The rise in popularity in watching women kick ass in genre television and film means a select group of tough ladies are getting a lot more work. With several more action and comic-book-related films and shows in development, stuntwomen and female action stars will be in high demand. One woman in particular who is largely responsible for that surge is actor Zoe Bell, whose work as a stuntwoman has delivered some of the most memorable scenes in cinema over the last 15 years. She started out being Lucy Lawless' stunt double on Xena: Warrior Princess, and her work in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill helped make Uma Thurman an instant femme fatale. Others first discovered Bell in her death-defying performance in Tarantino's Deathproof, and she has since appeared more regularly in front of the camera in roles in Angel of Death, Whip It, Lost, Django Unchained and Oblivion.
She recently finished touring theaters around the world with Raze, a grindhouse-type film that will satisfy adrenaline junkies, mixed martial arts fanatics and curious voyeurs of psychological studies. Bell plays Sabrina, who is one of many women who have been abducted by a secret society and forced to participate in death matches to help protect their loved ones. Bell spoke to Blastr about rising to the challenge of being the main character and producer of Raze -- out now on DVD and digital platforms -- bringing Wonder Woman to film, and memories from some of her most iconic roles.
Talk about the journey on which Raze has taken you.
Zoë Bell: To start off, I'll just call it massive?! [Laughs] I met the director, Josh Waller, seven or eight years ago, and we've been friends ever since. He got in touch with me to do a short film. The concept was well thought-out. I loved the material, I loved the guys, but I was predominantly concentrated on acting. I'm usually balancing multiple roles on stunts, stunt coordinator, choreographer and cameos. They came back to me and asked me if I wanted to come on as one of the producers, and, at that point, I was in. [Laughs] That was it. Just because I was fascinated with the idea of behind-the-scenes being production for me. The project was a bit smaller, and when you work with people that are less established, there's a sense of excitement, curiosity and security. If I had a voice that was going to be heard, there was no bigger level of responsibility that I could hold, if the movie was going to turn out.
But you took on so much of this project, especially in becoming the main character and anchor of the film.
ZB: We did the short, and then it sort of evolved into a feature. By the time I was playing a lead character, with some creative freedom by being a part of creating, it was far less intimidating and there was no room for me to say no. Prior to Raze as a short, prior to Raze in general, if someone handed the Raze script to me with a big role, I don't know that I would've had the confidence in my ability to say yes to that. Raze has been a pivotal experience to me in many, many ways. Also, being a producer on the film somehow gave me permission to take myself seriously as an actor, because I had to. I owed it to the crew and the cast to help get this movie made seriously. That sort of freed me [to step up].
To add on to what you're saying, Raze watched like such a creative endeavor, for those who are attracted to these types of film you could tell the hard work that was put into it to make it different, something bigger than an exploitation film. Talk about exploring that voice, putting your stamp on an action film and forget about the genres for a second, just being involved in the creative side rather than waiting around to shoot your lines or action sequence.
ZB: It was amazing, I loved it. I'm athletic and sporty, and I am creative by nature. I had so many ideas. When I was getting into acting, it was sort of outing myself to the freedom to admit that I might be artistic and creative in some way. [Laughs] The story is such a woman's story. All of these women are very realistic characters, so I had a lot to say about a lot of it. There was so much freedom. I could tell the boys, "I have a great idea!" They listened or told me to go away, but that's part of the fun of the collaborative process.
It's also nice to be able to talk to call up someone like Tracie Thoms and say, "I'm doing this movie, and it'd be a huge favor to me, but also I get to bring you on board on something you'd love to do." It was a shared opportunity for everyone involved. Don't get me wrong, everyone was doing us a favors; we couldn't afford to pay them nearly what everyone deserved, but roles like this don't come along for girls, ladies, or women (whatever people find less offensive) very often. They do for me, because that's where my career path has always laid, but all those ladies were so dedicated because they were so excited to played these roles they don't often get the chance to. They worked on weeks in advance on their fitness, choreography, fight styles, and figuring out how one character would fight another.
You got to show a lot more intensity than any other role you've done previously and had to get the audience to feel empathy for her despite being an imperfect character. Talk about being able to show those different sides of your acting.
ZB: It was always Josh's mission, who told me I had been underutilized as an actor. One of the reasons he was excited to get on board as the director was that he knew I had it a long time before I did. So that was a lot of the preparation for me. Then where I had to concentrate was on my surroundings.
When I was in the cell block, I was technically alone, so I had to be isolated and starved of human contact. So the cell is 2 x 4 feet, then there's the camera guys, the boom guys, the focus puller. It wasn't lonely in there at all, so I had to create the surroundings for myself. Even in the arena well, the complete hopelessness of it is something I had to keep checking in with. To be honest, it was a lot of the people I was with and them believing in me because they had to, they had no choice, and I had to do the same thing--trust the preparation. Josh made it more accessible to me.
A lot of the time what helped me were the people I was acting opposite. The girls were all amazing, and I am proud of all of them, and go on and on about and the boys kind of get skipped a bit. Doug Jones and Bruce Thomas were lovely, kind-hearted, non-misogynistic, non-sexist, open-minded guys, and they're playing these hideous roles.
One of the more interesting parts of Raze is taking these women from different walks of life and experience and then seeing the primal nature come out of them to take another person's life to survive, but also protect. That's a huge leap to make.
ZB: One of things Josh and I agreed on was the level of realism we wanted to bring to it. I'm all about stories that exist in a reality that is not the one I live in, but one of the things I wanted to experiment with was, could we do a fight movie that was all women fighting women? That was brutal. And could we make it something that women in the audience that aren't normally fighters or action film fans could relate to, so that it's not just chicks beating up chicks for the pleasure of male audiences, which of course is a different part of our plan. [Laughs] I wanted to see if I could have women who wouldn't normally watch this movie be affected by it because they related, as opposed to being grossed out on gore. It was about the emotional journey of these women. That means making it real, that they were being plucked out of life that audience members might be living. Fighting for a loved one's life is the one thing that I thought was a direct access to unleash the ability to kill in a woman. You go into these hoping they affect people how you hope, and ironically with this movie you see some people who are affected in the way you expected and hoped. Other people have the complete polar opposite reaction, which is equally as interesting as an experiment.
It was ironic to have Doug Jones featured in the film and able to show his face, since so many times it's hidden in makeup. It was rather poetic, considering you've been a hidden star, so to speak. I love the whole nature of Raze and that people can't hide. Even in the fights. Was that a hidden goal or theme of the film?
ZB: No, but now I wish it was! Doug and I had worked together before on Angel of Death and had the conversation that both of us were often not the face you see on screen, and it was something that we and definitely Josh thought was fitting and, yes poetic for this film, but I can't say it was a hidden theme. We wanted Doug, regardless!
I'm not sure how tuned in you are to the world of comics, but is there a character or specific superhero you'd like to play?
ZB: You know, there's quite a few that've popped up over the years, and to be honest this is the beast to my nature across the board. I struggle with naming favorites, but every time a character in a comic book comes up I go, 'Oh my God, that'd be amazing.' I'm all about that character. For purposes that would be simply stemming from Double Dare [the 2004 documentary starring Bell and stunt legend Jeannie Epper, who was Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman stunt double] I just think playing Wonder Woman would be an epic Double Dare 2. [Laughs] But there are more and more amazing characters out there, and they're updating these characters so they're not set in stone. Before, you used to have just this visual of t-ts and ass, and now you're seeing characters that are tough because of the skills and smarts they have outside of having just good weapons.
What are your thoughts on a Wonder Woman movie? From your perspective as a stunt woman, is the classic outfit even feasible?
ZB: It's interesting to me that the Wonder Woman movie has eluded people. If I were to produce that movie or I was to play Wonder Woman, there's no way I'd let that costume get in the way of playing a badass Wonder Woman. I've fallen down stairs in much smaller costumes, and I've been hit by cars in not-so-similar costumes. You can tell I'm looking at it from being a stunt girl, but you can definitely work around any costume. I'd be severely unimpressed by anyone who tried to convince me that they would make this movie if only the costume were different. Now, if they had a more pro-feminism reason for wanting to change that, that's one thing. If, stylistically, they wanted to change to update it, I get that. But I would find it hard to believe that anyone would not be able to make the movie based on the costume. In other words, I'd love to play Wonder Woman. [Laughs]
Given the potential new jobs opening up with all the action and comic-book-related TV series, do you have a desire to do daily TV series again, as opposed to film, or is it all work to you?
ZB: I LOVE the idea of TV. Dont get me wrong, I love film and have been mostly in film the last 10 years of my career, but given the right vehicle, I would happily return to TV. I love the family environment of TV, so yes, I do have the desire!
How has the landscape changed for women in stunts and action roles in general since Xena? Do you see some positive trends or more equality for women in action roles?
ZB: That's a hard one. It seems it depends on who you ask. I am just going to go with, I know myself and people around me are working to make that so.
Do you think people tend to put too much emphasis on big action scenes, or is it just cool that their takeaway from those films are the big action moments? Take Raze, for instance, where viewers might overlook the time spent to craft those emotional scenes in favor of the fights.
ZB: No! I think people should take what ever they wish from a movie! People are moved by different things. If any part of Raze moves people, then we did our job to move, to arouse or excite the feelings or passions of and affect with emotion.
For those of us not privileged to see the performance, take us into the Hateful Eight live read, if you could. Do you think it will still be made, and would you be considered for Six-Horse Judy? Or, after the live read, was there another character you'd rather play?
ZB: It was amazing. I was honored to be in the mix with such astounding talent. Regarding H8 getting made, I couldn't say, but I hope it does. If it does I am pretty sure I will be playing Six-Horse Judy, but this life/business is anything but predictable, so ... and even before the table read I can tell you I would love to play just about any female character Quentin writes. To be honest, there are plenty of his male roles I'd kill to play too!
Let's go over some specific moments in your career. What would be one moment that stood out for you in the following jobs you've had, starting with Xena?
ZB: Oh my God, one moment in three years? First one that popped into my head instantly was probably my second week on set in being Xena, and I had to do a double flip in wires, off a two-story castle. I remember standing up there, standing on one end, on the other end of the rope were eight stunt guys, two stories down at the other end just telling me to jump. I was like, this is the most amazing thing on the planet that I am getting paid to get dressed up and jump off a building and eight men are in charge of saving my life. I don't even know where else I'd go after that, but in that moment, I was terrified and knew I was exactly where I should be all at the same time.
ZB: No matter how small the role, a cool character is a cool character. If you take it on, you give it all.
ZB: I was originally meant to do just what Quentin liked to call smash and crash, which, as much as I'm good at and I get a big kick out of it, is not my favorite part of the job. [Laughs] I trained with them all, but I never led any of the fights. However, I taught myself to fight, because I'd sit and watch them train and teach other guys and, I don't know, force of habit, it's my character, and if there was a fight to learn, I did it. I started working with Satya Bellord, the other stunt double for Uma, and she wasn't as quick in picking up the choreography. She was a martial artist but hadn't done a lot of film action fighting. Martial arts choreography was something I had been doing every day of my life for the last four years on Xena. They'd teach her, I'd remember it and if she forgot it, I'd remind her and then she'd teach me how to do the move properly. So, when I was finally on set and someone on the set was fighting, I wasn't supposed to be doing anything, one of the fight coordinators named Tiger came up to me and said, 'Uh, Zoe, we need you in the fight.' I replied, 'The fight I'm not meant to be doing?' He said, 'Yeah.' I was, like, 'Wow, good thing I learned those fights.' He had been watching me, and he knew that I knew the scene. I, on the other hand, was s---ting bricks. When someone from Master Yuen Wo Ping's gang trusts you, that's pretty awesome.
ZB: Stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw did not let me do any of the fun stunts in case I got hurt -- we were shooting Death Proof right after.
ZB: Being paid to be in Hawaii.
The Death Proof roof ride.
ZB: When I'm working, fear isn't the thing I'm aware of. Once the cameras roll, it's the performance, getting it right and pushing it to the limits visually, while making it look terrifying, hard, scary or painful as I possibly can. The one time I thought that maybe I should be more scared than I am was one day we had a different driver and we hadn't developed the language that I had with Tracy Keehn-Dashna -- my driver for most of the shoot. So this other driver just hit the brakes as she would normally hit them, not particular hard, and we were going about 10 mph, I wasn't holding on, and I nearly flew off the hood. I caught myself, but I quickly became aware that at 10 mph made me consider what I was not considering, going 90 mph.
The Proposal and 27 Dresses.
ZB: For The Proposal it was nearly falling out of the boat before we were rolling -- by accident! For 27 Dresses the big jump from dock to moving boat became a run from dock to stationary boat on a wet gangplank.
ZB: That one's easy. I recall the big fall at the end of the film, when I was on the platform at however high up it was, looking down at my airbag below me, the wind blew me and moved my foot and made the airbag invisible. That's how high up I was. [Laughs] That was a moment.
ZB: Being viciously and powerfully tackled off my chair and strangled by the otherwise gentle and lovely Mr. [Christoph] Waltz. Now, that's acting.
ZB: I learned to call myself an actor. That's the biggest milestone of that film, and that happened during the filming of the first fight scene of the film.
You can find Raze on DVD and multiple digital platforms.