Gina Carano Takes on ActionFest, Explains The Collision of Wonder Woman and ‘Encino Man’

By  · Published on April 15th, 2012

When you think of the typical action hero, the image that immediately leaps to mind is undoubtedly that of a bloody, bandana-clad dude with a massive gun, or a rouge tough guy cop, or perhaps a macho kung-fu master. In other words…males. While action is a genre long dominated by men, there have been a few notable (read: 100% ass-kicking) action heroines that have left their own indelible mark: Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. To that list, we must now certainly add Gina Carano, star of Steven Soderbergh’s recent action thriller Haywire.

Gina however had the advantage of being a certified badass long before throwing her first punch on screen. She is a longtime student of Muay Thai, a former champion MMA fighter, and was in fact involved in some of the first sanctioned female fights in MMA history. With knockout after knockout Carano, an undeniable knockout herself, proved that beauty and strength were far from mutually exclusive. Her work in Haywire, coupled with her successful MMA career, inspired the head honchos at ActionFest to create a new award for which she will be the first recipient. The Chick Norris Best Female Action Star Award, playfully adapted from the name of fest founder (and action legend in his own right) Chuck Norris, celebrates the contribution women have made and continue to make to action cinema.

We got a chance to talk to Gina about the award, about Haywire, and, oddly, about Encino Man.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Not a problem. Film School Rejects, that’s an incredible name.

Thank you very much, we do the best we can. That’s kind of how we operate, we appreciate films as if we went to film school and yet all managed to get kicked out before graduation.

I like that.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about making the transition from MMA to film. Specifically, did you find it difficult to work within scripted fight sequences after coming from something as visceral and in the moment as mixed martial arts?

Actually I found it, in a way, enlightening and freeing. It allowed me to do what I love to do without worrying about having to have a fight at the end of those two months of training. Instead it was more like choreography for a dance, but still letting me do what I love, and that was a ton of fun for me. It was a way for me to explore my passion without getting hurt or having to hurt someone else. It was beautiful actually. When you’re fighting in gyms, you have to spar all the time. Sometimes you’re better than your sparring partner, sometimes you’re worse, but you have to use a certain amount of control. I took that same mentality, “I’m not trying to hurt this person, I’m trying to work with this person.” It was an easy transition actually.

That makes sense. Can you talk a bit about working with Soderbergh and how you got involved with Haywire?

He had seen me fight on TV and he came out and met me in San Diego after I lost my fight to Cyborg. He really just wanted to meet me and see if I’d be interested in doing a film. He didn’t have a script, or any producers, or any actors attached yet. He was just really fascinated with what I could actually do and felt I could bring a believability to a film using that skill. Two months later I’m was in training for it. In Haywire I’m just trying to portray what he saw. It was such a blessed first experience in film.

Now you favor Muay Thai as a fighting style, why is that your preferred choice over other styles?

Well that’s where I started, it’s my first love. You know how it is, you have your first love and nothing can ever replace that. That was Muay Thai for me. I was lucky enough to walk into a good Muay Thai school in Las Vegas: Master Toddy’s Muay Thai. He taught me the basics from the beginning and was a stickler for technique. I think that now that MMA is popular, that Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai are also popular. But when I was doing it, it wasn’t as popular and I got the basic hardcore techniques of it all. I was really able to use that in my fights very well. I didn’t even know it was going to be one of the most popular standup styles of fighting, I mean hindsight is 20/20, but I had no idea it was going to blow up.

What was it like telling your parents that you wanted to do this for a living? I know that your father was an athlete, but there had to be a measure of reservation on their part when you told them you wanted to be a professional fighter.

Oh totally. I was always told that I needed to be a doctor or lawyer and that I needed to go to college. That’s actually what I was doing when I started Muay Thai, I was trying to put myself through college; I wasn’t initially really into it. But once I started training and fighting, it was like I began living. I woke up everyday with a purpose. It was my whole reason to get up in the morning: to train and get better because you’ve got a fight at the end. For some people that’s cool, they have their passion or their art. For me that passion ended up being fighting.

You bring up an interesting point. With professional fighting, you have a pretty clear objective; in fact that objective is the person in front of you. I guess that easily translates to acting, because you still have to work with objectives; they’re just on the page instead of standing in the octagon with you.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I feel the same way now as I felt nine years ago when I started training in Muay Thai. I’m waking up everyday and I’m learning something new. I’m learning new styles and techniques of mixed martial arts. I’m also learning a whole different field in acting; character development, story, scene work, objectives. It’s two things I’ve always loved. I’ve always loved movies and I’ve always loved fighting. So it’s like I get to live them both and use them to benefit one another. I honestly couldn’t be happier. I’m really happy just to be waking up and doing what I’m doing everyday. I feel really blessed.

That’s excellent. I mean, that’s the goal for everyone is to wake up and love what they’re doing. I can definitely respect that.

It’s the most important thing in the world. Money is not going to give you a purpose, but I’m actually waking up and doing things that I love and I just have to pinch myself.

Absolutely. When you set out to be a professional fighter, were you conscious of the barriers that existed for women? Was that a motivation for you or was it just purely the love of competing?

That’s a good question actually. Growing up, I was the middle child of three girls, I always felt very protective of my sisters. If anything ever happened to them, you better believe I was right there. My mom sort of raised us as a single mother. My dad lived in a different city. He was a great dad, but he wasn’t always there so I felt the need to be the protector. So in my head, when I started doing the sport, I didn’t think about being attractive or being any kind of a stereotype. I always knew I was tomboy, but I didn’t realize how much those stereotypes still exist. Believe me I’ve since gotten a whole education on it. These walls needed to be broken. They’re not completely gone, but at least people coming up behind me now don’t have to go through what I did. So at least it’s getting a little bit better. And there’s a passion for this, people want to see females doing this. They want to see females being inspired, and wanting to train and use their bodies; to defend themselves and be strong. It’s a beautiful movement to be a part of. I therefore don’t look at it so much as I’m going against the grain anymore. I feel like we’re all in this together, educating the world. It feels more like a movement.

Well there’s no questioning the powerful representation of the strong female in Haywire. In fact, you have to level with me. Who’s tougher: Channing Tatum or Michael Fassbender? I mean in one movie your character fights Magneto and a G.I. Joe!

You know what? They couldn’t have been any more perfect for their roles. Michael is tricky and Channing is very athletic. I think that Michael is the type who, if he were ever in a scary situation where he had to defend himself, he would definitely do anything and everything to trick himself out of it. Whereas I didn’t realize Channing was such a massive guy. He’s very large and athletic. It’d be actually interesting to see them fight.

He is a big dude.

Regardless, they were both a pleasure to work with. They were both so passionate and open to working with someone who’d ever done it before. It’s funny; my little cousin was harassing me about working with Channing Tatum. She couldn’t believe I had a kissing scene with Channing Tatum. It was hilarious.

Nice. So how do you feel about receiving the Chick Norris Award at this year’s Action Fest? It’s gotta be encouraging to know that you actually inspired a brand new award at this festival.

It’s such a good feeling, I love it. I used to wake up at 6am every morning to get ready for school and I’d watch Walker Texas Ranger. I never thought I’d be getting an award like this. I’m really looking forward to the females who win after me. I’m really glad to be the first one to open that door for other females. I’m really honored to be a part of it. I’m honored to be representing my sport, the disciplines I’ve practiced, and to represent stunt people. Stunt people put their lives on the line and they don’t get recognition at these bigger award shows, so it’s really cool that they have these Action Fest awards for these people who put their lives on the line to make the beautiful action scenes. I have a ton of respect for stunt people and it’s cool to be a part of an event that represents them.

Stunt people are unsung heroes, I completely agree with you there. Hey, speaking of heroes, have you heard this overwhelming Internet demand for you to play Wonder Woman?

I have heard about it, by random people on the street. They’ll come up to me and say, “hey Gina, will you play Wonder Woman?” [laughs]

Is that something you’d be open to doing?

I would be, absolutely. It would be a fascinating film if someone did it correctly. She’d be coming to Earth from an all-woman planet so there’s so much inherent comedy and weird real-life scenarios. It’s kind of like, do you remember Encino Man? How Brendan Fraser was a caveman thrust into modern era? I see of it as kind an Encino Man meets Superman…but from a woman’s perspective.

I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that you brought up Encino Man during this interview of your own volition. I’m such a lover of bad movies.

I’m happy with you! I love that kind of fish-out-of-water character. And that’s how Wonder Woman would be; so innocent, but then also she’s this incredible specimen. If someone could figure out how to bring that kind of story of to it, I think it would be beautiful and very believable. That’s the Wonder Woman I’d be interested in, because I think it would be fascinating.

And if they ever do an Encino Man remake with a cavewoman instead of a caveman, you’ll be the first person they call.

I know. I would love that!

In terms of what’s up next for you, I know you have In the Blood coming up. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Absolutely. I’m in pre-production. I do stunt training every day, I do strength and conditioning, and I’m learning a whole slew of new moves and new techniques. I’m really excited about it because it’s one of those scripts I was reading and I couldn’t put it down. I kept turning the page and turning the page, and I was thrilled to see where it was going. I’ve read enough scripts by now to know that some of them kind of put you to sleep. But with this one, I was so in tune with the character, and she seems even a closer fit for me than my character in Haywire. She smiles, she’s getting married, and she’s going on her honeymoon and then she’s protecting and trying to save her husband. I feel more passionate about this character than I have about a lot of characters I’ve read, and now I get to put a physicality to her. I’m really excited about it because she’s more me. I understand this character very well and I’m anxious to express it on film.

I’ve heard it described, based on the plot synopsis, as a female version of Taken. Did you get that impression reading the script?

The thing that it has in common with Taken is the love for a loved one and saving that person. Beyond that, it’s very different. She wasn’t an ex-secret service person, and I think a lot of people will be able to appreciate where my character is coming from. Women in particular will understand going to the ends of the Earth for the man that you love, especially if he was the only man you ever loved and he was your everything. I think that genuine love is really what they have in common.

Gotcha. Well I wanted to wrap this up by asking you if there were any particular female action heroes or badass females in general whom you idolized growing up.

I was such a dorky little girl. I watched Anne of Green Gables in elementary school and I watched Pride and Prejudice, the old one on the cassette tapes, in high school. My friends would come over and they’d be like, “oh my gosh, please don’t put that tape in anymore.” I just loved it; I loved those girly girly stories. It wasn’t until I got into fighting that I even started noticing action. I didn’t even really start noticing action stars until recently. I love the Resident Evils and the Underworlds and I love Wanted. I’m in awe of what beautiful females in Hollywood have been doing. I feel like these are women who never had to take the action route because they had the beauty and acting talent to do anything, but they chose to do action. That’s pretty cool. The way I look at it is that I’m bringing a different skill set and mentality to it, so I try to keep it fresh and not copy anyone’s style and make my own niche.

I gotta tell you, I never expected Anne of Green Gables to be one of your influences.

I know, right? I’m a little strange.

You say strange, we say awesome.

Stay tuned for more from ActionFest 2012.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.