Director Steven Soderbergh‘s new espionage thriller, Haywire, staring MMA cage-fighting champion and American Gladiator Gina Carano opened in theaters this past weekend.
The film has been (by-in-large) favored by critics with an 81% on the review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes (read our Haywire review) but stood in sixth place at the box-office. Haywire is an unusual mix of a stylized homage to the spy films of era’s past, a 1970’s brand girl-power extravaganza and raw, visceral, feel-the-pain fight sequences. Soderbergh himself described it as “a Pam Grier film directed by Hitchcock.” The director was inspired to create the script when he saw Carano fighting on television while at home one Saturday night. He wondered why “Angelina Jolie was the only woman allowed to be in an action film?” and set about to remedy the cinematic lack.
Co-staring Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum the film follows Carano‘s character (Mallory), a former Marine turned solider of fortune, as she traverses the muddy waters of government and private army plots and sub-plots. The storyline functions as the foundation for Carano to show her truly stunning combat skills, and as Soderbergh says “beat her way through the cast.”
“I got the phone call after I lost my first fight to “Cyborg” Santos,” Carano recalled at the press day for the film. “And I didn’t really want to speak to anybody at the time. I was bummed, I had a black eye, and my agent called me and he said that this director wanted to meet me, and I didn’t know who he was. I don’t know anything about Hollywood really, still. I’m still learning. So, he called me, and I knew he did ‘Traffic,’ and that was a movie that really touched me. So I decided to pick him up at the train station in San Diego. We had a four hour lunch and at the end of it he offered me a movie.”
Certainly not the average path to movie stardom, but one that makes sense for a director who is known to be unpredictable and perhaps even a bit eccentric. Soderbergh assembled a strong supporting cast for Carano‘s debut, all of whom were enthused by the opportunity work with him and to be in a film that had a female lead who is truly capable of wreaking the destruction she reigns upon them in the story.
“I knew for the first time there was going to be a real fighter, male or female, in an action movie,” Tatum said of the appeal of the project. “Maybe in some Japanese or Chinese movies you may have some action stars that could actually step in the ring and could hold their own, but in America she’s probably the first one.”
Although she was a trained and skilled fighter, Carano entered the world of the actioner with a completely blank slate. Firstly because she had not acted previously and secondly because, surprisingly enough, high octane action, isn’t necessarily her preferred flavor of film.
“I grew up on ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice,'” Carano confessed. “I didn’t really watch action films. I know that sounds really weird coming from a tom boy, but I think I balanced myself out that way by watching those films. So, I didn’t really have somebody I was looking at to mimic, and I didn’t have somebody to mimic in fighting either.”
Carano trained for hours each day with stunt coordinators, strength and conditioning task masters and the Mossad secret service in preparation for her role. “It was pretty much boot camp with guns and getting yelled at,” she recalls. “And getting stalked and stalking other people.” Her male co-stars, alternatively, had as little as two-days to learn the fight sequences. Each of them bringing their own personality to the experience.
Tatum enjoys a full-on brawl with Carano in the film and fondly recalls that he “wanted her to do more, to get some bruises and have stories to tell his friends.”
McGregor laughingly concedes that his character, Kenneth, simply isn’t up to the fight. He in fact at one point tries to scale a hill to escape it. And though he always felt in capable hands with Carano (despite hurting his own hand by accidentally punching her in the head — to which she responded “are you okay?”) the actor did admit that:
“The only scary thing is that Gina’s fitness is just unbelievable. I watched her do some of the fight scenes in New Mexico with stunt men, and they would do a take, and at the end of the take Steven would say cut, and the stunt men were like destroyed. They would be like [heavy breathing noise] sweating and Gina would be like, ‘alright ready for another take!?’ And we were doing a fight in sand. My fitness is not very great. My worry was more about that, being able to keep going through the day…It was a long day.”
As far as one of the films other co-stars, Michael Fassbender is concerned, Carano explains simply:
“Fassbender’s crazy. He loves that shit. He had no problem slamming me into anything. Actually Steven Soderbergh told him once, ‘We need to get this shot better when you slam her head into the wall.’ And I was like, ‘damn that thing’s not soft!’ Soderbergh is behind the camera and he’s being really mischievous. He wants something bad to happen…”
“He’s always trying to piss her off. And see what happens,” Tatum chimed in.
“Maybe you get better acting that way?” Carano mused. “Anyway, we were going for it and he slammed my head so hard into the wall I kind of lost it for a second. I kind of slammed a vase right into Fassbender’s face, but he said he knew it was coming because he saw a flash in my eyes. And right after that happened I thought, ‘I’m so fired. I’m going to lose this job,’ because that was the first fight scene we did. But Fassbender, he loved training for the fight scenes. He did ‘300’ with the 87Eleven group (the stunt coordinators on ‘Haywire’) too.”
Despite the small hurts here and there the actors were ultimately all very safe with Gina, and they in turn created a comfortable environment for her in what she says was the most vulnerable experience of her life: her acting debut. The mastermind behind the project is a notably unconventional, calm and fast worker which likely served to make the experience a smooth and enjoyable ride for the entire team.
“Being a director myself, still a rookie, but a director I shoot everything,” Bandaras said laughingly. “I shoot ash trays…anything! As much material as I can so I can cook later in the editing room. This guy doesn’t shoot anything. It was just moving. Like, ‘we got it, moving on, let’s go to the airport now.’ Only a director with tremendous confidence and self assurance can do that.”
And only a director with that level of self-possession can continue to take creative risks.
Haywire is in theaters now.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc