Kay D'Arcy didn't expect what Hollywood had in store for her.
At an age when others have been relegated to playing invalids and dowagers, D'Arcy will appear as Agent 88, an assassin who keeps the deadly tools of her trade tucked into her hair bun. The octogenarian avenger dispenses evildoers with acrobatic moves that would impress Jackie Chan.
In the opening episode of the Web series "Agent 88," D'Arcy demonstrates her martial arts skills in an encounter with thugs surrounding the bloodied body of their victim.
"Get lost," one villain tells her, and knocks her to the ground.
"I really wish you hadn't done that," she says, and springs into action.
PHOTOS: Vigilante movies - Taking matters into one's own hands
With lethal efficiency, she neutralizes them all — delivering round-house kicks that send one crashing to the ground, pulling daggers from her bun and hurling them at another assailant, and twirling Kali fighting sticks to batter two others.
"Kay couldn't think of harming a fly. She's never thought, in her whole life, about hitting someone with the intent of hurting them," said Digger T. Mesch, the creator of the series. "Somehow … she got on that set and she looked like a killer."
"Agent 88" is one of thousands of quirky creative projects to find life outside the conventional studio system. Mesch partially funded this genre-bending action series through Kickstarter, one of several fundraising platforms used to finance independent films, plays, music and video games. He raised a six-figure sum in a month, illustrating the power of crowd funding to help artists bypass traditional Hollywood gatekeepers.
The role gives D'Arcy, a retired nurse and midwife, the big break she has been working toward since leaving England for Los Angeles in 2002 — at the age of 69, and over the objections of her family.
D'Arcy, now 79, said she was intrigued by the strength and humanity of the character.
"She's this dippy, absent-minded woman who's really quite a child inside," said the actress with gray spiked hair and crystal blue eyes. "This little inoffensive woman, who's slightly lala, ends up becoming a formidable assassin."
Last April, Mesch saw a YouTube video of an elderly woman who foiled a jewelry store heist by beating a gang of robbers with her handbag. The 2011 true-crime video made the anonymous pensioner in Northampton, England, a local folk hero — and served as the inspiration for "Agent 88."
D'Arcy had been studying tai chi for years when her manager learned of a casting opportunity for a "fit" older actress. D'Arcy welcomed the departure from roles typically offered performers her age, such as her recent appearance on the CBS television series "Criminal Minds," in which she portrayed a "decrepit, haggard, dying old woman."
"I said, 'Oh, gosh, that sounds really interesting,' as I'm not dying in bed or having a stroke or being dressed for the mortuary," D'Arcy said.
She donned martial arts attire to meet with Mesch and series producer Jan Utstein-O'Neill. The actress nailed the audition when she rose fluidly from a sitting position and began demonstrating tai chi movements — and won the role without reading a single line of dialogue.
"What impressed us is she could go from being really frail, and looking like she could break, to a totally empowered woman," Utstein-O'Neill said. "She did it right in front of us and blew us away."
To prepare for her portrayal of Agent 88, D'Arcy studied Filipino stick fighting and hand-to-hand combat with Australian martial arts expert Nino Pilla. The training, and a daily regimen of martial arts exercises, enabled her to do many of her own stunts.
D'Arcy found that the physicality was not the role's greatest challenge.
"The hardest thing was to hit," D'Arcy said. "It's quite hard if you've been schooled all your life not to."
Despite its dramatic footage, "Agent 88" struggled to reach its fundraising goal.
"It looked pretty grim in the beginning and the middle — we had not raised nearly enough money," Mesch said.
To finance a project through Kickstarter, content creators like Mesch set a fundraising goal and deadline. It's an all-or-nothing proposition: If they fail to raise the desired sum by the appointed time, the project is not funded.
Donors, who may commit as little as $1 and as much as $10,000, are attracted by the quality of the project and by premium gifts, producer credits or tickets to private screenings. Those who donate to projects do not reap any monetary benefits. Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, more than $340 million has been pledged to fund about 31,000 projects.