"Steven [Soderbergh] asked me, 'Why is Angelina Jolie the only female action star in the world?' I told him, 'I don't know,' and he said, 'Because someone made her that way, and I'm going to make Gina into one of the biggest action stars in the world.'"
That was Ryan Kavanaugh, head of Relativity Media, talking to Variety at the premiere of his company's latest release, Haywire, which is also the latest exercise in genre fuckery from director Steven Soderbergh. The Gina he's talking about is Gina Carano, a 29-year-old mixed-martial artist with no real acting experience whom Soderbergh approached about starring in his film after seeing her cage fight another woman on TV.
The finished product, as reliant as it is on Soderbergh's signature crutches of an all-star cast (Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas) and non-linear narrative, offers an alternative to action cinema's business as usual. There's its notably lo-fi style (the run-and-gun videography is artifice-free, which is an artful way of saying the movie often looks like shit), its real-world trappings (the action sequences unspool without evident special effects, impossible leaps of logic, or the accompaniment of the otherwise-omnipresent score), and, of course, a female lead who could not only do her own stunts, but also actually helped to conceptualize them.
Though not a traditional "relationship movie"—Carano's Mallory Kane, an operative for a private contractor who is framed for a murder she didn't commit by her ex-boss/ex-boyfriend Kenneth (McGregor), is very intentionally positioned as both a loner and an inconvenience—the heart of the film is the on-screen relationship between Carano and Tatum, Hollywood's hunk du jour. (Tatum's in five 2012 releases, including Soderbergh's Magic Mike, which Tatum co-wrote based on his own experiences as a male stripper.) Their dynamic is established in Haywire's first scene, in which Mallory meets Tatum's Aaron at a diner in frozen, middle-of-nowhere, upstate New York. He's a former co-worker who says he has been assigned by Kenneth to give Mallory a ride; she wasn't expecting him and refuses to get in the car. He smashes a glass in her face, then pulls a gun and shoots, but misses; she then kicks the shit out of him, steals his gun and gets away.
Last week, I interviewed Carano and Tatum—separately, in suites at different Beverly Hills hotels on different days. Hers was covered in clothes and packed with assistants, and when I entered, she was "candidly" sprawled on the bed with a laptop, wearing an army-green T-shirt and matching mini skirt. His was junket-tidy and hanger-on-free; he ignored a fruit plate and chewed on a cinnamon-flavored toothpick.
She, a superstar athlete based in Vegas, plays up her movie-world ignorance. When her sports agent explained that Steven Soderbergh wanted to meet her, she says, "I was like, 'I don't know who that is.'"
He, a self-described "down South, jock kid" turned Abercrombie model turned blockbuster It boy, whose abs may be more famous than his face, plays down his Hollywood currency. "I'm so insecure," Tatum tells me. "I have a big year coming up, and I'm, like, insanely scared. I didn't intend for this many movies to be coming out. . . . I've been doing this for eight years, and still, I'm in film school. I didn't have any training, and every day on set, I learn something."
In Haywire, both benefit from Soderbergh's uncanny ability to elicit believable performances from non-actors, as well as actors who aren't often cast primarily for their craft. In addition to setting Carano up with acting coach Barry Primus, Soderbergh asked her to watch two of his most stripped-down, unconventional narratives: Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. The latter, built around porn star Sasha Grey in the role of a high-priced call girl for whom the financial crisis portends professional and personal crisis, is perhaps Haywire's most obvious casting precursor. ("It was good for me to watch," admits Carano. "Like, somebody's done this.") But Bubble, the small-town noir Soderbergh shot digitally in an actual small town and cast with local non-actors, is the more interesting reference point for a film engineered as a "realistic" entry into one of Hollywood's most obviously artificial genres.
Soderbergh, Carano says, "wanted Haywire to be authentic. He didn't want there to be wires; he wanted it to be something that could actually happen. He said, 'It's going to be really interesting to see who takes these roles because it's got to be an actor's actor—someone who doesn't mind getting physical with a woman or losing to her in a fight.'"
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Carano's co-stars McGregor and Michael Fassbender (playing a hit man whose neck nearly snaps between Carano's thighs in Haywire's best action scene, a hotel-room tussle with both actors in evening wear) would seem to fit that bill. But Tatum is a less likely candidate for the label "actor's actor." The frisson between the pair onscreen stems in part from the common subtext they bring: In large part, both of them owe their success to their bodies and the kind of gender-role confusion those bodies inspire. Carano is the hot chick who kicks ass like a guy; Tatum is the self-aware himbo whom "dude's dudes" want to have a beer with. And yet both are at points in their careers at which they'll have to transcend the physicality that made them famous if they want to become even more famous.
"I've gotten a lot more from having great genes than I've lost," Tatum says. But "no one calls me for stock brokers." (No one except for Soderbergh, who cast Tatum as just that in the upcoming thriller Bitter Pill.) "I know what people want to see me in, but you don't always want to do that; you wanna grow."
That's a yearning Carano can relate to. While not quite fully installed in a new career ("I'm not like a Hollywood actress—I'm thicker, for one thing"), her dabbling in movie stardom has led to blowback from her former community. "The fighting world, they feel like they own you. They don't want to share," she says. "It's almost like having an ex-boyfriend you're still friends with. You're like, 'We can still hang out'—which never works."
This article did not appear in print.