Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
2004. Monica Staggs stands on a ledge in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, surrounded by a paradise of tropical fauna. Cameras are rolling for "Love Wrecked," and she's doubling 18-year-old Amanda Bynes. Later Staggs will riff on the spray tan, 17 years and significant curves she has on Bynes, but at the moment, she's too terrified to distract herself with humor. She takes a deep breath, glances at the stagnant water in a rock pool an impossible distance away, and mentally recites something Gary Wayton, her fiance and the "Love Wrecked" stunt coordinator, told her years ago: "It's not fear, it's adrenaline, because my body is prepping to do something extraordinary." Usually this works like a charm. She takes a tentative step forward, reaches for a bird's nest — her character is shipwrecked and in search of edible eggs — bends her knees and inadvertently jumps.
"Shit, I jumped," she thinks. She was supposed to stumble. Free-falling 50 feet takes longer than she'd expected. She has plenty of time to panic about having to do it again — to arch her back rather than absorbing the impact with her knees, so that her body slams into what she knows must be liquid but what feels like concrete. She shoots through the depths, and just as Newton's third law promises, the pain rockets up — all the way up, through her spine, through her ribs. Frantically, she claws for the surface. She gulps the warm, welcome air, paddling towards a lifeguard, convinced that her back is broken. Either that, or she's punctured a lung.
"It was a huge mistake, a two-hour reset," she said, recalling the event eight years later. "My wig had to be dried, curled, primped. My clothes had to be dried. We were in the Dominican Republic. It's not like we could call anyone." Wayton had hoisted her out, saying, "What the fuck was that?" She realized that her legs worked, so her back probably wasn't freshly broken. A take and a successful stumble later, Wayton drove her to a hospital, and she was X-rayed and handed a bottle of Vicodin. No one could tell her exactly what was wrong. No one spoke fluent English.
Staggs has appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows, largely because the vast majority of her stumbles don't require retakes. As a professional stuntwoman, she lives in Los Angeles with Wayton, whom she married in 2010, but she spent half of her life in North Little Rock. She graduated from Sylvan Hills High School in 1988 and did the college circuit for a few years, trying out the English and drama departments at the University of Arkansas in both Fayetteville and Little Rock and then at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. In 1996 she dropped out of UA Fayetteville, three credits shy of graduation. She had just been hired as a stand-in for Brenda Bakke in "Shelter," a low-budget gangster film being shot in Little Rock. Call times conflicted with class time, but Staggs' gamble paid off. Bakke balked at riding shotgun in a reckless car, so Staggs volunteered for the gig. It was a rush, zig-zagging through woods, nearly torpedoing into a ditch. At the time, she didn't realize two things: the car literally had no brakes, and this experience would jumpstart her career.
Wayton, the driver of the brakeless car, was a seasoned stuntman, 12 years her senior. He was smitten with the 26-year-old leggy blonde, with her on-set fearlessness and her off-set goofiness. When "Shelter" wrapped, Wayton hired Staggs for a Hollywood gig he was coordinating, stunt-doubling Sheryl Lee in "Angel's Dance." All she had to do was run off a ledge, turn mid-air and fire a shotgun. For a girl who once rode from North Little Rock to Missouri in the back of a flat-bed pick-up, a leap and a few rounds were, as Staggs puts it, "cupcake." She returned to Arkansas just long enough to break the news to her family — she was moving to California.
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