Zoë Bell: Raze is “brutal and realistic and raw”

Zoë Bell talks Tarantino, leaving stunts behind, and why Raze is the toughest film she’s made yet

zoe-bell-razeYou’ll recognise Zoë Bell from her stand-out turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and now her long-awaited, brutal fight movie Raze is finally available in the UK on DVD.

In Raze, Bell plays Sabrina, who’s part of a group of women who have been kidnapped and forced into a series of fights to the death in an underground facility. As the bodies stack up, Sabrina and the others realise that they’re not all going to make it out. Can she get to the final round and save her daughter?

We spoke to the actress about making the transition from stunt performer to actor, making fight sequences look real, that Hateful Eight table read, and why she’s happy that people still ask her about Xena.

It must be nice to finally have Raze out there!

I know, with modern day social media, when people haven’t been able to see a movie yet you know all about it! I’ve been very aware of how frustrated people have been! So it’s really nice to have it finally out there. There’s only so much you can do about it. Things like movies go one of two ways, they come out everywhere at the same time, or they kind of do it the old fashioned way. But when you do it the old fashioned way people are like, “Well no, I want it the modern way!”

So you’ve been involved with the film since the get-go, when it was a short film?

Yes, Kenny [Gage, writer], Andy [Pagana, producer] and Josh [C. Waller, director] had sort of banded together with the idea of this project but at the time they first came to me it was in the format of a short film and they basically came to me asking me to coordinate, choreograph. Rachel Nichols was going to be the lead and they were asking if I would come into the final fight. And I had a bunch of other things on and for whatever reason it wasn’t going to work out for what it was. So I thought I was passing but it turns out I was just negotiating! Lesson learned!

Then they came back to me and said “What about if we offer you a role as producer so you could be involved in the process?” Because the thing is you want to have some knowledge of the thing you’re walking into, you want the script to be solid. And I really liked the idea, it just was…to attach myself to something just for coordinating purposes, wasn’t really where my intention was at. I’ve been trying to concentrate on the acting thing, and you know, it’s hard enough as it is so I don’t need any excuse for people to not see me as one. But then they came back and offered me the role of producer, and getting involved in creating the characters.

And then as we were shooting the short, somebody leaked something and I guess we were just surprise by how excited people were at the prospect of Rachel Nichols and I beating the snot out of each other, and we were like ‘Well, why couldn’t we?” so it kind of developed into a feature.

Were you still involved in the fight choreography though?

Yeah, definitely. I couldn’t be solely responsible for that because obviously I had other responsibilities, but yeah. The first fight [for the short] I choreographed. I had a friend of mine help me with it, but then we made it into a feature it became apparent that we were going to need someone whose full time job would be to take responsibility for it so we had James Young. So he did most of the structural choreography and then I played with it, because the style of the figths for this film was supposed to be very true to how real women fight, so we didn’t want it to look like stuntmen. And listen, I love stuntmen fighting, that’s what I do a lot, but we wanted it to be a) realistic and brutal and raw, and b) I really wanted it to be fighting that made sense to the fact that it was women fighting. You know, so the kind of moves that would a) come to a woman naturally and b) be effective by a woman. So I was very hands on and he was really open to it, and me sticking my nose in.

razeThe fight sequences are brutal and hard to watch, but it never feels gratuitous. Were the actresses up for throwing themselves into these scenes?

So up for it. It was one of the things that was really interesting to me, and I really like the point you make because if it feels gratuitous, it’s because that’s what it might feel like to have to kill someone with your bare hands, not because we were actually just trying to gross the audience out. Because if you take out, there are probably four beats in there that are actually visually gruesome, and the rest of it’s because of the emotional stuff and the journey these women are on and the build-up to it. But that was a very conscious decision.

But back to the question you asked, the girls were all super excited about it, they were all really dedicated. I remember one of the girls at one point, and she’d been on a diet for a couple of weeks leading up to it, it was really important to her, and they all came in and worked with James and myself and Kenny on sparring and fight choreography, they were all working out so that they were fit enough to keep up with, and they weren’t getting paid for any of that extracurricular stuff. Because we couldn’t afford it. But I talked to one of the girls and she was like ‘We never get the opportunity to play roles like this so of course we’re all taking it super seriously.” And I was like “Oh my god that’s amazing!”

And I’m spoilt in that way because my whole career has been based around roles, not like that, but I’m only ever doubling women that are required to fight, that’s kind of the bread and butter of what I did as a stunt girl and I was fortunate that I was working enough that it seemed like there was a lot of that work out there. But when you talk to actual actresses, and I’m aware of it now that I’m an actor, women are starved for roles like this, you know? And they were so…the women at the end of the movie were just like, I hate to throw this word around, but so empowered and excited and proud and exhausted! It was really cool.

Is this your first big lead role?

The other one that would kind of compare was Angel of Death which was a while ago, another low-budget, it was a web series that became a film, that was always the intention, it being a film. I was the lead in that so that was the first time and that was pretty pivotal for me. But this was definitely like, I don’t know the right terminology, but sort of identity shifting as an actor for me.

Like I now identify as an actor after Raze, whereas I was still sort of uncertain and a little self-doubty, I felt like a bit of a dick indentifying as an actor, I was a bit like “I don’t really know if I’ve earnt that.” Because you have to have gone to Juilliard…it’s the same way that I’ve never called myself a martial artist because I fake it for a living. But if I train for a year and try doing kung fu in a temple somewhere I might think of myself differently. But Raze is kind of like a year in a kung-fu temple for acting for me. And the character and her journey is pretty fucking hefty, you don’t want to, I was very aware of the fact that there was no half-arsing Sabrina. There was no just dialing it in, there’s no not taking her plight seriously.

I think the thing that was most fundamentally liberating was the fact that I was a producer and the fact that all these people were here to help us make our movie that I was without a doubt 100% responsible to these people to do the best job I could possibly do in terms of being the lead of this film. And it kind of freed me up from the being self-conscious, feeling like a try-hard. I was like, “Well, I am trying hard, I’m going to try really, really, really hard!” You know?

Zoe_Bell_Tracie_Thoms_RazeDid the intense, closed-in storyline help you get into character and stay there?

Yeah, I mean, well less about the intense storyline and more about our intense shooting schedule because there was no time to slip out of it. We were shooting long days, long weeks and they were all full.  I think there were two days where I wasn’t on in the whole, that I wasn’t on the call sheet, and one of those I didn’t come to set because I couldn’t get out of bed, I was a bit burnt out, and Josh was like “I would rather you didn’t come to work today! Because I need you useful, I need you to be able to function tomorrow!” I was like “OK!”

The storyline became really tight through editing. They say that there’s the movie that you write, the movie that you shoot and the movie that you edit, but we watched that movie through the edit get tighter and tighter. Because it also means that we had more footage than we needed which was phenomenal considering the time schedule we had but, it did help that they’re in cells and all our sets are in the same studio. So we shot everything in the cells and then flipped all the sets around and made those the office and the elevator. It was very intense. We looked back and we were like, “We need some more stuff in the cells,” but it was never going to happen because we’ve destroyed the cells to make something else. So we were under pressure to make sure we covered our arses every day.

deathproof2It was great that you had the Death Proof reunion with Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson!

Cool, eh? Tracie Thoms, she was one of the first people who signed onto the project, and the conversation went like this. I think I was on Whip It at the time. Is that possible? Seems like a long time ago. Anyway! I rang her and was like “Tracie. I’m producing this film and I’m the lead in it, and there’s this role,” and she said “I’m in.” “This role is this woman, she’s…” and she’s like “I’m in.” I’m like “You should read the script. Honestly, you should read the script, it’s pretty disturbing.” She was like “I’m in. If you’re the lead and you’re producing it, I’m in. I’ll read the script before I come to the set, of course, but I don’t need to read it.” I was like “Oh my god!”

And she was definitely pivotal to me with Death Proof. When I first sat down with her to just read lines off the page, I was embarrassed. I would blush and get the giggles and I couldn’t even read with her when we first started. So it was awesome having her on set for me, she’s such an impressive actress and to have that confidence from someone like her straight out of the gate meant a lot.

And then Rosario, I had no idea that she was coming to play! That was definitely a Rosario-Tracie-Josh, they all got  together a week before and plottted this surprise for me! We were needing to put someone in that role, someone that we’d cast couldn’t make it and I was being very specific about I didn’t want another white girl, we need some diversity, you know, we need a real woman. Josh came to work that day and I was already in the arena, I was covered in blood, I was in the middle of a fight, and he was like “Right we’ve found someone for that role. We’ve already cast her and she’s here.” I was like “Excuse me? You cast her without consulting me? Are you serious?” He was like “Yeah, but you’re gonna love her, she is white but…” And I was like “What?” And I don’t lose my temper, but when I said that I was probably speaking at about this decibel but I was not very impressed, and I was like “What do you mean?” He was like, she’s here, she’s coming to meet you now.” I was like “What! Give me a second because I’m kind of pissed off at you right now and I don’t need to meet her when I’m kind of pissed off because that’s not fair,” and he was like “She’s coming in now,” and I was like “God damn you!”

And I walked in and the first thing I saw was Tracie walk in and then I saw this woman walk in and she had the grey slacks and the white tank, and I thought “She’s not white!” And then I thought “Wow, she looks a lot like Rosario.” And then I started crying. I realised it was Rosario. It was like someone had thrown me a surprise birthday. It was so awesome, and their fight brings me to tears every time. So that was probably one of the only times I cried from happiness during that shoot!

I wanted to ask about the tone of the film; it feels as though it could tip into exploitation almost at any time but it never does. Were you conscious of walking that line?

Yeah, we talked about whether we wanted to make that movie, you know? That kind of movie is really not Josh’s flavour of filmmaking, I think Kenny would have been totally up for it, I would happily have made that movie but I wouldn’t have wanted to star in it. But yeah, it became a very conscious decision for us that that was the line, and we knew it was a fine line, and we knew it was going to be a hard one to stick to. Or not fall off of, more like, because we didn’t want to make it so averse to being that that we fell away from the intention, which was to make it realistic.

Because women do have boobs and they are going to fight and there’s going to be woman’s body on woman’s body and we didn’t want to make it so anti-that that we lost the realism. But it was very intentional, it was very important to Josh that the movie be more about the women and this story and their emotional journey. And it was almost like an experiment to me personally, it was like “Can we do female on female fights and have it be gruesome and shocking for all the reasons that it would be if they were guys. Can we have it so that when people are watching, the only reason they know they’re watching women is because of the emotional content not because they’re distracted by…” Listen, if you’re a guy who watches Raze and gets off on the women’s boobs, I can’t help you. I don’t know who can. Maybe you’re beyond help. [laughs]

But that was very intentional for us that what was highlighted was what these women were actually emotionally going through. And I think that’s part of the challenge that the women that we cast all responded to, like we get to do all this hardcore action stuff  but the characters are all meaty, like sink your teeth into them characters for them to take on as well.

Moving away from Raze briefly, we had to ask if you still get people talking to you about your work on Xena? Is it nice that people still approach you about it?

It’s awesome. It’s awesome that people ask me becuause that’s when I recognise that I was a piece of something. Because I was in New Zealand and understand I was 17, and nothing really happens outside of your own world when you’re 17, so I was like “I’m just going to work with my family and friends and then I go home and I go back to work,” and that’s what I did for three years. It’s not until you get out of New Zealand and the people who viewed the show who had no personal involvement in it, when they’re then talking about Xena I understand, because it wasn’t that for me, it was family and work and how I spent my teens, you know? So it is pretty amazing when you can look and see how it’s affected TV series and females in action and when you meet Xena fans it’s like “Wow! That show changed people’s lives!”

hatefuleightYou also had The Hateful Eight live reading with Quentin Tarantino recently. It must be pretty amazing, how that relationship with him has developed through Kill Bill and Death Proof to here.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool. What makes it ultimately cool is that I really like him, you know? Like, we are good friends which is so nice that that, I don’t know, I feel like it’s refreshing to know that those things still exist in Hollywood. But Death Proof was obviously the initial spin-out of me becoming  an actor, and since Kill Bill I’ve been on all of his movies and Hateful Eight was just…I mean, being on stage and watching and listening to Quentin storytell his own stuff live and being on stage with Bruce Dern and Kurt Russell and Tim Roth and Sam Jackson was pretty…it’s one of those moments that I get in my life where it’s surreal for exactly the reason that it wasn’t surreal. You know what  I mean, it felt kind of normal, I mean, amazing, but what was so surreal was that it felt right and normal or something. It didn’t feel like “What?!?” It should be far weirder.

Last year you starred in Oblivion and did stunts on Iron Man 3. Do you think you’ll keep switching between stunts and acting?

No. Oblivion was an acting role but a lot of that background story didn’t make it into the final cut. But PS, I got to work with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman so who cares! And Iron Man was because one of the co-ordinators was a stunt guy from Xena from way back in the day and I would do anything to work with any of those boys in any capacity. So Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was another one, I had a little role in that one but I stayed on to do stunts because of the other people involved. I’ll do anything for those boys  for the rest of my life. But I think aside from Iron Man in the last three years, that’s the only strictly stunt stuff I’ve done because I kind of had to shift identities. Balancing both is not the hard part, it’s the being taken seriously. Being taken seriously as a stunt girl, I created a niche for myself there that I was fine, but it’s hard for people to see you in a role when you’re super established in another one. So to have people identify with me as an actor it requires me identifying myself as an actor which requires me not being a stunt girl anymore. Because being a stunt girl was sort of my comfort zone, you know?

Finally, were there any war-wounds from Raze that you can tell us about?

On Raze we all got scrapes and bruises and stuff but there were no injuries on that film. I didn’t say this out loud but I was definitely expecting room for a couple, you know. And I’m really sad that I didn’t think about it early enough, we’d already locked the picture, and I was like  “Wow, we really need one of those final frames where it says “No women were harmed in the making of this film.” I really wanted to have that in there!

You can buy Raze on DVD for £8 at Amazon.co.uk.