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Casting an Action Heroine

Of the film genres I enjoy, science fiction and action are at the top of the list. There is nothing better than a cinematic experience where you’re gripped by the awesome action sequences, the explosions, the gun-fu, and passable plot, and hopefully some decent acting. Anything from Sergio Leone westerns up to Aliens and Top Gun to the latest John Wick films, give me fun and action, some snappy one-liners, and we’re good to go.

In addition to great special effects or believable CGI, one of the most critical factors in any great action film is the cast. From Clint Eastwood playing the man with no name to Sigourney Weaver playing Ellen Ripley to Keanu Reeves as John Wick, you’ve got to have someone in the role of the protagonist that you believe can be that person. Bruce Willis as John McClane, check. Scarlett Johansson as The Major, wrong. (More on SJ later).

In the history of cinema, there have been numerous casting decisions that were beyond egregious, but one trend that several of the nerd/geek YouTube channels I’ve been watching have identified as a trend in casting female action characters of late is that many of them are miscast when looking at the role they’re playing and how that character behaves on screen. This is something I’ve given thought to while writing Standish, what would she need to look like to be capable of doing the tasks and activities that the story requires.

A perfect example of recent poor choices in casting would be Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher films. In the books, Jack is massive. His mere presence is enough to put fear into the hearts of evildoers. Tom Cruise is a bit on the small size to have this intimidation factor, and only recently The Rock admitted that he had lost out on the role to Cruise. Rock big. Cruise small.

Now, when dealing with female characters, such as Val Standish from my novel, I wanted a character who transforms from a young woman into a ‘beast’. She needed to have the muscularity and strength to kick-ass. This is one area that Hollywood has failed in recent casting decisions.

Looking at Birds of Prey, you’ve got Margot Robbie, who is 5’5’’, tossing goons around like it’s nothing in the film. Not going to happen. I’ve attached a YouTube clip at the bottom of the page that discusses a theoretical fight between The Mountain and Connor McGregor. Worth a watch. You add to this problem Alicia Vikander from Tomb Raider and SJ as Black Widow (she’s 5’2’’), and you’ve got tiny women tossing around men that are much larger.

Now, let’s assume for a second that the above mentioned female characters are well trained. Perhaps even very well trained. Does that suddenly give them such an advantage in hand-to-hand combat against goons who are at least, as one would think of goons, marginally competent at throwing a punch? The level of skill required to defeat these men would have to be so many times higher than their opponents to win, considering the size disadvantage.

Two women often cast in strong roles that do look like they could pull off the action required for the character that they are playing, Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano. Both have a fighting background and look like they can handle themselves because they can, but also because of their build. They’re not skinny; they’re built for action.

Another perfect example of female casting would be Brooke Ence in Wonder Woman.

Male actors such as Chris Hemsworth was perfect for playing Thor because he looks like Thor.

The same can be said for Henry Cavill as Superman.

Now, there is every chance that some male action stars ‘supplement’ their training to gain the size required to play their roles, and I won’t speculate on that, but at the end of the day, when watching an action film, you want to believe that the star can do the things being asked of the character. When I recently watched the Mandalorian, I could see Gina Carano as Cara Dune.

So, when thinking about my main character from Standish, what is my vision of what she looks like? The answer is an Icelandic athlete.

(Sara Sigmundsdottir)

I know that these athletes aren’t actors, but when thinking of the size, strength and power and physical presence of Val Standish, these are the only women on the planet that come to mind.

Part of the problem with writing any action character is that you need a certain about believability in the character. When Standish performs a clean and press of 190 kilograms, she needs to look like it’s maybe possible (yes, that’s an insane amount of weight).

In addition to her strength in the gym, Standish also needs to be able to perform her job as a special operator, and in doing so, take the pounding that the job puts on her. If she looked thin and tiny, she’d never be able to do the action required. Put enough muscle on her, give her the training, then she can execute her mission, and be believable as an action character.

(Katrin Davidsdottir)

When looking at Hollywood, I’m not sure what can be done about this issue. Female actors probably aren’t going to want to ‘supplement’ for these roles (YouTube video on this at the bottom). Unless you have characters like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, who all have special powers, you’re going to have issues with ‘normal’ characters performing ridiculous action sequences when it looks like they’ve barely hit the gym, even if they’ve got advanced hand to hand combat training.

What’s the answer when Standish gets green-lit by HBO or Netflix one day? Anime?

Hand to Hand


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