There’s a whole world of adventure bubbling up from the person that Zoë Bell is. Her life has been a travelogue of great gigs – from doubling Lucy Lawless for the stunt and martial arts scenes on the long-running hit show Xena: Warrior Princess, to doubling Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – and when Tarantino decided that she would play a lead role in Death Proof (essentially appearing as herself), her career trajectory took on a new direction.
In just a few years, the New Zealander Bell has found herself in a niche as a female action star, headlining the hard-hitting action and martial arts films Angel of Death and 2014’s Raze, which casts her as an ex-soldier named Sabrina who is captured and forced to fight other women to the death.
Her work in Raze will elevate audience’s perception of her as an actress, but more importantly she has cemented her status as a real-deal action star, with acting chops to boot.
What was it about Raze that appealed to you? Was it your character?
It was twofold, really. What appealed to me about Sabrina was that she seemed like a phenomenal character. She was fierce, an atypical woman especially for this day and age, but in an action film, she was going through a massive emotional journey as well. Her character arc was almost the most interesting thing for me. The movie’s concept also appealed to me. It was something I hadn’t really come across before. Also, it happened after I was on the project, so I’m finding this hard to answer.
I came on the project and I was going to play a cameo role in the short film, but they were bringing me on as a producer because it had female action in it and they wanted to use my expertise, if I may talk about myself in such a manner. Once I came on board and once we were all in place and shooting the short, that’s when the story started to unfold and that’s when the feature started to unfold and come about. It essentially came about through my … through this character Sabrina, who I had created for the short. It all happened in kind of a reverse order. I can’t really say that the character of Sabrina “drew” me to the project because she kind of developed once we had already started, if you know what I mean. I’m sorry, that’s probably really complicatedly worded.
No, I understand exactly what you’re saying. I sat there and watched Raze and was surprised to see that it combined the 1990’s kickboxing tournament movie with the dungeon-set Hostel / Saw type of movie. It wasn’t at all what I was thinking it would be. You’re obviously from the world of action, but you had to step into this deep, dark place. Talk about that transition for you.
I’d love to talk about that. Like I said before, I’d done quite a bit of work on Sabrina as she wasn’t fully fleshed out when we started, so I had to explain to myself just how dark her past had been, which was not daunting so much as it was liberating. I had created this whole world of her past. It really was useful to me. In the short film, there was really only one fight, but I knew exactly why she was there, I knew exactly how she felt about it, I knew exactly why she wanted to get out, I knew exactly why she was trying to fight. When it was turned into a feature, I was really equipped. Once I read the feature script, I went, “Holy shit! This is going to be massive for me.” Challenging for me as an actor, but personally for me to go into the places … that’s the thing that makes our movie largely different.
So much of the movie is about the emotional truth and the emotional journey these women are going through
It’s that so much of the story and so much of the movie is about the emotional truth and the emotional journey these women are going through. Which makes it that much more horrific. The absolute anguish, the absolute horror that these women are going through. Knowing that, it was definitely like I’m going to have to find a lot of dark places and I’m going to have to spend a lot of time there. As the lead, I think I had two days off from the whole film. I was the producer anyway, but as an actor there were only two days where I wasn’t on the call sheet.
I was definitely prepped for it to be intense and exhausting. It’s absolutely those things, but it was also incredibly satisfying even though I was getting home at midnight and having to get up again at four in the morning. I was waking up in the morning fired up. I was so enjoying myself. There was a sense of purpose. It was an exhausting process, but ultimately it was so fulfilling both as a producer and as an actress.
I’ve seen the other films where you were the star or the lead, and I’m absolutely bewildered why you haven’t been given the opportunity to star in more films …
(Laughing.) Bewildered. That’s a good word.
No, really. It’s amazing that you haven’t been given the opportunity to star in more movies. I’m thinking, of course, of Death Proof and Angel of Death, which I thought was a really cool little movie.
Raze is only the third time where you’re front and center. I kind of want to know what this means for you as an actress, and how you’ve been able to grow not just as an action star but as an actress as well.
Thank you. I love you. You’re asking me very real, serious questions that make me feel like I’m being taken very seriously. I appreciate it. Thank you. I recently looked at my show reel and I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve done a lot of work!” and that was quite satisfying, but also watching the progression – and it’s clear to me just watching it – that these steps that happen and these experiences you have as an actor that teach you – like fundamentally change you – like something clicks, and Raze was absolutely a moment like that. So was Angel of Death. It’s funny. You’re right. These three movies are where the most fundamental changes have happened.
I think it’s because when you’re carrying a movie, there’s a massive – there’s much more responsibility. At least that’s how it’s translated in my head. When you’re carrying the film, that’s a big deal beyond just having or doing a good performance. This is cool. You’re right. I hadn’t thought of this before. Death Proof was obviously the first one. Angel of Death was the second time I was the lead of a film, but it was the first time I was really carrying the whole thing. In Death Proof I was one of … you know … the key cast. Angel of Death, I just remember realizing how much preparation was going to be of service to me, and just preparing the shit out of it. I made the same decision with Raze. I want to be better in this movie than I was in the last movie.
Everybody’s always wanted to be in a movie and act, and I get this opportunity and so I wanted to work my hardest and I wanted to at least improve or at least find some other depths that I couldn’t access before. And I don’t just mean like In this one I need to cry more! (Laughing.) I needed to find a level of truth to that character. I, honestly … the differences I feel the most is that I have conquered the ability to do my job, so I’m not scared as much as I am anxious in anticipation for knowing or trusting that I can commit 100% to this process. Am I capable of this process is now Show me what you got, boy! It’s a different kind of enjoyment, I guess.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the action star concept itself. There was a time when people like Cynthia Rothrock, Karen Sheperd, and Mimi Lesseos built careers making action movies … there’s just so few of you guys out there. What do you think happened? There’re so few female action stars to begin with, but now it seems like there’s even fewer. When you get a chance to do one, it’s like one every couple of years rather than two or three a year. What’s up with that?
You know, you could theorize all day long about it. The natural progression of the nature of this business. The female action thing is sort of a weird one. I think I have a slightly skewed vision of it too because for the first four years of my career I was doubling Lucy [Lawlesss] on Xena every day. I was doing female action every day. Every week there was always at least one other female character that was kicking ass, so it was the opposite of what was going on in the industry. It didn’t occur to me because there was work for me. I don’t know.
There was a period of time when it seemed sort of cool when there was that phase – that girl power phase – when Charlie’s Angels got reinvented … that kind of stuff … it was like it was being treated as a fad. It was like bellbottoms instead of denim. I feel like there’s a possibility now – right now – that there could be a movement that has some real staying power when we put some people in there – like myself – or Gina Carano or Ronda Rousey – actually casting these women who are known by audiences to be capable of fighting.
The concept of why these women are worthy of putting in a movie is because they can fight. To me, that feels like there’s a little more weight in it and a little less about chicks looking hot while they’re kicking ass. Not that these women aren’t hot, but it’s about the coolness of knowing that these women can kick your ass. It’s really like what the male action stars from way back when – the man could feel it that he could do it because he’s doing it. Like the Die Hards and the Lethal Weapons – these weren’t comic book heroes, these are your everyday guys who could kick ass. That’s something I like about Raze is that these are everyday women in a situation that forces them to find death within themselves instead of I’ve been training in martial arts my whole life … you know. That’s one of the things we wanted to do differently.
Who do you think Raze is for? It’s a difficult movie to watch. It’s not an expected film in any way. Even the ending is polarizing. What do you think?
Ummm … It is a movie between expectations. It’s an interesting place to fit. That’s what we were going for. So, yeah. It can come as a disadvantage if someone is trying to put the movie somewhere. We’ve had people on both sides. Oh my God, I just couldn’t find a way to connect and then there are the ones who say Oh my God, I’ve never seen a movie where I was so engaged. Some people love the end and some people hate the end. It just polarizes. I’ve never heard someone say that if it was on a plane that they’d watch it again. The ending … the boys were all in cahoots about the ending. My memory was that there was a lot of back and forth about it. My concern was that it needed to be paid off, but you also don’t want it to be clichéd. You don’t want to disappoint your audience either way. It’s one thing to shock them and making them feel bad, but disappointing them … That’s not really where you want to go. The boys all wanted it to end the way it did. Clearly, I agreed with them.
Do you regret the decision now?
I got to a place with the movie with the limitations of money and time … I’m so proud of the movie we have. I don’t have a regret.
I wanted to talk about Angel of Death a little bit. It’s the sort of movie that really doesn’t get made anymore.
I had an absolute blast shooting that movie. I worked with really lovely people. Ed Brubaker just loves to write this kind of story and he does it so well. It was so fun and collaborative. John Norris, the producer, was the most generous producer on the planet. Just a great team. It was just kind of cool. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than it was. It was an ambitious shoot. Ron Yuan, the stunt and fight coordinator, knows exactly what he’s doing so it was super efficient. I had a real blast. It was the first time I dived into a character that wasn’t myself. In Death Proof I was clearly playing a Quentin-ized version of myself, which is … not me. I don’t chase men down and beat them to death. But Eve [in Angel of Death] was a character that was not silly. She didn’t grow up with my life, and so I really enjoyed that. I remember writing her back story, and I wrote it in the first person, “My name is Eve …” and she started talking about it. It was an experience where I felt like I got it. That’s so fun, that part of acting, the make-believe.
What sorts of martial arts do you practice or do you know?
I am the perfect example of being the offspring of stunt fighting. I started with Tae Kwon Do – that was my first introduction into the martial arts. That’s my foundation. I did it for about two and half or three years before starting on Xena, so that’s where I learnt kicks and where I learned punches. As a stunt person, A.) you have to mimic different styles, and B.) you have to mimic certain actors and their personal styles and the way that they swing. So I basically, I’ve gotten to the point – the most concise I can say – I am a martial arts mimic. I’ve done loads of martial arts. I’ve done Krav Maga … I’ve done just about all of them, and anytime I work with someone who has one that I’ve not played with before, I’ll play around with it. But I’ve never studied. I just don’t have the space because my job takes up … you know what I mean? My job is to be able to mimic them as best I can. I fake it for a living, basically. (Laughing.)
You could have fooled me, man. I thought you were some kind of martial arts master.
That’s my job. Listen, when I’m training in these things, I’m training for real. I’m training with people, I’m in a ring, but I would feel dishonest if I said that I’ve studied Tae Kwon Do for years and that I have a blah blah belt in Aikido. Because I haven’t. I’ve practiced all of them, and I love them all.
You worked with Gary Daniels on Game of Death. Do you have any memories of working with Daniels, who is very much a martial artist?
Oh, yeah! He’s such a sweetheart. We enjoyed having each other to chat to in trailer times. He’s the quintessential action star hero guy. I really enjoyed listening to him talk about his career, his life in Asia. We never got to fight, which was always sort of a bummer. I would love to do a movie opposite him. It’s so fun to watch an actor approach action in the same way that I do. He is a fighter, he does do that, and that’s where he’s from. He can hit the ground in the middle of a fight and keep going without it freaking him out. That’s just what he does.
Your role in that movie was relegated to a bit part. I really wanted to see you fight Wesley Snipes, or something, you know what I mean?
Yeah, me too! There were scheduling problems on that movie. Most of that movie ended up being shot in a very short amount of time. There was meant to be a fight in there, and I wasn’t meant to die so quickly. I was like, “We can shoot a fight in like a half an hour!”
Death Proof is the movie you’re really known for. It put you on the map as far as putting you in front of the camera front and center. Any comments about working with Tarantino, working on this movie, and how it propelled you on a different career path?
Well, yes, of course. I worked on the Kill Bill movies, and this was his little brainchild that I knew very little about until the script was finalized. It came as a shock to me. He talked about me working on the movie, but I really had no concept as to the capacity. I had never talked to him about wanting to be an actor, so it wasn’t even on my radar that it was something he was considering. When A.) my friend Quentin asks something like that of me, there’s no way I’m going to say no, and B.) when Tarantino wants you to play a character in his movie, there’s no world where you’d want to say no. There’s no world where you’d want to say no to that.
Having said that, I was terrified going into it. I was very conscious of how green I was as an actor. I’d never done it before. I was also very conscious that if Quentin had made that decision, then it was something he wanted and that he knew better than I did. Working with Quentin … I had already greased my working relationship with him, and we were on the same page, had the same on-set language. We’d worked with each other long enough that that was already in place, which was a very comforting thought. He’s such an actor’s director. So much of my experience – knowing what I know now – at the time I knew nothing.
He said to me, “Don’t take acting classes – Just learn the script inside out, ’cause I know what I want to get from you and I know you have it.” So I was like putty in his hands on that movie. I did everything he told me to do because I didn’t know what I was doing. So much fun. He’s such a conscientious director. In terms of casting, he was conscious of what would be best for the movie, which means what would be best to support me and what kind of people he would surround me with as well as what characters. He considered all of it, which was good because I wasn’t considering. Death Proof definitely put me in a different direction because it didn’t just put me on the map as an actor, but in my head it put in the possibility of me being an actor. It put it in the forefront for me to the point of considering it.
Deciding that I should get representation, not really understanding what that means. I’m pretty sure I would never have started a career in acting if it weren’t for Death Proof. Pretty sure I wouldn’t have. It’s taken me awhile to wrap my head around it. I think I’m getting there now. Having someone like Quentin get behind you and saying, “I think you should consider this …” Holy mackerel! I should definitely consider that! Yeah. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am if it hadn’t been for Quentin.
Just say something about … I don’t know what you can say because I don’t even know how to ask … but that stuff where you’re on the hood of the car … that’s so crazy. It’s like watching Star Wars. It’s like, How did they do that?
(Laughing.) Um … yeah. Quentin and I have discussed how much I’m allowed to say. When it first happened, people were posting stuff online where they were doing Ship’s Mast … I was like, “Oh my God, people are going to die.” My compromise in saying how we did it is by saying that there was a safety. There was a safety for performance reasons, but what enabled us to make it so terrifying was that I was safe to throw myself around the car because I had a safety in place. The camera could get in close, the camera guy could come in while we were doing all the craziness. We could all push limits because we had the safety in place. If the safety hadn’t been in place, that sequence would be so much more boring. I wouldn’t be able to move without the fear of actually coming off at any given minute. And it enabled us to go at speeds that it feels like we’re going. We’re not faking it. It was awesome!
I’m happy with that. That’s a satisfactory answer. Do you want to say anything else about Raze and how you’re hoping it will perform when it comes out?
Of course, as a producer, I want everybody to see it and I want everyone to love it, I want to make heaps of money, and as an actor I want it to be super successful so that everyone puts me in heaps more action movies … that’s my ultimate hope. But, it’s definitely a very specific movie. I know there’s an audience out there for it. We’ve already found some of them. I just want to give it to those who will appreciate it the most because those who appreciate it really get a kick out of it. I hope it makes people think a little bit. There are fights in it that you’ve not seen before. I just hope it has an effect on people. The word “hope” feels so sort of hopeless. When I say “hope” it sounds sort of weak. I look forward to it having an effect on people. As you make the point – at your “bewilderment” – that this movie reach the right people and give them the faith that I can carry a movie … I would love that.
I consider you an action star. I don’t know if you consider yourself an action star or an actor or what, but you can answer that within this question … but I know that you have fans out there and I’m one of them, which is why I really pursued this interview with you. Is there anything you want to say to those who look up to you or consider you a role model? To your fans: Is there anything you want to say to them?
Yeah, truthful: Thank you. A lot of the fans I’ve had have been around since before Death Proof. The Xena days. There’s a documentary called Double Dare that a lot of people watched and were affected by. I think the thing that makes … it’s so weird to for me to even say the term “My fans … ” My support group (laughing) … they seem to be fans of what I represent more than me being famous in any way, which is what means the most to me. People say the sort of things like, “You make me want to be a better woman,” or “I’m glad my daughter has a role model like you.” Those have really hit home. It makes me want to continue doing what I can because to be that to people … I try and I hope that me staying as true to being myself as possible can be a part of that so that my need to be something for other people doesn’t start feeding into some form of dishonesty.
I’ve tried putting this in words before, and I always seem to stumble around it. It sounds kind of cheesy to say thank you to your fans, but I really mean thank you for being the kind of fans you are and for being fans of what you are fans of as opposed to being fans of me because I’ve worked with Quentin or because I’m on a screen somewhere. You make me proud to be the person I am, you know? Yeah.
All photos courtesy of david j. moore