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A Woman's Place Is in the Action Roles

Swordplay? Gunplay? These female actors can do it all--but watch those squibs!

July 05, 1998|Susan King | Susan King is a Times staff writer

'There is nothing worse than being a damsel in distress," proclaims Catherine Zeta-Jones. "It's very boring."

The British actress is anything but a shrinking violet in her first starring role in "The Mask of Zorro," opening July 17. As the daughter of Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), she rides horses, engages in sexually charged swordplay with Antonio Banderas and dances a mean tango with the Spanish heartthrob.

"She's a very gutsy girl," says Zeta-Jones of her character. "There's a lot to play with, which is good."

Zeta-Jones, 28, who appeared in the 1996 CBS miniseries "Titanic," is just one of many actresses who are getting a piece of the action this summer in big-budget adventures and thrillers. Just as Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" movies and Linda Hamilton did in the "Terminator" flicks, these actresses are proving they can flex their muscles on screen opposite male action heroes.

Besides Zeta-Jones, Rene Russo is returning as the rough-and-tumble, beautiful cop Lorna in "Lethal Weapon 4," opening Friday, and Carla Gugino hangs tough as a mysterious woman in Brian De Palma's conspiracy thriller "Snake Eyes," set to open Aug. 7

Gugino's role in "Snake Eyes," as a witness to the murder of the secretary of defense at a boxing match, is a 180-degree turn from her previous work in the "Masterpiece Theatre" drama "The Buccaneers," or as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend on the ABC sitcom "Spin City."

The actress, 26, says she was drawn to the thriller, which stars Nicolas Cage as an Atlantic City police detective, because she is a fan of De Palma ("Mission: Impossible," "Carrie").

"He's such a master," she says. "I felt like, wow, if I'm going to do something like this, what a great group of people to do this with."

Russo, 44, gets a kick out of doing the "Lethal" movies because "I love working with [director] Dick Donner and I love working with Mel Gibson," she says.

"Lorna and Riggs [Gibson] have fun together. They are equals, and it's really nice to show that on the screen. Yes, it's an entertainment film, but the thing I do appreciate is that Riggs and Lorna are equally matched. That's a nice thing to see in films. . . . They are not just physically matched, but intellectually and comically. It's not like Lorna is in there with as much screen time as Riggs, but when she is, she can hold her own. I appreciate that."

In this outing, Lorna is nine months pregnant. "I'm sure all the ladies will be disappointed that I'll be barefoot and pregnant in this one," she says, laughing.

Despite being in a family way, Lorna gets to "kick some ass. There's a situation I didn't ask to get in, but, lo and behold, here I am and I definitely get into a fight," Russo says.

"So I am hitting people over their heads with chairs and smashing their arms in doors and doing kicks. I mean, God, it wouldn't be 'Lethal Weapon 4,' if it wasn't a little bit unrealistic."

Before reporting for work on their respective films, all three actresses went into training, as well as working with the stunt coordinators and stand-ins.

In fact, Zeta-Jones and the cast of "Zorro" spent a month preparing for the production. "We were down in Mexico," she says. "It was intense training. Me and Antonio have a tango, it is actually a fandango. We trained for that in the morning and then he would go off to sword fighting and I would do riding, and then I'd come back and do sword fighting with him and then I would go off and do my Spanish dialect. It was like boot camp."

Thankfully for her, the actress has always been athletic. "I was a dancer. I trained as a dancer all my life. All of that stood me in good stead."

But she had never ridden a horse. "I never lied [about the fact] when I met the director," she says, laughing.

"So I had intense training with the wranglers who are the best in the business. The horses are all trained for films, so they can stop and smile at the camera. I started off my first session sitting on the horse, and by the end of the session, I was galloping around the arena. I just trusted these guys."

Zeta-Jones describes the sword fight with Banderas, who plays a petty thief being groomed to become the new Zorro, as "playful. We tease each other. It is really old-fashioned style, and even though we learned all the sword fighting technically with all the classical positions, what you see on the screen is much more fun and not so hoity-toity."

Gugino, who does yoga off-screen, got in shape for "Snake Eyes" with Cage's trainer. "I was also training because I had to be in a white, shiny, tight little suit and like a white tight suit on screen--a little training was necessary!"

The actress and Cage also had to work with scuba instructors for the finale, in which a hurricane invades the casino's boxing arena. "You have to make sure you can breathe underwater," Gugino says. "And if there is a problem you know what you can hit, so they can bring you a tank."

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