When you're a stuntwoman, making a living is an actual balancing act. And it's something Cheyenne Ellis has mastered.

She's spent decades tumbling down stairs and feigning fights and falls for A-list Hollywood stars, while simultaneously building a successful career as a photographer specializing in lifestyle and advertising. "The creative world and being an athlete all ties together for me," says Ellis. She feels at home both behind the camera and projected on the big screen: "That's the duality of my world."

At eight years old, Ellis literally jumped into her career as a stuntwoman, leaping off a two-story platform and landing on an air bag while filming a television commercial. Far from being afraid, she remembers, "more than anything, I was just excited I missed two days of school."

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Michael Schwartz
Michael Schwartz

Ellis was joining the family business: her mother, father, and several aunts and uncles were all stuntmen, and her sister later married one. "Who else is going to let their kid do a stunt at eight years old?" she laughs. "It's a lot like growing up in the circus."

Beyond landing her a first career—by her teenage years, Ellis was a stunt double for a major movie actress—she benefited from her family's experience and realized she'd need a second job. "I needed something to fall back on in case I ever got hurt," Ellis recounts.

She studied fine art and photography in college and post-college, and then landed a job with legendary fashion photographer Irving Penn in New York. "I credit him for teaching me integrity, for showing me how to treat assistants," she says. "I try to keep that going and show kids who work for me that this is a craft."

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Images courtesy of Cheyenne Ellis

Returning to her native California, "I was doing photography and stunts and not telling people in either business," she says. "I wanted them to take me seriously. The next thing I knew, I had these two full-time careers." On a recent day at work, Cheyenne heads from her home in the Los Angeles area to San Francisco for a weeklong studio shoot, a back-to-school campaign for a major retailer. Whether she's photographing celebrity portraits or fashion campaigns, "there's a joyful element to my work I like to keep consistent," says Ellis. Commercial gigs also afford her the opportunity to travel, shooting for her own artistic enjoyment.

Michael Schwartz
Michael Schwartz

A day on set is unpredictable for a stuntwoman. "A lot of days you go to work, and you don't know what you're going to do," says Ellis. "You show up with a bag of pads and are ready to hit the ground, or fall into something." Success, she says, requires being well rounded and ready for anything. But it also means having seen, at the age of 38, some glass ceilings crack. "We've made major progress as stuntwomen," says Ellis. "My dad worked on an action movie and stood in for an actress for a car stunt. That would never happen today. We've proven ourselves."

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Michael Schwartz
Michael Schwartz

"Woman are doing the work, we've done the work," she adds. "I've worked with 20 amazing female role models in either of my careers. There's nothing stopping us."

It may just be that innate confidence that drives Ellis' success. "I know when I've got the shot," she says of her photography, "but I don't know how to describe it in words. It's a confidence that comes with experience. Maybe practice—and a lot of experience."

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Styled by Anna Katsanis, Hair by Charles McNair, Makeup by Misha Shahzada