For someone who’s probably come closer than most to being dismembered, Zoë Bell has a really good head on her shoulders. The 35-year-old New Zealand native, who’s been kicking ass as a stunt double since she was a teenager, has honed her craft to the point of having it down to a science, weighing the pros and cons of a job most people wouldn’t dare attempt. She’s also found a balance in where she stands as a role model for women, declining to be a person who “stands on a soapbox preaching equal rights,” but thoroughly embracing her position as someone whose very career, as she tells it, makes her a feminist. Furthermore, Bell has been stealthily, increasingly steering herself toward the spotlight, shifting from being the one who takes hits for Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess and Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films, to the one with her name on the marquee. Breaking out on screen in a big way in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Bell has since taken small roles in Django Unchained and Oblivion, and now she’s the lead star in Raze, a brutal, and somewhat controversial, fight flick wherein 50 women, including Bell’s Sabrina, are jailed and forced to fight to the death. Passing through New York to promote the film, which she also produced, Bell chatted with me about the film’s politics, its title, her craziest stunts, and the must-sees for anyone visiting her home country.
So, the title, Raze, is a word that, as screenwriter Robert Beaucage states in the press notes, can refer to the leveling and tearing down of not just structures, but human beings, both physically and emotionally. But can’t it also refer to the breaking down of norms in this context, and how we don’t see women in this type of film as often as men?
Totally. I’ll take that. I’ll definitely take that. The name Raze was attached a long time ago, before [producer] Kenny Gage had the concept of this thing. And actually, before we sold it to IFC we had this moment where we were like, “Should we change the title?” And we went through a whole bunch of different titles, just because the definition of “raze” isn’t commonly known by a lot of people. We were concerned that it didn’t instantly say what we wanted it to say to people. But we kind of just decided we could do that in the advertising, and even just the look of the world feels cool, and it looks like the movie. And there are so many different ways that the action of tearing down does apply to this film. And the tearing down of the norms…you’ve hit on a much bigger topic, which is probably why I’m skirting around it a little bit. It’s a topic that’s come up ever since the movie’s come out, and it involves this feminist statement that’s perceived in this film. It’s had quite a noticeable effect on people, which I’m totally stoked about, but it’s interesting because I don’t recall walking into this movie being like, “I would like to make a statement about society.” We just wanted to make a movie with action that was true, and real, and with women, and badass, and with fights we haven’t seen. And fights I hadn’t done, which is saying something, because I’ve done my share of different types of fights. And the fact that there’s nothing else like this out there right now is, in itself, sort of a statement. The fact that people are going, “Whoa! Women versus women! And it’s aggressive! That’s weird!” That’s saying something too.
You’ve been quoted as saying that watching women fight is different than watching men because of certain emotional and maternal aspects. But, again, it seems like this film wants to blur those lines and level that field.
Yeah. I mean, this has been spinning in my head a lot, so if I start tangizing, feel free to pull me in—and I do make up words that you’ll appreciate at some point. From my personal experience, as a stuntwoman, I never wanted to be treated like a man. I wanted to be treated like a talented stuntperson. As a woman, I’m capable of different stuff. I have different strengths, I have different weaknesses—genetically, the way I’m built, the physical strengths I have, the emotional strengths, what nature has taught me to react to or deem important. I’m just fundamentally not a man. I’m just not. I don’t want to be a man, I dig being a woman. So there’s this weird thing where the fight for across-the-board equality seems to be defeating the purpose to me somehow. And I know this is where it gets a bit risky, because if I get misquoted, people will be like, “Ugh! Zoë doesn’t care about being treated like blah, blah…” But my basic theory is if you work really hard, and do good work, and treat people well, you’ll be respected for the person that you are, whether that’s a stuntperson, or who you are as a friend to somebody, or as a family member, or as a business partner.
What about the motivations behind the fight scenes themselves?
Well, shooting the movie, we did shoot it as if it were men. We weren’t going to make these women prettier than they would look in this situation. We weren’t going to use blood that’s, like, accenting their eye color. You know? We’re gonna put the blood where they get punched. We’re gonna keep it as real as possible. But in order for this to feel true and authentic, they had to have something to fight for, because I don’t think, in general, that women would fight just to dominate and win. I have met women who would, but in general—and again, I feel like I have to be very careful in the way I speak about this—nature dictates that my instinctive job in life is to protect. As a woman, there’s that instinctive, maternal sense of protection, whereas with men there’s more an urge to dominate and stake claim. It makes more sense to see men fighting just to survive, or to win, or to kill even. With women, the moment you put someone they love or care about into the equation, I feel like that’s a much more realistic trigger. When we were going through it, I couldn’t make sense of why this character, Sabrina, would kill a bunch of women just because these guys are asking her to. I think she’d probably just say, “Fuck you,” and not do it, and be killed. But the minute she has to do it to save her daughter’s life, it’s a whole different thing.
You said the film is prompting people to read it as making feminist statements, but what about the exploitation elements? How concerned were you, as both actress and producer, about the fundamental trickiness of having a movie with women fighting to the death in an extremely voyeuristic fashion?
We talked about it. I had this thing, and maybe it’s naïve, but I felt that by the nature of who I am, and the life that I’ve lived, and the work that I do, and the way that I do it—I’m a feminist. I’ve never felt the need to be on a soapbox and preach for equal rights, and I’m fortunate that I’ve never had to be in that situation because I’ve been gifted this life where I get to just go out there and be like, “Look! I’m kicking ass and I’m good at it so you have to treat me accordingly.” So going into this movie, I think I was just very aware of the need to be as true as possible, and to bring in women who are strong actors and can bring the truth to these characters, instead of having them just be women killing each other for the joy of men. Also, the costumes were very heavily pushed by me to not be bras and panties, and instead be these track pants and white tanks that aren’t see-through. And there isn’t, like, water coming from anywhere that’s going to make them see-through.
Did you have to fight for that?
No, it wasn’t like me-versus-them or anything, but I was very clearly stating that this is what I would like. And I like the idea of it being sweats. It just sort of takes away the sexual-exploitation possibilities. [Director] Josh Waller was also very heavily involved in there being no sexualization of stuff, and no implication that maybe these women wanna fuck each other, or the guards. There was none of that in this film, and I think it was a very conscious thing to remove it all—to strip it all back. And, you know, we were also very aware that people might be upset by it too, and there have been a couple of people who’ve been upset by it. I think seeing women fight in this way is very confronting for people. I mean, shit, I still get confronted watching some of these fights, like, “Gahh, this is disturbing!” And not just because of the eye-gouging; the emotional content makes me recoil.