Gina Carano ready for close-up
MMA star Gina Carano is making her transition to Hollywood in 'Haywire'
Carano plays a Black Ops agent in the film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Already hugely popular in MMA circles, Carano's star is clearly on the rise
Make no mistake. Gina Carano had a lucrative career in mixed martial arts ahead of her. Her striking beauty often made the first impression, but Carano's three-year cage resume has been nothing to dismiss, having included the first regulated women's bout in California, the first women's headliner on Showtime and the first women's fight on network television.
Still, many in the fight community who've interacted with the 29-year-old "Face of Women's MMA" knew she was destined for bigger challenges. This weekend, Carano takes on Hollywood, her most formidable opponent yet, starring in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, the Oscar-winning director's action thriller with a twist.
The twist, of course, is Carano, who plays Mallory Kane, a no-nonsense Black Ops private contractor double-crossed by the off-the-grid organization she works for. Soderbergh, who has a penchant for weaving stories around strong female leads, first saw Carano in May 2008, when the former muay thai competitor picked Kaitlin Young apart during a live CBS telecast. Joining an army of fans who flocked to the sport to watch Carano become arguably its biggest star, Soderbergh was immediately taken by Carano's balance of ferocity and femininity.
"This was a type of fighting that I'd never watched before and I thought Gina was extraordinary," Soderbergh said. "She had incredible presence and she seemed like a really unique combination of elements. When I saw her, I started thinking how I could build something around her and that's when I started thinking about putting her in a very male-dominated world to navigate through physically and philosophically."
In 2008, Carano's career was in no need of assistance. Her second nationally televised fight attracted one million additional viewers to build on the bout that had preceded it, a fight that featured a former UFC champion, no less. Carano was simultaneously starring on NBC's American Gladiators reboot as "Crush" (a role she'd originally turned down because of innate shyness), and lines were being drawn in the sand between network and fight promotion as to who would get more of her highly sought-after face time.
In 2009, ESPN the Magazine selected Carano as one of the cover athletes featured in its annual "Body Issue." Carano smoldered in red boy shorts, paired with fingerless MMA gloves and nothing else, her muscular body tensed to wreak havoc on a defenseless punching bag hanging in front of her.
At shows she was asked to appear at for autograph signings, fight promotions were ill-equipped to handle the throngs of fervent fans who gathered to see her -- no fighter, male or female, had ever gotten that type of frenetic reception before. This was a gal who could ignite a mundane weigh-in from the scales with a flash of her perfect, white smile; turn it on in the cage; then blow the roof off a venue with a girlishly impish post-fight address.
As Carano's star swiftly shot into the stratosphere, Soderbergh tracked her from afar. He contacted her agent 15 months later, not knowing it had been only a week after her disastrous first-round loss to Brazilian powerhouse Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos for the Strikeforce women's featherweight championship.
Carano had retreated to San Diego to lick her wounds and wasn't in the mood for visitors. A cut on her brow had drained down into a nasty black eye and she didn't feel herself. She relented to meet Soderbergh only after her agent mentioned his Academy Award-winning turn with Traffic, one of her favorite films.
"I had to pick him up at the San Diego train station and he's wearing a cap, glasses, jeans," Carano said. "I didn't know anything about Hollywood or directors or anybody else in this world. Needless to say, I had no idea who he was. We sat and had a really great discussion, just two normal people, and at the end of it he asked me if I wanted to be in a movie."
It's a dream scenario every actor prays for, but Carano, in her unassuming way, said she was just grateful that someone was willing to hire her for anything after the beating she'd taken on cable television a week earlier.
Soderbergh contacted screenwriter Lem Dobbs and asked him to watch a two-minute fight sequence from the 1970 film Darker Than Amber, in which two men go at it and destroy a cramped hotel room in the process.
"Lem said, 'If we can create a circumstance in which we have a scene like that where it's a man and a woman and the man is in a suit and the woman's in a dress and it's four-star hotel, we can work back from that idea,'" Soderbergh said.
That scene became the genesis of Knockout, which was later re-titled Haywire, an espionage-flavored thriller that would feature Carano as the star.
"I felt there was potentially an opportunity to swim upstream a little bit against the grain of what's been done lately in action movies, especially in the ones that have hand-to-hand combat," Soderbergh said. "If you have people involved who don't require doubles, who really [fight], then you can shoot in a style that doesn't necessitate cheating -- no wire work, no climbing up walls."
Working in dual roles as director and cinematographer, Soderbergh shot Haywire's short, tightly choreographed fight scenes in single, uninterrupted shots where possible, hoping to coax out a stronger visceral reaction from audiences. He gets them; moviegoers at a December advance screening cringed, clapped and cheered as Carano's character Kane punched, kicked, elbowed and kneed her way up the ladder of suspects to out and decimate the one who betrayed her.
Rather than lump her with an acting coach who might stifle her natural instincts, Soderbergh had Carano prep for the role with an intensive two-month camp led by former Israeli intelligence operative Aaron Cohen in Los Angeles. Carano took to handling weapons easily and soaked up Cohen's sharp and efficient tactical mentality. Cohen created scenarios and mock "missions" for her to complete around the city, armed with a blue dummy firearm. One assignment had Carano tracking a target, only to have the tables turned when she was ambushed coming outside a beauty salon.
Carano also studied with the 8711 stunt crew, a group well known in Hollywood circles for its acrobatic approaches to action sequences. This time became the incubation period for Haywire's fast-paced interludes.