From cage to screen

Action heroine

The first time Gina Carano met director Steven Soderbergh, she arrived with a black eye and an air of depression.

Fighter : Gina Carano, in a scene from ‘Haywire’.

Just days earlier, she had experienced her first loss as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

What Carano couldn’t have known until Soderbergh told her — especially because she’d never heard of him — is that he had just experienced the film industry’s version of the technical knockout she had faced: Sony Pictures had pulled the plug on his version of the sports drama Moneyball.

“It was an interesting place for us both,” Carano said, recalling how their moods were perfectly in sync during that initial meeting at a cafe in San Diego “We were two wounded birds just sitting there, going, like, ‘Life isn’t fair sometimes’.”

Soderbergh was struck by the notion that she would be ideal as the lethal covert operator in a ‘pseudo-Bond’ action film he had been thinking about. “She needed to get her head out of that fight,” he said of Carano. “There’s nothing, in her case, like somebody saying, ‘You’re going to be the star of a movie’ to put yourself in a different space.”

Soderbergh envisioned Haywire, which released last month, as a
revenge thriller that capitalised on the effortless-looking athleticism of the pretty dark-haired Carano, who is considered one of the world’s top female fighters. What didn’t concern him was that her on-camera experience until then had been limited mostly to televised mixed martial arts bouts, a brief cameo in the direct-to-DVD movie Blood and Bones and a two-season stint competing under the name Crush on the reality contest American Gladiators.

Haywire is lovingly lighted and filmed, its action as sparingly edited as old Hollywood musicals, so that the painstaking fight choreography can be appreciated. As the double-crossed freelance agent Mallory Kane, Carano gives Haywire jolts of energy with her arsenal of explosive moves: pushing off walls, slinging sheet pans, twisting arms until they break.

In one memorable scene, Michael Fassbender, playing a suave colleague, engages Mallory in a furniture-smashing brawl in an expensive hotel room in Dublin. Fassbender recalled Carano needling him to hit her harder. “I kept telling her, ‘Gina, this is called acting, yeah? It’s pretend. I don't have to hit you,’ ” said Fassbender, who in Haywire tosses Carano, dressed in black Herve Leger, into a flat-screen television. “I’m going to make myself look like a real wuss, but I was wearing padding. But she wouldn’t. She was stubborn like that. I think she likes the bruising.”

Although her mixed martial arts career has been put aside for two and a half years, Carano still thinks of herself as a fighter. Time and the Haywire experience have allowed her to view her earlier loss differently. “It put me in a very humble and honest place,” Carano said. “Like: ‘Gina? Maybe that can happen. Maybe life isn’t always going to go your way.’ ”

She’s wary when it comes to speculating about her future in movies, but she’ll allow that she’d love to play someone more light-hearted than the tough customer she portrays in Haywire. “She’s very serious. I laugh a lot,” Carano said. “There’s only one time in the movie that she smiles, and that’s when she’s pretending to be drunk.”

“I guess no one would be surprised if someone like Gina came off as crustier, a little more sarcastic,” Soderbergh said, after being told that she’s home-schooling herself in cinema history. “But her sincerity and lack of guile is real. There’s a funny dichotomy there. On the one hand she’s a cage fighter, and on the other hand she’s someone who is still evolving.”

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