Most people take stunt work as a means to break into the film and television industry. Lauren Shaw took the opposite approach, working as an actor long before she, as she put it, “fell into [stunt work]…no pun intended.” While the name Lauren Shaw might not be familiar to you yet, you’ve undoubtedly seen her work. Prior to playing Antoinette in a recurring role opposite John Malkovich on NBC’s Crossbones, Lauren worked as a stuntwoman in multiple episodes of Starz’s Spartacus and ABC’s Revenge as well as playing an ill-fated CIA Operative in Zero Dark Thirty. To slightly up her bad-ass ante, she was also the stunt driver in the 2013 remake of Evil Dead. Driving, she explained, was how she began her foray into stunt work. A drift-racer in her home country of New Zealand (she ran a drift-racing company), Lauren told me that she enjoys the purity of the sport, explaining that the winner in a drift race is often the driver with the most skill rather than the driver with the most expensively modified car.
“I was definitely the son [my father] never had,” she told me. Her physical repertoire – she is also a mixed martial artist and expert horseback rider – notwithstanding, acting is her passion. “It’s the one form of expression that always rang true to me,” she said. For Lauren, acting and stunt work have “always been two channels that have existed simultaneously and often complimented each other,” she explained. Her newest role is a prime example of that.
The day after Crossbones – her first recurring role – wrapped for the season, Lauren received a script for Lance Tracy’s Relentless. A script she says “absolutely grabbed” her. “I cannot even explain it,” she said, “it was really visceral and my reaction was: I have to be a part of telling this story.”
Slotted for an early 2015 release date, Relentless takes a gritty and realistic approach towards exploring human trafficking. Other films that have broached the topic have done so in an over-the-top, highly cinematic and blockbuster fashion, but Tracy’s film, in which Lauren stars alongside David Castro (The Lincoln Lawyer) and Elpidia Carillo (Predator), explores the larger issue by focusing on one woman’s nightmarish ordeal. “It’s a human story and a very human issue,” Lauren said, explaining that Relentless amplifies the struggle of her character, whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers–something which brings context to a devastating human rights issue. Not coincidentally, Shaw’s character is American.
Despite geographical proximity, human trafficking in Central and South America is an issue that is largely under-publicized in the United States, with most media attention focusing only on drug-related violence that spills over the border. The film, which sets a clear historical context, cleverly considers the United States’ history within the region and focuses on those lasting effects. Shaw’s character, who has longstanding ties to El Salvador, finds herself in the wake of that turmoil, journeying into perhaps the most exploitative aspect of the region’s violence.
A thoughtful person who chooses her words carefully, Lauren brings a unique flair to her role that goes beyond acting or physical ability. While she considers New Zealand her home, she lived in the United States for several years as a child (she attended high school here) and these experiences clearly inform her perspective as a global citizen, especially as it pertains to the human rights issue that is the primary focus of Relentless.
I spoke with her while she was on location in Greece, working on a new project.
Tuff Gnarl: Relentless is your first lead role in a feature film. Is it scary to be the one carrying the film?
Lauren Shaw: You know what? It was a really crazy journey. Crossbones was my first recurring role on a network show and I had an amazing opportunity to be opposite Julian Sands and John Malkovich. I got the script the next day and it absolutely grabbed me, I can’t even explain it. It was really visceral and my reaction was: I have to be a part of telling this story. I think I instinctively knew I was going to be part of telling the story and I didn’t get that fear of carrying [the role]. But workload-wise, for sure. We shot six day weeks, and those days were ninety percent nights. [Laughs] It was a pretty grueling schedule so it was pretty intense.
Did Lance Tracy have you in mind right away or did you audition for it?
I think it was a combination of right place, right time and then I think he just saw what I put on the tape and saw me as Holly.
Having seen the trailer, it is a really intense film and seems very gritty. Was it the subject matter that grabbed you right away or was it the character?
Kind of both. The simple fact was: the story and the character obviously resonated really deeply with me but also the humanitarian bent of the movie, the fact that this is a thriller, it’s fictional, but its one-hundred percent based on what happens currently. I think being part of a story that will really raise awareness for Americans about what happens in our own back yard in terms of human trafficking is really important to me. It’s something I wasn’t as conscious of until I began researching this and I think it’s an important story. I feel lucky to be able to help tell it.
A lot of Americans aren’t cognizant of things unless they happen to other Americans.
Can you describe some of the research you did for the role? It must have affected you.
It really did, I have a five-year-old daughter too. El Salvador in particular was very interesting. The reception we had from people going in and filming there…honestly I think Lance will do a great job at very honestly depicting the situation there. There’s more human trafficking victims from El Salvador than any other country in the region and they up from there up through Guatemala and then Mexico and into America. Over three-quarters of those victims are sexually exploited. So, as I’m sure you can gather from the trailer, my character in the film has been going to El Salvador since she was a child and now her daughter is there on a working holiday and with family and she gets caught up in a human trafficking ring. It’s my character’s journey to go down there and get her back and save her.
Does having a young daughter make it harder to prepare for the role, to put yourself in that frame of mind?
I’m gonna quote one of my idols, Meryl Streep. She was asked if she used her children for a role and she said “of course not, they have nothing to do with the role but when I go home at night, I hug them a little tighter.” So it has nothing to do with her but that depth of understanding and separation and pull – for any mother and daughter – certainly resonates quite deeply.
I understand; it would be a little too heavy to prepare in that way I would think.
Yeah. The best way I can explain it is that your own personal life informs things but you’re not using them to prepare.
The trailer opens with a speech by Ronald Regan so it sets the movie – the story takes place in present-day – but it sets the movie in a historical context. As you’re doing research, in addition to learning about the subject matter, do you get a feel for certain attitudes that exist towards Americans?
I do and, like you said, the research I did wasn’t just present day. It was actually going back to the civil war and America’s role in that war and a lot of these gangs that are operating today are actually civil war refugees that have been returned. It’s a pretty scary and not so bright role that America had in that. It’s really scary. The American embassy in El Salvador is the biggest in the entire region because that’s the position from which they were “combating communism” and the tactics that were employed there, to be honest, were absolutely horrifying. To extremely simplify it: anyone who was seen to be supporting refugees would be killed or tortured. Down to a simple local farmer, a refugee who simply passed through their field, even if the farmer had nothing to do with it – they could be killed. I think it’s just not as cut and dry as most Americans would learn in their history books.
I understand. As an American, it’s just not something most Americans are aware of because some of the things we’ve done in Central and South America have not impacted us to the degree that our relationship with countries in the Middle East has.
I agree. And the bottom line was: I was not aware of this history either. This is something I began researching and went: “Wow. OK.” When you begin to add those layers and that consciousness to the history of that country and the environment that these people have been born into or raised in or come back to, it definitely colors it.
Having talked about the context and having touched on what your character goes through, is this the most involved and intense role you’ve ever taken?
Absolutely. Hands down. My daughter actually went to stay with family in New Zealand when I was filming – I wouldn’t have actually seen her even if she had come to El Salvador – and it was a good two to three weeks after filming that I actually felt normal again. [Laughs] Before I was back up to normal operating speed. It was very grueling on every level.
It must be quite a process to work yourself into that frame of mind, you can’t just wake up and do it.
Yeah. Holly [Shaw’s character] definitely took over for that month. It was pretty easy to slip into that skin for that month but yeah, on every level from emotional to physical. I mean there’s fights, there’s a lot of action, I did all my own driving. [Laughs] The title of the film is not inappropriate!
Aside from being a mother, what parts of you are in Holly? Is there any Lauren in there?
I think that every story is a universal story and I think that any woman – whether she had a child or not – would understand wanting to fight for her family. For sure, there’s many things about Holly that rang true for me personally. So it wasn’t a stretch but the circumstances were very heightened of course.
The way the trailer ends, you get the sense that this is very dark. Are Holly’s actions pretty relatable to you?
I absolutely understand what you’re saying. Lance was very clear when we sat down and discussed everything and he said: “I know you’re very physically capable and can do X, Y and Z. But Holly is absolutely fighting for her daughter but she’s not fighting as a martial-arts trained warrior.” [Laughs] There are absolute turning points where it’s all-or-nothing for Holly where it’s like: “what’s she going to do about it now?” And like anyone under that kind of fire, their family at stake, most people would come alive. So yes. Me personally? [Laughs] I might have taken action a little sooner but that’s the story.
Does that maybe add to your character’s frustration?
I don’t know that it does. For me, when I’m on-set as Holly, that’s who I’m on-set as. If anything, it adds to her decisions at the end.
Is it a big mental adjustment to go from doing stunt work where you’re on set for a few days doing physical work versus being in almost every scene as the lead? Is it a different kind of tired at the end of the day?
Yeah it is for sure. That’s what I mean by exhaustion on every level. It is very draining and especially when it’s overnight, it definitely gets tough. On another note, we had a lot of crew and some talent from El Salvador – we were the first American film ever shot on location in El Salvador – and the heart and soul they put into the job, to be really honest, really carried me – watching an amazing team of people. Watching them give their all for this story really kept me going.
Given the subject matter, do feel an extra responsibility to get it right when you’re shooting on location?
I definitely did. At all times, I felt like slipping on the skin of Holly was something that came very naturally and it was a story that I really wanted to tell so as much as there is pressure, there was also support. In fact, the movie Salvador was actually shot in Mexico because location scouts deemed it too dangerous [to shoot in El Salvador]. Elpidia Carillo who is in the movie – who was actually in Salvador too – it was amazing speaking to her about it.
Do you think being there with local talent and a local crew added to the final product, maybe gave it a more accurate sense of what’s happening there?
I really do. I really do; we did a couple days in L.A. – that part of the story isn’t supposed to take place in El Salvador – but the production value is incredible. It might sound cliché but the heart and soul that everyone from El Salvador put into it was really inspiring and yes, there was pressure, but I definitely felt more support.
Will this be attached to any awareness causes?
For sure. Part of my deal with the movie is that the first $10,000 that I actually make, the profit from the movie, goes to an organization called Abolish Slavery which exists to abolish human trafficking. That’s the organization that we’re working with right now.
It’s tough to present anything anymore that people haven’t seen. Any other film I can think of that touches on human trafficking does so in a very over-the-top way but this seems very realistic.
Thank you. It is still a thriller but I think that it was shot and told in such a way that it will resonate on a very real level.
Right – you’re not Liam Neeson going around, beating up bad guys.
[Laughs] Right! That’s the inevitable comparison. It’s a human issue and a human story that needs to be told. You know, some people will sit down and watch a documentary but a lot won’t so I think this is a great way for people to be moved and have awareness raised.
Before I let you go, I have a silly question. Tell me one thing Americans should know about New Zealanders besides not confusing you with Australians?
[Laughs] It’s so funny. In L.A. anyone in L.A. with an accent…people think they’re Australian. We are not all hobbits. We’re a nation of travelers; there’s about four million people in New Zealand and about one million of us living overseas. It’s an incredibly friendly country that, if you haven’t been, you should visit.
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