New Zealand native Zoë Bell has long since made a name for herself as a stunt performer having doubled for Lucy Lawless on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies. But once we saw her play herself in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” we saw she was a very entertaining personality to watch onscreen as well. Since then, Bell has been balancing stunt work with acting in films like “Whip It,” “Django Unchained” and “Oblivion.” Now she gets to combine those two talents in the viciously intense “Raze.”
In “Raze,” Bell plays Sabrina who is one of 50 women which have been abducted and imprisoned in a concrete bunker. She soon realizes this bunker is a modern day coliseum of sorts as the women are forced to fight one another to the death. If she doesn’t fight than her daughter will be murdered, so her choices are extremely limited to say the least. From start to finish, Bell is a riveting presence as she is driven to emotional extremes to do things she doesn’t want to do in order to protect the one she loves.
I was lucky enough to talk with Bell when she was doing press for “Raze,” and she proved to be as cool as she was in “Death Proof.” On the surface, “Raze” looks like your typical women-in-prison exploitation flick, but its director Josh C. Waller ends up taking this material much more seriously than you might expect. I talked with Bell about how she got involved in this movie, what kind of fighting styles were used in it and if she was instrumental in choreographing the brutal fight scenes. She also talked about what it’s like to be a stunt performer in show business today as opposed to years before, and she gave us an update on “The ExpendaBelles.”
Ben Kenber: “Raze” was different from what I expected it to be.
Zoë Bell: Well what were you expecting? I hope you weren’t expecting a romantic comedy.
BK: Oh no, I usually avoid those (Bell laughs). With so many different fighting styles around the world, was there any specific style of fighting you used in this movie?
ZB: There are all these action movies out there with samurais and stuff, but we didn’t want to have those kinds of fights at all. We wanted it to be real characters that were plucked from their lives and put in this really shitty situation. But as far as the characters are concerned, Sabrina comes from a military background, Teresa (Tracie Thoms) comes from a boxing background, Phoebe (Rebecca Marshall) is just street, and Cody (Bailey Anne Borders) is just the young girl who has to fight for her life. So the characters’ individual fight styles were less about the styles they were trained in and more about the life experience that they have, and it was really important for us that that come through. That’s what makes the fights different.
BK: What do you want audiences to get out of “Raze?”
ZB: I wanted the audience to have an experience of female fights that they maybe haven’t experienced before. I was looking to get more experience. I wanted to do female fights and stuff in a way that I’ve not done before. We wanted to take everything sort of heightened and strip all of that away. It was more just sort of like an experience I wanted to put out there for people. Ironically what’s ended up coming out of it is the joy that women audiences who have watched this movie have. It’s like they’re living vicariously through this womanhood and these actors, but also the characters and for all the right reasons, obviously the crazy ones, it’s satisfying. All the actors were just like, “This is so fucking cool that we are doing this film!” And that means the world to me because I’ve spent my life doing these kinds of films and I’ve gotten benefits from it as long as I can remember. It’s cool to be able to share that around a bit.
BK: How did the role of Sabrina come to you?
ZB: Sabrina came to me through the project really that was sort of… Kenny (Gage), Andy (Pagana, the producer) and Josh (C. Waller, the director) had also worked together on this project before I came aboard. Josh and I have known each other for a long time and when he threw my name in the mix, Kenny and Andy were excited about it and they brought me in. We all kind of vibed and jived and they asked me if I wanted to come on as a producer, and I got really excited and I said yes. At that stage it was still in a short format, and the role of Sabrina was really… I was just going to work on staging the fights basically. I worked with this woman named Christy and I created this whole story and at some level put a lot of preparations on her (Sabrina) for the short. But as it turned into a feature, a lot of the stuff I worked on before carried over to her in the feature script which was really cool. It’s a really fun way to go about it. It’s kind of an ass backwards way of going about it. We had problems doing it the way we did, but it was still pretty exciting.
BK: Did you work closely with director Josh C. Waller on the fight scenes in “Raze?”
ZB: Everything on this movie was pretty collaborative, but the fight scenes in particular because I have experience in that world and therefore I basically have a convenience when it comes to that stuff. We had a fight choreographer called James Young, and so basically we had James Young and we had me who was never going to be quiet about it. My forte is female action and what works well for women. There’s something about a female character in the way that she moves in the kind of choices that she makes in a fight situation, and Josh was very much about bringing emotional truth to those fights and these women. Kenny, having been a boxer for years and a real ring fighter, was one of the biggest cheerleaders for having female fights that were real that haven’t been seen before, so we had a lot of people that the fights were very important to on the creative side. So fortunately we all worked quite collaboratively together and I think we all ended up getting the fights we wanted. They are pretty cool.
BK: Did you do all your own stunts in this movie or were there some done by a stunt double?
ZB: Oh no, no, no, no. No one had a stunt double. There was one stunt that ended up not even making it into the movie which we brought in a stunt double for. We didn’t have time or the money, so the girls are all bringing it.
BK: Having been a stunt person for quite some time, what kind of changes have you experienced for stunt performers in the industry? Have things gotten better or worse?
ZB: I think work conditions for stunt people across the board have technically improved. There are more challenges in regards to safety and, having said that, when you get more technology it also enables you to push the limits. We’re always trying to do something new and bigger. Work conditions are what they were. As for work opportunities, now compared to 22 or 30 years ago, women were not really allowed to be stunt people. Guys would put on wigs and cover their hairy legs and double for women. As far as female action, it almost feels to me like it kind of goes back to where you’ve got “Xena” and “Alias” and all these… There is more female driven stuff now to where I feel like then there was for a long time. I think the type of action that’s acceptable for what females are doing now has probably shifted too. “Charlie Angel’s” was technically action and it was all females, and the action of the “Wonder Woman” to be done now, the type of action you’d see your committing would be far different to what was in the day.
BK: “Death Proof” really opened doors for you as an actress. At this point, does doing acting appeal to you more than stunts, or are you equally passionate about both?
ZB: “Death Proof” was definitely the catapult for me. It feels like it’s probably a good time to naturally progress over. If I’m being given these opportunities and I’ve worked hard enough to make that change, then that’s the next stage of wherever my career is taking me. I’ve had to be very conscious about not being in the industry as a stunt woman as much as an actress because, for myself certainly, I would very easily kind of slide back into the comfort zone of what I know well which is being a stunt girl and shy away from maybe what’s a little more challenging which has been acting. But also the intention of being seen as an actor and taken seriously by the industry, I think it was sort of important to me to sever ties from one so that I could fully commit to the other. It’s a shame but it’s part of the process, you know?
BK: Yes, it is. What was the budget for “Raze?”
ZB: Well I’m not sure that’s something I am allowed to say. We think it was $600,000 or $700,000. It was definitely well below $1 million.
BK: I was just curious because it looks like it cost a lot more than that.
ZB: Yeah, and it’s very important for us, I think, for people to know that the budget was incredibly low but that we are so proud of what we managed to do with well below $1 million. We are just in the process of doing a general audit just to double check the numbers, so I don’t want to put a number out there because I would be making it up, but I can basically say that it was well below $1 million.
BK: That’s interesting because what I’ve learned from most filmmakers is that working with less money forces you to be more creative. It certainly looks like you got a lot of creative stuff out of the budget that you had.
ZB: Yeah definitely, and we also got really lucky with the people that we had on board.
BK: Regarding the other actresses, did they have any fight training when they came onto this movie or did you help them out with that?
ZB: A lot of the girls had taken themselves and… I know Rebecca has been doing some kickboxing on her own time. Rachel Nichols has done a bunch of action films before. The girls are not meant to be… We didn’t need Rachel Nichols to walk in there and look like she had a black belt. We did a lot of work on the fights together before we shot it. James has done a lot with the choreography, Kenny worked on a lot of boxing with bags, and I just worked with them doing everything and anything they could when I had a minute. And most of when I was of use to the other women was just as a girl in how I approach it. So I spoke their language and that’s the gift I had to give. Everyone was just super dedicated and it was really touching to see these women always so dedicated to their roles.
BK: One last question, is there anything you can tell us about “The ExpendaBelles?” (This is an offshoot of “The Expendables,” and it was reported that Bell had been talking to the filmmakers about being in it.)
ZB: No, absolutely nothing. I have met with those guys. I don’t know if it was specific to… Well here’s what I can tell you about “The ExpendaBelles” and why I’m excited for that movie to be in existence whether I’m a part of it or not: I would love to be a part of it. That’s all I can tell you.
BK: Okay no problem. Well thank you very much for your time Zoë. This has been a lot of fun and you were terrific in “Raze.”
ZB: Thank you!