Even when Zoë Bell isn’t delivering roundhouse kicks or hopping on top of speeding cars, she finds a way to surprise.
“I’m just heating myself up some soup on this cold rainy day, so it’s pretty perfect,” Bell says, moments into our phone call, an image that’s hard to reconcile with the brawny, brusque screen persona the Australian stuntwoman-turned-actress has built up in recent years. That she proceeds to apologize for letting a curse word slip into our conversation and recalled how she accompanied a friend to a recent screening of her latest film “Raze” because she didn’t want her to go alone, even though the star had seen it countless times, further shatters the illusion.
However, within seconds of striking up a conversation, it’s clear Bell is more inclined to crack you up rather than crack your skull, though the fact that she can do both is what has allowed her to transition seamlessly from serving as a durable stunt double for Lucy Lawless and Uma Thurman on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Kill Bill,” respectively, to a leading lady in her own right after Quentin Tarantino elevated her into a starring role in his “Grindhouse” entry “Death Proof.” And although Bell hasn’t been asked to step too far away from her action roots, she has delved deeper into the filmmaking process, becoming a producer on “Raze” while taking on her most emotionally challenging role to date as a prisoner who has to fight her way out of a lair run by a mysterious organization who kidnap women and let an audience of their friends watch them duke it out to the death for fun.
It’s no coincidence that Doug Jones, the actor best known for his motion-capture work as Abe Sapien in “Hellboy,” among other plum green-suit roles, also gets a chance to shine as Joseph, the malicious mastermind behind the operation, and just as “Raze” reveals something major going on just underneath the surface, the actors do the same. In advance of the film’s release, Bell talked about getting into the ring for “Raze,” how her action chops have helped and hindered her development as an actress, and how her recent career turns have taken her by surprise.
Since the opening fight sequence of the film was actually created as a standalone short, did you already fully know your character or did you have to develop her further when it became a feature?
It started off as a short, but it was always planned to be either the first episode of a web series or as a way to generate cash to do a feature or as a possible TV series. So we always had the concept of it as something larger than just a short, but we hadn’t really developed the story and when I was preparing to be Sabrina for the short, even though she basically comes in and does that first fight and then that’s the end, it was important to me that I knew where she was coming from and I knew what she was fighting for. As we moved to creating the feature-length script and Robert Beaucage was writing the feature-length script, I had a lot of input…well, I had a lot of opinions. I don’t know how many of them actually ended up in there. [laughs] But it was all quite collaborative. He asked me stuff about Sabrina and in my head, she’d been a nurse that had come out of the military and none of it’s in the film, but it [let me have] a personal stake in the story.
Was this a different experience for you? You’re a producer on the film, which is a first, but also the character calls for a little more vulnerability than other films you’ve done as an actress.
As an actor, it was a massive experience for me. It was a big challenge and I’m really pleased that I realized how big the challenge would be before we started shooting. [laughs] So I had done a lot of preparation and I could tell you anything about Sabrina’s life up until this movie starts. She has a whole life that exists that I drew on when I was exhausted and tired and , it’s funny because those vulnerable, emotional moments are often the ones that I have to concentrate on letting go to access because my natural state of being on set from being a stuntwoman is to not be vulnerable. So for me, accessing vulnerability required some tools to find those things and really starting to get to know myself as an actor on this project was really, really fucking cool. Excuse my language.
Is physicality a way in for you? The way the characters fight do say a lot about them.
Recently, I started to be able to have the two kind of communicate because I think having been a stunt woman, my job was to portray aggression or anger or fear or terror through my body, but you wouldn’t pick up on it from me emotionally because if people thought I was afraid jumping off the building, the whole crew would find it much harder to allow me to, especially as a woman. People are far more scared of seeing a woman hurt themselves than they are seeing a man hurt themselves. It’s just a weird phenomena that exists. So what would happen, if I let it, is my fight scenes would allow me to engage emotionally. And I’ve had to find a way for those two to hold hands [laughs] — my emotions and my physicality. Before I would fall back into the comfort of not being vulnerable, so I’ve had to learn over the last however many projects — “Angel of Death” is the other film that I was the lead in — that if she’s in an emotional place and fights, Zoe comes in a little bit because Zoe’s been fighting forever, and I have to consciously stay in character while I’m fighting.
At the screening we both were at the other night, you and a few of the other cast members were describing a surprise cameo by someone from your past that you had no idea was happening until the day the scene was shot and then you had mentioned you hid behind a bar to surprise Bruce Thomas, who plays the main security guard, during a key scene of his. Did anyone tell each other the truth on this set?
No. [laughs] That’s the joy of film sets, though, is if you can find a little space to break the [ice]. I’m a little bit of a fan of practical jokes when they’re not malicious and I find it to be a sign of camaraderie when someone can sneak something on me or trick me into something as long as it’s not taking away from the film or someone’s performance. It strips away [the idea that] this is strictly work and the cameo you’re referring to was a pretty special moment for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a surprise birthday and what that felt like to me was to have been considered over a period of time by people you care about and they’ve kept it from you because that’s going to make it mean more, was just a total warm, fuzzy moment. Well-needed on that set too, by the way.
Sounds like it. I was a little horrified when Tracie Thoms was saying you’d have to roll around in the dirt when you got to set to preserve continuity in the costumes from one day to the next.
Yeah, we were running that kind of show. [laughs]
The pit where you fight looked like a pretty tight location. Was it difficult to maneuver in there?
Yeah, but we wanted it to be small because it shouldn’t be that the place is so big the girls can spend time running away from each other. We didn’t have the budget or the time nor the scope to cover something like that and we wanted the whole movie to have that suffocating, enclosed, nowhere-to-go feeling and hopefully the audience feels it because we were feeling it. I can tell you for sure the cameraman was feeling it. [laughs] There was always one guy in there guiding him and trying to keep him from bouncing off walls and bouncing off actresses. But the more we shot in there, the more everyone starts to find their groove.
I remember in “Double Dare,” the documentary that followed you and Jeannie Epper [the stunt double for “Wonder Woman” and many other shows], you were wondering what life would be like after “Xena: Warrior Princess” and yet now you’ve seemed to have carved out an interesting niche of kickass women roles for yourself. Are there as many opportunities as you’re making it seem like?
I hope so. I see more opportunities for kickass women roles in general, which is exciting and if I’m in any way shape or form part of that movement, I’m honored and excited to be. My intention is to be someone who can be considered for the bigger movies and capable of carrying these things. “Raze” has been fundamental for me in that and I’m grateful, but who knows? It’s interesting. If I watched “Double Dare” again, when you said that [about that] moment of “I don’t know what happens after Xena,” that’s an interesting thing to consider because it’s been a long time now and I never would’ve imagined being here. [laughs] It would’ve never occurred to me that I would be the lead of a movie and a producer and be sitting in my room eating soup talking to journalists about it. I’m happy to be here, though.
“Raze” opens on January 10th in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinemas Sunset, where Bell and director Josh Waller will be doing Q & As after the 7:45 and 10:15 pm screenings on the 10th and 11th. It is also available on VOD.