Ruby Rose: “I’ve been injured a bazillion times – I have a bionic neck!”

After a botched stunt nearly severed her spinal chord, the Aussie action hero needed emergency surgery. Now she's on the comeback trail

Ruby Rose lifts up her laptop and spins it around to show NME what’s behind her. The camerawork is shaky but, eventually, a large poster emblazoned with her own face swims into view. The narcissism of Hollywood has not, in fact, gotten to her – this is just the reality of promoting a film in the pandemic era; a recreation of the step-and-repeat of glitzy premieres and press junkets.

“I have this giant photo wall to take [press] photos and this piece of red carpet to stand on,” Rose explains as she settles her laptop back into position. “It’s not quite a carpet, but it’s enough so that in a photo it looks like I’m standing on one. It’s very different doing this in your living room.”

Ruby Rose
During a fight scene in new action thriller ‘SAS: Red Notice’. CREDIT: Sky

Rose is speaking from her LA home, blitzing through a jam-packed press day with military precision. It’s apt, because the Australian actor, model, DJ and former Batwoman’s latest gig is in action-thriller SAS: Red Notice, playing soldier Grace Lewis.

As the movie’s title suggests, it’s another action-heavy role for Rose, who has previously jumped, punched and kicked her way through Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, xXx: Return of Xander Cage and John Wick: Chapter 2. Within minutes of Red Notice getting underway, she’s already torched a village in Georgia – and later, hijacks a train in the middle of the Channel Tunnel. But despite being known as a confident action hero, Rose says it’s not the big set-pieces that draw her to a part.

“Keanu Reeves will always be my number one adversary”

“I usually skip the action in the scripts and go back to the dialogue and what’s actually happening,” she explains, adding that her choice to take on a project is about the story or characters, rather than how many triple backflips she has to nail.

In this instance, her desire to play Lewis came down (in part) to the film’s source material. Red Notice is based on the 2012 book of the same name by former SAS operative – and functioning psychopath – Andy McNab. Known to the cast and crew as ‘Wolfie’, the author doesn’t experience PTSD but needs to use diagram of facial expressions to understand how others are feeling. As Rose is keen to point out, he has “no urges to commit crimes or anything like that”.

John Wick
As Italian assassin Ares in ‘John Wick: Part 2’. CREDIT: Alamy

Rose’s character in Red Notice, Lewis, is a tad more dangerous. She’s a violent mercenary who has no problem with taking innocent people’s lives (although we do see flashes of humanity on occasion), a trait that intrigued the actor. “It was more of a psychological thing for me, wanting to know how [being a psychopath] works,” she says. “You can just not have emotion and conscience or be able to understand people the way that we take for granted. But also, what a waste of time that you can read a room or how people are and worry about what they think of you!”

Drawn in by McNab’s stories, Rose and co-star Sam Heughan (Outlander), who plays SAS operative Tom Buckingham, decided to take a test together and see where they reached on the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. “We were so excited and then neither of us even registered,” she recalls. “We were so bummed out. I was like, ‘It’s those animal questions! We love animals!’”

The film itself pits Rose against Heughan’s soldier, but it soon becomes clear the pair have more in common than you might expect of sworn enemies. Both Lewis and Buckingham firmly believe in the righteousness of their own causes – and both share those psychopathic tendencies that help them get through extreme violence without blinking. Like McNab, they’re able to switch off after offing others and don’t feel the trauma or guilt normal people would be tormented by. Rose hopes Red Notice will make viewers think more about the complexities of psychopathy as a mental illness. “It’s the lesser of two evils and which is right, which is wrong?” she says. “Morally, which one do you stand by? Things aren’t always as black and white as good and bad.”

Born and raised in Australia, Rose started out as a model and TV presenter in her home country. She moved to America in 2013 and started going for auditions, with little success. It was only when in 2015, when she landed the minor role of Stella Carlin in Netflix prison drama Orange Is The New Black, that she began to break through.

Since then, she’s made a name for herself as a physical actor who’s willing to get stuck in. After a run of appearances in blockbuster franchises like Resident Evil and John Wick, she secured the biggest role of her career thus far in 2018 – playing Batwoman in The CW’s TV show of the same name.

“I feel better than ever about stunts”

Of all the adversaries Rose has faced on screen in her stunt-heavy career so far, she ranks Red Notice’s Heughan among the toughest. He’s edged out by one of her previous foes though. “I think Keanu Reeves will always be the number one,” she grins. “Not only is it Keanu, who I just adore, it’s John Wick – a film franchise I think is just fantastic. We had so much fun doing it and that was a very iconic moment for me.”

In 2019, though, something happened to Rose that could have changed not only her career, but her life, forever. While filming Batwoman, she herniated two discs in her spine after doing a stunt over and over for seven hours. Initially, she thought she’d broken a rib and went through 12 weeks of recovery based on that assumption. On a later visit to a doctor, she was told that wasn’t the case and that she could be left paralysed if she didn’t get surgery ASAP.

Batwoman
As Kate Kane in ‘Batwoman’. CREDIT: Alamy

Given that terrifying close call, doing similar scenes now must be a little nerve-wracking. Rose breezily waves away that notion. “I feel better than ever [about stunts],” she says. “I have a replacement neck, it’s basically bionic. It’s probably stronger than anyone else’s neck! I’ve been injured a bazillion times – and so has anyone really, even if you’re not doing action – so it’s just about keeping as strong and healthy as possible and taking notice if I feel comfortable in a situation or not.”

Last May, Rose quit Batwoman in a move that shocked fans. A second season had just been confirmed, but the show’s focus was moving on. At first, Rose didn’t share a reason for her departure, leading viewers to speculate, while Variety published sources claiming she was bothered by the long hours on set.

“It was time for me to take a break from ‘Batwoman'”

A few months later, Rose broke her silence. When she did so, she explained that the responsibilities of playing the lead were “taxing”, especially given her injury and how she’d returned to set only 10 days after going under the knife. “I loved my experience in [Batwoman],” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I’m so grateful that we got to achieve everything that we did and I’m proud of everyone that worked on it […] I just think that it was also time for me to take a break to fully heal and then return.”

That was nine months ago, near the start of the pandemic. Given that the last year has been such a forced period of reflection for many, has Rose had any new thoughts on passing the Bat-on to Javicia Leslie?

Batwoman
Rose left ‘Batwoman’ after one season last year. CREDIT: Alamy

“I think Javicia is doing a great job. I wish them all the best,” she says. “But since that announcement and decision was made, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and hanging out with my animals and my friends, and having this life. I had said that if only I could get some time off, I would do all these things.”

Despite Rose’s breezy response, there is another reason her Batwoman stint may have been difficult. When she was first unveiled as the first openly lesbian superhero, comic book fans chased her off Twitter for not being “gay enough” to play the character. Even though Rose came out when she was 12, trolls still attacked her for identifying as gender-fluid.

That incident showed one end of the complicated spectrum of Hollywood’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. At the other, there is the controversial issue of straight actors playing gay roles – something the likes of Jack Whitehall and James Corden have faced some backlash for recently. From Rose’s perspective, though, an actor’s sexuality or gender identity shouldn’t limit the roles they can play.

“I think we’d be in a weird place if only gay people could play gay people”

“Cate Blanchett said it really beautifully and I’ll probably butcher it, but she said she would die fighting to be able to play whatever character she related to and the material spoke to her, because that’s what an actor is,” she explains. “You’re talking about someone that has played a gay woman numerous times, she’s also played a man – she’s played Bob Dylan – she’s played a myriad of things.”

It was watching LGBTQ+ stories on screen, like queer noughties drama The L Word, that helped a young Rose realise who she was and feel confident in that identity. “It didn’t matter to me that half of [the cast] wasn’t really gay,” she notes. “It was more about the storytelling. I do think gay people should be able to play straight [parts] and straight people, when it calls for it, [should be able to play gay roles].”

In her mind, there are some restrictions that actors should think about before taking on jobs though. If your motivation is because LGBTQ+ stories are seemingly in vogue, move on. If a script resonates with you and means something to you, have at it. “I think we’d be in a weird place if only gay people could play gay people, and straight people could only straight people,” Rose says. “I personally love Grey’s Anatomy so if they had to fire everyone and hire real doctors – oy vey!”

SAS Red Notice
Ruby Rose faces off with Sam Heughan in ‘SAS: Red Notice’. CREDIT: Sky

That said, there is one type of role Rose believes should only be played by people with that lived experience. “The only time I don’t think this applies is when it comes to trans people,” she says. “I think that is an entirely different life experience that I don’t think anyone can just tap into and say, ‘I can relate’. I think that’s a really significantly different thing from just being, say, a gay woman or a bisexual man, because ultimately a lot of those stories are about love.”

As that giant photo of herself looms just out of frame, Rose begins to talk about the next movies we’ll be able to see her in. There’s her first comedy film 1UP, which she describes as “really, really fun”. Recently, she had the golden opportunity to work with Morgan Freeman in Vanquish, an upcoming crime thriller about a retired police officer who kidnaps his caretaker’s daughter, and is about to start work on The Legitimate Wiseguy, which follows a young actor’s Hollywood ambitions and mob ties.

“I’m having a great time,” she says happily. “I’m doing films and projects that I love. I’m super excited about this year. It’s all worked out perfectly.” Hopefully, as her career continues to go from strength to strength, she’ll be able to celebrate not on a square of red carpet in her living room, but back on the real thing.

‘SAS: Red Notice’ is available on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from March 12