A really enjoyable interview – originally for Empire Online – with the stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoë Bell, who started out doubling Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess, and got her own break in front of the camera in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. She was recently in Oblivion, and this piece was set up for the DVD release of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It’s okay though, we didn’t talk about that one for long.
You’re credited as “Tall Witch” in Hansel and Gretal. Which one’s that?
The tall one, don’tcha know [laughs]. She’s a bit less of a character after the editing than she was in the script, but it’s that first action scene. I bust out of the window and then Jeremy [Renner] and I end up in a big chase and they end up hanging me from a tree.
That sort of fantasy character is unusual for you. Did it make a lot of difference to the sort of action you had to perform?
It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do, which is kind of saying something. The costume and the get-up for that character weighed something crazy like fifteen or twenty pounds, in about nine different layers, plus three hours of prosthetic make-up, full-eye contacts, gloves, nails… It was physically really challenging, which ends up being mentally challenging too. I’m used to being pretty nimble, so all that stuff nearly got in the way, but then I had a moment of realisation that – forgive me for sounding like an actress for a moment – I was this witch, and she moved to get around the best she could. It became a bit of a character choice that her bad vision and her disability are part of how she moves. That’s also part of why she uses the broom all the time.
How do your projects find you these days? You’re famous now for being a stuntperson, which is an unusual position.
Yeah, I’m kind of in this weird spot, uninhabited by most, which absolutely has advantages and disadvantages. There is a little market that seems to be available to me, action-wise. Now that I’ve become more of an actor people come to me from time to time [with acting roles] and I move from the stunt world to the acting world. But Hollywood seems to be a bit like you either do one or the other, so branching into acting has been a lot of little roles in big movies, and bigger roles in small movies. I’m mixing them up. I love being able to do both sides of it. The action side of it comes so naturally to me that bringing in an emotional performance to it too is kinda fun.
What was your first acting role? Is it actually Death Proof, where most of us first became aware of you?
Yes, it was Death Proof. I’d had a couple of lines on a TV show, but other than that Death Proof was definitely the first time I had to remember dialogue. Quentin and I had formed a pretty good working relationship on Kill Bill, and he would deal with me, putting me in front of the camera as if I was one of the actors. He’d also seen the documentary about me and Jeannie Epper [Double Dare]. Me getting the job on Kill Bill and that whole experience became the third act of that documentary, and Quentin was a fan of it and decided he wanted to use me as a character in a movie. So then he wrote one and then told me about it!
Is acting a natural extension of your stunt work, or is it very different?
The toughest part for me was getting my head around the fact that I was in front of the camera, or rather than my face was now in front of the camera, and that that was now normal. My entire career had been about avoiding the camera seeing my face. But I was green enough to take it in my stride, and Quentin was like, ‘I don’t want you taking any classes; I know what I want from you and I know I can get it.’ I almost didn’t appreciate how daunting it should have been. It was like jumping in at the deep end of a pool, but the water was warm and I had floaties on. Quentin surrounded me with women who were professional and talented and supportive, and he knew we’d all get along like a house on fire.
Had acting ever occurred to you, or were you happy in a purely stunt career up until then?
Well I’d considered it, but it was never something I’d planned or really realistically seen myself doing. I wasn’t chafing at it. Now I’m in this place and I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe I should have started earlier!’ [laughs]. It’s a ballsy thing to do. It’s certainly scarier than jumping off buildings.
Have you got one eye on Gina Carano?
Haha! I’ll tell you, when I heard about Haywire I was like, ‘Oh you lucky… naughty word!’ But she’s an awesome girl and she worked so hard for that. It was nice to see those kind of fights: it was cool. I’d love to be the lead in another action movie. That’d be awesome. I did a little movie called Angel of Death. I was the lead in that, and there was another little one called Raze recently. They’re super low-budget, which has its own challenges. Raze was my first go at producing. I’ve been in the industry since I was 17, and I’ve developed all this knowledge and experience that I didn’t really realise until it was called on. I really enjoyed it.
There’s talk of a ‘female Expendables’: are you up for that?
I’m certainly keeping an eye on how that one develops… I’m sure there are hundreds of women that would love to be in that movie. People have told me they think I’d be perfect for it, but if they’re not the people actually making the film then it doesn’t matter what they think.
You’re better placed for it than many though, surely?
Well, make sure you tell that to the people that are making it!
How did you get started in the stunt business? Xena was your first gig, right?
Pretty much. My first job was a pilot called Amazon High, but yeah, my first real job was doubling Lucy [Lawless]. I was a gymnast for lots of years when I was younger, and then when I gave up gymnastics I was physically bored, and martial arts sounded cool. I picked Taekwondo because it had lots of kicks in it, and then through martial arts I just fell in with lots of guys who were being paid to do what I loved to do.
What was the first really scary thing you remember having to do?
Every single fight scared the shit out of me when I was first starting. This is actually the opposite of your question, but the first time I remember being kind of comfortable was… I can’t remember which episode it was, but I had to jump off a three story building on some wires, and I was standing at the top of this building dressed as Xena going, ‘God, this is what I DO! This is CRAZY!’ It was about four months in, and I finally realised, ‘Ah, I think I can do this.’ [laughs].
What are the stand-out stunts you’ve performed, do you think?
There was another one on Xena that was a massive bunch of fights over a number of mud pits, and I’d broken my toe over the weekend, running upstairs to the toilet. So I had to do this whole week of really intricate fight stuff with a broken toe. I remember that! Obviously the chase sequence in Death Proof is unforgettable. I love doing fight stuff, so Kill Bill was pretty epic. There was a high fall in Catwoman, which was about 22 storeys and I had to unravel and flip and do a bunch of stuff. That was the highest I’d ever done, so that was pretty exciting.
Have you ever been injured, other than breaking your toe going to the toilet?
Haha! I’ve broken my toes loads of times. But the only two injuries that really register are I fractured one of my vertebrae when I’d been on Xena for about a year. That was when I lost all my illusions of being invincible. But I was only about 19, so I was young and I mended quickly. And the second one was I bust my wrist and had to have surgery, and I was immobilised for about three or four months, and it took about a year of rehab: basically I couldn’t perform for about a year. That was at the end of Kill Bill. That one definitely shook me up a bit because I didn’t know what I could do if I couldn’t keep doing this stuff I’d been doing since I was a kid.
We spotted you in Oblivion…
I played a character called Kara, but the storyline that involved me ended up not really being in the movie, so I’m not in it much. But to be honest, when I’m seventh on a cast list with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, I’m OK with that. I’m one of Morgan’s underground renegades.
Do jobs like that just come to you, or do you have to audition?
Most of my jobs just come to me, but I’m battling really hard with my agents at the moment to be put into audition situations. It’s like, the people who know of me already know of me, and the people who don’t, don’t at all. So I’m trying to get in a position where I’m considered to be an actor by everybody as well [as a stuntwoman]. That’s the sort of challenging part. Auditioning is a whole different skill set altogether. It’s under-pressure make-believe.
If you’re also producing now do you have any thoughts that you might want to direct in the future?
Yeah, it’s been suggested to me and I’d love to give it a go… I’d have to surround myself with very experienced people. It’s never been something I’ve studied, but I’ve got some free time coming up at the end of May and I was thinking that maybe I’d like to do a couple of courses…