Why She’s On Our Radar: Gina Carano, 29, widely considered to be the face of Women’s Mixed Martial Arts, breaks out on the big screen in her first lead role as Mallory Kane, the take-no-prisoner action heroine of “Haywire,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. In the thriller, Carano’s character, a freelance covert operative, gets double crossed and does everything in her power (namely, killing a bunch of men) to clear her name.
More About Her: Born in Dallas, Carano is the daughter of former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Glen Carano. On top of specializing in the combat sport Muay Thai from an early age, Carano pursued a degree in psychology at the University of Nevada, but eventually gave it up to give fighting her all.
You don’t come from a world of fighting where you act WWF style; you fight. You kill it in the fight sequences in “Haywire,” but you also turn in a really solid performance. What in your experience as a fighter do you think accounts for the latter?
Why, thank you. I’ve had cameras on me since I started the art of fighting and I think that I’m used to having cameras on me in adrenaline-type situations. Filming this movie, every day I woke up it was a new experience. Every day I had adrenaline pumping. I think I just work better like that. It’s easier for me to be myself, or more natural, because that’s just who I am. I fall back to that first instead of trying too hard or over doing it.
Did you see any similarities between you and Mallory? Not in her backstory, but in the way that she approaches life like an adrenaline junkie?
Definitely. Fighting is very physical and extreme and you’re very vulnerable. It’s a very mental type of thing. I think that acting, especially in this situation — this being my first time with the wonderful cast and director, I was surrounded by and traveling to places I’ve never before — it was just another extreme of adrenaline pumping. It was kind of just like a do-or-die type of thing. I don’t have another choice but to get this done because we’re here in Dublin, so if it’s going to happen regardless I might as well make it happen the best I can possibly make it.
When you were making this movie, what intimidated you more: The stunt side of it, or the acting bits where you can’t rely of your fighting technique?
I think that Steven wanted to keep me busy, so even when I was having quiet moments, I was drinking champagne (but) not actual champagne. He always had me doing something physical to keep me busy. He was so great because he kept me busy and kept me out of my head and concentrated on what I was doing.
Steven’s been doing the press rounds saying you were his only pick. Take me back to that experience of him sitting you down and asking you to be the lead in “Haywire.”
He contacted my agent and I had just lost my first MMA fight, so traveled from San Jose down to San Diego pretty bummed out. With a black eye. My agent called me saying, “I’m really sorry about what happened in the past couple of days, but can you please do me favor and take this meeting with the director?” At first I was like, “I’m really sorry but I don’t want to talk to anybody.” He was like “It’s Steven Soderbergh.” I didn’t know who that was. He said he’d directed “Traffic” and a bunch of other movies. “Traffic” was the one that stuck out for me.
I went to go pick him up at the train station in San Diego and I took him to lunch and we sat there for about four hours. It was just two normal people. When I picked him up from the train station, he was the nicest guy. I hadn’t at that point met many directors. We just had a normal conversation. We didn’t talk about films that much, just life. At the end of it, he asked if I wanted to do a movie and I said yes.
You said yes, right away?
Yeah, I said, “Absolutely.”
What was it about his vibe that sold it to you? You no doubt must have been nervous taking on a lead role in your first feature film.
I think it was how professional he was with me and how he was describing what he wanted to do. He told me his style. He eventually sent me a couple of his movies in which I could see that Steven Soderbergh definitely has his style. His films are unique. I didn’t know that then, but when he was explaining what he wanted out of this film — he said that he wanted something very realistic in that he didn’t have a script yet; he would get the script written in a way that spoke to me. I just believed in him. You can tell he’s a very smart man and he holds himself as such. He’s got a certain confidence behind the way that he talks.
You bring a style of your own to the film that melds so beautifully with his directorial style. Your acting has this clear-cut drive and your fighting is so clean, much like the film itself. It’s relentless and incredibly dynamic. What was your working relationship like? Were you always on the same wavelength?
I’m actually a shyer person. I don’t know if he’s shy, but he definitely knows what he wants. So our relationship was more of an unspoken one. I had trust that he knew what he was doing and that he brought me on this, because he had this vision. He really introduced me to this world. It wasn’t easy, but it was enlightening. I could get everything from him in just a look.
That’s fascinating because so much of the film is captured in your look; a lot of the beats are hit in just your eyes.
Oh, thank you. That’s exactly what he said. That’s interesting.
Can you take me back to your first day on set?
(Laughs) My first day on set was in Dublin with Michael Fassbender. There were no speaking roles that day, but nevertheless I was extremely nervous. We were all at the train station and it was the moment where I pick him up and we embrace.
Fassbender came up to Steven and I and said, “You know if we’re pretending to be husband and wife, I should kiss you.” I had never done this before, so it made me that much more nervous! (laughs) My face is shaking during that whole scene. The first day of my filming career and I have a kiss. Fassbender isn’t a bad guy to look at, either, so it was very intense moment for me. I’m supposed to be this badass and I’m there looking like a little schoolgirl (laughs). That was my first day.
If you look really closely at that scene, I am definitely giddy.
Enough about you being nervous on set; my guess is that the actors Soderbergh lined up were no doubt nervous about going up against you in the fight sequences. What was it like having that kind of effect on the cast?
That was beautiful thing about it. I knew I was bringing something to the table. I was bringing physicality and a level of experience that nobody else – even the stunt people – had. I didn’t realize how much confidence I have in my fighting skills until I was on set there. At the same time, I was very vulnerable on the acting side of it. So it was a really beautiful tradeoff where they all sat down with me and ran lines with me, educated me. Whether they knew it or not, I was observing everything I possibly could to make my character believable and not over the top. The last I wanted to be was a cheesy sports person coming into a movie and just hamming it out.
With the fight scenes, they were very vulnerable in that they were dealing with a female. But there was no ego involved.
About the fighting, my knowledge of the MMA world starts and ends with the movie “Warrior.”
(Laughs) I love that.
I watched some of your fights on YouTube. The thing that struck me the most, especially after seeing “Haywire,” is that it ain’t glamorous. “Haywire” is brutal and violent, but it’s also sleek as hell. Did you have to adapt your fighting style to meet Soderbergh’s vision?
I think I came up in fighting in a really technical way. If you’ve ever seen my fights, you know I love distance, I love technique. Of course, fighting is not going to be as graceful as movie fighting. I don’t like it to be ugly and I don’t like it to be one big brawl or people clobbering each other. I like there to be technique and I think that really comes through in the film.
Soderbergh went to the stunt guys and me and said, “I want this to be very realistic.” The stunt guys know my fighting, of course, so they knew my style and they all just complimented each other very nicely. So much that they invited me to their gym. It was really beautiful (laughs).
This must have been the job of a lifetime for them.
Yeah, but at first they would look at me funny. They had probably never gotten the chance to work with a female who isn’t an actress. Here I am, an athlete and I’m the star of the film. Finally after a couple of weeks they started treating me normally like another one of them. That’s how I preferred it.
Do you have any more acting gigs lined up?
To be really honest, I feel like a lot of people have probably been skeptical and waiting for this to come out. I know that. I know that this isn’t the easiest world to break into. I think people have been really receiving the movie well. I’ve gotten such great compliments, so we’ll just see what happens after this.
A friend of mine told me something very wise. She said, “Just be smart with what you do. Don’t sell yourself short.” I’m definitely going to do what’s right and pick something that fits me. We’ll see what happens.
Any talks of a Bourne type spin-off with “Haywire”?
I don’t know. Of course, it was built into the contract.
That’s good news.
Yeah. That’s completely up to Steven. Who knows? Sometimes things are best left as a single experience.
I hope not.
I hope not, too! But everything happens and I’ll just keep on doing what I have to do. All I need is an outlet to express myself, whether that is in fighting or acting. I’ll always be finding that.