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Brains and brawn fuel nouveau action heroines

Award Season Focus: The Women

The newest Bond girl, Bérénice Marlohe, was announced Nov. 3 — a reminder that even in 2011, that nickname remains. It instantly fires up images of bikini-clad, gun-toting babes emerging from the surf. This isn’t to say these actresses weren’t capable — Halle Berry went on to win an Oscar — but Daniel Craig certainly isn’t referred to as a Bond boy, and he never has to get saved in the end.

This year, though, a few action films gave actresses opportunities to turn this genre convention on its ear. Even with guns strapped secretly to their well-toned legs, they had thoughts in their brains and strength in their hearts.

For “The Debt,” director John Madden had to find an actress who could believably grow into Helen Mirren, who plays Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer, charged with tracking down a Nazi war criminal. Jessica Chastain, an unknown at the time of filming, not only landed the role, but her movie presence in 2011 seems ubiquitous. “They both really rose to the challenge,” Madden says, who adds that the part “rolled up physical, emotional and moral challenges all in one package.”

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And even in the same role, both surprised Madden throughout filming. “The movie called for Helen to do action sequences at a point in someone’s life when you don’t usually see that,” he explains. “She’s fearless.”

Chastain held her own as well. In one scene, Rachel submits to a gyne cological exam in order to take down the film’s villainous doctor. “It’s an extremely vulnerable female experience,” Madden says. “Yet it required her to be very anti-feminine.

“These two carried the knot at the center of the story inside them, and passed that knot back and forth,” he adds. “They exchanged notes and watched each other’s rehearsals. But it was also very intuitive. They’re fierce.”

At just 16, Saoirse Ronan filmed “Hanna,” a movie that required her to do fight scenes with grown men — at one point, fighting off three at a time. “It was quite fun,” she says with a smile.

Ronan’s challenge lie in creating a teenage girl who was a trained assassin but had never seen the world outside the forest where she grew up. “I would try to remember important experience I’d had, then take them away,” she says. “Hanna is seeing everything for the first time, like a child.”

“Her innocence made her a lot more interesting,” adds Ronan. “Children can be wise in a lot more ways than we can because of their innocence.”

While “Colombiana” didn’t score too well with critics, Zoe Saldana’s emotional performance got noticed. The actress says after filming “Avatar,” she had a taste for more action, and was drawn to the unusual character of trained-on-the-streets Cataleya.

“I loved her because she could have easily been a guy,” Saldana says. “She’s a bit of a thug, and she’s primal. Yet that didn’t mean she wasn’t a woman. She was tough, but fragile too.”

After seeing her parents killed in front of her as a child, Cataleya is on a revenge mission to find their murderers. “An experience like that changes everything,” she says. “She was re-living that loss every day.”

Saldana does wind up in a T-shirt and underwear for one fight scene, and recalls she had to fight for the shirt. “At times you do feel objectified as a woman,” she says. “But you can look amazing on the outside and when you open your mouth your character isn’t believable. I have to tackle the person psychologically.”

And yet Saldana admits there are sensationalist elements at play. “Women are the prettier creatures,” she says. “If she’s kicking ass, it’s going to be seen in a sexual way… We go to the movies to be taken for a ride, so I did want to give people that experience.”

Award Season Focus: The Women
Thesps seize career reins | Brains and brawn fuel nouveau action heroines | Longtime collaborators help dress the parts | Startling discoveries

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