"Death Proof: A Conversation with Zoë Bell" by Jason Anders

Born on Waiheke Island, New Zealand in 1978, Zoë Bell began studying Taekwondo at the age of fifteen, starting her stunt work career in 1992 by jumping out of a car in "Shortland Street", a New Zealand soap opera; the first of many jobs which would eventually lead to "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess." After doubling as The Bride for Uma Thurman in 2003's "Kill Bill", Quentin Tarantino would make a star of Bell by asking her to play herself in his 2007 Grindhouse feature, "Death Proof," which featured some of the greatest car chase sequences (and stunt work) ever committed to film...   
JA: What was your first reaction to reading Quentin Tarantino's script for Death Proof?

ZB: Quentin was on his way over to my house with the script, which made me a little suspicious, and I thought that I might be a featured double - you know, like falling off of a bar stool or something. So when he turned up and the script had my name on the cover, I thought that was a joke - until he told me to turn to page 88; I flipped through every page after that and my name was on every single one of them. I guess my reaction was definitely a combination of things; I don't remember exactly what order these emotions came in, but I was shocked, honored, freaked out and indignant. What if I'm shit? You don't want to be the girl that screws up a Tarantino movie. Not that I wasn't honored, excited and touched... I was just also terrified!

So he took me out and we drank beers; which is a good way to get me un-terrified, to get me drunk. He then told me about the final chase sequence with the cars, which was about the time that I was completely sold on the idea.
JA: What were some of the challenges of filming those chase scenes?

ZB: We had one long piece of road that we basically drove back and forth on; we did really long takes because we didn't want to have to re-set the cameras on the cars. We avoided lot of what would have made that scene far more difficult to shoot by having me doing my own stunts - we basically didn't have to re-shoot scenes for the sake of covering or avoiding my face, which is normally the problem when you're using both an actor and the double. You could just put the camera anywhere and we could keep shooting without having to cut out of anything. It was just a lot of freedom that I'm sure Quentin loved and I really enjoyed. We all did. Having the creative freedom to get the shot that looks the coolest without having to work around a double was such a blast.

JA: What percentage of your character would you say was the real you? 

ZB: Quentin loves me, and I love Quentin, but I think I've always been slightly disappointing to him that I'm not more of a gear-head and movie-buff. He said to me at one point, "Listen Zoë, this character is you... only perfect." I was just like, "what the hell does that mean?" (laughs) He would say, "well, it's you... but you do give a shit about cars, and you do give a shit about movies." You know, the mannerisms and all of that stuff is clearly me, but the rest of it is definitely a Quentin-ized version of me. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy cars and I love movies, but he definitely painted me as more of a gear-head than I was.
JA: How did starring in Death Proof impact your career?

ZB: Well I'm predominately acting now, which is a whole new career path with exciting challenges and a new set of skills which is highly due to that movie; Double Dare as well, in a roundabout sort of way. My career changed by completely shifting into a totally new gear. Other things that I've noticed is just being recognized on the street, having people pin a good day on watching you do something. Listen, I know I've had an effect on people in the past without even knowing it, but having people stop you in the street to tell you that you're rad... it's weird, but also really pleasant. I've had very few weirdos.

JA: You mentioned Double Dare, a documentary that followed you through the audition process of Kill Bill; what was it like having a film made about you when you had absolutely no idea where your career was headed?

ZB: Initially, having a camera and small crew follow you around everywhere you went, even when you take a leak, took a small adjustment period - but I just got accustomed to it. Interesting that you touch on that, because after Xena I really had no idea where my career was going, or if it was going anywhere. I didn't know if I could leave the country or if I was going to end up going back to waitressing. I just think it's really special that a life-altering moment for me (meeting Quentin) was captured on film; I watch it now and still get excited for myself, as if it's not me and I haven't seen the movie. I was like, "Hi. Nice to meet you." It didn't even occur to me that I should be nervous at that point, not until after I left the room.
JA: And you weren't nervous auditioning?

ZB: No, I wasn't at all. It wasn't because I was really confident or anything, it was just literally a matter of it being so surreal that I didn't place unnecessary stress on it. It was very important to me, and I worked my ass off, but I wasn't torturing myself about whether I got it right or wrong. I wish I could engage that feeling more often in my life... I think we could all use a bit of that.

JA: What sort of preparations and training did you have to go through for Kill Bill?

ZB: I was hired onto the project quite late in the piece, so a lot of the actors had been training for a bit before I came on board. I've got to be honest, I'm terrible with time frames - I missed all of the Los Angeles training and they flew me out to China where I had three weeks to get ready prior to shooting. I had in my head for the four years leading up to it that Xena fighting was much different from the style of Wushu or Samurai. A huge part of the training was just forming relationships with the Chinese fight team because they're such a unit. They don't speak a lot of English, particularly when they're training, so a huge part of it was me being initiated. You know, being partly ignored and then asked to do stuff out of the blue.
The other part was switching my style out and learning Wushu, mimicking it against the style I had been doing for so many years. Quentin had conversations with me that comprised of Uma's performance and mine. He would say, "Uma's face, dialogue and action style are you." And I take my style out and guide it to fit whomever I'm doubling because you want them to merge. He was always asking me what my motivation was in the scene and why I wanted to run up those stairs. I would be like, "I'm gonna take out these six dudes and then I'm gonna run up these stairs; I'm gonna keep acting until you say cut." He'd say, "Yeah, but why do you wanna run up these stairs?" I'd say, "I don't know." (laughs) He would shout, "Because O-Ren is up there! You're trying to kill O-Ren!"

It was interesting that I now had a back story fall on my action. I honestly think along the relationship that he and I had is when his idea for casting me in a movie came about.
JA: Did you suffer any injuries during the shoot?

ZB: I only suffered one injury, but it was fairly detrimental. We shot Kill Bill as one movie, but the injury happened in Volume 2. It was kind of a bummer because it put me out. I continued to travel with the film, hanging out with everybody until it was done. Quentin would send Vegemite sandwiches to my hotel room. I actually didn't work for a year after that, and the next movie I was cast in was Catwoman - I was still pretty jacked up at that point. I didn't tell many people about this.

JA: Did this injury in any way make you rethink your career?

ZB: The injury on Kill Bill threw me into quite a tailspin. I think it was less about the pain, although being in constant pain for three months gets really old, but for someone who has been doing stunts she was eighteen, doing gymnastics and martial arts before that, made me realize that my work and my identity were very closely knitted. So when I thought I might not ever be able to walk on my hands again (or even crawl for that matter, let alone work) it really freaked me out. It made me ask, "if I'm not a stunt woman, than what am I?" I don't want to introduce myself as "Zoë: The Stunt Woman," but I think you get an idea of who you are and what you want to represent; when all of that came into question, it was pretty scary.
JAWhen did you know that stunt work was wanted you wanted to do for a living?

ZB: I did gymnastics from the age of nine to fifteen, or something like that. I very quickly got bored and took up Taekwondo. Stunt work isn't really something I realized existed as a kid, but later on ads started popping up. The final straw was when my dad came home from an emergency clinic where he was working at as a doctor, he had just treated a stunt guy for an injury (from whom he asked for his phone number) and came home with contact info so that maybe I could get into the stunt business.
That was it. I made the phone call (which was probably the most terrifying part of the process) and that's where it all started.

JA: What was your first professional job?

ZB: It was for a pilot called Amazon High. We were like cave ladies running around in bikini furs. Pretty awesome. I didn't start off as a stunt double, my first job doubling was a television movie called The Chosen. My first "real" job was Xena. Before that I was just sort of in the background and falling out of the frame (then I would sit around and wait to do it again.) I really had no idea what to expect. I remember being blown away by how cool the people were and how awesome it was for me to be able to do something I really liked... and be getting paid for it! Those hours were really long.
JA: What about the work you did in Inglorious Basterds?

ZB: I doubled both the girls, Melanie and Diane, but I don't wanna give too much away if you haven't seen the movie. I really love working with Quentin and the people on that crew - even the cast this time around were like family to me. I knew this movie was going to be awesome from the moment I read the script. I was so excited for Quentin and knew I just wanted to be a part of it. He was like, "of course! I've got girls in it. Let's go!" It was an epic movie and it's proving successful in the box office which is fantastic. I'm real happy for him.

JA: Do you have a fondest memory of working on the set of Xena?

ZB: Fondest moments? I have so many, it's endless! Working twelve hours, five days a week for three years... that's what happens. I just remember thinking, "I've got it pretty sweet right now."
JA: What can you tell us about Angel of Death?

ZB: That film started off as a web-series and it became a DVD movie that was also released on Spike TV. It's been doing really well and was a success online, but we're waiting to see how the DVD sales go to decide whether or not to do a sequel. That was the first film that I carried; if I was terrible then the whole show was terrible. Hopefully that's not the case. It was a very important project to me. I've been really fortunate with the people I get to work with, those involved were amazing, and we did it on such an outrageously low budget. It looks so unlike the budget that it is. I learned so much every day on that project.

Follow Zoë on Twitter: @TheRealZoeBell