When you think of an A-list actress, you might imagine someone who never has to get their hands dirty for the rest of their lives.
Sure, shooting a big budget action movie might be a bit on the grueling side, but four months of hard work a year means they can spend the other eight kicking back on a beach somewhere or buying expensive clothes, right?
We hear all the time about how male actors whip themselves into shape through months of heavy weight lifting to portray iconic superheroes. The work that female action stars put in preparing for their roles often goes overlooked.
These are the actresses who don’t just play tough on screen by letting their stunt doubles do all the heavy lifting. Instead, they train tirelessly year around to perform their own action scenes. Many are just as audacious in their real lives — with previous experience working as dancers, stunt doubles, and even professional fighters.
Of course, there are still those actresses who get cast to play gritty characters simply because of their acting chops, when they are actually far from fearless or coldhearted in their day-to-day lives.
Here are 9 Actresses Who Are Legitimately Tough (And 6 Who Are Only Tough On Screen).
15. Legitimately tough: Gal Gadot
Before she was cast to play Wonder Woman in the DCEU, Gal Gadot was probably best known for winning the 2004 Miss Israel pageant before going on to compete for the title of Miss Universe.
What you might not have known is that before she branched out into acting, Gadot served in the Israel Defense Forces for two years.
While military service is mandatory in Isreal, Gadot was picked for the role of Combat Trainer — meaning she was the one responsible for actually getting the soldiers into shape.
However, Gadot later went on to say that her preparation for Wonder Woman was more intense than anything she did in the military. She trained for six months prior to filming, which involved hitting the gym, horse-back riding, and fight choreography.
When Gadot became pregnant during filming, she actually hid it from the cast and crew to avoid special treatment.
14. Only tough on screen: Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence first broke onto the scene with her gritty performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Here, she played poverty-stricken teenager Ree Dolly, who is forced to take care of her family following her father’s disappearance.
Since then, Lawrence has snagged some of the most coveted roles in Hollywood, including Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series and Mystique in the X-Men franchise.
In this year’s Red Sparrow, Lawrence played yet another intense and physically intimidating character with Russian secret agent Dominika Egorova.
In real life, Lawrence is a self-proclaimed klutz and a goofball.
She’s notorious for tripping in high heels and isn’t afraid to revel in the awkwardness. The actress also isn’t afraid to use stunt or body doubles — as she did for the demanding ballet sequences in Red Sparrow.
13. Legitimately tough: Michelle Rodriguez
Back in 2000, Michelle Rodriguez beat out over 300 other actresses and landed her first role in Girlfight, where she played a troubled Brooklyn teen who channels her aggression through boxing. Apparently, the role wasn’t a stretch from Rodriguez’s own upbringing, where the actress was expelled from five schools before ultimately dropping out.
Since then, Rodriguez has starred in a number of action movies and TV shows — including The Fast and the Furious and Resident Evil franchises — where she is often cast to play a headstrong female leader.
In her free time, Rodriguez enjoys sky-diving, weapons training, and hitting the gym — which is far from the pampered lifestyle one would imagine for a starlet of her magnitude.
Rodriguez has also had multiple run-ins with the law, which has even found the actress spending a few nights in the slammer after repeated offenses.
12. Only tough on screen: Gwendoline Christie
At 6’3”, English actress Gwendoline Christie towers over most of her fellow Game of Thrones cast member, which made her an ideal choice to play Brienne of Tarth, one of the most intimidating fighters in all the Seven Kingdoms.
Her subsequent appearance as Captain Phasma in the Star Wars series has further solidified the actress as an emerging action star.
However, while Christie is often cast to play imposing characters, the actress is far from menacing in real life. She’s long been a part of the fashion world, and she hopes to get a chance to express her more feminine side in a future role.
Christie also has a lifelong obsession with Madonna, which caused the actress to break down in tears when she was finally given the opportunity to join her idol on stage at a concert.
11. Legitimately tough: Milla Jovovich
Once the highest-paid model in the world, Milla Jovovich broke into the action genre with her performance as Leeloo in 1997’s The Fifth Element. Since then, the actress has become synonymous with the Resident Evil series, where Jovovich has played Alice in six feature films between 2002 and 2016.
Because each installment had to outdo the action in the previous films, Jovovich said that the stunt work became increasingly difficult every time she returned to the series.
But instead of always relying on a stunt double, Jovovich filmed many of her own action scenes — which was certainly helped by the fact that Jovovich is a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo. She also practiced karate, kickboxing, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Although Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was Jovovich’s last film in the series, the actress is already set to star as the primary antagonist in the 2019 Hellboy reboot.
10. Only tough on screen: Mila Kunis
While Mila Kunis may be best known for her comedic chops, she’s also starred in a string of gritty action films — including Max Payne, The Book of Eli, and Jupiter Ascending — which has given the already brazen actress a seemingly sharper edge.
In fact, Kunis received additional firearms training while working on Max Payne when production was forced to shut down during a snowstorm. She even got to the point of being able to fire a gun without blinking, which certainly comes in handy when scenes are edited in slow motion.
When it comes to the action scene, Kunis said that she is the furthest thing from a fighter. Instead, she relies on her intense stare, along with competent stunt doubles to make the audience think that she is legitimately tough.
9. Legitimately tough: Charlize Theron
Since the beginning of her acting career, Charlize Theron has actively avoided roles that would have highlighted her looks over her talent, which has led her to play some of the most intriguing and gritty female characters within recent memory.
After pursuing work as a model and a ballet dancer, Theron flew to L.A. with a one-way ticket in hopes of becoming an actress. In fact, Theron was later discovered after yelling at a bank teller who refused to cash a check her mother sent her.
Since then, she has played a number of tough-as-nails characters, including her portrayal as real-life killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
More recently, Theron headlined 2017 Atomic Blonde — which found the actress completing almost all of her own stunts, save for the ones that she couldn’t perform due to insurance reasons.
8. Legitimately tough: Gina Carano
Probably best known for playing the villainous Angel Dust in 2016’s Deadpool, Gina Carano has starred in a number of other action films as well, including Fast & Furious 6 and Haywire, where she played the film’s leading super soldier.
Before she was ever an actress, Carano was a mixed martial artist with a near-perfect fighting record.
After being an athlete throughout high school and college, Carano’s then-boyfriend introduced her to the world of Muay Thai fighting. She won a number of her matches by knocking out her opponents before she was incapacitated by Cris Cyborg in a 2009 MMA fight, leading to her retirement from the sport.
But it was her fighting experience that ultimately led to her being cast in Haywire, which found the actress describing an on-camera fight she had with Michael Fassbender as fairly brutal.
7. Only tough on screen: Lucy Lawless
A favorite amongst sci-fi, fantasy, and horror nerds, Lucy Lawless starred as the title character on Xena: Warrior Princess from 1995 to 2001. The actress also played the brutal Admiral D’Anna Biers in Battlestar Galactica, and she currently stars in the horror-comedy series Ash vs. Evil Dead as the all-powerful Ruby Knowby.
While Lawless has a tendency to be cast as superhuman characters with a no-B.S. type of attitude, the actress is quick to admit that she’s nowhere near as durable as her on-screen counterparts.
She gladly lets her stunt doubles handle the action scene, citing that if she or any of the actors get hurt, everyone would be out of work.
Lawless has also used her good fortune to make charitable contributions, and she currently sits on the board of trustees at the StarShip Foundation — which aids a children hospital in her native Auckland, New Zealand.
6. Legitimately tough: Zoe Saldana
Though she is often hidden behind a thick layer of makeup or CGI, Zoe Saldana has been involved in some of the biggest action and sci-fi films of the past decade.
She provided the motion capture performance for Neytiri in Avatar, starred as Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek reboot trilogy, and she currently plays Gamora in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a character who will appear in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
Though she could certainly rely on a stunt double for the more grueling scenes, Saldana performs much of her own action.
She even trained upwards of a year for her performance in Avatar alone — a role that she will reprise in the upcoming sequels.
Back in 2012, Saldana also made headlines when she rushed to the aid of an elderly woman following a serious car accident.
5. Legitimately tough: Zoe Bell
New Zealand actress Zoe Bell has appeared in a number of Quentin Tarantino’s films, including Inglourious Basterds, The Hateful Eight, and Death Proof — where Bell played a fictional version of herself.
The actress rodde atop the hood of a car during a prolonged chase scene.
If you ever wondered how they let a leading actress perform these risky stunts, it’s because Bell is also an accomplished stuntwoman who has been working behind the scenes on everything from Xena: Warrior Princess to last year’s Thor: Ragnarok.
Throughout her two decades working as a stuntwoman, Bell has sustained some serious injuries, including a broken vertebra while doubling for Lucy Lawless and a damaged wrist while working on Kill Bill Vol. 2. That hasn’t stopped Bell from continued to plug away both behind and in front of the camera.
4. Only tough on screen: Summer Glau
Best known for playing River Tam in Firefly, Summer Glau has gone on to star in a number of other popular sci-fi and action series, including Arrow and The 4400.
After partaking in a number of impressive action sequences in Serenity — the follow-up film to Firefly — Glau become an unlikely action star, which includes her performance as the nearly indestructible android in Terminator: The Sarah Conor Chronicles.
The real-life actress is far from as rugged as her on-screen personas.
Glau has been more than open about feeling out of her element in the action genre. In fact, the prolonged fight scene in Serenity was choreographed as if it were a dance routine to appeal to Glau’s ballet roots.
The actress also has a lifelong fascination with growing roses, and she has recently taken an active step back from acting to focus on being a mom.
3. Legitimately tough: Caity Lotz
After popping up as Sara Lance/ White Canary in a supporting role on Arrow, Caity Lotz went on to respire the role as one of the leads in the spin-off series Legends of Tomorrow.
While Lotz has openly admitted to avoiding stunts like throwing herself across a room or through a glass wall (and we certainly don’t blame her), the actress says she pretty much does all of her own fight scenes.
In fact, Lotz is actually an accomplished martial artist who’s well versed in various fighting styles, including Taekwondo and Muay Thai.
Before she was ever an action star, Lotz was a professional dancer who backed up Avril Lavigne and Lady Gaga both on stage and in their music videos — meaning that this actress is the real deal when it comes to physical fitness.
2. Only tough on screen: Kate Beckinsale
After starring in a string of romantic comedies, British actress Kate Beckinsale broke into the action genre by playing Salene in 2003’s Underworld. She’s since reprised the role in four sequels and starred in various other genre films, including Van Helsing, Whiteout, and Total Recall.
With quite the action-heavy resume, one might think that Beckinsale is as much of a thrill-seeker as her on-screen characters. However, the actress has talked about how terrifying the stunts continue to be no matter how many installments she makes.
While promoting Underworld: Blood Wars, Beckinsale admitted that she’s always nervous about filming, especially since the crew has rising expectations of what she should be capable of.
When she’s not pretending to be a hardcore vampire hunter, she’s involved in various charitable causes — especially the British Heart Foundation in remembrance of her father, who suffered a heart attack when she was a child.
1. Legitimately tough: Angelina Jolie
With Angelina Jolie switching her focus to directing and more dramatic roles in recent years, it’s easy to forget she was one of the most prominent female action stars for over a decade.
Girl, Interrupted may have earned her critical acclaim, but 2001’s Laura Croft: Tomb Raider made her a household name. She followed that success up with a 2003 sequel, as well as the action films Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Wanted — all of which found the actress partaking in a majority of her own stunts.
Jolie is also one of the most predominant humanitarians in Hollywood. She has traveled to some of the most dangerous and impoverished areas of the world, including Sierra Leone and Cambodia, where she has helped raise awareness of the atrocities that often go unseen — which is no small feat.
Which actress do you think is the toughest (or the best pretender) of them all? Cast your vote in the comments!