Zoe Bell: Not Stunt Casting

One of the more interesting projects being promoted last weekend at Wondercon, the Bay Area’s kid-brother version to San Diego’s massive Comic-Con, was Angel of Death—or, as it says on the title screen over the angry guitar soundtrack, Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death. Brubaker, a comics writer who’s increasingly known for brilliantly layered crime stories, has written a feature film broken into ten short episodes, going up on Sony’s Crackle.com, one a day starting today, to be followed by a DVD release with the whole package and the usual bonus features. Like what Joss Whedon did with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, only with less singing along and a ton more traumatic head injuries.

Brubaker and the star, Zoe Bell, are in a corner of the Marriott’s lobby, where a firmly efficient PR woman cycles reporters and camera crews between them. Bell is a top-flight stuntwoman who made her acting debut as herself (specifically as herself strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger in a breathtaking chase sequence), in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s half of the Grindhouse double bill.

Bell has been Xena and Kill Bill‘s Beatrix Kiddo when the heat was on, and there’s that crazy Death Proof bit, so you expect something of an Amazon. Instead she’s 5-8, hardly overpowering, and dressed more for a good hotel bar than for a knife fight. Energetic and unpretentious, the 30-year-old New Zealander sits down on the edge of the Marriott’s weirdly uncomfortable chairs and starts answering questions about doing a movie in eight-minute chunks. It’s an interesting proposition, building your movie for free online consumption ahead of the DVD release, but she says she’d been in talks with Sony for awhile about doing something designed for the Internet.

Serialized movies, vicious fight scenes and the transition to actress.

“Well, I mean it seems obvious to me that increasingly TV and computers are becoming almost the same thing,” she says. With her fingers she’s indicating tiny screen sizes, invoking iPods and cell phones. “The networks start to blur, and—especially in this time— going out to the movies is an expense that people can’t afford.  It seems like it’s become a little like, unless you’re a big blockbuster movie, the theatrical release is almost publicity for the DVD sales. So with the Internet, with new media coming up, it seems like it’s time someone started figuring out how to utilize the Internet. I think that’s what this is about, someone at Sony going, ‘All right, let’s give it a good nudge and see what happens.’”

The Sony people brought her Brubaker’s story—a remorseless mob assassin suffers traumatic head injury and develops a conscience, which puts her in violent opposition with her employers.

“I liked the sound of the storyline,” she says. “I liked the sound of the woman, and I kinda liked that … regardless of whether the lead character was a woman or a guy, it kinda read as an action movie. It wasn’t sort of like, ‘Look at this female action movie.’ It was just an action movie, and the lead happened to be female.”

There was enough concern about Bell’s inexperience as an actress that she had to audition, but she did well enough that the studio didn’t audition anyone else. Having only played herself—albeit herself in a Quentin Tarantino universe—one imagines that playing an assassin for this project was a bigger stretch.

“Yeah, it’s been quite different. … Every day I was learning something new. Unfortunately, sometimes it was like, ‘Damn, I wish I knew that five minutes ago and we had another ten minutes to shoot it,’ but we never did. So I’m sure I’m gonna watch it and be, ‘Oh, that’s me learning that lesson, and that’s me learning that lesson.’ “

One lesson learned is that “I really decided I liked acting.” She laughs. “You know what I mean? It took me a little while to figure that out, but it’s been really motivational work for me.”

So she was kinda iffy when Tarantino proposed Death Proof?

Iffy? I was completely bamboozled by it! I was bamboozled by what he thought he was going to get out of me, but after talking to him it made sense,” she says. “He could sell salt to, y’know, a dehydrated man in the desert just about, but he … It wasn’t that I was hesitant about doing it for Quentin. I’d have done anything for Quentin, and been honored as well on top of it. But stepping into the world of saying you want to be an actor, that’s a scary world to step into. There’s a lot people who end up really disappointed with life doing that. There’s, y’know, a lot of really talented people that don’t get the chance they need and they never get anywhere, and there’s a lot of untalented people who do.”

She laughs and says in a voice that’s the audible equivalent of rolling her eyes, “I dunno where I fall into in that category, but it did definitely take me a little while to get to the point where I was comfortable acknowledging that I wanted to give it a go. That was hard for me.”

Coming more naturally, no doubt, was the stunt work, which is a highlight of the episodes that had been made available to the press. The low-budget of the project keeps the action limited to gunplay and hand-to-hand fighting, but that fighting is sudden and vicious. When Bell throws a punch or kick, there’s power behind it; and it looks like it connected. Bell is excited to hear that on screen she seriously looks like she might kill people for a living, because focused but absolutely persuasive action was an integral part of the mission plan.

“We really wanted to go for it, because one of my stipulations was—and they were all in agreement, too, fortunately—was I didn’t want to be involved in a low-budget massive action, because I feel like so many times you fall into a trap where everything else suffers. All the money gets sunk into doing big action stuff, and even the action stuff requires more money than it gets. So then you end up with a sub-par storyline, and even the action isn’t enough to carry it, y’know what i mean?” She says she wanted a smart story with “low-profile, honest action” that was about more than having a stuntwoman in the lead role. “It was like, utilize me, but don’t use me as an excuse to throw a bunch of aimless bullshit in there. Use me for what I’m good at and … use [action] to drive it forward.”

Going forward from this project, Bell is either uncertain or cagey about the idea of sequels—after all, her character may not survive all ten episodes. Brubaker’s the writer who killed Captain America in his own comic book.

“But even if it’s not Angel of Death,” she says, “if these guys ask me to do anything with them, I’m there in a heartbeat.”

Later this week: Q&A with writer Ed Brubaker.

Ed Brubaker’s Angel of Death premieres March 2 on Crackle.com.
Photo credits: All photos by Joel Warren/Crackle.com.