“To actually do an action film without Zöe Bell is foolhardy,” says director Quentin Tarantino, but based on the current slate on the New Zealand-born stunt double turned actor’s resume, doing any film without her is a questionable choice. The sparking star is returning to the Denver Film Festival this week, three years after receiving their Rising Star Award in 2012, with a juicy role in the new film Camino and to participate in a panel discussion (hosted by yours truly) called One-On-One Conversation. That's where she'll tell tales of how she went from being known solely for her kicks and punches to being seen for her acting chops as well.
Bell got her start in 1995 as Lucy Lawless’s stunt double on Xena: Warrior Princess, when she was just seventeen, and later doubled for Uma Thurman in 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. I and II, where director Tarantino saw not just a great stunt performer but a charismatic soul ready to bust through into acting territory. The director brought her front and center in his Death Proof (2007) where she played herself as a stunt double whose joyride playing a risky game of Ship’s Mast on a classic car gets her noticed by a murderous stunt driver who menaces Bell and her friends at high speeds all while she holds tight to the car hood, seemingly risking her life for some amazing, thrilling shots.
That role made the world notice the sunny Bell whose Hollywood dance card quickly began filling up with a mixture of roles that required a strong woman with some brawn but also a mix of pluck and vulnerability. Now Bell’s roles have evolved to two new turns, first in Camino, which screens tonight and Friday at DFF, and then this Christmas in the latest film from Tarantino, The Hateful Eight.
In Josh C. Waller’s Camino, Bell plays a photojournalist who gets hired to tag along with a group of gun-toting missionaries in the jungles of Columbia documenting their journey. But when her camera captures something she shouldn’t, she finds herself in the crosshairs of their leader (Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo) who sets his crew loose to find and silence the photog.
Before her trip to Denver, Bell filled us in on the new film, her humble beginnings, some secrets about Tarantino, and just how she’s making the most of that rising star status.
Westword: Are you all packed for your visit this week? We just had our first measurable snow, which has already melted, but it should be near the 60s, which isn’t bad but it’s colder than Los Angeles.
Zöe Bell: That not so bad, but that’s actually been the bane of my morning today, trying to pack for being gone for a good while. How am I supposed to pack for four days in Colorado in the 40s and then five days for a film festival in Hawaii where it’s pissing with rain but in the 80s?
A parka with a bikini?
I think I’ll just go with a puffy jacket and cutoff denim shorts! (Laughs)
Well, now that that’s settled, here’s a question to start with. When you think back to your fifteen-year-old self, did you have any idea of the world that was waiting for you and that you could be doing what you’re doing now as an actor?
Fifteen-year-old Zöe was two years prior to seventeen-year-old Zöe, when it all began for me, and she had no clue...the film industry didn’t even occur to me as anything at that age. I didn’t have the concept of movie making being an industry I could step into much less a career. I just loved watching movies, and I was raised on a island with hippies and not really with an awareness of celebrity or filmmaking. All I knew at the time was what I loved to do which was photography, English and anything athletic... That all culminated in some way shape or form in my career but, no, at the time, I had no idea that was coming. I did gymnastics which was the foundation of everything for me starting when I was seven, I started doing dips on the beam until I was about nine and then we found a gymnastics club that wanted to put up with me five days a week — so that my mum and dad didn’t have to, which was a dream come true for them! But gymnastics is such a great foundational sport. It trains you in coordination, fitness, strength, flexibility, speed, dance, height, all of that stuff so from there that was my basic training and when I got too old to do that I migrated to contact martial arts — I didn’t know much about it but it had such an air of cool around it — and I knew it meant using my legs and that appealed to me more than boxing. I think the gymnastic and martial arts worlds combined is how I met the people that helped build the path that I started to travel on.
Tell us about your new role in Camino and what attracted you to it?
I play Avery, a photojournalist, and straight out of the gate when she and the project were described to me I started picturing thoughts of a war movie mixed with Gorillas in The Mist and I was in. Anything that reminds me of a Sigourney Weaver character, I’ll take it! I found it interesting that she was a woman who, well everyone’s flawed, but she’s quite scarred and vulnerable. She’s got a drinking problem and more personal stuff going on but what really drew me to it when Josh (director Waller) and Dan (writer Daniel Noah) were talking to me about it, was that this character she’s not Commando, she’s not military trained, she’s not an ex-Navy seal, she is someone who has experienced life and been in challenging and scary situations but adapted to that so she’s learned to be self sufficient and capable, but when she’s put to the test she has to develop this action figure persona that is not naturally her but she still remains and she’s still vulnerable, it hurts when she bleeds, it scares her when a man overpowers her. I just think there was a truthfulness that just resonated with me for some reason. But I don’t know why because I’m not vulnerable AT ALL (laughs)!
How was working on The Hateful Eight here in Colorado this year?
Working on The Hateful Eight was one of those dream jobs, so much that if I heard someone else talking about it, it would make me angry. This person and their charmed life! It was working with one of my favorite teams, the Quentin family, which is like coming home to me. Not to mention I’m listed on a call sheet with a cast of actors that it’s an honor to share a call sheet with and we shot in Telluride which was like living in a fairy land for a couple of months. And I spent a lot of time training before we were shooting, I was learning to drive a six horse coach and one of my favorite things to do is get paid to learn new skills and that, THAT was challenging and scary and it was one of the few times in my life I had fears of not being able to conquer it in time. I’m thinking “Oh my lord this might be that time I actually fail at something”. But there’s something very satisfying about having felt that way and then conquering it. Way more satisfying than just being like, “yeah, I can do this.” but instead I’m thinking “Oh, my God, I don’t think I can learn this!” I don’t speak horse and I’m here trying to communicate with six of them!
Did our famous weather cooperate with the shoot?
Uh, NO. It cooperated with me on my days off when it was absolutely stunning and gorgeous but for the movie we needed blizzard, snowstorm type conditions. Quentin has a lot of sway because he’s an important man with important opinions but there’s not a lot that anyone can do about the weather, even him, and the irony of sitting there in this gorgeous, picturesque little town with perfect, bluebird skies and that being what we didn’t need at all and that being the bad news. But we ended up taking it back to L.A. on a soundstage to finish it, and that was awesome too, there’s something so nice about being in this crazy Tarantino world with amazing sets, wild characters and brilliant actors and this crew that I know and love and then getting to go home for dinner. It’s kind of a nice thing.
More of that charmed life, dream job stuff, eh?
Exactly, it’s ridiculous. I’ll shut up now! (laughs)
Can you divulge something about your friend and director Quentin Tarantino that we would be surprised to learn?
That feels like a trick question because I feel like he’s at once constantly surprising but everyone knows that, which makes it not surprising. Hmmm, like he rigs his toilet paper backwards or something? Which I don’t know how he actually rigs his toilet paper! You know, I’ll tell you something that I didn’t know about him before but he’s a fan of the TV show Moesha. I just would never have guessed it or put it together but I remember on Death Proof, and I don’t remember if it made it in the movie or not, but there was a reference to Moesha and I had to sing the theme, and I knew it already because I used to watch Moesha, but I was surprised to hear him reference it and he told me “I’ll send you however many episodes as you need because I have them all because I love them” and I was like, WOW, and there is just another layer to the man that is in fact an eternal onion. Just layered!
Zöe "The Cat" Bell takes on a muscle car while flexing her own acting muscles in 2007's Death Proof.
The Weinstein Company
So one final question: You’re at a really great place in your career, going from an semi-anonymous stunt double to people very quickly succumbing to your charm and falling in love with you as an official actor. How does it feel to really be on the rise and to that effect what do you have coming up that you’re truly excited about?
It’s so fascinating, you know, and I absolutely appreciate everything you just said, and that feels nice, but I also have to say that I think it’s true that for most people that are on the journey it never quite feels as solidified as it appears from the outside. I will say that what does feel far more solid is my relationship to myself, or my identity as an actor. That I feel far more comfortable and relaxed when someone puts a role in front of me now, I can look at it think, ooh I’d love to do this with it and I can imagine this or it appeals or doesn’t appeal to me rather than, I don’t know if I can really do that or not. Which is, when I recognize that, that in itself is absolutely relieving. The game to getting other people to appreciate you as an actor is, to some degree outside of your power, and feeling powerless is never a good feeling, but I feel like all the things that I’ve done and the hard work I’ve done over the years that often feels like, to be honest, it’s not going somewhere or it dead ends, and then you start something else and that dead ends or goes underground and, I was describing this to someone the other day, it feels like I’ve been tipping individual buckets of water down the hill and they’re just absorbing into the hillside which makes you feel like all of this water is going absolutely nowhere but, you know, I’m starting to get the sensation that it might all be pooling underneath and there might be a little well, I might have a little underground swell happening and part of that is me taking a little bit of control back, or attempting to, by trying to step into the role of producer more or getting involved with some projects from the ground level. And that’s really exciting, I just did a short film called Minor that I’m the lead in and produced and there’s another film project that I can’t really talk about yet but it’s based on a personal experience of mine and I’m all over that one as a creative and producer, and I’m excited about that. There’s a T.V. show idea I’m flirting with and with Camino, and Hateful Eight, and another film called Paradox coming out soon, just taking all the fortunes that have come my way, such as everything to do with Quentin and with Josh being one of my biggest supporters, taking all of that and working my ass off to connect the dots and create more dots. I’m just now starting to feel like I have built enough of a platform underneath myself that I can rest on my credit and my contacts a little bit. I’m excited about creating stuff and reaching out to the people I’ve built these relationships with and collaborate with them as opposed to waiting for someone to validate me or offer me a job, and ultimately I don’t know if that’s going to work but the concept of that being my end goal is really, really exciting to me.
Well, it sounds like everything is truly coming up Zöe!
Ha! Give me six months and then I’ll get on board that boat. As of now, I’m still planting the Zöe seeds.
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I guess you still have to water them?
Yep, and shine some sunlight on them!
See Camino at the Denver Film Festival, screening Thursday, November 12 at 9pm and Friday, November 13 at 6:30pm at the UA Denver Pavilions, with Zöe Bell and director Josh C. Waller in-person. Then catch a One On One Conversation With Zöe Bell on Saturday, November 14 at 9:30pm at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets to both events range in price and are available at denverfilm.org.