Interview: Zoë Bell

words by Sean Collier | photo by Kevin Warn
| Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

bellOriginally published in Verbicide issue #25

There are a lot of great things about Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s half of 2007’s Grindhouse double bill. There’s the thrill of seeing some real car chases and serious, dangerous action, instead of a bunch of repetitive CGI. There’s the top-to-bottom perfect cast, including Kurt Russell’s devilish Stuntman Mike. There’s a laundry list of the most entertaining, dynamic young actresses in Hollywood. There’s the excellent music, a Tarantino staple.

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But mostly there’s Zoë Bell. And not just clutching to the hood of a speeding car for a seemingly interminable period of time — although that was pretty damn great. She’s funny, she’s engaging, she’s a fantastic actress without even trying. Zoë made her name as the stunt double for Lucy Lawless on “Xena: Warrior Princess,” then jumped into Tarantino’s world as the double for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. After Death Proof let her say her own lines, though, she finds herself in demand as both a stunt expert and an actress, including a brief stint on “Lost.”

Zoë is proving more than game for the wide variety of work coming her way, jumping from stunt coordinator, to actress, to stunt double with ease. It’s not something many performers could do, but as Tarantino saw, there’s far more to her than jumping off buildings and beating up scores of fighters. The way she sees it, though, she’s still just faking it.

You’re filming in Detroit, right? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a movie called Whip It. It’s Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. And it stars Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, Kirsten Wiig, Eve is in it, myself. It’s about roller derby…my role is called Bloody Holly. I’m a derby girl. We’ve been doing about four weeks of training; we started shooting last week — we’ve got about another month of shooting.

Are you just doing stunts on this one, or…I guess you’d call it, “traditional acting?”
No, I play a role on this one. They’ve decided to not double me skating, so I’m taking care of my own stunt double, my own skate double, and my own “dialogue double.”

[To clarify,] when you’re credited as “stunts” versus being credited as a “stunt double”: “stunts” is just one or two things here or there, and a “stunt double” is being someone’s double for the whole film? Is that right?
It depends on who you’re talking to. If it’s just “stunts” — technically, it should be “utility stunts,” which means you’re not doubling a specific character. So, you know, maybe one character if that character gets beat up, or you’re some guy walking down the street when a car goes off the road and gets hit. You know what I mean? So you’re just not doubling a specific character throughout the movie.

You’re working as the stunt coordinator for Bitch Slap. What’s that job like?
Basically, you’re in charge of that department. So it means hiring doubles, finding the utility stunt guys, figuring out what equipment is needed, figuring out where to find that equipment, buying the equipment, working within the budget. And — depending on the budget and how many people you can hire — you’re either going to be hiring, say, a fight choreographer or an airplane specialist, or whatever it is, or you’re going to be doing all that stuff yourself as well.

Which do you prefer? Doubling, utility stunts, or working as a stunt coordinator?
They’re all so different. I’m pretty accustomed to doubling because that’s the majority of what I’ve done in my career. And I love it — I like taking ownership of a character and making it mine, and figuring out how she moves. I enjoy that part of the process. I also quite enjoy utility stunts. Sometimes you just come in for a couple of days, you get hit by a car, you do some fun stuff, and you’re done. That can be fun too. But I’d say probably doubling is my preference. In terms of coordinating, it’s impossible to compare the two. I’ve really only coordinated a couple of little things and recently my first feature, called Bitch Slap — which was a lot of fun. It’s actually getting quite a bit of press, which is kind of exciting for all the people involved. It’s a lot of people I worked with on “Xena” back in the day, so it’s a lot of old friends. But that was a whole different ballgame for me — I was also doubling, because the budget was really tight. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on any of the fun stuff — you know, you can still put some of the fun stuff aside for yourself, but there was definitely a difference in the responsibility. There’s just a lot more that goes into it than “this is your call time, turn up, do what we tell you to do and go home.” There’s just a lot of preparation. But I really enjoyed the process.

Were there any particular stunt challenges in Bitch Slap?
It was my first big coordinating job, and that’s a challenge in itself. It was more of a psychological challenge, carrying that responsibility. And choreographing the fights — I’m often a part of that process, but [before Bitch Slap,] I’d never choreographed anything, never something that I felt like I could take credit for. I can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait to see how the fights turn out.

How did you get started in stunt work?
I did gymnastics when I was younger, and when I was done with gymnastics I started at martial arts. I would stay behind and watch the black belts train, and I ended up becoming friends with them, and they would talk about stunts, and I was like, “Dude, wait a minute — you get paid to do this stuff?” Then a stunt guy came into the hospital that my dad was working at with a bump on the head, or something, and my dad came home with a phone number.

I read that when working on Kill Bill, you had to completely change your martial arts style. Was that difficult for you?
The way I see it — and I’m waiting for the day that a stunt person or a director gets pissed off at me and sues me for saying this — I kind of believe that a big part of what I do is…I have a base in gymnastics, I was pretty decent at gymnastics when I was a gymnast, I’m no longer a gymnast. I was pretty decent at martial arts when I was a martial artist, I’m no longer a martial artist. I’m now a stunt person. And what I do, I jokingly call it “faking it,” but I suppose it’s called “acting.” It’s my job to look like I could really take out 88 people. Far from the truth, I don’t think I could really do that. Having said that, a lot of the stunt people I work with are black belts and are motocross champions and are Olympic gymnasts. For me, my skill base comes in being able to pretend I’m all of those things on camera. So in terms of shifting my style, it had to be very conscious for me, because fighting Xena-style had become very instinctive and unconscious. So I had to be really conscious of every time I let go and got into the fight in Kill Bill. I sort of reigned myself in and reminded myself that I was a Wushu expert or a samurai expert and not a warrior princess.

You suffered a pretty serious injury on Kill Bill, right?
Yeah. We were doing rehearsals for a gag, and it should’ve been a fairly scientific, strategic, not-much-room-for-error kind of a moment, but it wasn’t. Where I was supposed to land and where I landed were two very different places, and where I was supposed to land had a mat, and where I ended up landing didn’t. It just had desert floor. I actually ended up landing on the coordinator, which I think probably saved my life, to be honest with you. I dislocated my wrist and obliterated one of the ligaments. It was a little while before I got surgery because the medical system over here is so confusing and daunting to a foreigner, but I ended up having surgery and pins in my wrist to immobilize it for three months, and about another year or so of rehabilitation after that.

I don’t know if this is a taboo question, but is there any injury that would make you get out of stunt work? Anything you wouldn’t try to come back from?
I don’t think I can honestly answer that, as to what specifically would have to happen. There are things that could happen that could prevent me from coming back whether I wanted to or not, and that’s the scary part. When I hurt my wrist, I definitely went through moments of, “What the hell am I doing? Do I really want to get money to put my body on the line? What does that mean?” But at the same time, football players do the same shit. They get paid to be professional sportsmen, and the chance of getting injured is pretty high also. As a stuntwoman, you just have to think of yourself as being an athlete, and if you’re smart, and conscious of the situations you’re putting yourself in and the people you’re surrounding yourself with, there’s a risk. But certainly no more than football players.

In Death Proof, you played yourself. Was this challenging, or did it come naturally to you?
Well, it was my first time acting. The fear of the unknown…as a stuntwoman, I’ve been doing it long enough that I know my capabilities, and I know my limits and where to push them, and how to push them. But as an actor, I’m like, “Fuck, I have no idea if I’m going to be any good at this. I could really suck.” I had no way of knowing. So it was definitely a matter of handing it over. You know, I asked Quentin if he wanted me to be doing acting lessons, and he said no. He said, “No, what you have is what I want.” So it was a matter of handing it over to him, and the girls that were in my car were all really helpful and encouraging. It’s just trusting that he wanted from me something that I already had; I just had to relax and let it come out, so to speak. That sounds a little bit new age, but that’s the truth of it.

The key sequence from Death Proof, on the hood of the car — had you ever done that before?
No. I mean, how do you practice being on the hood of a car, you know? But we had run through it a couple of times during rehearsal, done it really slow. When we came to shooting, we just figured out what we could and couldn’t do, and pushed it where we could push it. I had to be comfortable; Tracey Dashnaw, the driver, had to be comfortable; Jeff Dashnaw, the coordinator, had to be comfortable. The guy, Al, driving the stunt car, like the camera car. It was a real team effort, so it was just a matter of doing it one way, and if we could do it faster, cool. If we could do it bigger, cool. And I’ll tell you what, as far as being the face and the double on the same character…the freedom we had in terms of shooting. We didn’t have to work around someone’s face, we didn’t have to work around not seeing my face. We could put the camera wherever the shot looked the coolest. So it was really liberating in terms of the movie-making process of that sequence. We all just had a blast doing that. There was so much room for being imaginative and creative. It was really fun.

Is working in stunts more challenging for a female? Is there less work?
God, it’s so hard not to sound like a cliché answering that question. But, yes. There’s less work for females than there is for males. Even now, people are like, “Yeah, but there are action movies starring women, and TV shows.” There are doubles for those women. There’s more work for doubles. But every movie that’s got any action sequences has generic people. Like, the bar brawl has got six stunt guys as people getting drunk at the bar, or the street fight has got people on the street, or the gladiator has fights with a bunch of other gladiators. So, utility stunts, there’s a lot more work for males than there is for females. Having said that, I’m sure if you looked at the numbers — the amount of male stuntpeople in Hollywood versus the number of female stunties — there’s probably a shitload more men then there are women. There’s a lot of stuntmen you could talk to, and say, “Oh, it must be easy being a stunt guy,” and they’d probably knock you out, because they haven’t found it to be that easy getting work. But for me, the only challenge I’ve come across…I don’t want to sound cliché — and it really was something that I experienced personally — was figuring out how to deal with the different expectations on me based on the fact that I was a woman. The feeling that I had to prove myself a couple of times over to certain people because I was a woman. And it happened very few times, but it had never happened to me before, so it was a little bit jolting when it did happen. Having said that, we’re often misrepresented by a lot of women out there, too. So it’s a two-way thing — men can be chauvinist, and women can be useless. I think it’s just too easy to sit around saying, “Men are assholes, and it’s so hard being a female.” I think that’s too easy. I mean, trust me, I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt that way, but I don’t think that’s a fair blanket statement.

You’ve been involved in the last two films by Quentin Tarantino [Death Proof and Kill Bill]. The last three — including Jackie Brown — have, in one way or another, been about powerful females on revenge quests. Why do you think he keeps going back to that theme?
Because women rule. To be honest, what I know of Quentin is that he loves women and really appreciates them. Maybe he’s in a place in his life where he enjoys writing characters that just happen to be female. It’s funny, someone else said that to me the other day, and I hadn’t really put that one together. I didn’t think of Death Proof as girls being badass and tough, it was more like it was three friends that had been fucked with and were really pissed off about it — and weren’t going to stand for it. I feel like any three of us could’ve been pushed out for a dude and it would’ve been the same story, you know?

Yeah, but…I love Death Proof, and I think that part of it is taking the Stuntman Mike character — he’s the guy you expect to be in the revenge movie, the guy you expect to watch going on the killing spree. And he’s the one that the girls are seeking revenge on.
No, that’s brilliant, and it really is interesting that Quentin has written those characters. Even in Pulp Fiction, Uma’s character was very strong character. She wasn’t just a castaway female character. I think he has a true appreciation for strong characters, and I think he really enjoys women in general. I know he does. I know the women that are his friends, and very few of them are meek.

Between Death Proof, Whip It, [and] your role on “Lost,” you’re starting to do a lot more acting. Are you beginning to prefer acting over stunt work?
It’s tough, because while I love stunts, I’m really enjoying the prospect of acting. I’m also nervous about acting, because it’s such a fickle industry. I’m afraid to give up stunts and go to acting, and then fall on my face. That’s just a silly human way of thinking, but it’s also a very crazy industry. Very little of how far you get is directly related to how talented you are, or how perfect you are for a role. But I’m really enjoying the acting side of it. Like I was saying, my job has always been to fake it. It’s always been to make believe. So now, it’s just a matter of translating it from using my body to do it, and now just bringing my face and my emotions into it. And I imagine that if you have footage of me doing a “Xena” fight back in the day, if you were shooting on my face, I probably would’ve looked angry. I think I’ve probably been getting into character all along, I just wasn’t aware of it. There’s things popping up all over the place at the moment, and it’s really very exciting — just the prospect of a new career and a new challenge, and stepping outside of my comfort zone. As ridiculous as it sounds, beating up multiple people and stepping off buildings, it’s within my comfort zone. Whereas putting a camera on me, and being told, “You’re being paid here to make us cry,” that’s a little bit scarier to me. But I’m really enjoying the challenge, and I’m thankful to all the people who are taking a bet on me.

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