updated 13 Feb 2012, 23:40
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The New Paper
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Femme Fighter!
by Tan Kee Yun

Hollywood beefcake Channing Tatum calls her the only actress he has worked with who can "whip my butt". Rising star Michael Fassbender remembers her streak of stubbornness in "refusing to wear padding" during their intense fight scenes.

Who's this tough-as-nails chick who has left her male peers awestruck?

Meet Gina Carano, professional mixed martial arts (MMA) exponent turned lead action heroine of spy thriller Haywire.

The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh and featuring several brutal no-holds-barred brawls, sees Carano in the thick of it all.

The 29-year-old muay thai specialist plays top-notch covert ops agent Mallory Kane, who works for a government security contractor.

A mission in Barcelona goes awry and she suddenly finds herself the prime suspect in a murder. She realises has been double-crossed by people extremely close to her. Carano's big-screen debut is a star-studded affair.

Besides Tatum and Fassbender, Haywire also features veteran actors Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas.

If there were any first-time jitters, the showbiz rookie showed none of that during the film's press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Oozing confidence and femininity in a cleavage-baring purple dress, which she wore under her dusted-blue denim jacket, Carano held her own among her male luminaries as she shared her journey from competitive fighter to cinema's latest starlet.

"My physicality is the whole reason I got this job... I fight like a guy, I run like a guy, I grew up a tomboy and I enjoy expressing myself that way," said the Texas-born athlete candidly.

She was aware that Soderbergh had taken a gamble by making her, an acting novice, the protagonist of Haywire and appreciated his bold move.

"I definitely respect that. He had a beautiful vision and gave me an opportunity of a lifetime," said Carano.

"He allowed me to put myself completely out there."

Born to fight

As she recounted her foray into the world of MMA, one can't help but feel that this woman was born to throw punches, be it in the ring or in front of the cameras.

"I was the son my dad never had," said Carano, who has two sisters, one older and one younger.

"Growing up as a middle child, I felt I got blamed for a lot of stuff. I was a bit of a recluse and got into a decent amount of street fights.

"Then, I started dating someone who was into muay thai... The day I saw him fight, I witnessed this huge transformation in a human being.

She added: "I became completely addicted to something that made me want to get up and live every day, to lead a healthy life. I threw myself into MMA with passion."

Years later, Carano not only became the most recognisable face in women's MMA, she also did a stint as gladiator Crush in popular sports gameshow American Gladiators.

Soderbergh was highly impressed by the grace and beauty she exuded in her fights.

"After a four-hour-long lunch session, he offered me the part. There was no audition," she revealed.

Carano might have scored a lucky break, but preparation for the role was no walk in the park.

She took her fighting skills to a whole new level as the film-makers put her through intensive stunt, gun and surveillance training for weeks.

"It was tough. I woke up at 5am every day... I believe they were trying to brainwash me," she said with a laugh.

It didn't take long for her co-stars to be enamoured with their feisty cast member.

McGregor, Tatum and Banderas, who were with Carano at the press conference, sang praises of her athletic skills.

"Gina's fitness is unbelievable," said 40-year-old McGregor.

"I've watched her do some work with stuntmen. At the end of each take, the stuntmen would be physically 'destroyed', gasping and sweating away, and there Gina was, coolly asking, 'Ready for another take?'"

The Scottish actor recalled a scene where he "messed up" and accidentally punched Carano in the head.

"She immediately came straight up to me and said, 'Are you okay?' I tried to put on a strong front but the fact was, I was in pain and felt like I had just broken my fingers!"

As for Tatum, a self-confessed follower of MMA and Carano's fights, he viewed her role in Haywire as ground-breaking for Hollywood productions.

"Maybe in Japanese and Chinese movies, you have seen real fighters slug it out. But in America, she's definitely the first," said the hunky 31-year-old.

"Gina's fights (in Haywire) are all real; there's no faking it... She's one of the best athletes I've ever worked with, and that includes martial artists, basketballers and football players."

With Carano the lethal combat machine that she is, did she have to go gentle on her male co-stars?

Before the actress could reply, Tatum immediately jumped in and nodded with a resounding, "Yes!"


After Haywire's release, there are bound to be expectations that Carano would one day be another Angelina Jolie, who's deemed the perfect combination of beauty and brawn.

But the newbie would prefer not to be drawn into any comparisons with screen goddesses such as Jolie.

"Everyone has been trying to compare me with certain actresses who are gorgeous and skinny. They're great actresses and can do anything they want, yet they're still willing to take on physical roles and fight scenes," she said.

"That's something I really respect about them.

"What I'm bringing to action films is my own flavour and personality."

In Spanish actor Banderas' eyes, Carano has proven herself to be as equally adept in acting as she is in fighting.

"It really shocked me how good she is in her acting... Her performance was alert, focused and precise," the 51-year-old raved.

"My wife (US actress Melanie Griffith) was very impressed by her as well."

So does Haywire mark the start of a sky-rocketing showbiz career for her?

Carano, who declined to confirm rumours that she has left the MMA scene for good, said: "When we were filming Haywire, I woke up every day feeling like I was on some strange drug and adrenaline high.

"It was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. I got to travel to places I've never been to, and it made me realise how big this world is.

"Of course, I'd love to do more acting... There are ideas and scripts (coming my way). I'm just really excited to be able to land somewhere."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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