Over the course of the past two decades, Ellen Hollman has carved out one of the most eclectic resumes in today’s entertainment industry. The results of her hard work, dedication to her craft, and infectious determination established her as one of action cinema’s most-captivating leading ladies. With memorable roles in a plethora of high-profile projects, her work continues to captivate fans and Hollywood decision makers alike. As this cinematic badass continues to gain momentum, she also remains fearless when pushing her creative limits as an artist.
Her latest project, “Army of One,” is no exception to the rule. An adrenaline charged, white-knuckle action thriller, “Army of One” centers around Special Forces Brenner Baker (Hollman) and her husband as they stumble upon an illegal drug compound. The drug dealers capture them, kill her husband, and leave her for dead. Now, 1st Lieutenant Baker of the Army’s 75th Ranger Division is on a one-woman killing mission carving up everyone in her path until there is only one person standing, her. The film also stars Matt Passmore (“Jigsaw”), Geraldine Singer (“Get Out”) and Stephen Dunlevy (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). Built from the ground up with seasoned fans of action cinema in mind, the film showcases Hollman’s unique skillset both on screen and behind-the-scenes. The film serves as the perfect stepping stone for Hollman as she gears up for the next phase of her ever-evolving career.
2021 will mark her biggest year to date with a role in the highly anticipated fourth installment of Warner Bros. sci-fi action film franchise “The Matrix.” Starring opposite Keanu Reeves, Jonathan Groff, Priyanka Chopra and Jada Pinkett Smith, the film is slated to release December 2021 on HBO Max and in theaters worldwide.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ellen Hollman to discuss her passion for her craft and evolution as an artist, and the challenges of bringing her latest film, “ Army of One,” from script to screen. Along the way, she offers up an eye-opening look at her unique career and where she has her sights set for the future!
You established yourself as an amazing force in Hollywood. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved in the arts early on in life?
I was fortunate enough to be raised by two classical musicians. My mother is a master pianist, and my father is violist in the Detroit City Orchestra, so I grew up watching the Nutcracker ballet and any kind of pop concert you can imagine! Anytime my dad couldn’t find a sitter, we would go into the balcony seats if they were empty. We would end up running behind the stage and seeing all the costumes and mystère behind the curtain. I think that, subconsciously, really planted a seed in my brain.
At what point did you decide to begin watering and tending to that seed, so to speak?
[laughs] Ya know, it’s funny. I stuck to athletics growing up and I was a total tomboy. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I began to explore the performing arts. I lived and studied in New York before I came to Los Angeles a year later. I’ve been going nonstop since!
Trial by fire! Was anyone in your corner giving you that extra push when you needed it? A mentor of sorts?
I find that you can take little bits and pieces from everywhere you go. From a very young age, my mom had these two cardboard cutouts. One of them was Laura Croft from “Tomb Raider” and the other was “Zena: Warrior Princess.” My mom was a strong, single mother of four kids and always said, “You have to be independent. You have to fend for yourself.” She had these icons that really stood out to me, so I guess I always wanted to find my inner warrior. So, there isn’t one particular mentor that has paved the path for me. It wasn’t something that I grew up wanting to do necessarily; it sort of found me at age 19. It was more of a curiosity while I was on hiatus from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State. It was more of a take-time-off-and-explore-other-options thing, but I haven’t looked back since! There have been many impactful individuals along the way!
What went into finding your creative voice in those early years?
It’s interesting because, a lot of times, when you first start auditioning it used to be that you could have 10 auditions a week. The vehicle has changed a lot but that’s how it was back then. You would be changing in your car and one minute you’re the villain, next you’re the cheerleader! You’d be changing and transforming into the individuals on the spot. You do this a lot before you find your voice because you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity. Sometimes, that fear can allow you to be spread too thin. The action thriller genre was something that, yes, was very aspirational but also very intimidating. I think a big mistake that people make is allowing other people to define who they are. I was constantly put into the category of the girl next door or the girl with the great smile or The Christy Brinkley type. For those of you who don’t know, that was the blonde hair, blue eyed model from the ‘80s. I thought, “But cant I kickass? I kinda just wanna kick ass!” So, I found my voice a few years later and I’ve been on that road ever since.
It’s interesting to see the building blocks in your career culminating into your new project, “Army of One.” Your momentum is undeniable. Thinking back, I think the first time you came on my radar was in “Roadhouse 2.”
Oh my god! That was one of the first movies I ever did. Believe it or not, this is so crazy, but the stunt coordinator of that is a guy named J.J. Perry, who years later, is part of my husband’s stunt team which is called 87eleven. They’ve done things like the “John Wick” franchise, “Deapool” and “Atomic Blonde.” I will go into the training facility and I’ll be like, “Hey, J.J.!” This is nearly 20 years later, and we are reunited along with Sam Hargrave, who just directed “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth. They really elevated themselves, so it’s crazy! I will also see him on the mats, and we’ll do jiu jitsu. It’s so crazy to see all of this come full circle. It’s moments like that when I think, “OK, I think I made the right decision!” [laughs]
When did you come into your own as an actor?
100% “Spartacus.” “Spartacus” really allowed me to not only hone my skills but really embrace the character 1,000%. I was able to be a part of that world for nearly two years and I feel like there is a part of Saxa still in me. I also got to meet my husband, Stephen Dunlevy, on that set. There are many reasons why that was one of the most incredible jobs that I am forever grateful for!
In addition to your chops as an actor, you bring an amazing physical skillset to your projects. Obviously, you don’t just roll onto set and perform at the level you do without continuing to hone your skills. You have to stay ready. What goes into that side of things?
You just said it. You always have to be ready, depending about what genre you enjoy. I just happen to really enjoy the action and comedy genres and, because of that, I am always honing my skills. I have been a jiu jitsu practitioner for going on nearly seven years now. I still spar with my husband and keep the tools sharp. Like I said, I’ve been fortunate enough to train alongside his stunt team for the past six years or so. To be able to utilize those skills and put them on screen, instead of treating it as just a fun pastime, is great. I’m really able to employ what I’ve learned. That way, when you have no rehearsal time like we did with “Army of One,” you already speak the same language. My husband and I speak that same language, you could say, and we are able to execute the choreography accordingly without much prep time at all.
How did “Army of One” end up on your radar and what made it a project you wanted to pursue?
I knew director Stephen Durham previously. We were actually working on a project and writing a script together. I met him through Niko Foster, who is the executive producer of this, and we did a western together called “Justice” a few years prior. It really is a very small industry! Basically, you’re just a few degrees of separation from knowing everyone! Stephen brought “Army of One” to my attention. He goes, “Hey, I have this project and I have you in mind for it. It’s a really strong, kickass woman!” I said, “OK. That’s all well and good but I would love to bring humor to this. I’d love to bring heart to this. I’d love to also do revisions, produce it, take over all the action design and bring my husband along with me to Dothan, Alabama and really sink my talons into this.” He was so gracious to have no ego about it and basically let us take over!
Doing what I do with Icon Vs. Icon, I see tons of indie films come into our inbox. However, yours is one of the standouts. It looks like a million bucks. The action is rock solid and it features amazing actors. Even the poster art for the film pops. It’s a rarity to see something fire on all cylinders like “Army of One.”
Thank you! I really appreciate that. Ya know, I came up with the comp of that poster. I said, “Let’s make it like ‘Rambo’ meets ‘Deliverance!’” [laughs] I looked at all of these posters and images that I thought were appealing. I just kept adding little pieces and eventually I sent the mockup to Stephen [Durham] and he said, “Can we just use this?” I’m like, “Ya could but I will send it to your guys, so you can put your stamp on it!” [laughs] It was a very collaborative effort and I do appreciate your feedback because our blood, sweat and tears are in Dothan, Alabama! There is part of all that on the floor somewhere! [laughs]
Tell us about your creative process when it comes to bringing a new character to life?
Each character is different, of course. If I were to take Saxa from “Spartacus” and bring it to this, I’d be running around in a loin cloth with double daggers! [laughs] I like to make each role unique, which also includes weaponry. My character in “Army of One,” Brunner Baker, comes from the military. She was a Ranger. I really wanted to employ what they do teach in the military and bring that to the screen, while making each sequence unique in its own right. So, it does depend on the job and what you put into it. Ya know, I’ve done Christmas movies where I’m basically wearing reindeer sweaters and there is no action whatsoever and everything is very sweet! So, it all depends on the role. If it’s highly physical, you have to put in your time. In our case, we didn’t have any doubles or use face replacement or CGI ever. Everything you see on screen is 100% the performers doing the action. It was definitely a special case for this.
Like you said, you sunk your talons into “Army of One.” What was the most challenging part of bringing it from script to screen?
The post process! Here you have this machine where everyone is like hamsters on the wheel, focused and going, going and going. You have everyone from hair to wardrobe to the camera department and your crew and all of these different elements but, once it’s done, pretty much everyone picks up and leaves. Then you are left with post! [laughs] In post-production, you have to weed through everything you shot and come up with a product. Once again, Stephen Durham was very generous in the fact that he allowed me to be in the editing room. After they pretty much had a final cut, I put in an additional 140 hours’ worth of editing.
He also allowed me to do the entire score! I collaborated with an incredible guy named Austin Fray. If you haven’t heard of him, he is a rockstar and I definitely plan on using him in the future. I would have an idea for a scene and say, “OK, I really want this to feel like there is chaos in this scene, but I also want humor. So, I found this track that’s a banjo but let’s add some other elements to it and maybe we can fuse it together.” He’s like, “Yeah, I can bring in some drums.” And I’m like, “Cool. Yeah, some drums! Maybe some electric guitar!” We would literally be composing some of the music, as well as other music I found, to fuse together. It was almost like Frankenstein! That makes such a difference.
Then, I would go into the vault editing-wise because I knew everything we shot. I would see a cut, particularly of the action, and think, “Hmm. No. That’s not it. We shot something better than that. I know we got it from this angle. Let’s go into the vault!” We’d go into the vault, Joe Graham and I, the editor. We’d dig it up and incorporate it. Movies are made in the editing room, no matter what anybody tells you! You can shoot the most incredible thing but if it’s not cut together in the way that you envision it, it doesn’t matter and vice versa. You can take something that is absolute chaos and turn it into a gem. Really, it just depends on how much time you want to put in! [laughs]
I’m sure another challenge is knowing when to say when!
Oh yeah, that’s the thing! That’s why I genuinely appreciate your feedback. I have seen this so many times, not all the way through so many times, but each chunk of the scene. I mean, for one scene, I could spend 10 hours just re-editing, tweaking and this and that! It gets to the point where it’s no longer a scene and more like the Charlie Brown “Wah wah wah.” [laughs]
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, as you mentioned. What are the keys to a successful collaboration?
I think it’s having respect for who it is you work with. Respect and communication are really important. A lot of times what you see on these low-budget films is that some people, especially if they are more experienced, don’t feel like they should be their own stand-in or don’t approve of craft service. We didn’t have any of that. Thank God! Everyone from Matt Passmore to Geraldine Singer, who plays Mama, were just so wonderful. We were in the f-ing backwoods of Dothan, Alabama! Believe me when I tell you that Panda Express was a luxury for lunch! [laughs] There was nothing around. So, I do find on the lower budget films, that there is more this in-the-trenches-together feel, where it’s not about the luxuriousness of it. It’s about working your ass off and really making the best possible product!
What do you focus on as you look ahead to the next chapters of your career?
I would really love to explore more of the producing, writing and directing aspects of the industry. It’s something where I really encourage others to do the same. As I said, it’s nearly been two decades for me as a performer, which is challenging in its own right. You show up to a set and pre-production has already been done for you. You wear someone else’s clothes, and someone does your hair and makeup. You stand wherever they tell you to stand and you reenact someone else’s vision. There are so many times that I’ve done massive rewrites and I haven’t gotten the credit for it. There have been so many times that I’m like, “Well, if you’re looking for this person to help you with this job, I know this person.” That’s producing! Unbeknownst to me, I have been producing for years now! Given some of the content that’s out there, I can do that! I can do it in my sleep! [laughs] I just limited myself, so, this coming year, the limitations are gone. The next question is where do I go from here? How much bigger can I make this? It’s an exciting chapter and an exciting exploration!
Another awesome project you took part in this year was a fan-film called “Gambit: Playing For Keeps.”
Yeah! That was from Scissor Films, our effects guys, that I absolutely love and adore! They wanted me to come onboard and help with the action design. At the same time, they were like, “Can you play Rogue?” I said, “Oh, you mean my favorite X-men of all-time. The one who I have her first appearance [in a comic book]?” [laughs] I was obsessed with “X-Men” and Rogue growing up, so I said, “Absolutely.” I immediately followed that up with, “OK, here’s what I’m thinking for wardrobe and hair. I can’t dye my hair because it’s blonde and I have other jobs coming up, so how about I do this. I think that in this scene … ” [laughs] They were blown away. We had a lot of fun shooting that!
How have you most evolved over the past several years?
With “Army of One,” there are times when I’m knee-deep in a scene and completely present. However, as soon as Stephen would yell, “Cut,” I would say, “Cool, guys. We need to probably move this light over here because it’s not really capturing this moment that I’m having here. Also, we need more blood continuity and a little bit more sweat. It’s kinda dried up. Also, can you get the next scene cam ready because I think we should probably rehearse it.” Literally, as soon as it’s cut, my brain is in 1,000 different places. Then, I’m like, “Uh. This isn’t like how it was before.” I’m not going to say I was just an actor but when you are a performer, you just shut up and do your job. You show up, shut up and do your job. You don’t tell other people how to do their job. You don’t tell the grip how to do their job or tell the director to do his. Also, don’t ask to see playback after every take! [sighs] Trust the system! When you are part of that system, you are invested, and it is part of your job. I feel like this potential has been there for so long and now it’s finally unleashed! [laughs]
You have another big milestone ahead in 2021 with a role in “The Matrix 4.” I know you can’t say much about it. What was it like to get that call?
Ya know what? It wasn’t a phone call telling me I had the job. It was a phone call from my husband’s partner, they are both part of a company called Ghost Stunts that works with 87eleven. Scott Rogers is his name, and he is the coordinator of “Matrix.” He knows that I’m very close with the 87eleven team and I train with them endlessly and tirelessly. I remember I was sitting on the couch and I knew that the audition was coming up. I had pages of notes and I had been researching and everything like that. He gives me a call and says, “Hey. Where are you?” I’m like, “Am I supposed to be somewhere that I don’t know about?” He said, “Why aren’t you at 87eleven today?” I was like, “I can’t take a day off!” [laughs] He said, “Get down here right away. Lana [Wachowski] wants to meet you!” I was like, “Uh, oh. You mean like THE Lana? OK, OK! Be cool. Be cool!” [laughs] I drove down to the shop, as we call it, and I didn’t have to perform for her. I didn’t have to jump through any hoops. We had an hour-long conversation, heart to heart. She asked me about my family, my life and where I grew up. She just wanted to know who I was as a person! Then she hugged me and said, “Welcome to the family!” I didn’t have to chew gum and backflip down the hallway on fire or anything like that, because I would do that for her! [laughs] It was such an absolute surreal moment. I called my husband, who is part of the team as well. He is one of the heads of rigging. He was like, “I know. Scott called me.” [laughs] I was like, “Oh my god! What am I going to do?!” It was just one of those moments! Once I started really delving into it, there was not a single doubt that I belonged there. It just felt right!
It’s cool to see someone, like yourself, work so tirelessly and ultimately be recognized for the career and skill set they bring to the table.
Right and it’s the things that people don’t see. They don’t often see the hundreds of if not thousands of hours of auditions where I’ve sacrificed birthdays, anniversaries or vacations just to study for a role and not even get a callback. I’ve sacrificed the same things for the callback and never get a phone call afterwards. People don’t see that. Even as a performer, even when you do get the job, the job doesn’t care that you’re missing your best friends’ birthday. The job doesn’t care doesn’t that you’re missing another buddy’s baby shower. It doesn’t care. It wants you to show up at that time at that place. If you don’t want to, there are 100 other people waiting in line to do it. It’s unbelievably challenging. Physically, it justified the endless amount of blood, sweat and tears that I’ve committed to for years now. People do recognize hard work. I don’t have rich parents. My family isn’t Hollywood royalty. I didn’t kiss somebody’s ass to get to where I was or flirt with some guy to get a job. It has been hitting the pavement and doing the work! If you do that, the right people will recognize you for it!
There is no doubt you are driven when it comes to blazing your own trail. Where did that drive come from?
That’s a very good question. Could be drive, could be insanity! [laughs] I’m always looking for the challenge. Complacency and I don’t get along very well! I have a good attention span but once I achieve something, I always try to ask, “Where can I go from here?” However, because of that, I have a really hard time sitting still! [laughs] I love moving around! I can’t help it! [laughs]
You are an inspiration. With that said, what’s the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
It doesn’t matter how many times you get throttled or backhanded, from a proverbial standpoint, and you hit the ground. You spit that dirt out, stand up and try again. As long as you don’t give up, you will eventually get to where you are going. It’s actually impossible not to! Just keep going. Don’t stop! Stop and you inevitably fail. By not trying you also inevitably fail. We know those two things. So, the third option is the road less traveled. That’s how you surpass ordinary and reach extraordinary!
I know our time is short, so I want to thank you for talking to me today. With so many irons in the fire, we are sure to cross paths again in the near future! Keep up the great work, Ellen.
Thank you, so much! I do appreciate every effort on your behalf to get the word out there because this is how people come to know about it! Talk to you soon, Jason!
Follow the continuing adventures of Ellen Hollman on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “Army of One” is now available on iTunes, Vudu, Xbox, Google play, Amazon, DirecTV, Dish Network, Fandango Now, iNDEMAND, and DVD.