ABOVE: GINA CARANO IN HAYWIRE. PHOTO COURTESY OF CLAUDETTE BARIUS/FIVE CONTINENTS IMPORTS
Call it a Cinderella story if you must, but understand that Gina Carano is by no means a damsel in distress. Though Steven Soderbergh’s newest leading lady may be a relative unknown to many in the film world, Carano has already made a name for herself as one of the top-ranked female mixed martial artists in the world. And it was precisely that sort of experience that made her the perfect candidate for Haywire, Soderbergh’s highly charged action film that features Carano as betrayed CIA agent Mallory Kane. The role also required her to put a serious beat-down on a wide array of Hollywood’s finest actors—including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas. That’s a daunting task for any actress, let alone a newcomer to the scene. While she may not be the typical picture of a wide-eyed ingénue, Carano certainly earns her fairy-tale debut here, and the full display of her butt-kicking abilities offer an encouraging sign for the future of women in action.
EMILY RAUBER: Can you describe how you got this role, and how you met Steven Soderbergh?
GINA CARANO: I had just lost my first MMA fight and was quite, quite depressed at the time. My agent was calling me and saying, “I have this director that really would love to meet you.” I was like, “I don’t really want to meet a director at this point, right now.” And he said: “Look. This guy did Traffic. He did Erin Brockovich. You really need to meet him.” I’d never heard my agent speak to me like that. So I picked up Steven Soderbergh from the train station in San Diego, just a regular guy with a hat, glasses, and jeans, and just a very intelligent man, and we had a four-hour lunch. At the end of it, he said, “Would you be interested in doing a movie with me?” And I said, “Absolutely.” That’s how it happened.
RAUBER: So at the point when he’d seen you as a fighter, what was your fighting style like, compared to the other girls?
CARANO: I like distance. I love Muay Thai. Muay Thai’s definitely my first love. I know that’s gotten more and more popular, but I did it when it was a little bit less popular. I’ve been to Thailand a couple times, and it was that one thing that made me want to get out of bed and live, and live for myself, not for anybody else. That’s where I found a passion when I was 21. That led me into an opportunity to get into mixed martial arts, and then I started jiu jitsu, which is submissions. And then I started wrestling and boxing and trying to incorporate that all, because they’re all such fantastic things. But I’ve got to say, Muay Thai was definitely my first love.
RAUBER: You worked with some pretty incredible—and attractive—actors in the movie. Was that intimidating, or was it reassuring to know that you have these great actors at your back?
CARANO: Well, I was kind of raised as the boy my dad never had. So I’ve been around guys my whole life. I’m actually attracted to the more artistic type, you know, smaller than me, usually.
RAUBER: So it wasn’t a problem being distracted during the scenes, I guess?
CARANO: No, not at all! It was actually really nice to be around a group of people that I really connected with, and that were really open-minded enough to work with an amateur like me. They wanted to work with me physically in the fight scenes, because they wanted to do all their own stunts, whereas I needed to learn how to act, and they helped me out with that. It was a beautiful balance—no egos. It was all about creating the best possible movie that we all could.
RAUBER: Which of the guys was your favorite to act with, and which was your favorite to beat the shit out of?
CARANO: [laughs] I cannot say that I have a favorite. I have a first, which was Michael Fassbender in Dublin. So that was the first actor I worked with, and he became definitely a mentor and somebody who pretty much started off the whole film for me. But then Ewan is possibly one of the most lovely human beings I’ve ever met in my life, and so real. And I just absolutely adore him. And Channing… he’s just a big freaking ball of passion. Like, that boy has so much passion in him, I don’t know what his wife does with him. [laughs] And then Antonio Banderas was just so lovely. Steven Soderbergh couldn’t have set me up with a more beautiful group of people that were more open to working with me. It was the most incredible experience of my life.
RAUBER: I’m sure it was! Now, I’m wondering if you’ve seen the movie Death Proof? It’s directed by Quentin Tarantino, and he used Uma Thurman’s stunt woman from Kill Bill…
CARANO: Yeah! I saw it, I was really fascinated with that! That he did that with her. And she was so great in that movie.
RAUBER: She’s amazing! And I think you may be kind of following in her path, as she’s not only known for being an actress, but also fordoing the majority of her own stunts.
CARANO: Oh, that’s wonderful. I remember seeing her, and it was a beautiful thing, and very warming to know that somebody else has been put in that same situation. She just rocked it in that movie. I have so much respect for her. I’d love to meet her someday, actually! We probably have a lot in common.
RAUBER: In switching from fighting in the ring to fighting on film—I’m sure there are a million answers – but what was the most challenging or weirdest part?
CARANO: Well, I think it was—because when I fight, you know, it’s like this [puts her fists up in a defensive position, covering her face], and my chin’s down, and all of a sudden the stunt guys are like, “Gina… Your coaches are gonna kill us, but bring it out and keep your face up.” The stunt guys really worked with me and helped me out with over-exaggerating everything. Street fighting’s different from MMA fighting and MMA fighting’s different than stunt fighting, but you can’t discredit any of them, because in their own way, they’re all completely beautiful.RAUBER: What was your training like for the movie compared to when you train for a fight?
CARANO: Well, training for a fight, it’s about you. It’s about what you’re eating, and it’s about studying and really getting in the right mental space. And it’s just about getting better and better. A more vicious animal. But with the movie, it was everything I’ve never before. Stunt fighting! They put me with them three hours a day. It was the longest hours I’ve ever done in my life. Three hours of learning how to stunt fight, and three hours of learning how to be in boot camp, and gun training with a Massad guy named Aaron Cohen. It was intense. Two months before the film started. But I think that prepared me for the long hours of filming. And Steven Soderbergh is a fast filmer. I was like, “Geez, these are the longest hours!” And the crew was like, “Honey, you have no idea.”
RAUBER: So in the past you were described a lot as the “Face of Female MMA,” and now I feel like you’re potentially becoming the face of female action stars. Are you comfortable with labels like that? Is it pressure? Is it inspiring to you?
CARANO: I never really liked being labeled anything, ‘cause I don’t like to pigeonhole myself, and I don’t like being put in a box in any way. I like to express myself any way I feel inspired to. But at the same time, sometimes something like that has to happen to open doors for other people. And it’s not always easy, but sometimes somebody has to go first. And make it popular. And then that opens the doors for other female fighters. It’s okay to watch these girls because somebody did it. And that’s what I am okay with, and I’ve come to terms with that. But, you know, being labeled is always… not good.
RAUBER: Would you be open to playing something different kinds of roles then, or working in a genre outside of action?
CARANO: Oh yeah. I’d love to. I’d really like to make some more action stuff, ‘cause that’s what I’m bringing to the table right now, and I know that. That’s why I got the job in the first place, and I love that, because being physical is something that I’ve always loved. But at the same time, I grew up with Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice, and I was still kind of a girly girl, for as much as a tomboy I was. And you know, romance and comedy to me are always something that I would love to learn how to express. It’s like with music, as long as you can feel it, that’s what I love, and that’s what I want to be a part of.
RAUBER: If you were going to cast an all-female Expendables kind of movie, with all different women—either current actresses, or athletes that you think could turn to actresses—who would you make sure to include?
CARANO: Oh, great question! Well, I’d definitely grab some of my girls from the MMA. Because I know they definitely have it in them to express themselves emotionally. That is just a special group of girls there. Definitely Cyborg. I think she’s a character that people are drawn to. And definitely, this girl named Julie Kedzie. She’d be the really funny kind of tomboy one. She’s just a great character. And then I think as far as women actresses, I’d like to incorporate maybe an unassuming person… somebody like Patricia Arquette. My favorite fight scene and my favorite movie is True Romance. That is my favorite fight scene of all time. That has always been an inspiration to me. She was just a woman, and completely feminine, but at the same time, she was in love and passionate about it. And so unassuming. You know, just a sweet voice. So definitely somebody like that, like Patricia Arquette, in a movie like that. And I’d probably be… I don’t know what part I’d play. I’d probably be pretty goofy.
HAYWIRE IS OUT IN THEATERS FRIDAY.