Zoë Bell was a few minutes early to her interview at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and to get my attention she called me on the phone and then stuck the better part of her torso out of her car window and waved both of her arms grandly. She’d just gotten back from a film festival in Florida; she was organizing outfits for the premiere of the new movie Oblivion, in which she plays Kara, a renegade human on earth after a devastating alien attack; and she was about to jet off to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, where her female-death-match movie Raze premieres this week. The Quentin Tarantino darling — her first acting role was in Tarantino’s Death Proof in 2007, and since then she’s appeared in three of his other films — is in the throes of a transition from stuntwoman to actress-who-can-do-that-stunt-herself-thank-you-very-much, and so she’s hesitant to take roles where the acting takes a backseat to the stunt work. She hesitated when she saw the script for Oblivion — her character didn’t even have a name at that point. She thought she shouldn’t do it. “And then I reminded myself that it was Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, and I was like, psh, even if it doesn’t turn into anything,” she said.
That kind of “just do it” attitude is what got Bell, who is now 34, her first stunt gig on Xena in 1998, and what landed her a job on Kill Bill when she had only planned a three-month holiday in Canada (she never moved back to New Zealand), and what landed her a producing gig on Raze, a short film that accidentally became a feature. It’s also what busted her wrists getting “shot” on the set of Kill Bill to the point that she couldn’t walk on her hands for months. For a woman who typically walks on her hands a lot, that can trigger an identity crisis. It’s pretty clear that she’s got grit — in the middle of the interview, she picked up a bee off the pavement with her bare fingers and coaxed it into flying away.
At what stage did you get involved with Raze?
Zoë Bell: Very early on. Initially sort of the concept was to have it be either a short film where my character would come in at the very end, sort of a cameo, or the first episode of a web series. That was sort of the initial plan, and once I came on as a producer, we were still sort of in the “maybe it’s a short film” or “it could be the first episode of a web series,” and then we started shooting our first shoot, it was a six-day shoot, and sort of halfway in the middle of that, someone posted something [online]. It sort of just started generating heat, and we had people from Germany asking if we had distributors, and we were all a bit like, Oh, shit. Um, right. So not only do people think that we’re shooting it as a feature, they assume we’re making it and we’re in the middle of shooting it. That was November . So then over Christmas we had Robert Beaucage and Kenny [Gage, a producer] and Josh [Waller, the director] also got together, and Robert wrote a feature script, and then by the seat of our pants, we were flying around finding people to fund it, and it all just sort of snowballed from there. If we’d done it by the book straight off the bat, there’s a good chance it would never have got made into a feature. It’s one of those, like, you take those freak opportunities and just close your eyes and decide to run with it and wake up and go, oh, shit, okay, now we’re doing it.
In the movie, 50 women are abducted.
ZB: Basically it’s about sort of a twisted society. Fifty women are abducted, they do this every five or 10 years, we haven’t clarified that yet. And they abduct 50 women and keep them captive and then force them to fight to the death. So basically if you don’t fight, your [hostage] loved one dies. If you lose, if you die, your loved one dies. So there’s a real sense of motivation outside of self-preservation, you know? Which I feel like, one of the things that was important to us with having it be female action was that there’s an element of truth to it. That was important to me, and I really wanted to see some real, visceral female action. And listen, I’m not against pushup bras and makeup — I’ve done my fair share of it. But I kind of felt like I hadn’t seen real, gritty female fights. That’s what we’re hoping translates. And I just think it’s sort of society’s views on stuff — what is that, do you reckon? (Bell points at a plastic baggie on the ground, which could be filled with either wet Band-Aids or discarded bacon fat.)
ZB: Ew. Yuck. I think we can safely go with disgusting. And yeah, so I’m by no means against women in feminine roles. I would love to do a romantic comedy. Um. That’s not Raze. [But] as it goes on, these relationships with the women, and watching them die and fight for who they care for and by the end of it — I just gave myself goose bumps. (Her right arm does indeed have goose bumps.)
So you began in stunt work. Did you always think that you would start acting?
ZB: (laughs) No. I would definitely have thoughts of, sort of whimsical, oh, imagine this, but I’d never — my mum sent me on an acting course to help with my stunt stuff, and she knew I’d probably enjoy it, and I loved it, and it still didn’t really occur to me. And then I think you tend to identify yourself as something in your head, subconsciously or consciously. My identity became very strongly: Tomboy. Jock. Stuntgirl. It was really Quentin writing me into a movie [Death Proof] and telling me after the fact. P.S. Here’s a movie, and you’re in it. I was like, What the fuck? You mean I have to remember words? What if I can’t act? What if I… He just looked at me and he said, Zoe, I’m Quentin Tarantino, and I don’t make bad casting decisions.
And then you worked with him again in Django Unchained.
ZB: Yes. And Inglourious Basterds. I’ve worked with him on every movie since. I doubled two of the girls — the lead two blondies — in Germany, when we were doing Inglourious. And then Django, it was this tiny little cameo, but that was — he took me out to lunch, he’s like, “I’m trying to figure out how to write you into this movie, but you’re white and female and kind of pretty.” And I was like, “Well, that’s kind of a compliment — thanks, mate.”
You’ve been injured kind of seriously a couple of times.
ZB: Yep. It’s, like, my least favorite topic. For obvious reasons, I guess. During Xena, I think it was my first year, so I was still suffering from teenage invincibility complex, and I committed to doing a gag that in fact the stunt coordinator had said, “I don’t think that’s gonna work — we should change it,” and I was like, “I can make it work! Da-da-daaaahhhh!” Or whatever deluded teenage thinking. And so I tried it, and it didn’t work, and we think I fractured one of my vertebrae, and was kind of out for 10 weeks, and aside from the massive realization that I wasn’t invincible, the other thing that kind of hit me was that it was my first actual realization of the respect I should have for my body. Then on Kill Bill, towards the very end, we were kind of pressured for time, and it was just a bunch of minute, basic steps — not a bunch, one or two basic steps that should always be part of what happens but were sort of skipped, and I ended up being fired way past the mat, and busted my wrists up, and that put me out for a good year. That one screwed with my head. That one was sort of an identity crisis moment. I couldn’t crawl for eight or nine months: I couldn’t baby-walk, you know? Having been able to walk on my hands since I was 8 or something, that was disturbing. I think the identity thing that I was telling you about, that suddenly — Oh wow, so awesome. (We have walked into a large tomb.) Wow. So do they have coffins behind there? Are they cremated?
I think these are coffins.
ZB: Amazing. Yeah, so I think that was sort of the who am I if I can’t walk on my hands again? Who am I if I’m not a stuntwoman? Who am I was the big one, and I think that was sort of a big enough question that it eluded me for a while, and it spun me out. My first couple of jobs back were all — I don’t know, it shifted me, and it took me a while to appreciate that I’d been shifted. I was like, okay, I’ve grown into somebody slightly different due to this. But it took me a while to figure it out.
Did you answer the question for yourself, what if I couldn’t be a stuntwoman?
ZB: I don’t think it ever came in the form of a complete answer, like, “Oh, I’ll be a chef!” Done. Check! The reality is, if I wasn’t a stuntwoman, I remember thinking that as much as I love my work and I love the feeling of success with stuff, that actually, (We emerge from the tomb.) that doesn’t have to define the most important things in my life. It’s a lesson I have to keep reminding — it’s nice to be asked about it, actually. As I’m saying it, I’m like, “Oh, that’s right. I learned that lesson and frequently forget it again.”
Can you tell me about working with Morgan Freeman?
ZB: I had an instant crush on Morgan. I remember one day being like, I have to go up and meet him now, otherwise what happens if, for some reason, I never get the opportunity again, and I’ve worked with him and I haven’t met him? So I kind of walked up to him and I’m kind of nervous, I went to walk up to him and I tripped on a cable, and I literally fell into his lap. I was just like, Really? The girl who’s paid to be coordinated tripped and fell into Morgan’s lap.
(At this point, a peacock raises its massive tail and starts shaking it so that it makes a vibrating sound at four peahens.)
ZB: Hello? Hello? He’s trying to get laid. Isn’t that amazing. The ladies do not care. That looks like it’s very hard for him to maneuver with.
Doesn’t look like it’s very aerodynamic.
ZB: It looks stunning, though. Beautiful. The ladies don’t care.
This interview has been edited and condensed.