One of the central pleasures of Steven Soderbergh’s new movie Haywire is watching heroine Mallory Kane dispatch more than one familiar heartthrob in about 90 minutes. Given that Kane is played by mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, it’s not a spoiler to say that she mops the floor with Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. After all, if you’ve ever seen Carano in a professional fight, you would know already that slender, pasty Europeans like Fassbender and McGregor wouldn’t stand a chance. (She also annihilates the strapping Channing Tatum, but that’s more of a fair fight.)
For fans of women in action movies, Carano provides a welcome dose of realism to the proceedings. This isn’t Angelina Jolie in Salt, who was so skinny she looked like she would blow away in a hearty gust. Carano’s fight scenes are equal parts balletic, thrilling, and powerful.
Carano spoke to Slate about her transition from fighter to actress, her days as an American Gladiator, and how she feels about the fact that the one fight she lost—her last fight before she took an indeterminate hiatus from mixed martial arts—was to a woman who just tested positive for steroids.
Slate: I read that you trained with an ex-Israeli special-ops fighter to prepare for your role in Haywire. What was that like?
Gina Carano: I’m used to fighting, so they taught me a little bit more about stunt fighting, which is completely different. The stunt guys have the same passion that I do in mixed martial arts, but they can be a little more free.
Slate: Were you ever worried about actually hurting your co-stars?
Carano: No, no. The mentality’s different, although I get the same adrenaline rush. There’s no “it’s me or you” type of thing. We already know the answer to that when given the script. It’s more about working towards creating the most beautiful fight scene we can. And it was nice and refreshing, to not have to hurt anybody. You’re almost trying to take care of them. Actually, you are trying to take care of them but at the same time you can be as physically rough as possible.
Slate: Of the actors you spar with in the movie, who do you think would have the easiest time if they tried to be an MMA fighter? Fassbender, right?
Carano: Channing studied the sport for a long time, and he’s very, very athletic. Ewan and Fassbender picked up the technique and the choreography surprisingly quickly, for the short amount of time I got to spend with them in creating these fight scenes. Fassbender’s extremely tricky, and tricky fighters are very hard to fight. Ewan’s incredibly smart. I find that whoever you are as a person is how you’re gonna fight, and every basic instinct kind of comes out at that moment.
Slate: When you were working with Soderbergh, did you get the sense that he was treating you differently than the more experienced actors like Fassbender and McGregor?
Carano: I do think Steven had a specific idea in mind for me. He helped me quite closely and really walked me through everything when it came to the acting part of it. On physical days there was no problem, I felt very free. And the wonderful thing he did with me was he kept me physical throughout the whole movie.