Power Pinay: Tara Macken, Hollywood Stuntwoman
Everything you want is on the other side of fear, and Filipina-Irish stuntwoman, Tara Macken, is proof. We reunite at an outdoor cafe along Venice Beach on the last day of a tumultuous 2017, and our conversation spans from Hollywood, sexual harassment and hanging with Oprah, to the unshakeable expectation of Filipino parents.
Tara was a rambunctious child who we used to call the Tasmanian Devil. Every day, as our hulking yellow school bus ambled down Manila’s South Super Highway at six in the morning, transporting children drowsy with sleep from Muntinlupa to the far land of Makati, Tara would often be the only one awake. And by awake, I mean hanging from the handles suspended from the bus ceiling, or pin-balling from row to row, dust sputtering in her wake from where she had catapulted off the archaic burgundy velvet seats.
It should have been no surprise that her extraordinary beginnings (she was born in a car in Kuwait) or her extraordinary energy, would one day land her on Hollywood sets, flying, tumbling, and kicking butt. But as Tara herself will tell you, doing stunts was never in her plans.
In fact, upon finishing college in the Bay Area with majors in both Dance and Theater, and Political Science, Miss Macken was all set to embark into the non-profit world, beginning her journey with an organization that helped refugees assimilate into America. It soon became apparent that her love for performing superseded her plans to save the planet, and she set her sights on Los Angeles.
There she would discover that stunts were more than a bunch of old guys flipping cars and setting things on fire. Realizing that what she was seeing in Angelina Jolie or Jackie Chan films was not just acting, Tara slipped out of dance auditions, and into the freewheeling world of martial arts, weapons, and wire-work.
“Where are you from?”
It would become the most complicated question she had to answer, juggling the fact that, aside from her unconventional place of birth, her passport said she was Irish and her documents originated in Malaysia. But that’s not all. Tara was raised for the most part in Brunei and Manila, her accent a muddled British-Tagalog. And her family? “Dad is in Siberia, older sister is in the Marshall Islands, and younger brother is in…”—well, she’s not sure right now, but Hawaii is a solid guess.
Identity would eventually come into play in her career. “When I first moved to L.A. they would group us at dance auditions, like ‘black girls over here, Latinas here, and Asians there.’ I would kind of hover in between the Latina and Asian girls, like, uhhhmmm,” Tara laughs. But as it turns out, the tides would change and move in her favor.
“Right now, it’s in vogue to be mixed. I can be anybody, and do any part.”
She’s talking about stunt-doubling, a job that requires her to match certain characteristics of the actress she’s doing stunts for. “Ninety percent of getting a job is skill and talent based. The rest is looks and size, because hey, if the actress is six feet tall—no matter how much you stretch me, I’m not gonna be six feet tall. So you do have to be kind of in the wheelhouse of how they look like; if your silhouette is similar, or if they can fake a silhouette to match them, and if your face is similar. Because ultimately when you step into hair and makeup, they can do wonders. They can make you look like anyone in the world!”
Sure enough, Tara’s transformations onset are incredible. “I doubled Tessa Thompson on Thor: Ragnarok as Valkryie, which was super fun. She’s a really good friend of mine. I’m doubling her now on Westworld. Then I’m doubling her on Avengers: Infinity Wars, where I was also second double for Scarlett Johansson. So I doubled a black girl, and a white girl. People are like, ‘Tara, what the hell, you’re taking everyone’s jobs!’ ” she laughs.
But it is on the March-slated Disney release, A Wrinkle in Time, that the uncanny resemblance between Tara and fourteen year old lead, Storm Reid, leaves you in awe at the magic of the movies. (Even if they literally just put a wig on Tara; no makeup!)
This was also the project that put her in the midst of Oprah Winfrey, who plays Mrs. Which.
“Oprah is the best human in the world. She literally is. She’s so cool and down to earth. It’s really nice to see somebody so successful be so normal. When we were in New Zealand, we were finishing on one of our locations and having a little wrap party, so they set up a catering tent. Oprah was in there putting out the table mats, fixing the flower arrangements, bartending. She made it her own house. It was awesome.”
On the set of Proud Mary, starring Hidden Figures and Empire powerhouse, Taraji P. Henson, Tara sees the ripples of Hollywood’s sexual harassment issues playing out in real life. “I went to give the producer a hug hello and he was like, ‘Don’t hug me!’ It’s sad when you have really nice guy friends that are now scared to call you ‘babe’ but this was a long time coming. Every time you go to do a big budget movie, they’re like
‘Okay guys it’s time to do the sexual harassment talk’ and so you gather around and they have this person talk, and that’s it. It was like a slap on the wrist and stuff still happened all the time. I’m happy people finally have to think about their actions and act like a professional.”
“Everyday I’m learning. If I’m not learning, I’m dying.”
Tara closes out our interview musing over how some people allow themselves to remain stuck at jobs, “just so they qualify for healthcare” but the irony is, that was one of the things her parents begged of her early on. “My older sister took the brunt of all their expectation, but with me it was like, Tara, you have such a nice voice; be a singer!” All Filipino parents want you to do is put you in front of a camera and make you sing. I guess it was my form of rebellion. Like, I’m not going to sing. I’m going to go over there, and do some backflips. Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m going to do! Eventually they were like, okay just please make sure you have healthcare,” she smiles.
So what does a woman who literally puts her life on the line for a living consider her biggest fear?
“I know it sounds cheesy, I don’t really believe in fear. I feel it’s an obstacle, and like every obstacle, it’s a process and there’s a methodology on how to get around it. Like, you’re scared of heights. Okay, today we’re going to take one step up. We’re going to come back a week from now, we’re going to take two steps up. We come back a week from now, three steps. I get it. I understand why I should be scared of it. But if I approach it in a way where I can dissect it so that it’s not scary anymore, it just becomes something I just have to overcome and do.”