It’s been more than a decade since Zoë Bell, already an experienced stuntwoman who get her start doubling for Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess, got her big break as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill movies. Since then, she’s appeared in several of Tarantino’s movies (who could forget her white-knuckle ride on the hood of that white 1970 Dodge Challenger in Death Proof?)—exposure she’s leveraged into a career as an actress as well as a stuntwoman. In her new movie, Camino (out this week in limited release), Bell combines these two talents for the role of Avery, a celebrated photojournalist who’s forced to fight for her life while on assignment in the Columbian jungle. In a performance that’s both intensely physical and emotional, Bell shows that she’s the complete action-star package.
The A.V. Club interviewed Bell shortly after Camino’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest, in a private karaoke room hours before it was set to open for the day. Using her preparation for Camino as a starting point, we asked her how her careers in stunt work and acting have informed one another, and her life in general.
The A.V. Club: I wanted to start by asking a question that everybody’s going to ask: This movie was shot in the jungles of Hawaii. Could you talk a little about that?
Zoë Bell: Well, it was sort of complicated. It was a 21-day shoot, but the reason it’s slightly confusing is because we started shooting in January. I got there right after Christmas last year, and we had a couple of days of rehearsals, and then we started shooting. By then, I was already in training for The Hateful Eight, and technically I wasn’t meant to go back to Hateful Eight until mid-February. But then they called me mid-January and were like, we need you now!
AVC: I heard that shoot got held up by snow.
ZB: By lack of snow. So Camino had got split into two chapters, if you will. We shot the first part in January, and then we shot again—I think it was June? I’m terrible with time so I don’t know when it was, exactly, but it was about six months later. And, you know, you’re used to the features taking a long time because you shoot and there’s post. But [on this one], our actual shoot dates, we started them and then six months later we wrapped. And it was interesting having it be split like that because at first—I mean, financially it’s difficult…
AVC: Being an independent film and all.
ZB: Right, and juggling is never financially savvy. Anything you have to juggle is usually going to cost you. But in terms of characters, it meant the guy that was originally going to play [paramilitary group member] Sebastian was no longer available, so Josh Waller [the director, who also worked with Bell on 2013’s Raze], did a lot of problem solving. And he did a great job. You’d never know, watching it.
AVC: No, you wouldn’t. Watching it, it seems like it would be a very quick and intense shoot.
ZB: It was definitely intense. Even though it wasn’t too hard, both halves were quick and intense. The first half, we were working in the jungle for the first time, but by the second, our parameters became very—I don’t want to say narrow, but specific. It was laid out. So everyone was far more focused the second time around.
AVC: So how far from civilization were you, really? Were you camping out at night?
ZB: I would’ve been up for that, but no, we weren’t. The first time we all lived in one big house, which by about 11 p.m. felt pretty far from civilization. [Laughs.] There was a sense, actually, of camping, or being on some holiday together. We were cooking dinner together, it was all communal. It was amazing. The second time around it was less like that, just because we were staying in Honolulu, and [co-star] Nacho [Vigalondo] and I were flatmates. My favorite flatmate. I just love that guy.
AVC: I think the best scene in the film is your first big fight scene. And in the Q&A [after the screening], Josh Waller said it was originally nine minutes long, and they cut it down.
ZB: I’m like, why’d you cut it down?
AVC: Yeah! What’s wrong with a nine-minute fight scene? But when you’re filming something like that, since you’re acting and doing stunts, does your prep vary for the different aspects?
ZB: A couple years in [to acting], I recognized that I developed methods from being a stuntwoman for so long that worked for me that I wasn’t aware of. And I had to become aware of them, because I didn’t recognize that I could actually apply them across the board. And I think because I am a physical person, and because my way of expressing and performing and storytelling or explaining has always been with my body, if I can combine the two I find it really liberating. I would find it more difficult if somebody else was doing the action. Like [there’s] a moment where I’m standing in the tree, and Zoë’s not scared—
AVC: You’ve jumped out of trees before.
ZB: I’ve jumped out of bigger and badder things than trees. It’s my job to not be scared. However, when I’m standing up there I know what Avery’s experiencing, you know what I mean? So I can access it, and when she’s exhausted, when she’s terrified, when she’s being dragged across the ground… When my physicality is involved, it’s kind of my comfort zone, so I find it much easier to access emotions. Which I didn’t as a stunt double, because emotion was actually disadvantageous [for that].
ZB: Yeah. Because if people thought I was afraid, or in pain, or even feminine in a sexual way, it would fuck with how they viewed me professionally. The reality is, feminism or not, no one likes seeing a woman get hurt. It makes people uncomfortable. People are far more protective [of women] instinctively. And when I first did Xena I was 20. No, I wasn’t, I was like 17. I was a kid, so if I looked a little scared, people wanted to protect me. So I had to paint the picture that I was never scared, otherwise I couldn’t do my job. And now, as an actor, I’m literally paid to look emotionally accessible.
AVC: Now you’re paid to look scared when you’re not.
ZB: Absolutely. Now it’s my job to deliver fear.
AVC: And with Avery in this movie, that scene is a big turning point for her character.
ZB: Yeah. It was a real pivotal point and we talked a lot about it. And the great thing about Josh [is], we’ve known each other for so many years, and it’s safe and he’s had more faith in me as an actor than I ever had. I know he feels completely comfortable with me action-wise—that’s never a concern for him. And so the conversations become what you’re talking about, because he’s a drama guy.
So he looks at the fight, and he says, “This is when it all changes.” Those are the pieces that we’re talking about, and those are the pieces that I strategically am like, okay, so at this point she’s scared, at this point she’s pissed, at this point… I kind of plot it, and at that point when the knife is between her eyes, that she’s like, “I’m either going to get raped or I’m going to die—either way I’m going to die, [either physically or in] my soul”—and I remember feeling it. I was laying there, and I was like, “Oh yep, Zoë can actually relate to this experience now.”
And again, we’d done the fight, and I was already exhausted, and I had fucking bruises and I was bleeding in places that no one knew about because I hadn’t told them. I was shattered and in that place I was like, I totally get it. I was just there. This is when it’s no longer just a fight to survive. It’s not about her anymore. This guy needs to die, and these women need saving. She’s been in shitty situations. She’s a tough girl. She’s fit.
AVC: And we’ve seen her jumping rope at the beginning, too, so she’s a capable, prepared person.
ZB: Totally. She’s like, “I’m going to Colombia, I’m going to jump rope and get fit.” Jungle and shit, I should skip. But she’s never—there’s that moment that she comes across the two women, the woman that’s being raped and her daughter. She’s got a gun, she’s never really shot one before, but she’s witnessed enough people do it. And so it was always a conversation between Josh and [writer Daniel Noah] and I was that all her skill sets are skill sets that she’s accumulated through her career, but never needed to use, because she’s a journalist, not a badass, and now suddenly she’s having to access all of those skills.
AVC: Yeah. She’s going from an observer to a participant.
ZB: And participating in the worst way possible.
AVC: So, going back to that big fight scene, you said by the end you were all bruised. You don’t shoot that in order, do you? How does that work?
ZB: My favorite thing in moviemaking is to shoot in chronological order if at all possible, because it just helps for continuity and all the logistical purposes. It also helps with performance and the journey of each character, but I also think it’s good for the director and everyone [else] involved. Set design. The poor props guy is like, “Wait, where was the gun at this point in the story?”
AVC: “How much blood is on the floor?”
ZB: Exactly. And poor costumes is like, “Have you been shot yet? How many times?” But with that [scene], when you’re shooting on the kind of schedule and budget that we had, it’s a little bit like—there’ll be certain shots that if you have to turn around, and it was daytime so we didn’t have a whole bunch of lighting to do, but then you’d have to wait until—you know, [for example] you can’t shoot in this direction because the crew’s hanging out eating craft services, so in a minute we’ll come back to that. But for the most part we shot as chronologically as we could. And it was great.
And [in our fight scene], Nacho and I—that’s another one of those awesome moments as an actor where, I think particularly because action is my comfort zone, that when people are fighting with me, or when we’re playing that game together, the other actor gets to be completely at ease with it too. Because my job as a double was always to put [actors] at ease. My job was to make my character, or the actress that I was doubling, look as badass as possible by being there.
And he just 100 percent gave it, so every time we had a shot, if anything, I’d be [giving him] technical [advice]. I was like, “just move over a couple of inches or when you punch me across my face, start a little bit wider.” I watch that scene and I’m like, “Oh, I’m so uncomfortable,” because he’s terrifying, and I was feeling that in it. It was really…I wouldn’t say fun. Satisfying.
AVC: It’s a really unique position, having started in stunts and then doing acting.
ZB: Now I do my own dialogue. [Laughs.]
AVC: The documentary about you, Double Dare, came out in 2004, and—
ZB: Was it 2004?
AVC: I was just looking it up.
ZB: Oh my god!
AVC: And you shot it before that. How do you think things have changed since then, just in general?
ZB: Well Double Dare witnesses Quentin [Tarantino] changing my life for the first time.
AVC: Right, that’s the big thing.
ZB: Yeah. “P.S. you’re going to be a stuntwoman in Hollywood.” “Really? Oh, wow, okay.” That’s a big question, but I would say one of the most fundamental shifts—aside from America becoming home, which I never thought it would—is honestly this acting thing. I think the biggest shift for me is—this is going to sound like a wanky actor, but—getting in touch with, and learning to not just appreciate, but actually really enjoy being a woman. Because for so long I was a jock, and I was an athlete, and I was a tomboy, and people would joke about like, fancy dress, you should go as a girl.
And to be decent at acting, I had to give room to this woman [Laughs.] that was trapped somewhere in me that was like, come on, can we please wear heels? Can we please wear some makeup? Can we cry at that commercial? And the reality is, I cry all the fucking time. Some of my best friends are like, “I love that you are just the biggest pussy on the planet.” And I have no problem with it at all, I love it. But it took a long time to understand that that’s a part of my tapestry.
And actually my relationships with my girlfriends have become that much deeper and more profound, because I’m like, huh, yeah, I don’t have to judge you, or you judge me. It was a lot of—I didn’t want to be that crazy girlfriend. I didn’t want to be the one who’s nagging. And [I’ve realized], I’m not nagging, I’m telling you what I want. And actually, that’s okay.
AVC: So just becoming a more well-rounded person.
ZB: Yeah. A more well-rounded female. My relationship with feminism was always…I’m a poster child for feminism whether I like it or not, but I was resistant to the part of me that was a woman. And now I’m like, I get it. I’m a feminist because being a woman is fucking awesome.