Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once famously proclaimed, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." In Grindhouse, that girl would be Rose McGowan.
In Robert Rodriguez's latest collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, McGowan, 33, stars as Cherry Darling, a plucky exotic dancer and burgeoning stand-up comedian whose twin career paths are tragically cut short - literally - when her right leg is eaten by flesh-craving zombies.
But there is a ready fix at hand: first a wooden table leg, then ultimately a 50-caliber machine gun is snapped onto a metal rod protruding from her swaddled stump, courtesy of the miracle of computer graphics.
"When they wrote it, they didn't have the technology for it," says McGowan sitting in a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel after her first screening of the film. "I did a lot of my own stunts, which was great, because I have a body that is really quite delicate and made for sipping tea with a parasol. But I was Scrappy-Doo. There's the Irish in you: Suit up, show up, pull up your bootstraps and keep going."
Rodriguez had long wanted to make a movie composed of two short exploitation flicks - say, one about zombies and another about anything that also featured gratuitous amounts of sex, blood and extreme violence - then link them with theatrical trailers for fake grade-Z productions.
The result is Grindhouse, an homage to trash films of the 1960s and '70s "ground" out daily onto movie screens. Rodriguez's zombie flick Planet Terror, which stars McGowan, is paired with Death Proof, a serial killer/car-chase movie directed by Tarantino and starring Kurt Russell.
In person, McGowan speaks very, very fast. She also seems to rethink every situation four or five times before it even registers with anyone else. "I've actually hurt myself," she says. "I've shut my head in the car door three times, I've shut my hand in the car door four times. I injure myself constantly, and I think it's because my brain is always onto the next thing and my body's left behind."
Not only does this phenomenon lead her wildly off-topic in the course of a single interview, it also seems to propel her into behavior that might be considered rash or brazen, save for the countervailing evidence of herself in person. Much more likely, such behavior is merely the byproduct of a wicked sense of humor.
"Maybe back in the day, it was more the provocative bravado of a young twit," McGowan says. "I always say I was probably smarter at 15, and I've kind of gone downhill since then." As an example, she offers up Exhibit A - the topless dress she wore to the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards on the arm of then-beau Marilyn Manson, the shock-rocker and roadshow Satanist.
"I thought it was quite funny," she says. "But I also made that decision when I had a 103-degree fever from a sinus infection and I took TheraFlu, which I know now never to do and make any sort of decision.
"Also, at the same time, I was reading this book on Carole Lombard, and she was an inveterate prankster - there was one incident at the Chinese Theatre where she was late for a premiere and this ambulance comes screaming up to the red carpet, and they pulled her out nude with just bits and pieces of masking tape. But that is so not me, in any way, shape or form. I realized I can't do things that I think are funny, because it doesn't translate. My inside jokes - not so much."
McGowan appears in both halves of Grindhouse, which she had to audition for separately, but really - if you're playing a character with a machine-gun leg, that's probably the one the audience is going to remember. "It's a rollicking good time," she says of the film in her best movie trailer voice. "I did miss some stuff, because I was hiding behind my hand a lot: I have a very hard time watching blood and guts. And it's a stupid thing of mine - if I see myself cry, I start crying. It's really quite pathetic."
Describing Rodriguez, her primary director, she says: "He was a taskmaster - as well he should be. We had a very limited amount of time. ... I got really underweight, which was nice, except the tabloids said I was turning into one of the bobble-headed anorexic girls. No - in fact, it was just massive stress and the fact that I hate smoked meat, which seemed to be the only thing they were serving. Maybe it's just the contrarian in me.
"The things that suit me most are pretty much 180 degrees from what I've done," says McGowan. "But I know I'll get there. It takes a long time to get through the glass ceiling, and I hope my brain doesn't crack before I get there. So maybe a Jane Austen film is the natural next step."
She laughs. "That's more me than anything else. I love movies about repressed emotions."
Paul Cullum writes for the Los Angeles Times. Newsday contributed to this article.