Zoe Bell is, by all accounts, something of a legend within the stunt community. One of the two subjects of 2004 documentary Double Dare, she doubled for Lucy Lawless on Xena, Sharon Stone on Catwoman and has performed stunts in movies like Poseidon and The Kingdom.
Her big-screen break came in 2003, when Quentin Tarantino bought Bell onto Kill Bill to double for Uma Thurman. Befriending the director lead to her first talking role as a self-named lead character in Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse and a film paying particular homage to the stunt community.
RT caught up with Bell in Edinburgh to find out more about her role and her experience as a bona-fide Tarantino character.
What was it like to have Quentin say, “Come and be in my movie”?
Zoe Bell: Shocking. Shocking good, but shocking. At first I thought he wanted me to play a little cameo role and I was kind-of excited. Just even to work with Quentin again, I was like, “Yay! Be on set with Quentin again, that’ll be fun! And he’s playing a little bit of homage to the stunt community, and that’s cool.” I was thinking I could get to do some cool action – that’d be choice – you know. But when he brought me the script I realised I was quite mistaken and that, in fact, there was a bunch of line learning I was going to have to do, not to mention dialogue delivery. I went from just being incredulous, like, “What were you thinking? Are you mental?” Because the truth was, I could have been terrible. For all I knew, I could have been really bad at it. Of course the second part after that, I was pretty touched. Not that he was doing it as a favour to me by any means, but it was a bit of an honour, really, not just that he wanted me to star in the movie but that he wanted me as a character in the movie. That’s cool; it means that I’m like a cool Quentin Tarantino character!
You’re a walking Tarantino creation, that’s unique!
ZB: Yeah, I know! And it took me a little while to get my head around that to be honest with you. And I think oftentimes I forget that Quentin is Quentin Tarantino, you know. I was definitely nervous about letting him down. More than just embarrassing myself in front of the masses, which occurred to me a little bit later, I was like, “God, I don’t want to be the person to fuck up a Tarantino movie.” I didn’t want to be anything less than what Tarantino’s standard is and I didn’t know if I had that.
He basically turned to me and was like, “Zoe, I’m Quentin Tarantino. I don’t make bad decisions and you’re my decision, so get over it.” Umm… Fair call. What are you going to do, fight Quentin Tarantino on moviemaking?
Had you ever delivered dialogue before?
ZB: No. Well, I did two lines on a TV show called Cleopatra 2525 really badly with an American accent; it was terrible! [laughs] I was maybe 20 or something.
To go from that to not only delivering dialogue, but delivering dialogue as a lead character, and then delivering Quentin Tarantino dialogue as a lead character… That’s got to fuck you up a bit!
ZB: I know! It’s like modern-day Shakespeare!
When you’re in Quentin’s hands and you’ve got three brilliant actresses with you, does that settle the nerves on set?
ZB: Definitely. I did so much line-reading with the girls beforehand that I just didn’t even think about my words when the camera was rolling, you know, I didn’t have to. And just being around Quentin again was so easy and normal for me because it had been that way before. As a team I felt really supported from all angles. And not just from a, “You can do it! High Five!” type stuff, but they just expected no less of me. There wasn’t that sense of, “Oh, I reckon you’ll be OK at it. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” It was more, “Well come on, let’s do it. Let’s act. Let’s go!” And I respond well to that. My, “Oh, fuck, OK,” instinct takes over!
And we had so much fun. It sounds really clichéd to say that but we had so much fun on and off that set. The whole crew was incredible.
And presumably you got to do all your own stunts.
ZB: Yes. Absolutely! That was like a stipulation! I never had to convince Quentin, he said, “That’s part of the reason I’m casting you. I want that.” I think there was a while there where it looked a little dodgy as to whether insurance companies would allow that to happen. I don’t think anyone told either me or Quentin about it in detail because there would have been uproar.
As far as I was concerned there was going no other way, and who knows about the future but as far as I’m concerned I would always like to do my own stunts because I love doing them. I think what’s so brilliant about having an actor who does her own stunts, or a stuntwoman who does her own acting – depending on which way you want to look at it – is there’s a genuineness to it that when you’re watching it there’s a gut reaction, a sense of reality. It’s beyond just being aware there’s a stunt double in the scene.
Plus, not to mention, one of the things that was so exciting to me was having that stunt sequence not be limited by the fact that you had to shoot around my face. You could shoot at whatever angle looked the fucking coolest. I think that’s priceless.
ZB: I hope so. I don’t want to jinx any potential forward movement but there’s a movie coming up next year – it’s an untitled project at this stage – and it’ll be starring me in a kind of action/adventure sort-of Indiana Jones type genre aimed at young girls for them to have an action hero, basically. Which sounds fucking cool to me. I think the brilliance there is even if there’s little roles that require a lot of action the community will be like, “Fuck, yeah, we’ll use Zoe, she can talk, she can flip.”
It’s interesting, though, balancing the two. I don’t want to give up stunts, I love doing stunts and I plan to keep doing them. Of course if you’re going to become an actor somewhere along the line there’s a balance you’ve got to keep. Because the thing is, if my face becomes familiar and I’m being seen as a featured extra as a stuntwoman, then people may recognise me. But who knows, I don’t know of any women, or men really, who’ve gone from being a stuntperson to being an actor and then mixed it up after that, so I’m kind-of chartering new territory! So fuck the rules, let’s just see what we can do with it!
Is there a concern that people are going to hesitate going to you because they think you’ll ask for more money than an all-out stuntwoman?
ZB: I have thought that. I would like to make it clear to those guys that I would love to do the work. Maybe it’s to do with the money, but I think it’ll probably be more about, “Oh, she’s an actor now, we can’t.” And it’s been interesting because the last couple of months I haven’t been in town – I’ve been away promoting the movie – and it really doesn’t take long to get out of the loop in LA, you know. I rang my friends before I left and said, “Oi, you guys; we’re going to hang out, and you’re going to hire me on that movie, and we’re going to do this…” I want to get back in the loop as soon as I get home just to keep it rolling. Especially if this movie doesn’t shoot until next year; I want to get busy. I get bored really easily. If my character is just doing action in whatever form… sweet.
Having spoken to stuntmen and women in the past it’s often surprising how safe everything is played; every stunt, major and minor, is planned to the last detail. So I’m guessing that Zoe the stuntwoman is not Zoe the character, because she seems decidedly more carefree than most stunt performers I’ve spoken to…
ZB: More mental? [laughs] Yeah. I’m certainly not a conservative person, and you know personality traits in what you see on screen is definitely me. Whether I would jump out of a car, ride on the bonnet and then chase down a serial killer, I think that’s probably the Quentin twist on Zoe Bell.
Life’s too short to be super conservative but it’s also too short to make it any shorter. I don’t plan on dying early, but at the same time I don’t plan on playing it so safe that I’ll live to ninety. I think when you do that stuff for a living, if I get too nailed, not just my livelihood financially but how I love spending my time is jeopardised. When I was injured after Kill Bill I had a year where I not just couldn’t make any money but I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t surf, I could hardly run, which is insane. I couldn’t do gymnastics, martial arts, I could barely crawl on all fours. That was devastating to me.
Suddenly you realise, shit, I’m not invincible, and suddenly you have to find a balance where you can keep doing the shit that you want to do without hindering the way you want to live. But, still avoid massive risk so you can keep doing what you want to do. It’s tricky.
What happened on Kill Bill?
ZB: A stunt went wrong, basically. It was one of those human errors that shouldn’t have happened, but it did. Basically, they told me that all the bones in my wrist dislocated except one. The ligament that was attaching all of them got bust so I had surgery to mend the ligament. I had pins to immobilise it for three months and so after three months everything had atrophied and it was fucked for a good year before I got Catwoman and even on Catwoman I still couldn’t crawl. I was battling with it for a long time; it was miserable.
It was really painful, but more than that it really fucked with my head. That was the hardest part; suddenly not knowing where I stood, or what my identity was, or what I was going to do with my life. All of those big mid-life-crisis things happening at 23 all at once. That was the scary part for me. Not to mention just being in pain all the time which made it worse.
ZB: There’s a bit of that and the fact that there’s always some kind of risk is kind of why we get hired and why we do a lot of stuff actors won’t do or can’t do or aren’t allowed to do or whatever. But, yeah, it’s also part of what keeps it fun and exciting. It’s like sports; you don’t play sports because it’s like taking a walk in the park, you play because it’s a game, you’re competing, you know, there’s something about it that’s a little bit addictive. I know for me too, there’s a lot of enjoyment in the execution. Just getting it right; nailing it. There’s always so many different things coming in to play if you’re doing a fight and battling six different guys you’ve got to remember where the camera is, sometimes you’ve got to hide your face. There’s a lot of piecing it all together and making it work that can be really satisfying. It can be really frustrating, but it can be really satisfying and I think that’s part of it too.
Is the innovation part of it? It seems there are always people coming up with more and more creative stunts to do.
ZB: Definitely, and it’s hard because people always ask what your ideal stunt would be. I feel like I need to think of a really good one, but there are just endless possibilities out there and really it just depends on what the situation is and what the boundaries are that you’re given.
I think that’s the exciting thing about being able to be the face and the action of a character because it just opens so many more doors when it comes to that sort of stuff. Your way is limitless.
Is there anything you wouldn’t do, stunt-wise?
ZB: Not that I know of. And I don’t mean I would do anything, but when it comes up that’s when I know how I’ll feel about it and ultimately I’d like to think I’d have the balls to say no to something if I thought it was going to kill me. For whatever reason, maybe I’m just not the person for the job or maybe the guy that I’m working for or the girl that I’m working for isn’t safe. And it often does take more balls to say no. I haven’t had to yet – knock wood – but I hope if it does come up I’d have the guts to say that.
How long did the chase sequence take in the movie?
ZB: It took six weeks.
That seems very fast considering how long and complex it is…
ZB: We got a hell of a lot of footage. The takes we were doing were so long, we would just drive from one end of that road to the other over and over. I know that road backwards with my eyes closed! We would pretty much shoot the whole way. I couldn’t hear anything once we started rolling because I’m strapped to the bonnet with wind and stuff. I would rehearse whole sequences and we would just go for three or five minutes straight. Fucking exhausting, mate!
Is it as exciting for Zoe the person as Zoe the character to play ship’s mast on the bonnet of the Vanishing Point challenger?
ZB: It’s pretty fucking cool out there. Especially where we were in Buellton, because it’s so beautiful. We were there while the seasons were changing so it went from really hot to fucking cold in the mornings, and the change in the colour of the fields and the trees, it was just beautiful scenery. When I did get to chill it was cool. It was exhausting – and there were times when it was so ridiculously hot that my tummy started burning on the engine and times when it was Baltic-ly cold that I’d have to get Rosario to push my sweater through the window – but it was just amazing. Aww, I’m getting all nostalgic! [laughs]
Can you tell us more about the Indiana Jones for girls movie?
ZB: I wish I had a title for you, but yeah. Senator Films, who are distributing Death Proof in Germany and who also produced a bunch a movies, they want to produce a movie starring me, at this stage, as a soldier returning from war, which is basically to set up the fact that the character’s a bit of a loner and has action abilities. She ends up being paired up with this young girl whose life she saves who she becomes responsible for. So she’s running from the bad guys trying to find the good guy who’s the girl’s dad. It’s like an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances trying to look after this young girl that she’s ended up with and what happens in the relationship between those two and what she learns from the experience.
I’m involved early enough that I’ll be working with them on the action sequences and all that stuff. I realise how fortunate I am to be in that position, but it’s indicative of the way I’m coming in, because that’s about the only way we can do it.