Native New Zealander Zoe Bell spent years as an accomplished stunt double for Lucy Lawless of Xena: Warrior Princess before doubling for Uma Thurman on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. After establishing a rapport with the auteur, Tarantino opened the doors to her acting career by casting her as one of the leads in Death Proof, his segment of 2007’s joint project with Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse. With roles in this year’s upcoming films Gamer and Whip It!, Bell was on hand at Comic-Con to promote her actioner Angel of Death, out on DVD this week, and we were able to sit down with her for a lengthy chat. Read on to discover the Kiwi’s Five Favorite Films, what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino, and what it’s like to transition from stunt work to acting.
I’ll give it a shot. “Favorites” questions are my least liked questions because I’ve never been any good at favorites. But I’ll give it a shot. I’ll probably disappoint every fan out there. The ones that stick out as being my favorites, most of them are from when I was young, because movies just meant something different to me when I was a kid than what they mean to me now. They still mean a lot to me, but also it’s, once you start working in the film business, your appreciation shifts.
The Neverending Story, without a doubt. I loved that movie. I thought the girl in that was hot. I thought she was so cute. I was like, “I want to be her when I grow up.” Wear a necklace on my forehead and say, “Call my name, Sebastian. Call my name!” I remember, I was living on an island; we didn’t have a movie theater, we just had a town hall. Every now and then they would drop a big sheet and a projection thing. We’d sit on wooden chairs. So, The Neverending Story.
And Labyrinth. Labyrinth was sort of the same… Loved Labyrinth. I watched it again recently and had a total adult crush on David Bowie. I used to just think he was cool, and now I’m like, “Oh my God, he’s so hot in that movie.” So 80s and glam rock. And I think both of those movies are sort of, really so fancy, but there was something… I don’t know. To me, I didn’t feel like I was suspending reality. It just was like, “That’s the world this movie exists in, and I want to be in it,” you know what I mean? I just love both of those movies.
I know everyone’s expecting me to list off all these action movies, but Stand By Me. There’s something about the relationships and the performances in that movie that I found really inspirational. And this is before I was even considering being an actor. I just found it to be one of the more true, real, honest sort of movies that really had an effect on me. I watched it a week ago and got goose bumps. Especially with the whole River Phoenix thing and how he disappears at the end. How genius is he in the movie? There’s something about a movie like that that can be so effective with no gimmicks.
I’ve got two more to go, and the ones that popped into my head are the Lethal Weapon movies! I love the Lethal Weapon movies. I know I shouldn’t claim them all together but the combination of humor and action and the relationship between Glover and Gibson is just… That’s the kind of stuff that I watched and was like, “I want to do that!” It never occurred to me that that meant acting. Those are the kind of movies that I could watch over and over and over and know every line and it not be a problem that I know every line; I still enjoy the effect it has on me, you know what I mean?
This is going to sound ridiculous because it’s going to sound like I’m doing a bunch of ass-licking but Pulp Fiction. And I shouldn’t hesitate, because it’s good cinema, but… I remember watching Pulp Fiction — whatever age I was, teenage years somewhere — and really struck at the cleverness of it and loving that you can have something as violent, but as humorous and as… I could feel — you know, because I didn’t know him as a person at that point; he was just the director — but I could feel his brain working in the conversations in his head, and his opinions about stuff. The conversations that were like, “I’ve had conversations like that about why you call it a quarter pounder or a royale with cheese.” It was so clever and reachable by me. And I wasn’t a film buff, I wasn’t sort of like a fan about any of that stuff. It just really spoke to me, it was so clever. Then I went back and watched Reservoir Dogs. I think I’d seen it before but I went back and watched it again. But yes, Pulp Fiction was definitely… Actually, it’s cool that I get to say that; I’m happy to be able to say that.
Next, Bell talks about getting to know Quentin Tarantino and what being an actor means to her.
RT: What was it like, having had Pulp Fiction make such a big impact, and then meeting Quentin Tarantino?
Zoe Bell: Kind of unreal. And it wasn’t unreal like I felt faint and thought I was going to pass out or start vomiting out a bunch of dumb sh**, but he was sort of open and excited and I just felt the same way. It was like, “Nice to meet you!” and then cut to three days later, they’re like, “Okay, we need you to come to China, and you’ve got the job.” I’m like, “What, what? Wait, what? Really?” And then meeting Quentin and working with him was so… I was definitely in awe of him, certainly, but not in the way that implies “intimidated” or “scared” or “freaked out,” because he was so unfrightening to me. There were no pretenses; I didn’t feel like he was walking around with this, like, “You must bow to me”… Nothing like that.
And I think, also, my history was I worked in New Zealand for four years before Kill Bill, and I was working on Xena for most of it, and the lead, Lucy [Lawless], who’s a Kiwi, and Renee [O’Connor], who’s not a Kiwi, were two of the most grounded, open, relaxed, low-drama, low maintenance actresses ever, and so I was just accustomed to the New Zealand way of it. So it never occurred to me that I needed to feel less worthy than or put myself below in any way, shape, or form. So I think I came at [Tarantino] that way, and he came at me that way, and it wasn’t until I started writing home like, “Oh, bla bla bla Quentin” that people were like, “Ooh, first name basis.” And I’m like, honestly, after three months, what am I going to call him? “Quentin Tarantino?” Like, “Hi Quentin Tarantino, how’s your day?”
But it was pretty phenomenal watching him work and being a part of that. It’s really not until it’s finished and I’m talking to other people about it, like when I’m talking to you about it, that I go, “No, if I was on the other side, I’d be like, ‘Dude! What was that like?'”
RT: Ship’s Mast — that was so awesome.
ZB: Yeah, thank God he’s got the brain as f***ed up as he does, because that was cool! And that was all from his head. When he first came to me with the script, I was in a state of shock, you know, because we hadn’t had any discussions about it that I could recall that meant that he was expecting me to be one of the leads, and had forty pages that had me speaking in it. I was like, “Are you f***ing mental? What if I’m terrible at it? What if I hate it, or what if I’m bad at it?” That was the most important thing. I was like, I don’t want to be the girl who destroys a Tarantino movie, you know? And he was like, “Yeah, but that’s my choice. I’m choosing you, and I make good decisions.” And I can’t argue, you can’t argue with Tarantino, you know, about these things. He could see I was definitely in a bit of shock. I was honored and freaked out and a little bit like, “Did you think about checking in with me before you wrote this whole movie?” So he took me out for beers, because he knows me; clearly he knows me. And then he was like, “Let me tell you about the action sequence, because I think you’re going to be sold.” And he described it to me, and I was like, “Alright, I’m in! I’ll do it!” So much fun, so much fun working with him like that.
I mean, I realize how fortunate I am. I know there are people out there that are like, “Screw you. She didn’t have to work for it. And bla bla bla.” There are people that want to know that I know how hard it is for other people, and that I was very fortunate. And the truth is, I know all that; I’m fully aware of it. And, I’ve worked hard as a stunt person; I just didn’t have the intention of doing what Quentin apparently had the intention of doing with me. And now I’m here, now I do have to work really hard to maintain it and keep going from here, because other people aren’t just going to give me stuff like he did. I mean, there are… Listen, Ed Brubaker wrote Angel of Death for me; what am I going on about? But, you know, it requires hard work, and I’m really willing to do that. I really enjoy where this career is going. To have it start off that way, I’m like, you gotta do something with it, you know what I mean? It’s ridiculous.
RT: At what moment did you consider yourself an actor?”
ZB: That was a really slow process. I think probably because there was part of me that struggled with whether I deserved to be able to call myself that, a little bit like on a subconscious level. Not like a “poor me” thing. And maybe no one thinks that, and maybe it’s just all in my head and I’m just projecting. But it was really, for me… You know, I worked on a couple of movies, Gamer and Whip It!, and then we did Angel of Death, and it was probably, to be honest, leading up to the audition for Angel of Death, it was like, when these guys said to me, “We want you — and we need you — to carry this whole f***ing movie.” And I was like, “Oh my God, if I say yes to this, I really have to pull finger. This is not me being myself; this is a character that’s not me, I am carrying the whole movie, and I need to be committed for real. And I need to put my ego and my shame and all of that sh** out the window.” And at that point it was like, I need to earn it. And once I felt like I’d earned it, then it was like, well, along with it comes the right to call myself an actor, you know? I didn’t call myself a stuntwoman until I was trained and working as one, and there was a point where I went, “Okay, I can earn this now.” It took me a little while with stunts, too. And, you know, I’ve been going to acting class, and I’ll be going to acting class until I’m not acting any more, and I think that’s all part of it. But it took me a little while to wrap my head around it. Probably shouldn’t be telling you that, but it really did.
RT: No, I appreciate the honesty.
ZB: My publicist is like, “Stop being honest with f***ing journalists!” and I’m like, “Sorry!”
RT: Angel of Death looks like a female Bourne Identity kind of action movie.
ZB: Yeah, it’s pretty much female Bourne with about an eightieth of the budget. [laughs] It’s really low budget, but for the budget we had, the outcome is amazing. We had such fantastic people working on it. And yeah, female Bourne is cool. I’ll take that. Look out, Matt Damon!
RT: Was it coincidence that you and Lucy Lawless were in the movie together?
ZB: No, that was definitely her doing a favor for me and Paul [Etheridge]. If I’m getting it correct, Paul wanted her to be in there, and the role was written for her, with her in mind. She came in, she was just in there for a day, kicked a**, rocked that character so hard, and left. Everyone was like,””F***, she’s the coolest thing ever.” She just came in with like this cool breath of fresh air, Kiwi whirlwind, knocked sh** about and gave it an awesome performance, then left, and everyone was like, “We love her.” And I said, “I know, I know.”
RT: Looking towards the future, are you considering roles that are outside of the action genre?
ZB: At this point, I just got hooked up with a new management company and we’re really excited. We’re sort of getting together a game plan. So, hopefully Angel of Death 2 goes, because I’m just like, this sounds cool, and we’re talking about what would happen in it, and Ed’s really excited to write it, and he’s told me what he wants, and I’m all excited about it. Basically, action is obviously something that I am really passionate about. I have talent lying in that arena… “I have talent lying in that arena.” What kind of English is that? [laughs] Me trying to be modest and just screwing up my English.
Anyway, that’s also where people are comfortable, because I really haven’t done a lot of acting, so if people are going to put money behind me, they want to feel confident and do something that they can be confident in me doing. And I love it, so we’re definitely looking at those kind of roles. And we’re looking at a TV series that we want to put together. So there’s a bunch of things in the developmental stages, but I’m really excited at the concept of… I love the idea of doing comedy. Even if it’s action comedy, but comedy really appeals to me. And I would love to do things that put me outside of my comfort zone, because basically — I know this sounds weird because I jump off buildings for a living, or I used to jump off buildings for a living — I got comfortable with that kind of discomfort. The acting is putting myself outside my comfort zone in a whole different way, and that’s part of what I find really intriguing and inspiring about it. So yeah, I definitely am open to the roles outside of the typical action role that you would assume I’d do. But, you know, if I have to build respect and a reputation before people are comfortable or willing to do that, then I’m willing to do that, but I’m definitely open to any.
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