Zoe Bell has been strapped to the hood of a speeding Dodge Charger and thrown off a building. But the 40-year-old stuntwoman never truly felt fear until she was hired by Quentin Tarantino as the stunt coordinator on the now-shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “As a performer, the more I scare the stunt coordinator, the better,” she tells THR, during a break from shooting. “But now I’m the stunt coordinator, and I’m the one getting scared.”
The New Zealand native trained as a gymnast and was beginning to study martial arts when her father met a stunt performer at his job as an emergency room doctor. “[He] came home with a phone number.” Bell laughs, “My dad looked at this guy with a concussion and thought, ‘My daughter should do that!’” Six months later, Bell, then 19, was on the set of cult fantasy series Xena: Warrior Princess, doubling star Lucy Lawless. (“They must have been desperate!” she jokes). What followed has been a decades-long career that included doubling for everyone from Sandra Bullock in The Proposal to Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok.
She started working with Tarantino back in 2003, when she landed a gig as Uma Thurman’s double on Kill Bill. “Quentin asked me what my motivation was,” she recalls of shooting the film’s action sequences. “He wanted me to think like an actor. It wasn’t just about doing a left, a right and a side kick. I had to be [the Bride] doing a left, a right and a side kick.”
Bell and Tarantino continued working together on films like Planet Terror and Inglourious Basterds, and she even starred as herself in Death Proof, the Tarantino film that stars Kurt Russell as a murderous stunt driver. But her job on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as players in Charlie Manson-era L.A. — is her first time as the woman in charge on a production of this size. “[Tarantino] threw out of the possibility of me coordinating and I was like, ‘Holy crap!’” says Bell, who had begun to make the jump to the director’s chair, herself. She had just been admitted to the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and is planning to take the year off to dedicate herself to the program. “It was the epitome of champagne problems,” she says of the crossroads. “Ultimately, I thought [Once Upon a Time] is family. It’s Quentin. Also, women don’t often step into this role.”
A stunt coordinator oversees the production’s entire stunt department — from budgets to equipment to on-set safety to, of course, hiring. When it came time to build out her crew, Bell, now a department head, made a point to hire inclusively. “I posed the question: ‘What about girls for safety [positions]?’ I only had to ask it one time before my team, men and women, started throwing out names. But it took me stopping to realize that I hadn’t asked the question.”
While female stunt coordinators are a rarity, Bell says she hasn’t had any issue commanding authority. She credits her tight-knit crew of Tarantino regulars who’ve seen her entire journey. “I was a baby and now I am heading a department,” she says. “I have come a long way from a girl with pigtails and acne showing up and going, ‘Hey guys, I’m here! Where do you want me to fall over?’”
And while Bell worked to ensure safety behind the scenes on Once Upon a Time, she will also be featured onscreen in a particularly meta role: “I play the stunt coordinator’s wife.”