There’s a good chance that you do not recognize the name Zoë Bell, and that’s a shame. That doesn’t mean you haven’t seen her work. Audiences, especially Quentin Tarantino fans and those of us who remember watching Xena: Warrior Princess back in the day have seen Bell, one of the most respected stunt doubles in Hollywood, plenty. (Besides Tarentino films, she has also appeared in movies like Catwoman, Grindhouse, Angel of Death and Iron Man 3.) If you enjoyed watching The Bride fight in the Kill Bill movies, you enjoyed watching Bell. Who actually took out Vernita Green in that epic knife fight? Zoë Bell. Who barely broke a sweat while taking on the Crazy 88? Zoë Bell. (Well, she probably broke a sweat, and the truth is she’s broken a lot more than that over the years, each time getting back up to do what she loves to do.) Bell recently sat down with Paste to talk about her new feature film, Raze, and her amazing, 15-year career as a stuntwoman-turned-actress.
Paste: This is one of your biggest roles as an actress to date, but you’ve been working in this business for some time now. Can you talk a little about how you got your start and your early work on Xena: Warrior Princess?
Bell: I started out in martial arts, and it didn’t even occur to me that stunt work existed as a career. The minute I discovered it—and I’m sure this was arrogant on my part—I wanted in. My dad was a doctor, and he was working the ER when a stuntman came in with head injuries. He knew that I was interested in the work, and he got a phone number for me (laughs). I auditioned for a stunt coordinator position in New Zealand, and at some point the woman who had been doing the stunt work for Xena was moving on to other things. I just happened to be the right combination of height and had the right combination of skills. I was asked if I would take the position if they could teach me on the job, and I was like, “Yes, yes, yes!” (laughs)
Paste: Did your work with Tarantino have anything to do with your decision to transition from stunt work to acting?
Bell: Everything. He had everything to do with it. I had always liked to entertain people, but I never considered acting, had never planned to be an actor.
I had an experience with Quentin on Kill Bill where he basically commanded me to treat the job as an actor would. He said, “You’re portraying a character first, so I’m going to talk to you like I would talk to any member of the cast. You’re half of the Bride, therefore you need to know what your motivation is when you’re running up the stairs to kill those guys.”
That was the beginning of that. And then [the role in Tarantino’s] Death Proof came out of the blue for me. I had no intention of being in a movie, so I worked very hard on that one. [Tarantino] didn’t want me taking acting classes. He said he wanted me to stay fresh and accessible to him so I said, ”Well what can I do?” And he said, “Know your lines.” (laughs). So I knew my lines. I knew everyone’s lines.
Something about it felt like the natural transition for my career. But that’s not to say it’s been easy either! It’s a hard thing to change people’s minds about where you stand in the world. People were comfortable with me being a stunt girl; they were uncomfortable with me being an actor. And to be honest, so was I for a while. So I’m sure that energy was a bit contagious.
Paste: What kind of resistance did you face as you made that transition?
Bell: People just wanted to know if I could carry the show. They figured I could only do action films, that I wouldn’t be able to show emotion well. Every time I walked on set and was expected to be an actor, I had to expect that of myself. So eventually I started taking acting classes. I felt like if I was going to be in front of the lens as an actor and if I was calling myself an actor, I wanted to be good at it.
The first lead role I actually had was in Angel of Death. I only make mention of it because it propelled me into the next stage of acting. And one of the things that I learned about myself is that when I’m responsible to somebody else and someone else is asking something of me, I’m much more inclined to step up. When you’re the lead of a show, you feel much more responsible to everyone else in a real way. And Raze solidified that for me. It’s like, there’s no mistake about it. I’m an actor. I acted my butt off (laughs).
Paste: You absolutely did.
Bell: Sabrina’s not me. Ya know, she had this whole life that was just completely not mine.
Paste: Sure, but she is similar to other characters that you’ve played or stunt-doubled for. She’s a strong, fierce fighter and I’m assuming that’s part of what drew you to the script. What else did you like about the storyline?
Bell: When the script first came to me, it was just a short. The character of Sabrina was not developed yet. But it was really the context of the story and the people involved and their energy and excitement about it—along with their willingness to involve me in part of the process—that interested me.
Paste: The fight sequences in Raze appear to take place in a very small space. Did this made the scenes more difficult?
Bell: It definitely came with its own limitations. There was space made to give the cameras more room but by the time we got to shooting things we were so crunched for time we all just had to communicate physically and do a bit of a dance with the camera guys (laughs). It really was small, and it really was tight, but if the space had been too big, it would have made it harder for us to cover the area. It sort of creates a thrill because there’s nowhere to run from this girl that’s trying to kill me.
Paste: You mentioned earlier that your father treated a patient with a head injury, and that actually led to your early work. And I know you’ve suffered from serious injuries on the job. How do you deal with the inevitably of getting hurt? How do you keep getting back out there?
Bell: (laughs)To be honest, before I got my first injury I don’t think I considered it an inevitability at all. When you’re young, you feel like other people get injured, but not you. And when I first got hurt I was young enough and I bounced back quickly. But later I broke my wrist, and it may have just been a wrist injury but it took about a year to heal. It took me a while to come back from that—not physically but mentally. I was unaware of it at the time, but it really shook me. It wasn’t even the fear of being hurt again but the fear of loss of identity. If I can’t crawl or walk on my hands then who am I? (laughs). Who is Zoë? I think it was probably harder because I was so in denial about the fact that I was struggling with it.
Paste: Yes, I’ve heard the same thing about athletes—that it’s not the physical injury sometimes, but the mental stuff that comes along with it that makes it so hard to get back to doing what you love to do.
Paste: Was there something specific that happened that made you feel like you were ready to get back to work?
Bell: I wish I could say there was because it would make for a much better story. But I had lost confidence, and I don’t think in my entire life I had known what it felt like to lose confidence. But I think it gradually happened. Although, I do remember making a joke to a friend about it and saying I wonder if there’s such thing as post-traumatic depression for something like this. I sort of went, “Oh! I think I probably had that.” And just being able to recognize that helped.
Paste: So whats next for you? Do you see yourself getting away from action flicks at any point?
Bell: I have no intention of removing myself from the action genre. I love it, and I love performing. But I would also love to do comedy. And I’d love to take on more films like Raze, getting into more dramatic stuff with fascinating characters.
Paste: Comedy would be great for you because it can be so physical.
Paste: Well, I can’t wait to see more of your work.
Bell: Thanks so much.