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.
Slate: Was it a conscious choice plot–wise to have all your opponents in the movie be men?
Carano: When [Soderbergh] first saw me, he said that he would really like to see me beating up some of Hollywood’s finest, so I definitely think he plotted me with men for a purpose.
Slate: So when you stepped away from fighting in 2009, was it because you were cast in this film or were there other reasons for your taking a step back from MMA?
Carano: I got the offer for this movie a week after I lost my first MMA fight, and then two months or three months later we had a script and then four months later I was in training for the movie and then we had two months of filming it. Afterwards I spent a little bit of time by myself and re-evaluated where my life was at and got to spend some time with my family and I traveled to Thailand. I had the freedom to go explore the world.
Slate: So you met Soderbergh right after you lost that fight to Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. Did you hear that Cyborg just tested positive for anabolic steroids? Do you have feelings about that?
Carano: I feel for her. I feel bad that those choices were made, whether it was the people around her that were encouraging her a certain way, or whether she thinks that she even needs anything to be a better athlete. I know that she’s a great athlete with or without that.
If I go back two years ago and I would have found that out, I would have been incredibly hurt, and I would have felt very frustrated. That’s the part of me that is maybe a little selfish because that was a big moment in my life. I know whatever it is, we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes, and I have my mistakes I make all the time. I know it will just make her be a better person, you know, in the future.
Slate: That’s a pretty diplomatic answer.
Carano: Everybody’s told me in my career, you know, “Well, of course she’s on steroids.” I’d always say, she obviously isn’t if she’s passing all these tests. I don’t want to take away that she is a wonderful athlete, but she doesn’t need to do that at all.
Slate: You were supposed to come back to MMA in June and then you ended up dropping out of the match at the last minute. What happened there?
Carano: I spent three months at the most beautiful training camp up in Albuquerque, and I proved to myself I could still do this. I had taken a year off at that point, if not longer, and I could jump back in, get back into shape and—and really kind of mix it up with people. But there were a couple different things transpiring at that time that I just would like to keep personal. You never want to force yourself to do something that may not be healthy for you at the time.
Slate: I know that you did American Gladiators for a little while and appeared on some reality shows. Is that something you’d ever go back to?
Carano: At that time there was a lot of coaxing that had to be done to get me to do it, and I’m really happy I did ’cause it gave me a ton of experience. But I really like acting and not having it be myself and actually get into a different character.
Slate: It’s not exactly yourself on American Gladiators. Did you get to choose the nickname “Crush” or did producers choose that for you?
Carano: They gave it to me. They had a couple different ones, and they were quite ridiculous, and I felt like “Crush” was probably the most mellow of them all.
Slate: It’s pretty dignified as American Gladiator names go.
Carano: Yeah, you have to be called something, and that’s as mellow as it gets.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Also in Slate, read Dana Stevens’ review of Haywire.