Kiwi stuntwoman and sometimes actress Zoe Bell is best known for her standout turn atop the hood of a moving car in Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof." She played a small role in his hit follow-up "Django Unchained" but remained masked throughout, not getting an opportunity to shine. That changes with "Raze," her first headlining endeavor that world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to solid notices from genre purists.
In this sly subversion of the women-in-prison genre, Bell plays Sabrina, who's mysteriously abducted and finds herself in an underground lair forced to do battle with other women for the amusement of an audience.
Indiewire sat down with Bell in New York during the festival to discuss her relationship with Tarantino (who she first met on the set of the "Kill Bill" films -- she was Uma Thurman's stunt double) and where she sees her career going following "Raze."
Was headlining a film on your game-plan when you first got started in this industry as a stuntwoman?
No, not at all. I did drama at school and when I was doubling Xena, one time for my birthday mom and dad bought me an acting course 'cause I've always liked the performance side of anything. Even when I was a gymnast, the floor was my favorite. If I could get the crowd clapping and getting into it, I was like "Yeah!" I feed off that.
But in terms of being an actual actress, it never occurred to me. I mean, being a stuntwoman never occurred to me until I gave up gymnastics and started doing martial arts and met people that were stunt people. I was like, "What? Wait. You get to fight and flip and get paid?" I was like, "Mum, dad, check this out -- I could do this stuff and get paid instead of having you guys pay for me to do it." I got into stunts that way because in New Zealand it was small at the time. I knew someone and made a call and felt like a dick but it worked.
The acting thing -- I would watch people that I was doubling and it never was like, "Oh I could do better," but how fun would it be to do both sides of this character, to do the whole thing? That feeling was only fleeting. And then I worked with Quentin on "Kill Bill" and he basically communicated with me as an actor. He would talk to me about my motivation. I was like, "What? Paycheck, dude, that's my motivation." The way he wanted me to look at it was novel to me. Though his of experience working with me on "Kill Bill," he formed an idea of wanting to put me as a character into one of his movies. I wasn't privy to this idea until after he'd written the script for "Death Proof."
I was terrified of dialogue and I was terrified of having my face open to the camera showing my emotions -- all those things...
That you're asked to hide as a stuntwoman.
That I professionally am required to hide. So once that happened, it struck me as sort of natural progression of where my career might go. Not to say that this has been an easy transition by any means. Convincing the rest of the world, the money people, the producers...
You had to produce this movie in order to get it off the ground.
Right, because we need a name, we need bums in seats, which I also as a producer, totally get now. It's sort of trying to do it in a persistent and polite manner and also keep in touch with the fact that I believe I'm good at it, or that I'm worthy. Because you get told no enough times, it's easy to start believing the universe or start interpreting the universe as saying it.
This is super exciting, being the lead. And being the producer is sort of like one band-aid rip out weighs the other. "Oh my god, I'm carrying the show and I'm in so many frames and there are going to be so many people watching and judging and blah blah"... and then I'm like, "Wait a minute, I'm also the producer and that's a whole different kind of scary." It's a really proud moment to be. We put so much literal blood, sweat and tears, a lot of us put our own money into it as producers. It's worth so much more to me, just the experience and having made a movie... anyone having made a feature film now, even if it's shit, I'm like, "Good on you!" It's a feat.
In many ways the film has a lot in common with "Death Proof," given its grindhouse roots and girls-gone-bad storyline. Is that just a coincidence? Are you attracted to that genre after delving into Tarantino's world?
I came on more during the conceptual beginnings of it and was inspired by the energy and the creative ideas of the people that I was saying yes to. There was a hunger in me that was like yes!
I never was fanatical about films when I was younger. I grew up on an island without TV. We didn't have a cinema on the island. I remember watching "Wizard of Oz" and "Neverending Story." That was pretty much all I saw when I was under the age of 8 or 9. When I was working with Quentin on "Death Proof," it was really the beginning of my education in cinema in general. But particularly that sort of genre, older b type grindhousey. I became a Steve McQueen fan almost overnight. I watched a couple of the McQueen movies and was like, "I wanna marry that man" or "I just wanna be that man." So it wasn't a coincidence but I definitely felt comfortable with it and we also wanted it to be a shift on some of those things. We didn't want it to be a women in prison movie -- we didn't want it to be just a fight movie. I wanted to tell some stories and I, as an actress and as a stunt double, haven't had much experience with visceral real women fights. I love all kinds of action, but it was interesting for me to see if we could put a spin on it that I hadn't experienced before.
In your mind, does this mark your biggest career high since "Death Proof"?
"Death Proof" was obviously massive but "Kill Bill" was massive for me as a stuntwoman and "Xena" was massive before that. I did But yeah, in terms of the combined feeling of awe and excitement and pride in cast, crew and everyone who worked on this show? Without a doubt. I feel like this is my baby -- it's lots of people's babies, of course, and I feel responsible to everybody on it, that it be good. And I feel responsible to audience members as someone who represents action and females around the world, it's really important to me that we get this part of it right.
Making "Death Proof," what scared you more: Quentin's lengthy dialogue scenes or riding atop a car going at warp speed?
The dialogue. Definitely. The car stuff we do as stunt people. I feel like the more comfortable you are with something, the more terrifying you can make it look or the more painful you can make it appear. I remember going to watch "Disney on Ice" when I was a little kid with my mom and there was someone as Goofy on ice skates and he looked like he was always going to fall over. I was like, "Mom, he can't even skate." And i remember my mom saying in order to make it look that clumsy, he needs to be really good otherwise he'd be falling over all the time. That's what we do. I need to be good at what I do in order to make it look like it hurt when that person hit me or when I tripped or when I'm holding on for dear life when I'm on that car.
And you were right? Holding on for dear life?
I was but I had a safety. But I needed that safety so I could throw myself around so that it scared you when you watched it. Otherwise I'd be terrified and the whole chase sequence would just be me frozen because I would die if I came off that thing at 90 miles an hour, without a doubt. But that is my comfort zone.
Watch her in action below: