How Action Movies With Female Leads Are Evolving

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WE SHOULDN’T EVEN be here. The film industry should be more evolved than this. A discussion about female led-action films shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. Even in 2021, women and people of color still have to prove they’re worth it to Hollywood, and it’s only over the past several years that the industry began to take anyone besides a white male lead seriously. Wonder Woman didn’t get the film treatment until 2017, but Spider-Man got three franchises in less than 15 years, Batman got two in less than 20 years (with a third starring Robert Pattinson coming soon), and since 1996, Tom Cruise has starred in seven Mission: Impossible movies. Only a rarified few women like Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson were given backing as bona fide Hollywood action stars. Even then, Johansson appeared as Black Widow in eight Marvel movies before leading her own standalone film—and that only happened after her character was killed off.

As the then-mostly white and male Marvel Cinematic Universe took over Hollywood in the 2010s, smaller films like 2014’s John Wick (which started a renaissance of its own for star Keanu Reeves) spawned a genre within the genre: hyper-violent, anti-Marvel action films with protagonists willing to do anything to get what they want (or to avenge their dog). At the same time, fourth-wave feminism started to have an impact on Hollywood. The demand for women-centric stories, with characters written authentically—not as objects for the male gaze—which was always there, got louder. The result is a small, but significant step: more action films starring women, written by women, for everyone. No more actresses running away from dinosaurs in high heels, no more impractical revealing costumes meant to satisfy only one demographic. Now, women in action can be grotesque like John Wick and feminine.

When I was preparing questions for my roundtable discussion with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Kate, Birds of Prey), Karen Gillan (Gunpowder Milkshake, Guardians of the Galaxy), and Meng’er Zhang (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), the only non-superhero references for iconic action film heroines I could think of off the top of my head were Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, characters who were created decades ago—by men. Both Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) were brought to life by vulnerable, committed, physical performances. We would not be talking about Sarah Connor if it weren’t for Linda Hamilton. And we sure as hell wouldn’t be talking about Ripley if it weren’t for Sigourney Weaver. And we wouldn’t have gotten to this moment if it weren’t for them, either.

three women looking at camera

Getty Images; Dyan Jong; Jade Mainade

Now, the industry is in a completely different place than it was as recently as 2014, when Gillan made her debut as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy—a time not so long ago when female characters in the MCU, and in action as a whole, were more commonly underwritten side characters or love interests. In 2020, Winstead starred as Huntress in Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, the most creatively successful and grounded women-led action film—it’s very Saorise Ronan saying “women—” and crying in 2019’s Little Women, but in a good, weird way. Zhang, who made her feature film debut in Shang-Chi, plays Xialing, Shang Chi’s sister who, even four or five years ago, would not have had the same significant emotional arc, complexity or agency. Though the movie, which boasts the first Asian-led cast in the MCU, stars Simu Liu, director Destin Daniel Cretton has said he deliberately built the ensemble around a cast of strong female characters. Winstead, Gillan, and Zhang, spoke to Men’s Health about their experiences as action stars, including what it’s like to be suspended by a harness in front of a massive fan, how training changes your mind and body, where they see the genre going in the future, and, of course, their mutual love for action icon Michelle Yeoh.

Karen and Meng’er, you’re both in the MCU, and Mary, you were in the DCEU movie, Birds of Prey. You’ve been in massive franchise tentpoles and original action movies like Gunpowder Milkshake and Kate. Is action a genre any of you ever planned or expected to do in your careers?

Karen Gillan: I didn’t. I grew up in the top of Scotland, studying in my local theater group. I did aspire to have a career in films, but I thought it would probably be more on stage. And then when I thought of films, I definitely didn’t think of action; it’s just not something I was particularly good at. I did a little bit of Aikido growing up, but I was terrible at it—I’m not very good with that sort of thing. So I definitely didn’t anticipate this. I feel like I just fell into this world of genre, and grew to really love it. I’ve just been learning how to fight from film to film, really—and now I’m not terrible at it.

And whether it’s a drama or a sci-fi film or an action film, our job is ultimately the same: it’s about playing the truth of all of those situations. And in terms Nebula, there was a lot I could actually pull from in the comic books. I grabbed onto the fact that she was this overlooked sibling, and I got to dive into all this research about a scapegoat child and a golden child, and all the effects that can have on the children later in life. Taking on a character that had a whole life before I was playing her, I found that really helpful and interesting.

woman with stick


Mary Elizabeth Winstead: I initially just wanted to be an actor, and I don’t think that the question of what genre of film I wanted to go into ever really played in my mind. I started as a kid, so it just didn’t occur to me to think in genres. In my dreams, I pictured more being a musical star or something, singing and dancing and that kind of thing. That’s what I grew up watching, and that was my idea of what it meant to be in movies.

Once I started working more, I realized that I liked playing parts that were very physical. That’s what’s drawn me more and more into doing action—I love getting the chance to really use and move my body in my work.

Meng’er Zhang: It’s kind of the same to me too, because I grew up in theater. This is my very first film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for, because it didn’t say Marvel, it didn’t say Shang-Chi. When I found out it was a Marvel film, I was very excited, because I’m a Marvel fan. But I didn’t have any martial arts background, and it’s a huge part of my character. But I just became strongly connected to her—it really was about the character.

Roles like these require a lot of training that can bring on physical change. How did it affect your relationship with your body?

Gillan: I feel completely different. I feel like I have a completely different relationship with my body. Even in just the way I take care of myself. Before I started in my first action role, I never ate well. I would literally eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And then I got sent to a nutritionist—and it wasn’t to lose weight or anything, it was to be stronger, to look like I could actually hurt someone. It introduced me to this whole world of taking care of yourself, exercising, eating the right things, and making sure you have enough food to get through all these action sequences. I’m so grateful because if I wasn’t forced to do that, I definitely wouldn’t have been doing it. I feel a lot happier and healthier within myself now.

Winstead: I feel the same. Before, when I would do a movie that would have an action scene in it, or just a little something, I would end up injuring myself half the time, because I wasn’t actually in the shape to be able to do it. Then I have one scene where I have to throw a punch, and I would throw my shoulder out or something.

woman shooting gun

Jasin Boland

The more that I’ve had to do it, the more I’ve had to actually be prepared for those moments, because they’re coming so much more frequently, and that’s made me much more aware of being in shape. Not at all to try to look a certain way, but to be healthy in terms of my body and how my body’s aligned, so that I don’t show up to work and injure myself on the first day because I’m totally not prepared. I was never somebody who worked out in between jobs if I didn’t have to, and now—I’m certainly not a gym rat, but it feels good to me to know, I’m structurally sound. I’m not going to fall apart. I feel strong.

Zhang: I trained for four months before this role—like working out at the gym and MMA and Tai Chi, all sorts of things. I really understand after that training why those martial arts are called arts. I really learned a lot from those different styles. With MMA, I can be aware of my surroundings and distance with people, and Tai Chi really helps me to calm my body and helps me to breathe. They put me onto a meal plan, but it’s really hard for me to stick to it, because I love food. I have to reward myself every other day, to have some fried chicken or something. But I gained muscle, and it’s really amazing to see how bodies can transform.

xialing meng’er zhang in marvel studios' shang chi and the legend of the ten rings

Marvel Studios

Would you say that those transformations changed your approach to acting in these roles?

Winstead: When you’re playing characters who are meant to be physically capable or strong, it helps to really feel that you are, and that you’re not just pretending to be. That goes a long way to feeling confident in portraying those kinds of roles. I’ve definitely gotten stronger over the years because of doing these kinds of films, and it’s made the performances better because of that and because I’m more confident.

Gillan: I feel like it’s made me at least look like I’m more confident as a person outside of these roles too. I never realized how terrible my posture was. I’m tall, and so I always hunched over and shrunk myself slightly. And then I was made aware of that, because I needed to look far more intimidating than I naturally do, so I really became aware of my shoulders and my…what is this thing called on the back? It’s like a scap…scap…it’s not scapula is it?

Winstead: No, that’s what came to mind for me.

Gillan: Yeah, Men’s Health, we know what we’re talking about! But anyway, I went from hunched over to really looking much more self-assured.

Winstead: Right, and it feels so good. In my experience, once you adopt that proper posture and holding yourself better, you just feel better too. I’m really thankful for that.

There’s this huge demand now for films like the ones you’ve been in—that are diverse and star women and people of color, that aren’t just another action movie centered on another straight, white guy. Have you noticed that you’re reading for more of these kinds of roles than you did before?

Zhang: I’m new to this, so I also want to hear these answers!

Winstead: There certainly seems to be an appetite for it, for more representation in terms of who our action heroes are, and I think the more the merrier. It never occurred to me growing up that there were too many white guys leading action movies, but once I got into doing them myself, I started going, Wait a second, I want to be Bruce Willis. I don’t just want to be the daughter or the sister or the mother. Finally those opportunities are there, whereas before it just seemed like a bit of a dream.

Gillan: I definitely feel like we’re taking a step in the right direction. A few years ago it would have been more that we were reading for the “female role” in a film, and that’s usually a love interest. But I haven’t been reading for those roles in the last few years, and that feels like progress. We still have a lot of work to do, because we still refer to these films as “female-led action films,” and that in itself tells you how rare they are compared to male-led ones, which are just called “action films.”

gunpowder milkshake l r karen gillan as sam, chloe coleman as emily


All of your roles exist outside of the male gaze—you’re not running around and fighting in high heels the entire movie, you’re not wearing revealing costumes. They’re interesting, character-driven roles.

Winstead: There’s been a big cultural push through social media, with audiences able to be more vocal and opinionated about what they want to see. That has really driven a lot of the decision making, and that’s been so great, because that’s inspired me to be vocal about what I want to do and the kind of parts that I want to take, and to advocate more for myself in that way.

Gillan: The industry has been living under this misconception that the audience for action films is men. Me and my girlfriends love action films. It doesn’t feel like a completely male space at all. We’ve seen some giant juggernaut films, like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, come along and show that they can do the numbers—but really, I don’t know that there wasn’t an appetite for that before. I don’t really, fully understand why there hasn’t been more of this sooner, but I’m glad it’s happening now.

Zhang: Growing up, I watched Michelle Yeoh’s films. She is really an icon. And I got to work with her on Shang-Chi. And Karen, you worked with her on Gunpowder Milkshake.

Gillan: I had to fight in front of her, which, let me tell you, is the most embarrassing thing to ever have to do. Because she’s a martial arts genius. She told me to use my height more, because I can use that as a method of intimidation, and it was really cool to receive that kind of advice from Michelle Yeoh.

three action heros

Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

Sony Pictures Classics; Miramax/Kobal/Shutterstock; 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Zhang: She taught me something too. She said, “It’s all about details.” So if it’s a close-up, you have to be sure to flex your arm. I never thought of that before.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be working with her on Shang-Chi?

Zhang: I thought she would be very serious, because watching all her roles before this film, all those roles are very serious. But actually she can be pretty goofy. She goofs around on set and makes jokes all the time.

Speaking of people like Michelle Yeoh who inspire you, are there any actors or movies or filmmakers that have inspired you as performers?

Zhang: I loved watching The Matrix. I remember that film came out when I was in middle school, so every day if I got home before my parents, I would just play the DVD and just fast forward to [mimics Neo bending over backwards to dodge bullets].

Gillan: If we’re speaking about action, then I really love the way Quentin Tarantino handles action. Kill Bill was really, really cool. Also, Korean movies like the original Oldboy. That’s probably got my favorite action sequence: the long one-shot where he goes down a corridor and he’s just beating everybody up. I remember thinking, That is the most stylish action I’ve ever seen in my life. And that made me really excited about action sequences where you can see that it’s the actor the whole time, it’s not cut every two seconds, and it’s not too shaky that you can’t really take it in. That was a locked-off camera, and it really showed what the actor could do.

Winstead: I’ve always been inspired by those iconic early female action characters, like Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Alien series. I think particularly just how grounded and smart she is in those movie. I’ve done a lot of horror films, so I think I’ve taken inspiration from her in those as well. I find it to be an interesting challenge to be placed in a genre film, whether it’s action or horror, and have these crazy things happening that are out of this world or larger than life, and to make them feel very real and lived-in, and to play women who use their strength but also their intelligence to save the world. That’s always what I keep being drawn back to, and I think that’s in part because of characters like Ripley.

Are there any stunts or scenes you’ve done that have been particularly challenging?

Gillan: The hand-to-hand combat when I’m on the ground is my favorite. That’s what I love to do, and that’s where I feel most comfortable. What I’m not good with is being dropped from things on a wire and then relying on a machine to stop me from hitting the ground. It’s completely terrifying!

On the first Guardians of the Galaxy, they cranked me up on these wires to the top of the studio roof, and then they dropped me, and it was free fall for a minute, and then a machine connected to the wires had to stop me from crashing. There was a mat to land on, but it was honestly the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to do. And I didn’t know how I kept acting during that, because I’m really bad with drops. I can’t even go on rollercoasters, so you can imagine me trying to do this. That scarred me—I’m still really scared of doing it.

Zhang: I’m like Karen. I don’t like the free fall stunts. When they drop you on the wire in rehearsal, they don’t go at 100 percent speed, they just go at 70 or 80 percent to help make you comfortable with it. But when they actually shoot, they just drop you.

woman in movie scene

Jasin Boland

Winstead: I think what stresses me out the most is when I’m doing something and there’s a lot of other things relying on me getting it right. I remember doing this big long shootout scene in a film called Gemini Man, and my partner in it is Will Smith, and we’re both taking on guys coming from everywhere. They’re on top of buildings, and we shoot them, and then every time we shoot them, they fall off the building.

So, stuntmen are literally falling off of buildings in time with how we’re shooting and where we’re aiming, and if you get it wrong, well, we’ve got to do it again, and the stuntman has to fall off a building again. So we were doing it all night, over and over and over, and of course, every time we do it again, I’m thinking, I screwed up, I screwed up, we’re doing it again, we’re going to have to do it again, these poor stunt guys are breaking their backs…. That was a real mental breakdown situation: when it’s a really long take, and it requires you to get every part of it perfect.

Zhang: I want to ask you girls—I don’t like the idea of hurting people. It scares me if I really have to throw a punch into someone’s face and whatever. How is it for you? Is it hard for you when you know you might hurt someone?

Winstead: It is nerve-racking. It is. After almost every take, the first thing I would say is, “Are you okay?” I’ve been really badass, screaming, grunting—and as soon as it’s done, I go, “Are you okay? I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” It’s a very stark contrast between the character and reality.

Gillan: I would love to see a compilation of all these action actresses going, “Oh my god! Are you okay?”

Winstead: There’s this scene where I’m walking in slow motion with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, and it’s supposed to be really cool. There are all these men behind me, and the first time we shot it, I didn’t know they were actually going to fire their guns. Sometimes they really fire them, sometimes they don’t. So I wasn’t prepared. I’m walking, looking really cool, and then everybody starts shooting their guns, and I shuddered. I tried to just keep on with the scene, tried to keep looking cool, but in my head I was like, That was so not cool.

woman smoking

Netflix Inc.

Gillan: The gunshots are really loud! I’m okay with throwing punches and all of that. But I still have trouble firing a gun directly at someone, even though I know that it’s a blank inside. But it’s still really nerve-racking, because a blank can still do some damage. And they’re always far enough away so that you won’t cause any damage, but there’s something just ingrained that says, “Don’t shoot this person!” So then I had trouble keeping my eyes open while I was shooting, which must have been a nightmare in Gunpowder Milkshake, because I was firing a lot of guns. And I seem to get worse as I get older! I used to be able to fire machine guns without even blinking, and now I can’t even keep my eyes open. They probably had to CGI that, to be honest. I shouldn’t be giving it away.

Are there any other kinds of stunts or shots in these films that are weirder than they appear on screen?

Gillan: I’ll tell you what: you never want to wear a harness, because it’s truly the most painful thing in the world. Any time you see someone flying, just know that that woman is in extreme pain around the crotch. I think it’s worse for the men actually, so that’s good.

Zhang: I remember one fight scene, I did punch my co-star Simu in the face.

movie scene


Winstead: I was headbutted in the face in Kate, although it didn’t end up in the movie. In the film, I headbutt him, but there was another part where he headbutted me, and we were just both so in character that we really connected on the headbutt. But that was definitely one of those fights where after every take, we were both just like, “I’m so sorry!”

We just kept beating each other up—it just was back and forth. If it’s me and a stunt person, I always feel like they are so well trained, they know how to get out of the way or absorb the impact. But whenever it’s two actors, I feel like there always ends up being some sort of accidental contact or something, because we’re just not as well trained in terms of how to get out of that stuff.

Gillan: I also feel like after actors hear “action,” we always give 110%. The adrenaline kicks in, and we just lose control. The stunt people are able to account for that, but if you’re fighting another actor, they’re also doing the same thing, so you’re just so much more likely to collide.

Zhang: What about other elements in a scene, like wind and water? I shot a scene on a dragon, and the makeup team did the final touch, and they did my bangs so perfectly. And they said, “Okay, we will have a little wind and a little water in this scene.” I said, “Okay.” Then, “three, two, one, action!” And…I’m completely wet, and they have to come back and fix everything again.

Gillan: Oh yeah, I’ve definitely been suspended on a lot of wires with a giant fan in front of me. And it’s actually really scary at first when they turn the fan on, and I always have this millisecond of panic attack, when I’m like, I can’t breathe! But it looks really cool in the movie.

How did watching yourself perform all of these stunts and fight scenes affect your self-perception?

Gillan: When I first saw myself in a fight sequence, I was like, I can’t believe that I look this badass. It was like nothing I’d even seen before. And I feel like I’ve just gotten better each time I’ve done it, because they’ve just really put me through my paces.

I needed a lot of training at the beginning. When I did my screen test for Guardians of the Galaxy, they had me fight the air. They taught me a routine, and then in the studio, I had to just do the routine to thin air. And honestly, that must have looked ridiculous—because I was not good at fighting, but I still just went for it 110%. I would love to see video footage of that. I feel like because they saw that, they were basically like, “You need to train every single day that you’re not shooting.” And so they brought me in constantly, to the point where I could actually perform the routine—and it looked relatively scary!

Winstead: It’s such a team effort. When you do those scenes, it doesn’t feels like it’s just you. It’s the whole stunt team, it’s the director, it’s the crew. Everybody’s so excited about making those scenes work.

kate 2021,mary elizabeth winstead

Jasin Boland

Zhang: You feel very cool. And I’m so appreciative of my stunt doubles, because they are really kick-ass women. We completed the character together.

What do you think and hope the impact of these movies starring women and people of color will be?

Zhang: I’m just really excited to see more of these kick-ass women on big screen. I really feel like these characters know how to stand their ground and find our voices. And that’s it’s really important for young women growing up.

Winstead: I think the goal is eventually for these not to be called “female-led action films” or “diverse action films.” And it feels like we’re at the start of that actually happening, if we all keep helping to push that along, which I think everybody I know certainly is.

Gillan: It’s really important for people growing up to see representations of themselves up on screen. I really hope it not only inspires more diverse films, but also inspires more young women to feel it’s possible to move into these roles themselves, and know they can be really badass and cool.

Zhang: And Karen, maybe we will meet in the future? I don’t know…

Gillan: A crossover? That sounds good.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.