Why The Rise Of The Female-Led Action Film Can Be Traced To A Single Gym

A decade ago this year, a bunch of Spartans changed the way you think about fitness. The bodies of 300 were built with kettlebells and rope climbs, not lat pulldowns or the leg press – and in the ten years since, gyms worldwide have re-engineered themselves to reflect that fact. ‘Functional fitness’ switched from being all about wobbling around on inflatable balls to being able to run, jump, climb, throw and fight – and the smartest trainers shifted their approach to suit. Now, ten years later, the same team of trainers have done the same for an (almost) all-female cast, getting Gal Gadot and co into Amazonian shape for Wonder Woman, the first film directed by a woman to make more than $100 million in its opening weekend. One question is: why now? Maybe a better one would be: why’s it taken so long?

A Question Of Timing?

‘I think there’s always been an interest in strong female leads,’ Monique Ganderton, a Canadian trainer, stunt woman and actress who works in television and film, most recently working on Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron, tells RISING. ‘Look at Alien, look at Terminator, there have always been these movies with strong women that stand out. Look at Geena Davis – The Long Kiss Goodnight blew my mind when it first came out. But money talks - Wonder Woman made a tonne of money, there’s a lot of interest in Captain Marvel. I think it’s taken a while for people to have confidence in the money-making ability of female-driven movies, but I think this year’s been huge for that, so I’m very hopeful.’

High Intensity Acting Intervals

Charlize Theron, of course, has already played one of the most iconic characters in action-movie history: the rifle-slinging, hard-driving Imperator Furiosa, real star and central badass of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In Atomic Blonde, she’s working with one of the directors of John Wick in an 80s-era spy flick with no end of its own extended action sequences: including one extended stairway-based fight scene that’s one of the most ambitious pieces of choreography in film-fight memory.

‘We wanted Charlize to use her body how it would make sense for a 5’10 woman – you’re not going to punch because you’re going to break your wrist’

‘That stairway sequence was one of the most impressive things I saw Charlize do,’ says Ganderton. ‘We were aiming to get the point across from the start: you’re going to be doing 10-15 takes because we need to get it perfect to move on. It was like, we’ll prep for 20 takes, then hope for 15. Charlize jumped right on board and was like “OK, let’s do it again.” It’s about being able to bring that intensity for that many takes. Doing a long shot with only a couple of stitches. It’s not just Charlize, the camera has to be perfect, the lighting has to be perfect, the other actors have to be perfect before you can move on. So it was that tenacity, and that ability to bring it every take. I don’t know many people who can do that – it’s the mental side too. And the acting on top of how exhausting it was.’

Blood, Sweat And Brains Over Brawn

You can’t talk about female action heroes without addressing the mismatch between raw male and female strength – but that’s where martial arts step in, as the great leveller, reveals Ganderton: ‘They did lots of tactical gun stuff, lots of Aikido and Jiu Jitsu, some straight-up boxing drills, some old-school Judo. We wanted her to use her body how it would make sense for a 5’10 woman – you’re not going to punch a guy because you’re going to break your wrist, you’re going to throw and elbow.’

When it came to Gal Gadot’s training for Wonder Woman, the rundown looks familiar from accounts of male stars trained by longtime Zack Snyder collaborator, Mark Twight. She trained for six hours a day, including gym time, fight choreography and horseback riding, calling her routine 'a lot more intensive' than time in the Israeli armed forces. Twight is a firm believer that 'Appearance is the consequence of fitness, and confidence is a consequence of capability.' He works on building strength and athleticism in his charges, trusting that the on-screen presence will come. Gadot reportedly gained 17lb of muscle, and finished filming able to do chin-ups on rings – no mean feat. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast used rowing machines, air bikes, kettlebell moves and their own bodyweight to strip fat and add muscle, aiding in the film's often-brutal choreography.

The Ronda Rousey Effect

Perhaps one reason for the rise in ferocious female leads is the uptick in interest in mixed martial arts, and especially the ultra-competitive women’s divisions. One-time champ Gina Carano, of course, starred in the surprisingly good Haywire back in 2011, but the real turning point was Ronda Rousey, who quickly became one of the UFC’s biggest draws following her 2012 debut, blazing a trail of first-round finishes like a bantamweight Mike Tyson. Rousey’s fights were like mini-movie sequences in themselves – in one 16-second bout she managed to wobble her opponent with a right cross, catch her in a Muay Thai clinch, hit her with a knee, throw her with a flawless harai goshi, and rain down a dozen unanswered punches on the ground before the referee could step in – and a brief-but-impressive role in The Expendables 3 was enough to prompt rumours about a Road House remake with Rousey in the Swayze role.

‘Between them, Rousey and Toomey could quite happily throw a squad of rugby players down a flight of stairs’

That seems to be on the back burner – thanks, possibly, to Rousey’s swift drop from the spotlight – but in the meantime, Wonder Woman’s cast boasts professional fighters including boxing champ Ann Wolfe and world-ranked Muay Thai specialist Madeleine Vall Beijner, alongside Olympic bobsledders and triathletes. Also in the mix are a handful of CrossFit athletes, including veteran Brooke Ence, who was prepping for the 2015 CrossFit Games when she got the call to appear. ‘It couldn’t have been more perfect to be a part of a film where being a powerful, strong woman is not frowned upon,’ Ence told People.com. ‘It’s super-empowering to all ages and sexes. It could not have been a better role for me.’ CrossFit, of course, has changed the game for functional fitness, with champions like 2017’s Tia-Clair Toomey hoisting superhuman amounts of weight and redefining what it means to be in shape – male or female. Between them, Rousey and Toomey (and in fact Theron, whose elbow-centric, on-screen style is heavily shaped by what Ganderton says would work for a woman her size) could quite happily throw a squad of rugby players down a flight of stairs: it doesn’t hurt anyone’s on-screen credibility.

So are we at a tipping point for female-led action films? Tough to say. Sure, we’ve hit a point where women aren’t just eye candy or repurposed video game characters (think this year’s Resident Evil, or the about-to-be-rebooted Tomb Raider series) or roles rewritten from male parts (as in Angelina Jolie’s Salt or, surprisingly, Alien). And between Star Wars’ Rey, Alien Covenant’s Elizabeth, ScarJo playing two different super-soldiers and the fifth instalment of Underworld, this year’s already shaping up to be a classic for female-led action. Ultimately, the only way the trend will keep growing is if these films make money at the box office. And while they’re as good as the current crop, it’s only right to encourage them.

WHAT NEXT? Read Sophie McDougall’s I Hate Strong Female Characters for another take on this whole thing, then if you haven’t already, head over to the RISING interview with Charlize Theron for the inside story on Atomic Blonde.