Game of Death's Zoe Bell on Nerves, Guns and Creating a New Oscar for Stunt Performers

zoe_bell_whipit.jpgGame of Death (out this week from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) is a fairly run-of-the-mill straight-to-DVD action flick featuring Wesley Snipes as a CIA tough guy who's been targeted for assassination by a couple of rogue agents who want him out of the picture so they can commit an elaborate robbery. But it's not a total loss, since one of those rogue agents is played by none other than Zoe Bell, who captured the hearts of genre fans everywhere when she taught us how to do the "ship's mast" in the Death Proof segment of Grindhouse.

By the time Quentin Tarantino put her on the hood of that 1969 Dodge Charger, Bell was already well known in the industry for her extraordinary stunt work on Xena: Warrior Princess and in Tarantino's Kill Bill. (If you've never seen the documentary Double Dare, about Bell's early career and her friendship with legendary stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, go put it in your Netflix queue right now.) Since Death Proof, Bell has continued appearing onscreen as an actress as well as a stuntwoman, most notably as roller derby-er Bloody Holly in Drew Barrymore's Whip It.

Is this the most gunplay you've done in a movie?

There was definitely a lot of bullets. [Laughs] Angel of Death had a lot of gunplay as well, but the gun-to-fight ratio was way off-kilter on this one. I really enjoyed it.

You definitely bring a lot of acrobatics to it, even when you're just hiding around corners.

[Laughs] You've got to do what you can. Spice it up, you know?

You're a veteran at this point of working on film and TV sets, but you've been busier lately as an actress. Do you sense a different vibe, depending on what job you're doing?

Definitely, but that's just the nature of our industry, I guess. I think I approach it in quite a similar way -- I like to feel comfortable on set, and I like making other people feel comfortable. Particularly when I'm feeling uncomfortable, I like to do that. People have a tendency to sort of treat you a bit more gently and pander to you a bit more when you hold the title of "actor" over "stuntwoman," but not too much.

Is it a given that when you're hired as an actress you're also going to be doing your own stunts, or are you getting to a place as on-camera talent where they want to bring in someone else to do the tough stuff for you?

Absolutely. I go in knowing that I'm capable of doing them all, but that's not always to the wishes of the production or of the insurance company. If my face is being shown in a movie, then the insurance company gets a little more nervous about putting me at physical risk, so often they want to have a stunt double, even if it's just for insurance purposes. I, of course, would prefer to do all my own stuff, but that's just me being greedy. [Laughs] And I didn't do stunt work to become an actor, I just did it because I really love stunt work. There's certainly no part of me that wants to give that up, but it is what it is.

zoe_bell_whipit.jpgA lot of us at Movieline are big fans of Whip It (left), and frankly, we're not sure why it didn't do better. Do you have any theories?

I don't know the answer to that -- it's interesting, because I watched the movie and I really liked it. I thought it was really sweet and lovely and smart, and of course I have biased reasons because I'm in love with everybody who worked on it and had such an amazing time doing it. But the amount of feedback I've gotten on that movie is that people enjoyed it, and not just that they didn't mind it but they really liked it. I have no idea why it didn't pop more than it did; I'm sure they pay people to theorize about that kind of stuff.

You've had kind of an unprecedented career in some ways -- the closest I can think of is Jackie Chan, who segued to simply acting after years of both performing and doing stunts. Do you see yourself moving toward just acting as you get older?

I think that you get to a certain age, a woman in particular, where child-bearing issues come up, and what it means to be blowing yourself up or jumping off buildings when there are children at home. Listen, lots of women in this town do stunt work until they're well into their 50s and 60s, and some of them have got amazing careers, and more power to them. Having said that, if that's the way my career went, then that's the way that it went, but it seems that a natural transition is happening, and I really, really enjoy the performance aspect of acting equally as much as I enjoy stunt work. It does seem like a natural trajectory for me, especially because at this point, I get to combine both and have the best of both worlds.

Does either acting or stunt work still make you nervous?

Absolutely. I've been doing this for such a long time that I don't get nervous as a stuntwoman, but I definitely -- you know, if you're 20 stories up and you're about to be dropped...I'm not void of sense. To be honest, if you're a stuntperson and you're literally fearless, I think you run the risk of getting injured. We experience fear for a reason; it's a way for our bodies to focus and concentrate, at least that what it does for me. And acting is the same way; it can terrify me way more than stunt work because it's so out of my comfort zone. It's very risky, but in a very different way: It's one thing to risk your physical well-being, it's another to risk pouring out your emotions in front of a bunch of strangers and letting them judge it. I feel much more comfortable taking that risk, but any risk you take -- I experience nerves the way anybody else does, I've just found a way to work through that.

What's coming up for you?

Well, I just found out I have a role in a movie called Hansel and Gretel, shooting in Berlin in March. And I just had a guest-starring role on CSI: Miami that was very much fun -- I got to be a roller-derby girl again, so thank God for my Whip It training. And then a couple projects that I'm sort of loath to talk about for fear of scaring them away.

Finally, it's Oscar season, and I know the stunt community for years has been trying to get the Academy to recognize their work. Do you think it will ever happen?

I'm of two minds on that sort of thing. Part of what I love about what we do as stuntpeople is the illusion of it. You know, if people are convinced that the actors did everything in the movie, then I've done my job. My peers know what my work consists of, and people who are going to be hiring me are aware of that stuff, and my friends and family get to know and be proud, and that's the most important part of it, I think. But having said that, our industry has changed so much that so many of the behind-the-scenes are no longer so behind the scenes, so why not pay attention to it? It just becomes a really difficult thing to credit -- there's a stunt department, but ultimately the stunt coordinator is the head of the department. So do you award it to the stunt department, or do you award it to the performer? And as a performer, I believe I can't do my job without the crew behind me. I love the idea of people in our industry, who work really really hard, getting appreciated for it, but maybe I'm old-fashioned in the sense that I feel like the magician [keeping secrets].

I hear you, although it's interesting to see the special-effects reel of something like Zodiac, where there's not a lot of obvious FX work, but then you see how they erased buildings and put in different ones just to make modern San Francisco look like the '70s. It's invisible when you're watching the movie, but when you go back and look at it later, it's really astonishing.

Absolutely. And the other thing is when you've got sequences that marry the visual-effects department with the stunt department, where what we do wouldn't look good to the naked eye without the visual-effects work, and the visual effects wouldn't look good without us doing what we do. So I don't know, I would hate to see it get political in our world and people's work get torn apart for it. I feel like I should be all for it, in support of my fellow stuntpeople. But then again, if special effects and visual effects are getting [Oscars], and makeup is getting it, then why not, you know?

[Top photo: Getty Images]