New Zealand actress/stuntwoman Zoë Bell has doubled for many action heroes over the years, including Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Over the last few years, she has made a career-transition into becoming a full-time actress in such projects as Lost, Whip It (Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut), and, perhaps most famously, as herself in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Mixing equal parts toughness, beauty, natural acting chops, and charisma, she’s put all of those qualities on display in her latest movie, Raze, about a group of women who have been imprisoned and forced to fight for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I recently had a chance to chat with Zoë about her multiple avenues of participation in the project, the role of women in action films, and the overall state of the stunt industry.
Jason Howard: How did you get involved in Raze?
Zoë Bell: Basically, it’s all a bit convoluted. We didn’t really do it by the book. Josh, Kenny, and Andy (Josh C. Waller – writer/director/producer, Kenny Gage – writer/producer, and Andrew Pagana – producer) had already been working with each other and mulling ideas around. Josh and I had known each other for some time and I guess he saw it as something that I would benefit from and that the project would benefit from having me on board. The concept sounded interesting, so I went in to meet with the lads. They all seemed to like each other and were excited about the idea and were very open to playing around with it and seeing what we could come up with.
I was a little hesitant committing to a short, which it originally was, and they originally just wanted me to coordinate it and play a cameo. I liked the idea, but the job description wasn’t really in the vein that I was going at the time. Then they asked me if I would like to be one of the producers on it and I said “yes, please, very much” and that was the beginning of it, really.
JH: With this being your first producing credit, is that something that you’d like to see yourself doing more of in the future?
ZB: It definitely is, now that I’ve done it. I really, really enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I found the whole process really challenging – it certainly wasn’t easy. But, I definitely took to it quite naturally. I found it really satisfying and fulfilling. I guess, without realizing it, I’ve been a storyteller my whole life and this was a different way to tell stories to people.
JH: As a producer, how much input did you have in the evolution of Raze from when you signed on to the finished product?
ZB: Quite a lot, but it was also very collaborative. It wasn’t like I had a lot of input because they wanted one thing, but I was demanding another. It was more like we were all spitballing and jamming as we went, you know? Everyone was really open to everyone else’s opinions and it was definitely a team effort.
JH: Without giving too much away, it seemed to me that the opening scene almost points to another character being the focus of the movie before it quickly shifts to you being the center. Was that an intentional misdirect to keep audiences on their toes, or was it more a result of the film’s roots as a short feature?
ZB: Well, both. Even though it was originally meant to be a short film, we always wanted people to see that and say, “wait, what? Hold on a minute!” That was always the intention. Then, as we moved into it becoming a feature, we all just liked the idea of it and keep it as is. Then, we play with it again sorta, towards the end of the movie. We screw with the audience one more time. I really enjoyed it. I remember when I read the script, that really got me. It makes me feel good about it if I get tricked by the script. It then became our job to do that in the film as well.
JH: Raze could certainly be seen as a revisionist take on the “women-in-prison” films of the late 70s/early 80s, but one thing that I think sets it apart is the emphasis on the characterization, rather than the sexualization of the women. Was that a conscious decision?
ZB: Yes, it was a very, very conscious decision. Again, it was sort of an experiment. You can’t deny that we were making a “women-in-prison” sort of film. We wanted to do female fights that we had not seen before and that I had not performed before, and would be interesting and exciting for the viewers. Also, to be honest, for me personally, I know that if we are making a movie about women fighting each other, then men are going to watch. But, I was wanting to do it in a way that maybe we could make these characters and their stories relatable to female audiences in a way that they could be affected by it. They’re either affected by the horror of it or they are empowered by it because they can understand what it might be like to be fighting on behalf of your kid or another loved one. It was interesting to see if we could make it a film where it wasn’t a ‘chick flick’ in the old school sense of the word, but a fight movie about women, for women. We were playing around to see what we could come up with and that was it.
JH: I think it worked. The fights scenes that you guys put together were more grounded in our reality than a lot of modern action films. Does that present a different challenge than when you are working on combat in a more heightened reality?
ZB: Everything you do comes with its own specialized set of challenges, I would say. But, it is what it is when you’re shooting fight scenes. You’ve always got to shoot a lot of coverage. And, actually, I think these scenes allowed us to be a bit freer. The girls trained incredibly hard to get fit and in shape and learn the fight choreography and boxing. We didn’t need them to be world champions in Wushu or in Karate. It was more about once they found their characters and learned the choreography, there was more room for, I wouldn’t say ‘ad-lib’, but free-for-all rather than overly clean, meticulous, and detailed. It really helped both the style of our film and our shooting schedule.
JH: I definitely think that the lack of specific styles and skill sets for the fighters helps keep you involved in the emotional journey.
JH: Now, with films such as Raze, Whip It, and Death Proof, you’re becoming more front and center as an actress. Is it going to be increasingly difficult for directors to take advantage of your stunt abilities due to insurance liabilities?
ZB: As long as they’re paying me lots of money, they’re not taking advantage of me at all. (laughs) I imagine as my name gets bigger and I start carrying bigger-budgeted films, insurance companies get a little bit more concerned, understandably so. But, at the same time, technically, I’m less of a risk doing that stuff than someone who is less experienced at doing it. At the end of the day, if I need a stunt double to do whatever it is that my character is meant to be doing, then absolutely, I should have a stunt double. I would like to think my ego wouldn’t get in the way. Having said that, if it’s a fight scene and they switch me out for a stunt double, there may be times where I have to battle with my ego internally, I think.
JH: When you’re doing a fight scene, which is harder to sell – delivering a punch, or taking one?
ZB: For me, they’re both so instinctive now that I don’t really differentiate. I would almost say is most important is the sell of receiving, in the sense that you can do a relatively weak kick or a slightly misplaced punch, but if the sell is there, it can still work . Even saying that, it has to be relative, though. If someone does a massive uppercut, you want to do a big sell. But, if someone just taps you with a backhand and you sell it too big, it’s gonna be weird. I think they both are hand in hand, but a good sell can cover a shit kick, so to speak.
JH: Do you think that we’re any closer to female-led action films gaining the respect to just be called action films, or do you think the emotional impact of watching a woman specifically in a fight will prevent that from ever happening?
ZB: I think that’s definitely one of the hurdles, but I don’t think people often state it quite as clearly as that. Having been a woman of action myself for a long time, I’ve been aware of the struggles. It’s not that they don’t respect my ability or that they think I’m less capable because I’m a female. I mean, obviously there are men like that out there of course, but a lot of my experience has been that people don’t want to see a woman get hurt. I think part of my job as a stunt double is to hide the pain or discomfort so that people don’t feel sorry for you as a girl more than they would if you were a guy. It’s nice in real life, but when you’re a stunt girl, it can be frustrating. It’s actually interesting that you put it like that; it’s a good observation on your behalf.
I do believe, and I’m not being unrealistically optimistic, that there is a shift sort of happening. I think that with the rise of women’s MMA and the Gina Caranos and Ronda Rouseys and the small following that I have, the reason it’s there is because there’s an authenticity to our work that I think modern audiences are more savvy to these days, even without knowing it. People are just savvier than they used to be because they are aware of things; they are aware of the behind the scenes, moreso than before. So, there’s becoming a higher demand for it, which I hope will translate over to the roles that are open to women.
One of the reasons that this movie seems to jar people so hard is not just because the fights are brutal and it’s woman on woman, and not just because they’re super emotional. The combination of the three of those things seems to be really confronting to people. Having to watch women getting messed up and being that aggressive, while crying at the same time, is a lot for people, understandably.
JH: Do you think that the Academy Awards will eventually give in and start recognizing stunt work, or do you think it’s a case of, if the job is being done well, it’s too difficult to distinguish which work was actually done by a stunt person?
ZB: I think the complication comes in, and I’m sure it’s the same with most departments, that a stunt very seldom is all about one person, especially in a movie. It’s one thing to give an Academy Award for a movie with the best stunts, but it would be hard to pull individual stunts from a movie, compared to a movie that just has amazing action all the way through it, but may not have one highlight gag, you know. I think that’s where it comes into play that you would give the award the stunt coordinator, right, because he’s the head of the department. But, if there’s a movie that’s a romantic comedy, but somebody does a 20 story fall, on fire, into a pool of broken glass, then that guy or girl should probably get the award. But, when it’s next to a Bourne movie or Bond movie, how are you going to compare the two? I think that’s where it gets tricky. But, you know, people have worked around it with special effects and makeup. There’s ways around it.
I imagine, at some point, the Academy will cave. I’m back and forth on it because, I love the idea of the people who have taught me everything I know and have supported me and those that I’ve come up in the world with getting their due credit. Having said that, I also love it being sort of a man or woman of mystery, in the background, you know? That’s the movie magic side of it where it’s our job to trick people then disappear into the shadows. Maybe I’m romanticizing it a bit! I’m a bit old school, I guess. I’ve been doing it since I was 17, so I’ve been around a long time and I think I’ve definitely gotten a bit of an old school mentality.
JH: Sure! The physicality that you’ve developed over the years would seem to lend itself well to comedy – maybe slapstick. Since you’ve obviously got the charisma for it and you’ve been transitioning more into acting, do you think you’d like to try something different along those lines?
ZB: I would hope it would lend itself to comedy. I feel like I’ve made people laugh enough times by just falling over. (laughs) I was always the class ham – once I made one person laugh, I was on a roll, trying to make everybody laugh. I like to ease the pain and making people laugh makes me feel good. I guess I would have to consider myself an actor and what that means before I could consider being a comedic actor of any description. I just hadn’t really thought about it, but I’m definitely on the hunt for something funny. I’m all about that – I would love to do it. And, you know, if it needs to be an action/comedy so that people feel more relaxed about it, then so be it. I can make people laugh and kick ass at the same time!
JH: I think so! You’ve been an actress, stunt woman, stunt coordinator, fight choreographer, and, now, a producer. Are there any other hats in the film industry that you’d like to wear but have not yet had the opportunity?
ZB: I’m just going to cover all my bases! I don’t know, I feel like I’ve got to get good at the ones that I’m doing right now before I consider moving around too much, out of respect for each department. It seems sort of thick-headed for me to say “I wanna write, I wanna direct, I wanna do everything!” Whatever puts me at my best for storytelling and entertaining people is probably what I’ll end up gravitating towards.
For more on Zoë, I highly recommend checking out the amazing 2004 documentary Double Dare featuring herself and veteran stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, as they experience the struggles of trying to make it in the male-dominated stunt industry from the perspective of two participants of differing ages and experience levels.