As the go-to stuntwoman in Hollywood, Zoë Bell does so much more than simply kick ass. From her early days doubling for Lucy Lawless on "Xena: Warrior Princess" to her precise wushu work for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" series, Bell's stunts are athletic and powerful, based in a lifelong gymnastics practice and love of movement. Yep, that was Zoe taking on the Crazy 88 and Gogo Yubari at the House of Blue Leaves.
However, most of what Zoë Bell does in her latest movie, "Raze," is kick ass. She stars as Sabrina, one of several women who have woken up to find themselves in a sort of jail run by a bizarre secret society. Two by two, the women are forced to fight each other to the death with their bare hands; if the fighter loses, someone she loves will be killed. Eerie security camera footage of their loved ones assures the women this society, led by the very creepy Joseph (Doug Jones) and Elizabeth (Sherilyn Fenn), will make good on their promise.
So much of stunt work is about not being seen or heard from (or hurt), but Zoë Bell is coming into her own as an actress. She played herself in Tarantino's "Death Proof," and later showed up as roller derby girl Bloody Holly in "Whip It!" She also had a smallish role in the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick "Oblivion" last summer. "Raze," which she is also a producer on, is the first real starring role for her, but it surely won't be her last.
FILM.COM: So, I was eavesdropping on your previous interview 'cause that's what I do, and you were talking about, I believe, one of the stunt men who was afraid to punch you in the face.
ZOË BELL: Light me on fire.
Light you on fire, okay.
Burn my face.
I was interested in that because I took boxing a little bit, really cheesy at the gym, you know? And the guy was like, okay, now you're gonna learn how to punch me in the face. And…
"I don't think I can do that."
Yeah! And I was wondering if that was something I was socialized…. Because I definitely think about punching people in the face.
[laughs] You're like, I'm not lacking in the aggression department… Yeah, I had a very similar [experience]. The irony with me is I've been faking it my whole life, and I have this sort of aggressive, strong outward identity that people relate to me, but when I was studying Taekwondo in the very beginning, I hated being in the ring. And I hated tournaments. I hated competing, and I hated hitting people. More so than being hit. Like, somehow being hit was something that I could react to, but… I don't know, I was that annoying person in the ring that would go, I'd punch someone and be like, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" And people would just be like, "Stop apologizing!" I just don't, I don't have that aggressive drive.
But then you know you look at women's MMA at the moment and it's more popular than the men's at this point. And they are some – those women do not mind punching someone in the face, and they do a really, really good job of it.
So I don't know. It's a really interesting topic. It's come up a lot more for me recently since this movie's coming out, and I'm still – my concepts are still sort of swimming around in my head. I haven't got my theory fully consolidated, but I was thinking one time, one of my jobs on set, as a stunt double is to not be vulnerable.
My job is not to emote; my job is to get s**t done. But I also realize that part of it was, especially as a woman — because we're the tough people on set, you never know when we're injured, that's part of the deal of being a stunt guy or stunt person — but I also realized that to do my job, I couldn't have people worried about me all the time. So if I was showing pain or fear, people instinctively wanted to remove me from the situation, in particular male directors and coordinators, and probably also, for the same reasons you're talking about, females as well. It's like, if I got hurt, people would be like, are you ok? Are you okay? And if I cried, that would make the whole crew uncomfortable if we had to shoot again.
I was thinking about it the other day… It makes people really uncomfortable seeing women hurt, which isn't a bad thing by the way. I don't know if it's good if people like seeing women get hurt. [laughs] I don't know what that means.
That's interesting you bring up the vulnerability because the women in "Raze" are incredibly tough, but they're being forced to fight and they're vulnerable. You guys look beat up. And I know a lot of stunt work is avoiding being hurt, to a certain extent, but I mean, that s**t has still gotta hurt.
You know, I just can't praise these girls enough. Just phenomenal. They just put in so much preparation, and they were so dedication to the cause. You know, there's a couple of times that someone got a bit freaked out by something or they got a bit panicky or overtired or whatever, and we'd talk them through it, and they would pick it up and keep going.
You'd hear some of the other girls talking about it, and they'd be like, I went home and then I cried. And we had no idea. But not from the pain, none of us got injured, which is a godsend and [knocks on wood] worth knocking on wood for, and they all worked so hard. I think the crying came from the physical exhaustion and the emotional — living in the reality that is, I've just killed someone, is pretty heavy, you know? And I think when you get home in your own world is a bit when you go, oh, that was a rough day at the office. You know? [laughs]
Yeah, and also your body is firing all the adrenaline and you know, after a while, it's like my adrenal glands are…
Empty, right. Absolutely. And a lot of girls got bruises — and that's the thing, too, is sort of the stunt mentality, is to just get in there and rough and tumble and you deal with the bruises in the shower that night when you start discovering the cuts and bruises. But the women were all a bit like, Dude! I got this bruise. Check this out! It's like a badge of honor. It's kind of, I don't know, there's lots of dichotomies that have come up in the shooting and the sharing of this film with the public. It's interesting.
I also find that interesting that unlike, well, I know it's not like a "women in prison" film, but…
But it totally is. That's the irony, right? It's women in prison.
Yeah, but it's not, like, sort of sexy.
Yeah, there's no exploitative like that. It's not sexually exploitative.
Right, but at the same time, there are plenty of people who definitely find bruises and women fighting arousing... I was curious if you guys were like, at the outset, okay, this is not going to be sexy.
Yes, absolutely. It was a very conscious decision, and it was championed more so than [director] Josh [Waller] than by anybody, I think. Because I think this type of movie — listen, in essence, straight off the bat, the premise is women imprisoned and forced to fight to the death, so you can't fight, excuse the pun, you can't get away from that being a label that's going to be placed on it. And I think there's no point denying that label. The whole point is, too, we were just experimenting. We're like, well, what we do, what happens if you've got these women in this situation for real? And there is no pillow fights and there is no joking and there is no flirting with the guards, because these women are literally terrified for their lives and the lives of their loved ones that they're now solely responsible for. There's nothing sexy about that, you know… We didn't want them in bras and panties. We didn't want — just the word panties implies something completely different. The point is, if someone's gonna watch this movie and find it arousing, that says something far more fundamental about that person than it does this film. Like, I don't think I want to meet that person. [laughs]
One of my questions is from a very savvy friend who's very athletically fit. How has your training evolved over the years, especially with the use of things like Gym Jones, which was used in "300," and stuff like that? What do you do?
I'm sort of a bad example 'cause I was born fairly fortunate and then I also trained my body into being fortunate. From the age of nine, I was training minimum 12 hours a week, which is a lot for a nine-year-old, as a gymnast, and I think my body, I just have good muscle memory… Now in my thirties, things are changing a little bit, but I have to avoid such workouts. I have to avoid too much Crossfit. I've never lifted weights, thank God I don't need to because I find it so boring, but if I lifted weights, I would be a very different shape. I would be much bigger and much more [pauses] manly in shape, I think. My exercise, the best kind of exercise for me is when I'm learning something or I'm improving a skill, so if it's a type of martial arts or when I'm doing gymnastics or if I've taken up, like, roller-skating. When I did "Whip It!" I was in the ring for hours at a time just sweating bullets —
Talk about bruises!
Holy crap! I got more bruises on that movie than I did on "Raze," put it that way. And big ones. Like, big, gnarly skate-shaped ones.
I love "Whip It!"
So cool. I love that movie. So fun.
It's just great girls.
Right?! I looked at my world the other day of work, and I was like, "Whip It!" and "Death Proof" and this movie, I'm like, I've been in a lot of female-driven packs of bitches being awesome! I'm like, this is great!
It's always sort of weird to be like, well, let's talk about your body!
No, go for it! I think people need to talk about bodies in a different manner.
I just keep thinking of this interview, it was for "The Avengers" I think, and Scarlett Johansson was like, why don't they ask you guys about your workout and they're only asking me? And Anne Hathaway [and Catwoman]…
Yeah, but at the same time, on "300" and stuff, they were all asking about the dudes' workouts, for sure, you know? And I know, it is a weird [thing], it does become kind of a point of conversation to the point where it's like – yeah, again, it's one of those things that the fact that it is a point of conversation all the time kind of makes it a statement somehow.
My basic thing is, I work out for two reasons. One, because being fit and strong and flexible feels good to me, and it feels familiar, and it's how I identify with that, and I like how it feels. And two, to be honest, if I don't work out for a couple of weeks, I get a bit [whistles], my brain is like, I need to sweat or offload something. And I feel like the relationship with working out has to be whatever it is that you're getting out of it can't be just for other people 'cause that makes it unhealthy and it makes it really hard to motivate, you know? If I'm going for a run just to stay fit and skinny, I'm like, ugh! And all I can think about is a cheeseburger and a beer. But if I'm excited to learn something new… and I have the same kind of thing with food, where I feel like it makes me feel better about myself if I'm being considerate of my body.
Having said that, if I'm going to smash a couple of cheeseburgers and a beer, I'm not going to give myself a hard time about it. And if that means I have to go for a run in the morning, I'll go for a run in the morning so I can do that in the afternoon without self-hating, because I feel like self-hating has to be so much worse for your health than a cheeseburger.
I think it's really about being kind to yourself mentally.
Totally. But if you can kind of find a way for working out and being conscious of the food you're putting in your body, if you can figure out how that is being kind, then that becomes part of it instead of the enemy, you know?
I think what struck me so much in watching "Double Dare" was how sort of joyous you are about it, like, how much fun you're having. And I don't know, I think that's maybe the secret of your power, right? Like, you're just having an awesome time.
I think that is a big source for me. And it's one of those interesting things where I kind of get a bit like, you know, if I talk about it, does that I'm so conscious of that then it becomes manufactured or, you know, it's a constant argument in my head about, like, is Hollywood changing me? Should I be less loud and center-of-attention? And then I realize I've been that way my whole life, and so no, if I'm enjoying it and not hurting people, then that's my fire, you know? That's what keeps me ticking.
It's funny to me when I hear people being like, God, how do you have so much energy every day? And I'm looking at them going, It's strange to me that's how you perceive me. I think I have a very different perception of myself — and I'm sure it happens for everybody — but I feel like if I was to somehow paint a picture of a personality that I think is true of me, I think it would be quite different to how other people… I know I'm upbeat and I know I'm sort of easily excited, but I don't know, it's so weird to me when people say, you've got so much energy! I'm like, really? Does it feel that way to you? Because, pfft, this morning at 7 o'clock, that was not my middle name. Energy was not my middle name at 7 o'clock this morning.
Well, it's good to know that you're human.
Pfftt! So human! Don't get me wrong. And clumsy. I'm totally clumsy!
This is purely for my own edification. Does arnica actually help? Is it bullshit?
You know what's so funny, to be honest, I have no idea but I'm a massive fan of it anyway, because I think I was raised — my parents were sort of hippies when I was growing up, and I was raised on homeopathic [remedies], and it just has always been my go-to. There's always arnica rub in my bag and I always have the little [pellets], and I don't even know if it's psychosomatic at this point… Also, I was not raised on, what's the equivalent here, like Tylenol and Advil, and there was no cough syrup in our house, there was no Panadol, so it was one of those things where I could be like, yeah, rub more of that stuff on! Give me a couple more of those sugar pills! 'Cause I didn't feel like it was a chemical or there was anything dangerous about it, so I just felt like it must be good. I don't know, I am an advocate of arnica.
I feel vindicated.
I have done no medical research to back that, but I believe in it.
It's good enough for me. Have you ever been approached to do books or columns, any sort of advice-y type stuff?
It's sort of floated in and out of my reality in a couple different ways, but never fully or completely like that. I'm just thinking about it. It would be quite fun. I did what was the beginning of blogs before blogs existed when I left New Zealand, and I went to America, and then I got "Kill Bill," and then I was in China. I would just send, every week or two, I would send these mass emails. I asked my dad if he had them years ago. He sent them to me on a disk, but I can't pull them off. 'Cause I would love to print those out and just have a look… What was my brain like back then? When I was away from mom and dad for the first time and I'm in China and don't speak the language? I know I was having a good time. The other thing is when you've been asked about it so many times, you have answers, you hear yourself say stuff enough times that becomes the truth. But how interesting to go back and read what was actually going on!
Something Jeannie Epper talks about in the documentary is the pressures of aging and looking a certain way, especially when you're supposed to be doubling for actresses —
Hideous. That's why I'm acting! [laughs] Make other girls have to look like me!
Seriously? Does that take some of the pressure of?
You know what's ironic is that technically it takes the pressure off, but at the same time, now [laughs], now it's not about the fat, it's about the wrinkles. Because before, when I was a double, I could have the ugliest makeup on on the planet and no one cares because you're not gonna see my face, you know?
I've also just come to term, and I'm like, this is the package I have, and I've actually been pretty lucky. My body's treated me pretty good over the years, and I've treated it pretty roughly. I've asked a lot of it.
I think I'm probably coming in [to acting] at a weird time, too, because I'm in my thirties and I'm coming into the acting world, which is sort of, you know, it's not like I'm 23 and skinny with big eyes and big boobs and can slot into all these TV shows straight off the bat from there. But it's that same thing too, I don't want to be that bitter, jaded person who's so upset about the fact that I have to… I don't want to give it that much pressure by having it be something.
I get it. So, "The ExpendaBelles." First of all, can you get them to change the name?
I can't get them to do s**t. I can't even get them to hire me at this point so…. No. It was sort of an off-the-record thing that got pulled into an interview. I would love to be involved in those movies so I had my representation set me up with a meeting and be like, yo… So they sent me the script and I've read it and it's hilarious, but that was not — it's not like they've contacted me and been like, [lowers voice] we're in negotiations. You will know when that s**t happens. I'll be tweetin' that s**t everywhere.
They would literally be high to not hire you for that. In my time as a critic, I've sat through "The Expendables" One and Two, and I've had people be like, you know, well, you shouldn't be writing these reviews. Straight up to me and my fellow female reviewers. Like, yeah…. No.
Why shouldn't you be writing them?
Because we're ladies. We don't get action. And it's like maybe this particular "Jack Reacher" or whatever doesn't jibe with me, maybe I'd rather watch "Alien." And people are like, nahhh. Commenters.
Really! It surprises me how naïve I remain because I hear that sort of s**t all the time, and I'm like, what?! How do you be that person and not go, God, I'm an ignorant imbecile. What!
Welcome to the Internet.
Yeah, well, I've stopped reading comments under anything I'm involved in. It's soul destroying. [laughs]
I think that that would be a really sweet spot movie for women who want to go see action and have proven that with movies like "Salt" and "Death Proof" —
Yeah, "Haywire," Gina Carano.
I know. It's frustrating. We like to see action, too! It's cool.
Yeah. And when the women are represented in the right way that you can kind of get in there and relate a little bit, then you like to see action even more. Put it on a plate that I want to eat off.
When you're watching movies, do you find it hard to turn off your brain – making mental notes about stunt work or they didn't land that right or…?
Sometimes. Usually I feel like if I start getting down that path, something's dropped me. I've been pulled out of the movie somehow, which is usually a character or storyline, because if I'm sold on the characters and their stories and relationship, I'm like, I'll sit through all sorts of bad, nasty fuck-ups. But I'm still pretty capable of being swept away. I'm one of those annoying people who talk during a movie… My poor boyfriend's just like, seriously?... The only time I find it quite hard to be solely objective is and step outside if I've had anything to do with it. I find it really difficult if I know someone on it personally or was present for any of it. I just find it hard to remove myself. It's like a video journal of my life. Oh, I was standing under that staircase with a mat when that happened.
What sort of projects are you looking to develop for yourself?
There's one that's sort of action-comedy that I've got playing around, that I would be the lead of, and that's very personal and something that's been bobbing around in my head for quite some time. And then the only other one I've got at this point — well, I mean, I've got heaps of ideas, but the other one, it's actually the lead would be a male. We talked about it being a female and being me, and we would be sacrificing the story just to make me the lead, and what's the point in doing that? If I'm here to tell a story, I want to tell it the best way possible. And that's just a cool story that I would love to shoot with people.
I'm open to just about anything that's fascinating to me, and the more work I do, the more stuff becomes fascinating to me. I can feel myself being like, right, what do I want to generate in my reality next? And it's definitely in the world of comedy. Not that that has to be the next thing, but that definitely, I'm working towards some of that.
Like "The Heat."
Yeah. s**t, yeah! Tracie [Thoms] and I were in talks at one point about doing, at one point, about doing a buddy cop, and "The Heat" came out, and we were like, damn you, Melissa McCarthy!
That would be amazing.
Right?! My biggest dream would be to do — not my biggest dream but [it] puts the smile on my face when I think about it — is to do like a "Lethal Weapon" remake. But I would be Riggs. There's just no doubt about it. I want to be Riggs. That's just me.
Another thing I overhead in one of your previous interviews was – and this wasn't on purpose! I was just eating my seaweed snacks – but you're talking about knowing the difference between legitimate fear and not-logical fear. But, like, the mind-body connection, being gentle with yourself, having fun, how has your work over the years really developed your intuition? I don't know, we were talking about hippie stuff, so let's talk about some hippie stuff.
Let's get some hippie s**t up in here. [laughs] I rely heavily on my body to communicate with me. What I've noticed is there are times, like, if I go to a physiotherapist or to a chiropractor or something with an injury, I can't articulate to them in medical terms what's wrong or what's broken, but I'll describe a pain, and they'll keep guessing or figuring stuff out, process of elimination, and once they've told me what's wrong, I'll know whether it's right or not… I can feel when I have an injury that is something I need to push through and it will deal with its own self, or when it's warning signs. When my body's going, this is the kind of pain that you need to listen to. Same with the fear. There's the pain that is, my body is telling me something's breaking or in jeopardy, and then there's pain that's just my nerves are like, that's not cool! You know? And being able to tell the difference between those two are important. And the same with the fear thing.
The older I get, too, and I think this is probably just an age thing, the more appreciative I am of my body, too. And I don't just mean its capabilities, I mean morseo its resilience, and that actually there's a relationship there that needs a little taking care of. I'm part of that, and it's nice to treat my body well, and it's nice to be thankful and grateful. Every now and then, when I'm getting a massage, and it's not quite good enough, I used to get really — I still sometimes get frustrated, when I'm like, ugh, I want you to go harder or to the left. I have these moments where I'm like, it's not about you. You shut up and let your body absorb any kind of healing touch it can get. [laughs] Give it the room, you know!
I'm very interested in that kind of stuff. I have a lot of anxiety, so I'm really figuring out the fight of flight stuff. It's very physical.
Yeah, it's interesting. I guess [it's] the same thing between the pain being a rational pain or an irrational pain, or the fear being irrational or rational is a big kind of — I think it's true in lots of ways. You know, when someone's really upset, it's worth checking in and being like, am I upset with you? And if I can figure why I'm upset with you, then we just have a conversation about it and hopefully we can get past that, but if what you realize is you're not upset with that person, you're just upset with yourself… Because we tend to just go, I'm feeling upset! And I've got the right to be! And I'm just going to sit in it and I'm gonna make it your [problem]! I feel like there's the rational and irrational of all those sorts of sensations that are worth – it's worth checking in with yourself. It's the same thing as if someone's having a panic attack or having anxiety to go, okay, that's that.
You know what that's like? It's like PMS. You have those moments where you're like, oh my God, I'm a fucking crazy person! My life is terrible, everything's s**t, blah blah blah! And then someone goes, when are you due? And you go, oh! And you still feel like a crazy person, but now you've got an understanding that maybe it's not based in reality so much. And even that is a just a little bit of relief.
Knowing it's chemical and that it will pass.
It doesn't feel like it's ever going to pass, but the knowledge that it's felt like that before.
A lot of physical stuff – a lot of this is just sitting with the unpleasantness.
Which is much easier when you know it's gonna pass.
Yeah, and I noticed you had your lip pierced in the documentary and a lot of body modification stuff is just breathing through it. Or your body being like, no, that's kind of a fucked up thing to do. Maybe you should cut that out.
That's me stopping smoking, was that, too. I used to be able to smoke and not feel a thing, and it was kind of like, you think I'm healthy sport billy? Look at me, I'm defiant! And then in the last couple of years, I would lose my voice far more frequently, kind of this acid reflux thing would come out out of nowhere, it would make me feel really s**tty and it would suck my energy the next day. Like, if I went out drinking and smoking, the next day I was way more broken…
It first began when I hurt my wrist and I remember the surgeon being like, you should cut back smoking because it really hinders healing, and I went through so much trauma with this and that and not being able to work and who am I and an identity crisis and blah blah, existential nightmares, that I remember that being the first time when I would light a cigarette and be like, this is mean. Not, this is wrong. Not, you're not allowed. Because those ones I'd be like, screw you I'm not allowed! I'm gonna light another one! But, this is just mean, I don't think I'd do this to somebody else. That was the beginning of it, and then it got to the point where, whatever it is, six, seven months ago now, where I was just like, it's not like it's not good for me. And, you know, the fear of cancer or wrinkles is just not realistic enough, but it was just that feeling of, like, this is mean. Don't get me wrong. When I drink, I'm like, ugh, I'd love a cigarette!
I would kill for a cigarette. But it's not okay any more.
No, it's sort of the re-making of the decision. And the decision has to be not like, I'm not going to smoke, because then for me, I'm not allowed, and the whole reason I started in the first place was from a place of rebellion. So if I'm not allowed, I want to. But if it's like, I would like to be someone who doesn't smoke, then I have to make that decision – I used to have to make it 17 times a day. Now I'm making it once every month or so.
It gets a lot easier.
Yeah. But you still have to make that decision.
"Raze is now in theaters and on iTunes."