Late in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 spy-conspiracy flick Haywire, Ewan McGregor’s Kenneth is detailing to Michael Fassbender’s Paul how they’re going to set up Gina Carano’s Mallory. Paul expresses reservation, having never before killed a woman.
“You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman,” Kenneth muses. “No, that would be a mistake.”
It’s supposed to be a wry blandishment, a statement of Mallory’s competence in the field by way of Carano’s real-life ass-kicking skills demonstrated in the mixed martial arts promotion Strikeforce. But it also neatly sums up a personal philosophy for the 31-year-old ex-Las Vegan, ex-fighter, ex-model, ex-American Gladiator and current movie star.
When asked about the proliferation of films that feature women slinging beatdowns with a vicious generosity—such as her roles in Haywire and in the forthcoming In the Blood and contemporary Ronda Rousey’s part in the upcoming all-female Expendables 3—Carano pauses. She answers with the hint of slight annoyance of someone who’s been asked the same question too many times.
“When I see somebody, when I meet someone, I’m fascinated by the person,” Carano says. “Whether someone is winning or losing fights, or whether this singer is necessarily good and puts on a good show or doesn’t, I’m still fascinated with that person.”
That fixation on individualism, on the limit-testing that’s part and parcel of an MMA career, is what pushed her to Blood, an action-thriller from Turistas director John Stockwell set for an April 4 release. No one will mistake Stockwell for as talented a director as Soderbergh. But while Haywire was all cool distance and slow burn punctuated by brief spasms of action, Blood is a mess of emotions, motives, conflicts and structures. If Soderbergh is the passive-aggressive sniping of a tense WASPy dinner, then Stockwell is a big, Italian feast with equal parts food and yelling.
Carano was attracted to that emotional aspect of Blood, to the chance it offered her to stretch her wings. The closest she came in Haywire was in the relationship she had with onscreen father Bill Paxton, where the familial bond was businesslike.
Then again, there’s a reason Soderbergh has a distinguished career and Stockwell has Into the Blue, a flick that spun off a sequel starring Audrina Patridge. Blood’s tale of Carano hunting down her abducted husband suffers from serious pacing problems and a couple of baffling plot points. It doesn’t pick up until a third act tightens the focus, playing like Die Hard in a Caribbean village.
Still, it’s not without its charms. Veteran character actors Luis Guzman and Danny Trejo are always welcome. There’s an early fight scene where Carano gets to take out the grizzled Trejo. (“We didn’t want to kick him so he held a beer right in front of his stomach. I had to kick it a couple of times and not once did I actually make physical contact, so I kind of felt like I was Bruce Lee for a second,” she says.)
And Carano gets to draw on personal terror to lend a kind of Method verisimilitude: She says she was absolutely terrified of ziplining (the film features multiple sequences) and grew up fearing abductions of her own. (“I was always worried because I’m the middle of three girls. I was always having these nightmares: What if something happens to them? What if they go missing? My older sister went to Arizona State University and started getting into trouble and I was in high school like, ‘I’m just going to get out there and figure out how to save her and get her back.’”)
That high school, Trinity Christian near Sahara Avenue and Maryland Parkway, is just a small part of Carano’s Nevada roots. Her father, Glenn, suited up under center for UNLV for four years—two as the starting quarterback—where he threw for more than 5,000 yards and notched 37 Rebel touchdowns. His performance at the school was good enough to make him the Cowboys’ second-round pick in the 1977 NFL draft, and he played in Dallas for seven years. He only started one game, but that’s what happens when you back up Roger Staubach and Danny White.
A generation back, her grandfather Don expanded his business from a Reno law practice to owner of the Eldorado and Silver Legacy as well as the Ferrari-Carano winery. Her other grandfather, Jack Cason, borrowed $5,000 from his mother-in-law to open a gas station. The business is still doing OK—you know it now as Rebel Oil. He still found time to coach Carano’s high school basketball team.
Though she no longer lives here, Carano says the 24-hour work ethos of Las Vegas helped mold her along the way as she consistently dives into new territory, tackling new responsibilities.
With a small-budget production such as Blood, Carano got her hands dirty every day on the set, kicking in her own input as the film rolled along. It gave her enough of a taste for the process that she’s taking on a producer role in an adaptation of the Rob Liefeld comic book Avengelyne. She also has been linked to a different all-female Dirty Dozen-type project from Adi Shankar, one often confused with, but distinct from, Expendables 3.
Carano hints at a couple of other projects that would come first this summer. But there’s also a return to her roots in order. No, not the much-bandied potential UFC fight with Rousey—though she doesn’t rule out a return to the ring for the first time since 2009, even admitting she’s been training in private over the last couple of years. (UFC President Dana White has to be salivating at the thought of putting two movie stars, one the current face of his franchise, in the ring together for real. Mr. T at Wrestlemania ain’t got nothing on that.)
First, though, she’s got to get back to Las Vegas for her little sister’s bachelorette party. “I’ve got the pressure of being the maid of honor,” Carano says with a laugh. Oh, that’s where the pressure is? “I want to find something authentic to do. I have to figure out how to get some sort of craziness in there. I was thinking the Stratosphere and the [Sky Jump], although that completely petrifies me.”