For the most part, an actress is able to use body doubles and camera tricks to fool viewers into thinking they’re truly tough. Yet there’s been a push lately for more “realistic” action which means some actresses taking on more in terms of stunts. That includes several ladies who can boast actual fighting skills even off camera as well. Their success in both TV and film proves how well they can make being tough believable.
However, there are still scores of actresses who get plenty of action oriented roles but aren’t nearly as tough in real life. Indeed, it’s surprising how some iconic strong women are played by actresses who are almost the complete opposite in real life. Some do train, but just don’t have the same toughness off screen. Which makes it more notable when some are just as hard-edged in real life. Here are 11 action heroines just as tough as they are on screen and 9 who just pretend.
20 TOUGH IRL: Alicia Vikander
Alicia Vikander proved her skills with her breakout role as an android in Ex Machina. She then had an action themed role in The Man From Uncle before her Oscar-winning turn in The Danish Girl. When she landed the role of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot, Vikander went all out for it. She trained hard, gaining 12 pounds of pure muscle and beefing up her skills in martial arts and even archery. Vikander proved herself quite tough in the part and that dedication will serve well for the sequel.
19 PRETENDING: Summer Glau
A loved figure in genre TV, Summer Glau took off as River on the cult sci-fi show Firefly. That included the big-screen movie Serenity where she did some fantastic action sequences. That led to her role in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and later Ravager on Arrow. Yet the petite Glau has acknowledged she’s not comfortable with the action stuff. Indeed, many of her fights in all those shows were choreographed to mix in Glau’s ballet experience as she’s hardly a powerhouse in strength. She looks good on screen, but Glau is no serious warrior.
18 TOUGH IRL: Lucy Liu
While she’s been busy as Watson on Elementary, Lucy Liu is still known for some action oriented roles like Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill. As it happened, Liu was already skilled in martial arts as a child and also trained in Kali-Eskrima-Silat, or stick fighting. That came in handy when training to use a sword for Bill and was even integrated into her Watson character as she would do a lot of her own stunts. While she hasn’t done many action roles lately, Liu can still be very lethal off screen.
17 PRETENDING: Melissa Benoist
Through Supegirl, Melissa Benoist has proven herself terrific as a heroine. Not only does Kara fight for justice in her costume, but she's also as a reporter and Benoist loves being a role model. But the actress also acknowledges how so much of her performance is thanks to her stunt double who handles the real fighting. Benoist has said she’s far more comfortable as the mild-mannered Kara. Rather than martial arts, her training is in singing, from Glee to Broadway shows. In real life, Benoist isn’t so “super.”
16 TOUGH IRL: Katheryn Winnick
Interestingly, both Transporter and Person of Interest had an episode where Katheryn Winnick played a woman who got into a fight scene while handcuffed to a man. Each time she handled it well thanks to her experience as she got her first black belt at 13. She currently has a 3rd Dan (degree) in Taekwondo and is a 2nd Dan in Karate. That’s not to mention training herself in sword and shield for her role in Vikings where she does scores of her own stunts. In so many ways, Winnick truly is a warrior.
15 TOUGH IRL: Caity Lotz
Caity Lotz broke out as Sara Lance, aka the Black Canary, on Arrow. When her character was bumped off, the fan outrage was so huge that they not only brought her back to life but made her the star of Legends of Tomorrow. While she lets doubles handle the tougher stunts like leaping out a window, Lotz does do a lot herself. It’s aided by how she's an expert at Taekwondo and Muay Tha. She even integrated her dance experience into her form. This Canary can be a tough bird.
14 PRETENDING: Halle Berry
While she made history as the first African-American female Oscar winner, Halle Berry has been doing a lot of action movies. She was a standout as Jinx in the James Bond movie Die Another Day and did get herself into shape for the ill-fated Catwoman. She’s also won rave reviews for her recent turn in John Wick Chapter 3. Yet while Berry has used boxing for training, she relies on doubles for the most part and has no real martial arts experience. In a way, it’s a testament to her acting skills that Berry can be so convincing as a tough lady.
13 TOUGH IRL: Gina Carano
Gina Carano helped blaze a trail for female MMA fighters. It thus makes sense she uses that toughness for her movie roles. From Haywire to Deadpool and more, Carano goes all out for her fight scenes. Michael Fassbender has confessed how Carano actually hit him a few times during their Haywire fight scene and how she insisted on doing all her own stunts. That looks likely to continue with the upcoming The Mandolrian as Carano proves as tough a fighter as she was in the octagon.
12 PRETENDING: Kate Beckinsale
While she made her mark in dramas, Kate Beckinsale really took off as the star of the Underworld movies. She’s had other action roles like Total Recall, Van Helsing and others and loves to show off her trips to the gym on social media. Thus, one can assume Beckinsale is just as tough in real life. Instead, she’s admitted in interviews to being downright terrified of some of the major action scenes and how folks assume she’s much more capable a fighter and stunt worker than she really is.
11 TOUGH IRL: Charlize Theron
In her movie debut in 2 Days in the Valley, Charlize Theron got into a fistfight with Teri Hatcher that she did herself. It’s the first sign of Theron throwing herself into parts rather than relying on her looks. She broke her neck filming Aeon Flux but was soon back on set in little time. She also went through intense training for Mad Max Fury Road in horrible desert conditions and did almost all her own stunts for Atomic Blonde. Theron may be one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood but she’s also one of the toughest.
10 PRETENDING: Maisie Williams
When Game of Thrones started, Arya was just a simple tomboy. By the end of the show’s run, she was a hardened warrior despite her small size. Maisie Williams did her best in the part, even learning to duel left-handed as Arya did in the books. But Willliams has made it clear she and Arya are nothing alike as Williams actually enjoys the high fashion and “girly stuff’ Arya hates. Indeed, Williams claims to identify with Sam more than her signature role to show how different they are.
9 TOUGH IRL: Michelle Rodriguez
After beating out 300 actresses for the lead role in 2000’s Girlfight, Michelle Rodriguez dedicated herself to the role. She spent five months training to get herself in shape to make herself look believable as a boxer. Later, joining the Fast and Furious series, Rodriguez remains incredibly adept at action stuff. In her spare time, she skydives, is always at the gym, and even took part in Bear Grylls’ reality show of being stranded in the desert. It pays off as Rodriguez is just as scrappy as Letty can always be.
8 PRETENDING: Lucy Lawless
This may come as a surprise considering Lucy Lawless looked perfect in her star-making role as Xena Warrior Princess. She did learn horseback riding and even broke a leg falling off a horse, but that actually pushed Lawless to rely a lot more on stunt doubles as the show would suffer if anything serious happened to Lawlessr. Lawless has spent time on genre shows like Battlestar Galactica, Spartacus, and Ash vs Evil Dead yet admits she’s nowhere near a Warrior Princess in real life.
7 TOUGH IRL: Milla Jovovich
Ever since her breakout role in The Fifth Element, Milla Jovovich has been a top action actress. Her biggest contribution is, of course, the long-running Resident Evil franchise which has shown her skills. Jovovich has always done well with The Three Musketeers and other movies that show her great form off. A tough lady for real, Jovovich boasts a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo and also practiced karate, kickboxing, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She even worked through injuries on set to prove she’s got what it takes to be a serious action starlet.
6 PRETENDING: Mila Kunis
On the one hand, Mila Kunis is an ace at firearms. When Max Payne was delayed by a snowstorm, Kunis taught herself how to handle a gun in a believable way. That has led her to do more action-oriented roles like Jupiter Ascending and The Spy Who Dumped Me. However, in terms of fighting, Kunis is no serious powerhouse. She’s admitted on talk shows to letting her stunt doubles do the real work.
5 TOUGH IRL: Cynthia Rothrock
Unlike many martial arts movie stars, Cynthia Rothrock is the real deal. A five-times world champion in forms, she has seven black belts and multiple Grandmaster titles. That led her to success in Hong Kong as her fantastic fighting abilities let her star in dozens of movies. Not only was she the premier action starlet of the 1990s direct-to-video action market, but she was also the inspiration for Mortal Kombat’s Sonya Blade. While she’s slowed down, at 62, Rothrock is still in fantastic shape and has proven capable of taking down much younger and larger opponents with ease.
4 PRETENDING: Gwendoline Christie
The casting of Brienne of Tarth was a challenge for Game of Thrones producers. How many six foot tall actresses who can be believable as warriors are there? As it happened, Gwendoline Christie was perfect in the role with her size and strength, and helped make the character a favorite. That led to her role as Captain Phasma in Star Wars. However, Christie isn’t this imposing figure in real life as she’s more interested in fashion and has stated she wants more comedic roles in the future. As tough as Brienne is, Christie is actually a sofite.
3 TOUGH IRL: Michelle Yeoh
Her credits have ranged from Bond Girl to Star Trek yet Michelle Yeoh is acclaimed for her amazing work in Hong Kong action films. She went all out doing her own stunts and suffered for it. She’s endured broken ribs, torn ligaments, and even dislocated her neck and spent months in a body cast. Yet Yeoh keeps on going, including working through a broken leg for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While she’s slowed down a bit with age, Yeoh has proven she’s as tough in real life as any of her characters.
2 PRETENDING: Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence has risen far in Hollywood as an Oscar winner. Her breakout was playing Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and she did do a few of her own stunts. However, Lawrence has admitted her experiences in the movie (from a busted eardrum swimming to nearly choking on smoke) were too much for her and she relied on stunt doubles for her role as a spy in Red Sparrow. There’s also her awkwardness, such as her famous trips on the red carpet and the Oscars. Lawrence seems content to stick to more dramatic roles as being an action star was too much even for her talents.
1 TOUGH IRL: Gal Gadot
It’s easy to dismiss Gal Gadot on her looks given she was a former Miss Universe pageant contestant. But like any citizen of Israel, Gadot had to spend a mandatory two years in the Army. As it happened, she was a combat trainer who put other soldiers through the paces. That led to her breakout role in Fast and Furious.
Gadot showed the same dedication for her role of Wonder Woman, getting herself into serious fighting shape, training herself in everything from swordplay to horse riding. To top it off, she kept secret the fact she was pregnant during filming to prove she truly is an Amazon.
Sources: io9.com, variety.com, people.com, hollywoodreporter.com