×

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.”

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

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content