Cheryl Wheeler has made quite a career in Hollywood, doubling for many actresses. Her skills are so good, that actresses often specially request her--i.e. her good friend Rene Russo refuses to make an action movie without her. Cheryl got into stuntwork after she became a three-time world champion kickboxer with a record of 17-1-1.She possesses not only the physical skills of what a martial artist is supposed to be--she is also respectful, humble, and kind. With that I would like to present our over E-mail conversation. Her responses are verbatim, as a result of it being E-Mail.
2. When and why did you start martial arts?
I started karate when I was in 9th grade (15 yrs. old). There were classes being taught by a really good martial artist twice a week at our high school in the evenings. The instructor Gerry Blanck was young, cute and really a good teacher. I started the classes on a dare, then found out that I absolutely loved the sport and discipline and stuck with it.
3. What styles did you train in? What's your favorite weapon?
Yoshukai Karate is my main style. I have a 2nd degree black belt in Yoshukai and have been practicing it for over 20 years. Kickboxing, although not exactly a style, has been a big part of my martial arts career, along with boxing. I've dabbled in Judo at Gene LaBelle's studio for movie work, as well as Aikido and grappling. My favorite weapon is probably the bo or staff.
4. How did you start pro-kickboxing?
Gerry Blanck, my karate instructor started an amateur kickboxing team when I was a green belt. He asked me to be on the team. There were hardly any women in the sport at that time, so what fights I began having were immediately deemed "pro", since I was paid. Once I started competing in the ring,I was hooked. The money was a bonus, compared to the thrill and the workout.
5. What was your hardest kickboxing match?
My hardest match was against Lucia Riker in Holland in 1987. She was very strong... I believe, though I have no proof except gut instinct, that she was on steroids at the time. She was very, very strong. I flew to Holland to approximately 10 days before our match. Training and dietary changes were hard on me there. I was definitely not at my best. It was a close fight though and I feel that if it had been held in the U.S., I would have been declared the winner. Our Holland match was judged unfairly I believe, since all three judges were Dutch. It was a very close fight though. Lucia is a great fighter and has only gotten better over the years.
6. What was your favorite title fight?
My favorite title fight was probably my match with Graciela Casillas in Chicago. I was only 8-0, while she had a much longer record in both boxing and kick-boxing. I was definitely the underdog. I had been training for the match in South Florida with world champion Don Wilson, and was ready. I think I really surprised her, the crowd, the judges, etc. I was supposed to be an easy win for her, but in fact, they declared me the winner. The decision was later reversed due to various discrepencies that are too complicated and long to go into.
7. Is it true that you used to have a rivalry with Graciela Casillas?
Yes I used to have a rivalry with Graciela, and much of it was due to our controversial match in Chicago that I mentioned above. After our title fight, she would not fight me again. She said it was due to not enough money being offered for the rematch, but I felt that that was a "cop-out". I went on to fight all over the country and the orient time and time again, but could not get a rematch scheduled with her. She sat on her title for almost 3 years, while I was traveling around fighting anyone I could. I challenged her over and over and I believe that's where the rivalry rumors started. Howard Hansen, the WKA president, finally created a new weight class for me and I fought one of Benny Urquidez's students for the world title and won. I never did get my rematch with Graciela.
8. How was it working with Chris Casamassa on Batman and Robin?
Chris Casamassa and I both worked on Batman and Robin, but ironically, not at the same time... There were numerous "units" being shot at the same time and we never actually worked together. I did meet him however at a Black Belt Cover Photo Shoot that we shared, and found him to be a most gracious and talented martial artist. He was humble and kind, and very handsome! I really enjoyed working with him that day. He is a very very good martial artist and a true talent!
9. How was it working with Dana Hee?
I loved working with Dana. She and I met on Undercover Blues and really hit it off. She was fun, easygoing, humble and very talented. No ego either, which made her a pleasure to work with. Undercover Blues was her first stunt job and she was eager to learn all that she could and equally eager to please the stunt coordinator and director, as well as the other stunt players and her actor. She is one of my favorite people and deserves the success she currently enjoys! She's very talented and makes her actresses look great!
10. Do you have any gymnastics training?
No I don't have gymnastics training. I wish I did. I'm okay in the air and am comfortable doing high falls and high work, but really wish I had more dance and gymnastic training when it comes to some of the fancier martial arts moves that incorporate them. I guess it's never too late to learn though.
11. What's your favorite color?
My favorite color is Blue... a deep, vivid, royal blue.
12. What's your favorite food?
Favorite food... probably homemade italian bread slathered with butter. No it's not good for me, but it's still my favorite food.
13. What's your favorite movie and television show?
Favorite movie and TV show... The original Lethal Weapon was one of my favorite movies, although I have alot of other favorites such as Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve. My favorite tv show at this time is probably reruns of Highway to Heaven and also Touched By An Angel. I love their messages and their uplifting stories.
14. Who is your favorite stuntperson?
Favorite stuntperson...I have alot of favorites, but one that comes to mind is John Robotham. I haven't seen him for years, but everytime I ever worked for him, he made my job so easy. He's one of the most easy going, kind and non-egotistical men I have ever known. A real pleasure to work with and for. Never gets mad or raises his voice. Calm, calm, calm!
15. Have you ever met Kathy Long? Have you ever fought her?
Yes I've met Kathy Long. She and I have worked on several films together. I don't know her all that well, but she was gracious and nice and very talented in the fight scenes we shared together. She came along in the kickboxing world after I was retired, so she and I never had a chance to meet up in the ring. I respected her as a fighter though and thought she was a hard worker with her preparation and training for her matches. She was great for the sport.
16. How has that big accident affected your career?
I didn't get hurt on a Batman movie... my bad accident happened on Back To The Future Part II. I shattered my face and jaw and shattered my right wrist to the point where I lost almost 40% of my wrist cartlidge. My face has been rebuilt and looks normal. My biggest setback is probably to my wrist. Since I lost alot of cartlidge, I cannot take alot of pressure against it straight on... another words, punching a heavy bag continuously with that hand is terribly painful to me. It has prevented me from ever kickboxing professionally again, since it won't hold up under training.
That's about my biggest complaint though. When I do stunts or fight scenes it usually holds up pretty well because the repetitions are fairly quick and not a day-to-day strain on it. I also tape it when I can get away with it.
17. What's your new baby's name?
My baby's name is McKenna Rose Duncan. My husband is Scottish and we felt McKenna was a strong, strong Scottish name. Her middle name Rose is in honor of my dear friend Rene Russo's daughter... Rose.
18. Are you still friends with Rene Russo?
Rene and I are still friends. I doubled her on her last movie, Rocky and Bullwinkle. We live pretty close and try to get together when we can. She was there for me when McKenna was born. Rose, Rene's daughter takes karate in my neighborhood from my old trainer and good friend Gerry Blanck. Rene is a very special lady and my very favorite actress in the world. She's always requested me on her movies and has always been very, very good to me. I'd do anything in the world for her.
19. What's your favorite non-martial arts stunt?
I love any and all horse stunts. I've been riding since I was a little girl, and although I don't "rodeo", I can ride probably better than I can fight. I've owned horses my entire life and love doing any and all types of stunt jobs involving them. I currently have a horse out in Malibu. I also love driving cars. I've got a pretty good gut instinct when it comes to timing, speed and synchronization with other cars in a chase, etc. Things just click when I'm behind the wheel of a car and I thrive on the feeling of doing a good job in one.
20. What's been your hardest stunt?
My hardest stunt... probably jumping from the roof of a 3 story building across an 18 foot alleyway to the roof of a 2 story building in downtown L.A. and landing safe and sound. It was very very dangerous and the success of the stunt depended solely on my athletic ability and the importance of making my running steps exactly perfect to the edge of the building... no misteps...
To make matters worse, we didn't get to this stunt until 3:00 a.m. after a long day. I was stiff, cold, and tired. It was really hard to phsyche myself up for the stunt. It went well, but I was very scared at the time. My fear made me mad, so I turned it into adrenaline and did what I had to do. There's been alot of hard stunts in my career... many more which would probably sound technically harder, but this one stands out in my mind as a "doosey"!! All the factors involved made it very hard. Although I had an airbag underneath me in the alleyway, the area was so narrow, and if I missed the other rooftop I would have slammed into the actual building and fallen straight down. It would have been a very uncontrolled high fall, and probably a bad wreck! I'm glad it went okay.
21. What was your worst injury in the ring?
I never really got hurt in the ring. Maybe a black eye or a bloody lip. Nothing that I can really remember though. When I fought Graciela in Chicago she leg kicked the heck out of my left thigh and I limped for several days afterwards. All in all though I've been really lucky... maybe because of my height... I was hard to reach.
22. What was your proudest martial arts/stunt moment?
My proudest martial art moment was being inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as 1996 Woman of the Year. Definitely a milestone for me. Rene Russo awarded the honor to me at Tim Baker's tournament in Burbank several years ago and I was absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude. It was truly an honor.
23. What was your most embarassing martial arts/stunt moment?
My most embarrassing martial arts moment was probably working on the Raven TV show in Hawaii and doing an entire fight scene in the skimpiest lingerie that I've ever worn. High kicks, spin kicks, flips, throws and jumps... all in a little black teddy that should have been outlawed it was so flimsy. I was embarrassed during the entire job.
24. What is your advice to aspiring stunt people?
My advice to aspiring stunt people is simple... Train hard, perfect your physical skills, but also work on being a kind, humble person. A little bit of humility and graciousness goes a long, long way in the movie business. It's a people business and work comes along not only because you're skillful at what you do, but also because you work hard, are kind to people, help out where ever you can and leave your ego at the door. Your people skills are actually most important in my opinion. Your people skills will award you longevity and financial success in the movie industry. Actors and actresses will request you, stunt coordinators will want to work you and people in general will want to be around you if you're a nice, humble, hard working person.
25. What's your favorite technique?
My favorite technique... in the ring... was always a spinning backfist. Also my "infamous" push front kick as Howard Hansen used to call it. I'd use it to keep my opponents off of me... probably I good reason I never broke my nose or had my face messed up in a match. My opponents couldn't reach me.
26. Did you ever compete in forms?
I loved competing in forms and actually did quite well in competitions in the Southeast where I grew up. Yoshukai Karate is a hard style, but we combined our movements with high kicks and flashy moves. Our katas were always eye-catching and I loved the discipline and beauty of performing in forms (and weapons) divisions. My moves were strong and solid and I felt that my kicking techniques were correct and flashy. I used to do pretty well. When I started kickboxing professionally I stopped all my tournament competitions since they kind of conflicted with my kickboxing and boxing training.