SHE'S A FISH!
The face is unfamiliar but you've probably seen her body, though you might have assumed it belonged to Pamela Anderson or Cameron Diaz. When it comes to performing death-defying stunts under water, Christina Fetters is regarded as one of the best in the business. She talks to Steve Weinman.
Blonde, 5ft 7in, 34-23-33, green eyes, 110lb, seeks underwater employment. Anything dangerous or unpleasant considered: swimming in milk for a month, being thrown off a cliff with feet in a bucket of cement, putting face inches from a spinning propeller in icy water, being dragged down to the seafloor by an alien...
Well, that's not exactly how Christina Fetters' entry is phrased in the Stunt Directory, the US stunt co-ordinator's bible, but you get the gist.
There's a lot more, too. This girl lives to fight, abseil, ride and drive dangerously and says: "I'll run away from explosions all day long." She loves waterwork, from scuba to waterskiing, but likes it less when the heat is on: "They can give jobs involving fire to someone else."
Christina is at the top of her profession, and she appears at the Dive 98 show in Birmingham this month to talk about her adrenalin-charged work. "It should make you nervous or you shouldn't be doing it. You get the kind of nerves that come with wanting it to happen right and wanting it to be safe."
She is known for her determination to see a job through. "I might express concern about the way something is set up, but it's important not to argue on set."
Christina has doubled for most of the Baywatch blondes, and recalls one time when she was standing in for Gena Lee Nolin on Catalina Island. "She was supposed to pick up a bomb off the bottom of the ocean and pass it up to Pam Anderson. I had a full-face mask on, and if you run out of air you can't buddy-breathe without taking it off, which is kinda difficult.
"We were at 14m and I had two tanks on as if I was deep-diving, but whatever they had jimmy-rigged wasn't working. I had to go back up, and they didn't get the shot. They tried to fix it, but when I went back in the water I was immediately in the red. I had no air, but I was not going to have this shot fail because of me again. So on 'action' I went down anyway, got the bomb and brought it up. I passed it to the next person and by the time they cut I was gasping I had nothing.
"I didn't have a safety diver near me, so I swam over to the nearest one, ripped my mask off and grabbed his regulator right out of his mouth. I'd never done that before.
"He took me up, I got on the boat and they said they wanted to go again! I told them to give me two minutes."
A director once expressed amazement at her breath-holding ability: "You're a fish, you're a fish!" That talent proved useful when shooting a commercial for jetski-maker Sea Doo. They were on location in Honduras, the home of the Institute of Marine Sciences which, uniquely, has 30 trained open-water dolphins for hire. "We'd take them out in the Gulf every day and tell them what to do, film them and they would go back into their cage at night.
"They don't take off because they're treated so well."
The dolphins were to be superimposed on to a moving Sea Doo under water so that a transformation would appear to have taken place. "We had to free dive about 10m, get on to a Sea Doo anchored nose-up with air bags where its engine should be, turn and give the OK to release the cable so that we'd go flying up through the water."
A team of five stunt divers set out from shore, but things went badly wrong and soon there was only one. The first casualty was badly bitten by water fleas on the swim out; a second diver got sick under water; another had ear trouble and the last could not hold his breath long enough even to reach the Sea Doo.
"The first time I tried it, I didn't make it either," says Christina. "I tried again and the same thing happened by the time I got on the Sea Doo I was out of breath.
"So I asked for my dive mask. If I can see underwater I'm always more comfortable. I went down, got situated then ripped the mask off."
Sea Doo never got the multi-diver commercial it had planned, but the ad still appeared thanks to Christina's one-woman rescue mission.
The movie Alien Resurrection proved challenging for different reasons. "Fox had built one of the biggest tanks ever made. We were supposed to be Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder swimming through the rubble between decks of the spacecraft, and they were pouring milk in the water to muddy it up. Bacteria started to form in the bottom of the tank and after a couple of weeks we were getting ear infections and things.
"For a month straight we were in the water, and although it was 30°C you still get chilled by being in there all day long."
Christina fell victim to alien forces. "They put a winch on the guy playing the alien. I'm trying to get away, but he gets a good grip on the webbing round my ankle and they activate the winch so that he's pulling me back through the water, away from camera.
"The first day the ratchet pull was angled too much, so both the alien and I tore up our shins because it just dragged us straight down to the bottom of the tank. With the power of it you're just along for the ride!
"The second day we fixed it a little differently, but we still had to do it about eight times. Then the actress got in and they just did the close-up on her face."
Doubling for Cameron Diaz in the film Head Above Water was another testing assignment. Loving husband Harvey Keitel ties her hands, puts her feet in a pail of cement and throws her off a cliff he isn't expecting her back.
"You just go flying, and the weight of the pail pulled me straight down to the bottom. We were running out of time because the tide was going out. I slammed into the bottom so fast that the bucket just filled up with sand completely, and I couldn't get my feet out." Eventually a safety diver managed to get her free.
The star succeeds, as they do in the movies, in freeing her hands and grabbing the stern of a passing patrol boat to pull herself clear of the water. "We did that shot in an outdoor tank in November and we were pushing hypothermia every day it was only about 5°C.
"They tied off the boat and measured how far the prop would come back so that I could react to it without it tearing my face off. I'd go under water, hold a tank between my legs and breathe off that. When they gave me the rolling sign, I would ditch the mask and regulator and act like I was struggling as the prop came back spinning towards my face.
"That shot was pretty hairy, because it's hard to trust that a boat isn't going to come back any further."
Christina has never suffered anything worse than cuts and bruises, but a friend called Janet Walter died while they were both shooting a Rosanna Arquette film called Gone Fishin' last year. She and Christina were playing spectators at a marine show when a boat took off from a ramp at the wrong angle.
The experience had clearly shaken Christina, and was made worse by the fact that her husband was due to testify at the inquest.
It isn't only stunts that present hazards for a stuntwoman, however. Christina has to be tactful around some of the actresses she is doubling, especially if her looks plant the idea that she might be after their jobs. "I'll underdress a lot, make sure I don't flaunt this or that. I go in very Plain Jane 'cos I don't want to worry anyone," she says.
One older actress, Diane Keaton, she says took an instant dislike to her on set, but it was Sharon Stone on her recent underwater outing Sphere who left Christina in no doubt of the dangers of counting on anything in the movie business.
Ronnie Rondell, a leading stunt co-ordinator and the man who gave Christina her initial break, hired her to double for Stone.
"They designed the drysuit and everything on me, and made my wardrobe along with hers. I had my plane ticket, the shooting schedule and the script, and I was flying out the next day to San Francisco for four months of work. I was really excited.
"I was going to have to cut my hair short, which would be hard for when I got back to doubling the girls on Baywatch, but I thought, hair grows!"
The next day Ronnie called to break the bad news: Sharon Stone did not want Christina on the movie.
"That sure hurt. I cried for days and I didn't know why I had never even met her."
Ronnie Rondell told her he had insisted she was the woman best qualified for the job and would make a great facial double, but Sharon Stone had said she fell short of her ideal two inches short, to be exact.
"The camera can't tell two inches under water, but she was adamant. Sharon wanted to pick the double, that's what it came down to."
The word from the Sphere set afterwards was that problems had arisen because Christina's replacement had been a little too similar to Sharon in attitude. But, of course, that's just movie gossip.
It isn't always like that. On Alien Resurrection Christina had been prepared for Sigourney Weaver to be difficult to work with, "perhaps because of the tough, bitchy, domineering-type women she plays".
The reality could not have been more different. "She surprised me so much. She was not a diver, but she was out there every day, working and working.
"When she had learnt to scuba, she had to learn how to take all the gear off and feel comfortable with no mask, breathing on a hookah and getting from one part of the ship to another wearing all these guns and weights. The actresses weren't having to go as far or do as much as us, but when someone isn't that comfortable under water I admire them."
At the end of the day, when Winona Ryder had slipped off to her trailer "Whine-ona, we ended up calling her; she didn't even want to get her toes wet" Weaver would stay and talk and joke with the stunt divers, checking whether she was doing things right.
"One thing she said was that she was supposed to be part-alien and felt she should swim differently. So we came up with some ideas of how she could keep her legs together and not use her arms and swim like a fish. She was great."
If Christina Fetters swims like a fish, she puts it down to her upbringing in Longboat Key, near Tampa, on Florida's Gulf Coast. "I was a real water girl, swimming before I could walk, and I had lessons every day." Her mother was an Olympic-qualified swimmer; her grandfather would throw change to the bottom of the pool and Christina would fight for it with her three brothers: "I was always picked on but I was always active."
She started scuba diving at 12 and qualified with NAUI, making the most of the freshwater springs and caverns in the area. She still dives them whenever she can: "Even if you're working in the afternoon you can drive to Silver Springs, drop down in the caverns, shoot back up the springs, wade back to your car and go to work."
She has been spoilt by the clear, warm waters of home: "When I lived in LA that's what I really missed I didn't dive once for pleasure." She prefers the Gulf, and the Caribbean coral reefs of Roatan or more recently Puerto Rico.
She will spend the next six months there, filming a new TV series called DREAM Team. This is where Mission Impossible meets Charlie's Angels just what the world needs. Even Christina seems unconvinced, but the studio believes it's the next Baywatch instead of the usual pilot it is recording 22 episodes outright.
Try this for size: the female leads, two of whom Christina understudies, play undercover fashion models, but the cases the crew take to the beach for their bikini shoots contain, guess what, not cameras but computer and communications gadgetry and dive equipment!
Far-fetched perhaps, but the DREAM Team mansion and two 24m boats are real enough, and the good news is that the boats are available for diving between shoots. "We'll do a lot of diving because everyone involved with the show is strong in the water. It'll be a lot of fun."
Christina lives in Indian Rocks Beach in Florida with the man she married in May, Steve Ritzi. They met some years ago when Steve was a drug dealer: he kidnapped her and threw her off a powerboat.
All part of the job Steve specialises in boat-driving stunts and this was Christina's introduction to stunt work, on Hulk Hogan's Thunder in Paradise, a popular TV series in the States.
It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. After studying with the Pittsburgh Ballet for four years, she worked as a dancer in live shows at Disney World in Orlando. She was dancing at the studio where Thunder in Paradise was being filmed when Ronnie Rondell spotted her and asked her to stand in for one of the actresses.
"I did a lot of scuba work for her, then started learning other things like fights, high falls and stunt driving. The door was open and I just kept going.
"The dancing and stage work made picking up the film business much easier, because it's all about being able to listen and take direction. That was drilled into me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper."
Her fitness was another asset. She exercises a lot but avoids working out with weights. "People say I don't look like a stuntwoman and that's a big misconception who am I going to double if I'm like a Gladiator chick? The idea is to keep your co-ordination up and stay toned. I was raised to be active and I think it benefits you so much more."
Her looks clearly did her no harm. "If I'm doubling Rosanna Arquette or Christina Applegate or Pam Anderson or Gena Lee Nolin or Cameron Diaz, I have to look as close to those girls as I can, because then the camera can get closer in on the action. But you could be a photo double and if you can't do the job, you're not going to get hired again."
But the offers of work kept coming. The producers of Thunder in Paradise also made Baywatch, and before long Christina was moving out to Los Angeles, where she worked for three years.
"It's a family affair at Baywatch, from David Hasselhoff down to the craft services. You have such a trust that they're looking out for your interests, there's just a great feeling there." Christina has doubled for a succession of Baywatch babes. "Pamela Anderson left to change her image, Gena Lee Nolin is doing the mom thing I got along with them great. Donna D'Errico is nice but not as personable.
"The actress I doubled for last year, Kelly Pacard, requested me for her next show, and it's always nice when that happens."
I ask about the infamous episode in which lifeguard boss Mitch swims through the inlet ducts of a desalination plant equipped only with a tiny air cylinder gripped between his teeth. We received letters of complaint at Diver, I tell her.
She laughs: "So many people have asked me about that and said they want that Spare Air that Hasselhoff uses! I go: I know, I know! You know, the director was a lifeguard, too!"
Christina's work on Baywatch led her to an association with US dive-gear manufacturer Dacor, which is relaunching in Britain at Dive 98. "I was using Dacor stuff long before I ever did anything for the company.
"I love the new Dacor XtremElle BC for women, but unless I'm working on a feature where I get to talk to the co-ordinator from the beginning I don't usually have a choice of equipment. It's what the actress is wearing that counts."
That should not be a problem on Baywatch, as Dacor recently became a sponsor of the programme. Market research among a sample of the programme's billion viewers worldwide has apparently shown that what they want is much more scuba diving, so Dacor and PADI have signed up to help and the cast must all now qualify to dive.
At 30, Christina Fetters knows her lifestyle won't last for ever. One day she wants to move into set design or stunt co-ordination, because she says she has an eye for how things should look. Or she will run a healthfood shop and teach yoga on the side.
"I see women in the business in their 40s and 50s, still hitting the ground. It never changes, you still have to go out and hustle."
How long can anyone go on getting highly paid to fin through stale milk or nudge propellers with their noses? My guess is that many readers who dive in British waters for no reward at all would jump at the chance!
Appeared in DIVER - October 1998