Everyone knows that actors have stunt doubles to make them look good and to minimize the risk of a potential project-delaying injury. So it can be easy to assume that most actors don’t actually deserve much credit for their epic fight scenes. However, some performers are the real deal. Here are five actresses who have spent serious time dedicating themselves to the study of martial arts.
1. Katheryn Winnick - Everyone’s favorite Viking was a martial artist long before she was a professional actress. Born into a martial arts family, Winnick earned her first black belt in tae kwon do at age 13, she is now a 3rd degree black belt. She is also a 2nd degree black belt in karate. She made the family business her own and had opened up three tae kwon do studios by age 21. She competed at the Canadian National Taekwondo Championships, winning silver medals, and was expected to go to Montreal to train for the Canadian Olympic team.
However, she felt her own education and running her three schools was more important, and left the Olympic dream behind. While Winnick got her degree in kinesiology at York University in Toronto, she taught actors tae kwon do, leading to her own entrance into entertainment. She told Vanity Fair that in a way martial arts was a “hard upbringing,” training four hours a day and not being allowed to show emotion. She began acting as a means of therapy to get in touch with her feelings. Her therapy turned into a career, with her most famous role coming in the History Channel show Vikings.
2. Cynthia Rothrock - In 1970, at age 14, Cynthia Rothrock took up martial arts. Between that time and her film debut in 1985, she broke ground as a female competitor in a male dominated world. Rothrock was particularly successful in forms and weapons, winning Worlds five times. She occasionally competed against men, due to an absence of a women’s division. Over her lifetime she has accumulated black belts in seven different forms, and is an 8th degree black belt in Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan.
Rothrock was the first woman to appear on the cover of a martial arts magazine, and in 1983 was inducted into the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame as “Female Competitor of the Year.” With her enormous success in competitive martial arts established, she was discovered by Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong film production company. Rothrock became a hit in Hong Kong and lived there for several years while racking up numerous credits in martial arts films. In 1990, she came back to the States, where she once again found a steady stream of work in action films. In 2004, she retired to her found her own self-defense school in Studio City, CA. However, her retirement didn’t seem to last, as she’s taken many acting jobs since.
3. Zoë Bell - Growing up participating in both gymnastics and martial arts, Bell had a natural passion for athletics. As she progressed in her martial arts, she got to know stuntmen who were working out of the same dojo. Upon learning she could get paid to do what she loved, Bell was sold on stunts as a career, and has become one of the most successful stuntwomen of all time. Her toughness is legendary. Bell worked as a stunt double for Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess and Uma Thurman on Kill Bill (2003). She became a muse for Quentin Tarantino, who wrote Death Proof (2007) for Bell—where she got to play herself. However, her acting career now goes far beyond the stunt casting of a stuntwoman. She has become a regular presence in Tarantino films and has had guest spots on several high profile TV shows. Bell continues to do stunt work, and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
4. Angela Mao - Her father, Mao Yung Kang, was a star of the Peking Opera House. Like fellow martial arts stars Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, Mao grew up learning how to perform courtesy of the Peking Opera House educational system. Her extreme flexibility and talent in martial arts allowed her to quickly go through the ranks, earning a black belt tae kwon do and a 3rd degree black belt in hapkido. Hapkido was increasingly popular with Hong Kong film producers and her abilities in that form led to her being discovered at age 17 by Huang Feng, the director who also made Sammo Hung a star.
After starring in several films, such as Hapkido (1972) and Lady Whirlwind (1972), Mao played Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon (1973). With her success now international, many of her films were released abroad—a move that gave a nice boost to the career of Jackie Chan, who played a supporting role in many of them. Mao had never had that much interest in fame, however, stating that her income went to support her family, as “this is the Chinese tradition.” Ultimately, Mao retired from film while still a young woman, and settled down in Queens, NY with her second husband. She and her family run several restaurants together.
5. Milla Jovovich - Born in Kiev, Jovovich immigrated to California as a young girl with her mother, and eager to explore everything the new country had to offer. Milla began acting as a child and studied music, dance, and martial arts. Later, when Jovovich began getting roles in martial arts-centered movies, she necessarily deepened her expertise. Initially, Jovovich studied tae kwon do, and that form is most heavily used in the Resident Evil films. When Jovovich was cast in Ultraviolet (2006) the fight choreography necessitated she learn wushu. Practicing martial arts has become a way of life for the actress, who focuses her personal training on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Jovovich prides herself on doing much of her own stunt work, and on building the martial arts knowledge to successfully kick ass on screen.