Soderbergh's Haywire search for leading lady
It's not the first time Steven Soderbergh has found his leading lady in an unlikely place. For 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, porn star Sasha Grey (pictured) was given some serious big-screen exposure.
For Grey, though, playing a high-class escort probably wasn't too much of a stretch.
For Gina Carano -- regarded by many as the face of Women's Mixed Martial Arts -- playing black-ops private contractor Mallory Kane in Soderbergh's upcoming Haywire was a little more challenging. For a start, she had to learn how to fire 9mm pistols at close range. Oh, and she had to act.
"I'd done one or two movies before, but nothing that was going to show up on Hollywood's radar," says Carano (29). "I was really flattered when Steven cast me as Mallory. I just never expected an opportunity like this, ever. So, you know, I was determined to make a good job of it. To not let Steven down.
"Plus, I really liked the script . . ."
The script involves Carano's Mallory being double-crossed while on a mission in sunny Dublin, and having to fight her way back to the US, to clear her name and protect her family. The fighting was never going be a problem but, for Carano, holding her own against the likes of Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor was always going to be a tougher challenge.
"You do feel like the cuckoo in the nest," she says. "Like you've gatecrashed a party. The great thing about working with these guys who have made a million or so movies between them was that they just made life so much easier for me. I could trust them to know what was right and what was wrong, and they in turn were able to play along with any mistakes that I might make . . ." Carano laughs. "Of course, if they didn't play along, they knew they could be in serious pain once the cameras stopped rolling."
Another important part of Carano's learning experience was shooting much of Haywire in Dublin.
"Well, despite my years of getting down and dirty in mixed martial arts -- where you meet some incredible people -- I just wasn't ready for Dublin. Man, everyone is such a character in Dublin. So many stories, so many jokes, and just this general air of mischief. It's like everyone there just sees the absurdity of life, and has learnt how to laugh at it.
"Let's just say that Dublin is somewhere that I could see myself living. And I'm a pretty hard girl to please . . ."
With a Hollywood career now beckoning, and rumours emerging of a role in the upcoming Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea Of Monsters, Carano may just become the new Dwayne Johnson. Or, gulp, maybe even the new Arnie.
"Well, I'm glad that those guys proved we fighters are capable of more than just knocking someone out," laughs Carano. "It's early days for me, but, yeah, I would love to make more movies. And working with someone like Steven Soderbergh is a great way to start.
"This guy has covered just about every genre there is, from the Ocean's films to Erin Brockovich, Out Of Sight, Traffic, Contagion. And while I have no plans to take on Shakespeare or Wilde any time soon, I feel there's a whole world out there for me to explore."
Which is probably just as well, given that Carano has left the world of mixed martial arts. Having lost the newly formed Strikeforce Women's Lightweight Championship back in August 2009 due to a TKO in the first round, Carano's trumpeted return to the ring last April ended in a whimper when the match was cancelled for unknown reasons -- it would be a muted end to a glittering career. Carano started out in the sport of Muay Thai before taking the world of MMA by storm. Of course, it didn't hurt that she is somewhat easy on the eye, too.
"Anyone in the world of mixed martial arts, wrestling, boxing, whatever, knows that it's wise to get out early," is all Carano will say on the subject. "And who doesn't want to make movies?"
It was while watching Carano on TV that Steven Soderbergh realised he was watching the female James Bond, "just in a different context", he says. Determined to make a spy movie without any special effects or CGI-assisted stunts, Soderbergh knew that someone like Gina could probably fight their way out of Dublin.
To check out his hunch, Soderbergh got the train to San Diego, where a black-eyed and ego-bruised Carano was laying low after her first MMA loss.
"I wasn't sure what to make of this guy when I went to pick him up from the train," says Carano. "I was just lost in my own world, to be honest. Still reeling from the Santos fight. And we just ended up having this four-hour lunch. I didn't fully realise it at the time, but he was checking me out, to see if I could be both the girl he saw on TV and someone more vulnerable, more feminine."
Soderbergh left the table convinced Carano was the perfect mix. All she needed was a little training in the ways of killing, spending six intense weeks with an ex-Israeli special ops officer. And what terrified Carano the most? Having to kiss Michael Fassbender.
"It was the very first day of shooting, and this was the scene that I had to do," she smiles. "I was mortified. Petrified. I'm sure if you look at that scene, you can read all that in my face.
"Still, that's the way most women would feel if they got a chance to kiss Michael Fassbender . . ."
Haywire hits Irish cinemas next Friday