Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, "Haywire," opens with a bruised woman, Mallory (Gina Carano), casing a roadside truck stop from behind a snowbank. She enters the greasy spoon and takes a booth. Soon, Aaron (Channing Tatum) shows up. A few tense words are exchanged before he throws hot coffee in her face and starts a shockingly brutal beatdown. Once she regains her footing, however, she cleans his clock with ruthless efficiency. Of course, before he started acting, Tatum was a male stripper. Carano, however, was an American Gladiator and a mixed martial arts (MMA) champ. Not really a fair fight.
From "Ocean's Eleven" to "Contagion," Soderbergh has always been interested in watching professionals work. In "Haywire," the profession is fighting. Unlike most action flicks, the fight scenes look savagely real rather than choreographed and balletic. The punches have impact; body blows look like they really hurt. Mallory even spends much of the movie with bruises on her face. How often do you see that in an action movie? Tom Cruise receives a superhuman amount of abuse in last month's "Mission: Impossible 4," but he didn't have anything close to a facial bruise. Heck, his hair barely seemed ruffled after his showstopping tussle in the middle of an Arabian sandstorm.
While the plot of "Haywire" is pure genre told with great economy, the real fun of the flick is in watching Carano knock the stuffing out of some of Hollywood's leading men, from Tatum to Michael Fassbender to Ewan McGregor. I talked with Carano last week about how she got involved with the project, how she trained for the movie, and what it was like to go toe-to-toe with Tinseltown A-listers.
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Jonathan Crow: How did you become involved with this project? Can you tell me how this happened?
Gina Carano: Sure. I lost a fight to [MMA rival] Cyborg. I was sitting there in San Diego, just numb. I trained my ass off for that fight, and it just definitely didn't go as planned. So, then I was sitting there and my agent called me and says, "Look, you know, this director's been calling about you, and he wants to meet you, and he'll come out from L.A. to San Diego." And I said, "I don't really want to meet anybody." And he said, "It's Steven Soderbergh." I was, like, "I don't know who that is."
So I went and picked him up at the train station, and we had a four-hour lunch, just talking about everything from action films to our families. And then, at the end of it, he says, "Look, I want to make this realistic action film with you and around your character. We have a project in our studio."
JC: OK. Did you have any qualms about doing the movie?
GC: I think I'm just open-minded. Open-minded enough to allow myself to grow in any new way. And as long as I've got that freedom to express myself, then I think I'm going to be OK in life.
JC: How is training for this movie different from training for MMA?
GC: Oh, completely different. Stunt fighting is different from street fighting, and street fighting is different from MMA fighting. With stunt fighting, I had to learn a lot about not connecting but making it look real. And then Steven didn't want me to start working with an acting coach because he was concerned that if I started getting into Hollywood, some of the acting coaches [would] get into my head too much and start freaking me out about it.
So I think he really made a wise decision in training with somebody who had never been in the film industry: an ex-Mossad. I really learned about my character and what the type of person my character is through this person.
JC: One of the draws to this film is that you pretty much beat the crap out of three of Hollywood's leading actors. And what was it like to train with each of these guys?
GC: Oh, I think it was really fascinating to watch what they do. They find out about the character that they are going to play, and they throw themselves in 100 percent. And that's what they did with these characters. It was amazing to watch how quickly they picked it up. They didn't have as much time with me, because they are really busy. The stunt guys would coordinate and figure out the fight scenes, and then we'd bring in the actors and teach them real quick.
JC: OK. So who do you think was the best of the bunch?
GC: Oh, I would love to just mix them all together and make a genius fighter out of them. Channing is wonderfully athletic and talented and passionate. And then Fassbender is extremely tricky and has this very authentic way of moving. And then Ewan is incredibly smart -- just incredibly smart. And I think that 80 percent to 90 percent of fighting is in your mind, and so I would mix them all together and make the best fighter.
JC: Now, I understand that, at one point, Ewan actually accidentally punched you doing a shoot, during production.
GC: I think it was my fault, actually. I didn't duck low enough on a shot. And I remember he hit me, but I've been punched plenty in my life. I have punched people, though, with my raw knuckle before and it doesn't really feel that great, especially if you are not expecting it. So I said, "Is your hand OK?" He just started cracking up and thought that was the funniest thing. He tells that story all the time. Yeah, he was great, though.
See the trailer for 'Haywire':