like they're falling down."

Despite being on the inside, she said, that as far as she knows she'll have to see the film, which opens Friday, with everyone else at the theater. 

She's already a fan of Superman's uniform. And she said the Smallville set, created and filmed in Plano, Ill., was "amazing" before being attacked, blown up and destroyed.

"From what I've heard, it's going to be a movie we haven't seen before," she said.

Donley performed her first stunts as a teenager at Donley's Wild West Town, the amusement park owned by her family, including her father Randy Donley.

She's since worked on numerous film and television productions, and is now filming "Chicago Fire" and its NBC spin-off "Chicago PD," expected to air this fall. She doubles for actress Tania Raymonde, who plays Chicago cop Nicole Sermons in both of the television shows.

She also doubled for Teri Reeves, who played Hallie Thomas, in "Chicago Fire." 

It's not the job Donley set out to do when she began studying genetic engineering after high school at Northern Illinois University and the University of iowa. But it's the job she believes she's meant to do.

"I'm a big believer of being in the right place at the right time, and everything happens for a reason," she said. 

Donley landed her first audition with the help of one of her father's friend, who happened to stop by the Wild West Town. Donley was working at the amusement park at the time, performing gun tricks, falls and stage combat stunts, when her father mentioned that she was interested in the film industry.

Her father's friend, Rick Le Fevou of Midwest Stunts Chicago and a stunt coordinator for "Chicago Fire," suggested she audition for a former television series, "The Chicago Code." She got the job, doubling for actress Devin Kelley, who played Vonda Wysocki on the Fox television series.

Future roles followed.

She's done some stunt driving, but no crashes or accidents. She's been kicked in the chest, strangled, knocked down, thrown, dragged and more.

"My specialty is hitting the ground hard," she said. "It's called ground pounding. . . It's basically a lot of hard hits and knowing how to fall. You've got to build up your strength."

She's had plenty of bruises. But ironically, the only time she's actually been injured was when she fell on some ice back in college, herniated discs and had to have back surgery.

"I take better care of myself when I'm on the set than when I'm not," she said. 

"Sometimes, you're sore for a few days afterwards, but it's so worth it. It's a great career to have."

Her most dangerous stunt, she said, was being dragged through a burning building while doubling for Teri Reeves on "Chicago Fire." Reeves' character is caught in a fire in an episode of the series, and dies after. 

In other productions, Donley doubled for Kate Winslet in the film, "Contagion"; Jordana Spiro in the Fox television series "The Mob Doctor"; Choloe Webb and Jenna Eflman in the Showtime series "Shameless"; Amber Heard in NBC's "The Playboy Club"; and Hannah Ware in the STARZ series "Boss."

Growing up, Donley said she always enjoyed action.

"I was playing cops and robbers and touch football," she said. "I was certainly not fearless, but growing up I didn't mind trying to hang with the tough guys . . . and I'm not afraid of having to tackle someone or get tackled."

Stunts at the Wild West Town are a bit more theatrical than those in the business, she said, but they did help prepare her for her future work.

With its numerous seasonal jobs, the amusement park offers quite a training ground for those interested in acting, music, theater or other performing arts, she said. 

"We had a guy who was studying to be a radio broadcaster," she said. "Playing a cowboy, he's gotten over his fear of stage fright."

Still, stunts are a far cry from the genetic engineering path Donley initially followed. It's a path she no longer has plans to go down.

"I'm very happy sticking in the stunt business, and I'll continue to pursue it for as long as my body will let me," she said.

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