High on the list of Quentin Tarantino collaborators is Zoë Bell, the New Zealand-born stunt performer-turned-stunt coordinator who has been an inherent part of Tarantino’s films since he originally cast her as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill.” Since then, she has been a part of each of his films, usually playing a character on-screen while also supervising the stunts and doubling performers (“Inglourious Basterds” is the only movie where she doesn’t have a speaking role in addition to her behind-the-scenes duties). Perhaps most famously she starred as a slightly different version of herself in “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s half of his “Grindhouse” project with Robert Rodriguez.
And, if you’ve seen “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” you know that Bell pops up in the small but pivotal role of Janet, the wife of a long-time stunt coordinator (Kurt Russell), who gets to tell off Brad Pitt’s stunt performer Cliff Booth in the middle of a scene where he’s fighting Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). It’s an incredible scene made all the better thanks to Bell’s performance, which is powerful and hilarious.
Mild spoilers for the film below, but if you haven’t seen it yet, that’s on you!
Moviefone: So you were initially hired as a stunt performer for the “Kill Bill” films, right?
Zoë Bell: Yeah.
And did you guys immediately have a rapport?
Well I first met in L.A. at the auditions, which was ostensibly one of my first real auditions. I know we met there because there’s video footage of it in a documentary called “Double Dare.” So I know that it happened. But my personal memory is a little bit blurry of that day cause it was a little bit like, “My god, there’s ‘Splash’ – Daryl Hannah. Oh my God, there’s ‘Reality Bites’ -- Ethan Hawke. Oh my God, that's Uma Thurman.
But once I got to China, I actually don't have a clear recollection of the first time we hung out. I just remember all of China is, it felt like I'd found a buddy at school. I was like, “Yeah, my people!”
In film when you're working on location and you're away from home, there's sort of an adult summer camp vibe. The difference being, it was one of the first times I'd ever really been on location, especially internationally. I was barely an adult. I mean, I was 21. I look back now and I'm like, oh my God, I was a baby. That whole crew became family. The conditions are pretty insane. The hours were really long. We played hard and we worked even harder. Because we were removed from Hollywood and you're on location so people aren't going home to their real lives, we kind of maintain the bond, the bubble.
It’s also a little bit more realistic because there isn’t the bullshit of who is famous and who's not and who's this and who's important, who's not. I mean there's the hierarchy happens on set, as it happens in any kind of industry that needs structure. But when you're outside of the work zone, we're all hanging out as equals because there is no social structure. We were all on equal playing fields. It was a pretty cool way to walk into Hollywood.
When did he talk to you about starring in “Death Proof?”
Literally the day he turned up to my house with the script. I think we won a couple of MTV awards for fight sequences, particularly the one between Uma and Daryl in “Kill Bill.” So Monica, who was Daryl’s stunt double and myself went over to Quinton's house, because we were all going to the awards together and we had a couple of pre-drinks and we were hanging out there and he started telling us about his new movie “Death Proof” about a stunt guy who's got a car that is decked out and has a cage so that he basically uses it as a weapon.
But in my memory, I've said this a couple times and I said I don’t know if I've just made it up or whether it really happened this way, but my memory is, I was like, “Okay you absolutely have to cast someone who looks like me in the movie cause I have to work on the movie. You can’t make a movie about stunt people and not have me be one of the stunt people, that they would literally destroy my feelings. I'd be so sad.”
And he was like, “Oh yeah, okay.” Then he said, “Oh, I want to put you guys in the movie.” And I was like, “F*ck yeah, I get to double one of the leads.” What I believed was that the lead women would be sitting around the table and that Monica and I would be in the background, she and I would get into a fight and f*ck each other up in the background. No one needed to know, but [Tarantino] would be able to go, “Those are my stunt girls from ‘Kill Bill.’” And that would be a little Tarantino-verse magic moment.
But when he called me, he was like, “I'm coming over to your house. I've got the script for ‘Death Proof’ and Robert has done something really cool with the cover, I think you're gonna love.” And I was like, Oh God, what has he done? I think I made some joke like, “Has he put my face on Pam Anderson's body or something?” Cause I knew it was going to be a grindhouse-style flick. And he showed up and it wasn't that, it was just an bad ass cover of a car with a lightning bolt. Kurt, at the beginning, wasn’t going to be Stuntman Mike. So it had “Starring Mickey Rourke and Zoë Bell.”
And I was like, “Can I take a photo and show my mom and dad?” And he was like, “You can keep this good the script turn to the page with the folded corner.” And I turned to a page and it was the introduction of the Zoë character coming off the plane and read, “cute as a bug’s ear, Zoë Bell bounds off the plane.” And I was like, “What the hell? Who is going to play that?” And I think I did something like, “She better be hot and she'd better look like me, cause I'm definitely doubling her.” And he said, “Oh no, you’re playing her.” And I swear the blood drained from my face and probably not in the way that any sane person, particularly an actor on the planet, the blood would drain because they'd be like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” My thing was like, “Holy shit, what are you talking about? I don't know if I can even act” And so he, knowing me very well then, took me out for beers and uh, explained the ship’s mast to me. By the end of that conversation, I was like, “I’m so in.”
So how did that play out? You’re in so much of the movie.
So basically I took him out for a margherita and said, “How do you act? What do I do?” And he basically said to me, I could almost put this in quotations but it’s been so long, but he basically said, “I know you have what I want. I believe I know how to get it. I need you to know the lines inside out, back to front so that I can get you to be who I need you to be on the screen. Because you're basically being yourself and I know how to do that with you. And you just need to learn the lines.” And I asked him how that happens. And he is so funny because he said, “Get a Dictaphone and do your off lines,” exactly like Rick does in the movie.
So I did that. I did all, all my off lines from the moment the second set of girls comes into the film. I had the whole lot on off lines and I had other people do them. So it wasn't just my voice. I had my mom playing Tracy was hilarious. My brother was Rosario's character at one point. So that was basically it. I learnt everybody's lines inside out and backwards.
And then once we started shooting, we had rehearsal time which was a godsend, I don't know how any director wants to make a movie without rehearsal time with their actors. It's such a beautiful process and it's such a beneficial process. Once he was shooting, every night I would call Rosario, Tracy and Mary Elizabeth and be like, “Okay, so I'll provide the wine if guys provide the lines.” They would come over and run lines with me because that’s all I know to do. Then it was handed over to Quentin.
You were in “Django Unchained.” And there has been a lot of speculation on the internet about your character having potentially grown up with Django and been disfigured. How much of that stuff was true?
There's all of it in there. And one of the fun things about Quentin is even if it wasn't in the script, and there was one version of the script that had an extended piece in there. But even if it wasn't, he would have thought about it all. Like every character in there and he knows when they come from and where they’re going. It's phenomenal.
So Tracker Peg, she had history with one of the other trackers. They used to be lovers. She was disfigured in a way. never had to go through the prosthetics because we ended up not keep that bit. But we knew what they looked like and there was potentially a fight sequence with Django and these redneck racist trackers.
And the beautiful thing is I don't feel like it's missing from the movie. I would love to be in the movie more and I would have loved to have had a fight with Jamie. But I feel that backstory is there in all of his work anyway, because I know for a fact it's there. Even if it was never in the script that was always in the story, it was always in his head. And he would have always told me, there's always some story to my character. It’s all there. I remember saying, “Why is she a Kiwi? Do you not like my American accent?” He said, “I do. I particularly like your Kiwi accent. And Australians and New Zealanders, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “Okay. Right. Okay.”
He’s talked recently about knowing all about every character from “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and even writing several episodes of “Bounty Law.” But what about Janet? Where is she in all of this?
[laughs] How cool is Janet? I love that her name is Janet! She’s such a bad ass! Janet was referenced in the script. Randy references her when he's in the trailer with Rick. I don't think I even talked with Quentin about it, but there’s a lot of information in all of Quentin’s scripts, but particularly in this one because there's all kinds of references to movies and TV shows and music and back and forth and jumping in. And if you don't have a brain like Quentin’s, which few of us do, there’s a lot to decipher and take on and put into context.
But for some reason Janet existing was really cool to me. I was like, “Oh, Janet, she's interesting.” Hadn't thought anything of it. It came about on the day that it was going to be Janet that interrupted this fight rather than Randy. Randy was going to come along, haphazardly walk in the middle of it.
There really wasn't a whole lot of print. And again I'm not quoting Quentin because we haven't actually had this specific conversation, but I had watched Leo doing some of the “Bounty Law” stuff and just had this awakening again, where I was like “Man, I want to act,” just because it looked so satisfying and explorative and exciting. I’d been out of the acting game for a little minute because I got burned out on it all over again. And I starting having conversations with Quentin about that again. There was one role that I pitched myself for and they wanted to go for someone else.
I wanted to fight for this role and not fight because I felt angry or I was hurt because I was excited to go outside my comfort zone. I didn't get the role. I'm just not right for it. I totally regret that, but I was really excited that I pitched myself. I was really excited that I put myself on tape. My boyfriend and I went home and did a little scene and sent it to the casting agent and Quentin. It was a real pleasure to be excited and passionate and really desire something but felt no pressure, no desperation for it.
It didn't work out. I was still coordinating with movie and I had a lot on my plate. I was good. Then the other part was when we were putting some fight choreography options on tape to show Quentin. Originally it's Randy that breaks up the fight. And often I’ll put my doubles in place of the actors and we'll put people in just so that there's some semblance of a scene so Quentin can get his head around it. And I took on the role of Kurt and I just full tilt on my version Kurt Russel. It was kind of a little bit of him from “Death Proof” as the stunt coordinator.
I was having a laugh. I was hoping Quentin would really enjoy it because the writing's just funny. We were all cracking each other up. And why not have fun while working your ass off?
And I wonder if that combined with, because he’d told me he’d watched the audition that I’d put on tape for the other character and he told me, “I really enjoyed that you did such a great job.” He was really proud of me putting myself on the line and committing 100%. I feel like those things combined meant that on the day when the opportunity presented itself that click, “I’m going to have Zoë come in and do Kurt Russell but she's going to be Janet because that’s probably what happened on the day.” It just felt, I'm not much of a kismet fan but it was a real fun couple of days. Quentin went home that night and came back with the scene written. I feel like we all had a lot of fun with that kind of larger than life character. Telling Brad Pitt go get f*cked was pretty fun.
Well that's sort of the beauty, right? I wasn't relieved cause there was no desperation around it. I was really excited. When I went to see it at Cannes Shannon, one of the producers on the movie, said Janet was in the movie. I was like, “Yeah!” I still didn't know how much. When I watched it at Cannes, I was like, “Yeah!” Because I outside of me playing Janet, I really liked Janet. I think she's such a cool character and she seems so currently relevant in a perfectly dated way. She’s so intrinsic of that time. But she's such a relevant character right now and the fact that I'm playing Kurt Russel’s wife in 1969 and I'm stunt coordinator today in 2019. Everything about it was exciting. And when I say it was fun to tell Brad Pitt to get f*cked, it’s only because I really like him. If that wasn’t the case it would have been uncomfortable.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is playing everywhere right now.