Did Cliff Booth kill his wife? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s star stuntman carries an air of beguiling mystery: He’s constantly shapeshifting, in and out of wigs and costumes, peering from behind onyx Ray-Ban aviators. He’s less the strong-silent, and more slyly mute. From Once Upon a Time’s first scenes, there seems to be something a little bit off about him, but it’s not until a flashback in the first act that some of the mystery is sourced. Some people — maybe not his friend and employer Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), though — think Cliff murdered his wife one day, out in the open ocean, while they were alone together on a boat. What’s more, they think he got away with it.
At first it seems like just a dramatic showbiz rumor. Rick is trying to get Cliff a job on a movie set, but the stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) says he can’t hire the guy. Randy’s wife, Janet, hates him; doesn’t matter what Randy says, Janet thinks Cliff killed his wife. For a moment, it seems like Janet is just another passing reference in Once Upon A Time’s rich script, until Janet storms onscreen. You see, Randy hired Cliff, and then Cliff squabbled with Bruce Lee, and then Cliff slammed Lee into Janet’s car. So Janet fires Cliff — or, at least, demands that Randy does — in an incredible, hilarious sequence. The scene-stealing Janet is played by one of Quentin Tarantino’s longtime stunt actors turned stunt coordinators, Zoë Bell. “I kind of want to rip that scene and just post it every day for like a month,” Bell says of her cameo. She talked to Vulture about being on set with Tarantino, and whether or not she thinks Cliff actually killed his wife on that boat.
You’ve acted for Quentin a handful of times before, but how did the Janet character come about?
I, to be completely frank, would watch Leo working, doing his Bounty Law stuff and — it sounds quite sycophantic but I mean it in the most professional way possible — I’d watch Leo slide into character 100 percent and I got really excited about acting again. I pitched myself to play one particular role in the movie, but the scene got shifted and cut, and I lost the role.
Originally it was Randy, Kurt’s character, who was going to interrupt the fight [between Cliff and Bruce Lee]. I was putting the choreography together, and we were putting it down on tape, so I could put it on DVD and show it to Quentin. I was like, “Right, well, I’m going to take the role of Kurt because I feel like I could probably do a pretty good Kurt Russell.” So, I was in the sort of template DVD of one of the versions of the fight. I bust [Cliff] doing my best Kurt Russell, with an American accent, full Stuntman Mike style. So I feel like I planted the seed a long time ago because I really wanted to be in it and I was really excited to act. I don’t know if him watching that did a lot but he really enjoyed me being Kurt Russell.
It literally came up on the day. Quentin said, “Hang on, no, Zoë, have you got your cowboy hat here?” And I was like, “Um, yeah!” And he was like, “Right, we need to put Zoë through the works. She needs hair, makeup, wardrobe; she’s going to be Janet.” That’s the joy of filmmaking with someone who’s naturally creative and spontaneous. I’m the stunt coordinator on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019, but in 1969, I’m the stunt coordinator’s wife because that’s probably what would have been the case.
What immediately struck you about Janet?
She’s just fierce, takes no shit, is probably running the show from behind the scenes — unless she’s pushed in front, which, you know, give her a choice and then she’s just going to do it out loud. Everything about it, I just love everything about that scene. I’m so honored and proud and excited to be a part of it, not to mention that I’m literally in the scene with Brad Pitt, Kurt Russell and Mike Moh who’s playing Bruce Lee —
Honestly, a trio of very handsome men.
I mean, yeah! And I’m kind of schooling all of them. I mean, sorry, Janet is schooling all of them. Zoë would never.
What inspired your performance as Janet?
This sounds ironic, but I was channeling a little bit of Stuntman Mike [from Tarantino’s film Death Proof] because that’s where it was coming from originally. When I watch it, I recognize that I’m channeling a lot of the strong women in my life. I’m also probably telling a little bit of what it means to be behind the scenes. If I walked on set and one of my doubles was getting into a fight with one of our leads, I would definitely be concerned and I would probably not have a problem putting my foot down.
Janet is very clear that she thinks Cliff killed his wife, but the movie leaves it a little ambiguous. What’s your opinion?
It’s definitely clear Janet is convinced. I reckon it’s also a matter of Cliff having that kind of character where he doesn’t really care if other people like him or don’t like him, agree with him or disagree with him. I think that probably really rubbed quite opinionated people the wrong way, and Janet is definitely an opinionated person. Nothing wrong with being opinionated. I just don’t think he cares enough to try to dissuade people from the beliefs they have around him, and that probably puts people like Janet off.
I hate to give my personal opinion because I have some inside information from conversations with Quentin, so I’m kind of privy in a way. But if I wasn’t privy, I kind of like not knowing. I think that we were under the impression that he’s a veteran and he’s literally killed people. This cavalier attitude is sort of what he’s arrived at after living a deeply complicated life. Just that there’s a possibility that he may have killed his wife, or even that if he didn’t kill his wife, maybe she had killed herself or it was an accident — that it’s sort of shrouded with mystery just speaks to the character that he is. I dig that.
The best Cliff moment, other than him making the Kraft mac and cheese, is that little jump he does onto Rick’s roof. Was that Brad, or a double?
That was a — oh, I shan’t tell you. It was Cliff doing it. But the idea was born of Quentin. It’s one of those things that came up when he was talking about Cliff: It’d be easy to write him off as kind of slick, maybe not that talented, over-the-hill, whatever it is. Cliff is a multidimensional character, he’s sort of like the 1969 Hollywood version of the Dude, you know? He just kinda, like, loafs through life, doing his shit, and you kind of feel like he could be lazy, but then you see him bound up onto the roof in like two fell swoops and you’re like, Oh my God, that dude is agile and clearly has a history of being physically very capable. That jump is just the kind of thing that a normal person would be like: I’m sorry, how did you do that? But Cliff wouldn’t think twice. It tells you loads about who he is and what his capabilities are, in like two seconds. I love that. Really clever.
I read that Quentin likes you to use your natural accent, and not your American one. Can you tell me more about that?
Quentin, being that he knows me as long and as intimately, personally and professionally, as we do, maybe thinks I am my most authentic self in my own accent. And if it makes sense in the script, then that’s what he wants. And I certainly appreciate it. On this one, I was like, “Am I American?” He was like, “No. You’re Kiwi.”
If you could live in any other era of time, when would you choose?
Oh my God. Honestly, after doing this movie, I would like to live in the ’60s. Pre ’69. Just pre ’69.
That time felt like they’re kind of in a liberation, a challenging of the status quo. That time still carries some naïveté to it. There was a kind of beauty in the fight for change. And it’s just so fucking cool. Everyone’s so cool. Everyone looks cool. Even the knobby people looked cool. Things were amazing to look at in the Victorian times, but listen: People must have stunk back then. The ’60s is the best of both worlds. You’ve got full hygiene and the beginning of technology, but there’s still that kind of innocence where everything’s not super convenient. Everything’s not done for you. Technology is still kind of cusp-y and exciting rather than potentially terrifying. If you asked my grandma what she thought of the ’60s, she thought it was honestly a little bit terrifying, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve just spent months surrounded by the era, but it was just so rich and exciting.