Jessica Alba says playing a knife-wielding Jason Bourne type was always the dream — just no one had asked

Why did Jason Statham, hot guy model turned gut-buster, get to become Jason Statham, but Jessica Alba didn’t? Not only does Netflix’s new action movie Trigger Warning give the 2000s-era icon permission to hack and slash her way through machine-gun-toting goons, it reminds viewers that Alba should have been doing this all along.

James Cameron knew it, giving Alba her big break at the age of 19 by casting her as a super soldier on the run in Fox’s 2000 TV series Dark Angel. Hollywood immediately took notice — kinda? When Dark Angel wrapped in 2002, Alba broke into movies, playing a dancer with dreams in Honey; a stripper born of tragedy in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City; Sue Storm, a character imbued with 1960s gender-role logic, in Fantastic Four; and a diver turned treasure hunter in Into the Blue, a role that seems to revel in the fact that its lead actor could logically wear a bikini for 95% of the run time. Alba felt the ogling. “The scripts I get are always for the whore, or the motorcycle chick in leather, or the horny maid,” she told Page Six in 2005. “I don’t think this is happening to Natalie Portman.”

Over the years, a few filmmakers caught on to Alba’s true physical potential, which went beyond good looks. Rodriguez let her character Nancy go on the attack in the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. In 2015, in what felt like a heel turn for a hero arc she never got, Alba played a high-kicking villain in the action comedy Barely Lethal. She even joined Jason Statham in Mechanic: Resurrection, where she lands a few punches (while in a bikini). Still, no one has seemed to see Alba for what should could really be: a devastator, a slayer, and a worthy peer of the Expendables.

Trigger Warning lets her rip as Parker Calvo, a Mexican American Special Forces soldier who returns to her hometown to investigate a string of crimes connected to a larger arms-dealing operation and corrupt local politicians. Parker wants to set things right — and get revenge for her father. It’s a setup for grungy action that Alba, no surprise, conducts with extreme brutality. Polygon talked to Alba and Trigger Warning director Mouly Surya, an Indonesian filmmaker making her English-language debut, about breaking out again. With knives.

Jessica Alba brandishes a knife in a hardware store while gnashing her teeth in Trigger Warning Image: Netflix

Polygon: Jessica, it was a thrill to see you in Trigger Warning. But it made me wonder, around Dark Angel or Sin City or Fantastic Four, were people talking to you about making a down-and-dirty action movie? Clearly there were male stars who were getting those offers.

Jessica Alba: I always wanted to be Jason Bourne. And I always wanted to be Bond. And I always wanted to be the character in the Tom Clancy novel. But they were always written as dudes! And so this was sort of like wish fulfillment that I got to be in a gritty action movie, but really embracing the feminine and this fierce woman.

I think this genre is so dominated by men, that when you do see women, you often see them through the lens of what a “badass woman” looks like, if you’re a dude. Often she is pretty stoic, not a ton of emotions. Usually, she has a bob of some sort. She will wear stilettos. She’ll probably wear some sort of form-figure tight dress that isn’t great for action or practical. Or she’s a damsel in distress, and she needs to be saved by the guy. So when I joined this movie, it was really important that there was just a more feminine take on this genre.

Mouly and I, with the female producers, were like, “What do we want Parker to really be?” So we brought in a female writer, and really built out this world and the characters so that you can get many layers and levels to everyone, so the bad guys aren’t just nameless and faceless. [Parker’s] not just a random person from somewhere. Everything feels very nuanced, and feels grounded in a reality that was important to us.

Mouly, you come from the Indonesian film scene where action is a major space, but my impression is that it’s similar to Hollywood, in that it’s still dominated by men. So what are your touchstones for creating a movie that kicks ass but fits the specificity Jessica was looking for?

Mouly Surya: Growing up there were not a lot of Indonesian action movies. There were a few, and now more than ever. You’ve probably seen The Raid, which was awesome, but I was raised with a lot of Chinese martial arts movies. That’s what I’m very familiar with, actually. And I think that’s what I was trying to inject into the film. There’s a certain dramatization, there’s a certain kind of, like, awareness of space that I’m trying to get into this movie.

Jessica Alba in Special Forces commando gear prepares to lay down some Krav Maga on a goon in Trigger Warning Photo: Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Jessica, in Trigger Warning, you fight a man wielding a chainsaw. When you are producing your own action movie, are you making requests like “I want to fight a man wielding a chainsaw”? What was on your personal action wish list?

Alba: My two things I really wanted to do is I wanted hand-to-hand combat and I wanted to leverage more of a dirty, gritty krav maga style. I wanted it to feel really grounded and messy and not so buttoned-up. I didn’t want a ton of guns, in terms of what Parker uses throughout the film. Certainly, if she needs to defend herself, it would just be more interesting to see hand-to-hand combat, I felt like, and [Surya] agreed. We felt like a more realistic way to take out an opponent, especially a guy who could be twice my size, is to have knives. So I got to train with many different types of knives. That was new and fun. And to be able to use knives in the process of hand-to-hand combat was really different — it almost felt like a throwback.

There are a lot of movies these days, especially action, where there’s a ton of special effects, a lot of computer-generated stuff, but this was pretty practical. We were in an actual hardware store. I really pulled chaps off of a hook. I really did have to whip it. I had to learn how to whip it properly! And I did all of that in real life. It took a bunch of coordination, but I think it looks great and it feels very original.

Not only do I think you both brought the feminine forward in an authentic way in Trigger Warning, but there’s room to grapple with other xenophobic action tropes. I thought of Rambo: Last Blood from a few years back, which pit Stallone against Mexican cartels in what amounted to just trite, jingoistic garbo. Meanwhile, Parker is a Mexican American war vet who snuffs domestic terrorism in her hometown. Did you set out to make a kind of retaliation against movies like that?

Alba: I don’t know if it’s a retaliation to that specific movie, but for us, it was definite retaliation to all of the stigmas and stereotypes that had been put upon women and certainly the Mexican American community and Latinos and how they have historically been depicted. It was just nice to make a hero out of the person that this town would least suspect. They undervalued her and undermined her powers, these corrupt people in this town. To have a hero like her, we thought it would feel just really inspiring.

Surya: From the get-go, when we got Jessica attached to the script… I always loved her as an actress — I’m sorry for saying it in third person!

Alba: Wow, thank you! Never heard this, this is good news. [laughs]

Surya: She has such a quality to her; the emotional part is what Jessica really brings into the role. Parker has always been strong, on paper, physically and mentally. But Jessica brings us a lot of emotion to it — a rage, I would say. Which makes the character interesting and layered and real! That’s what I wanted, that specificity. She embodies the character. She’s fiery. That kind of thing I don’t really see in other action movies. This has a little bit of retro feeling to it, like it’s not made in the ’80s, but it feels like something that could have been made in the ’80s. But you don’t see an ’80s action movie with a main character who is a woman.

Trigger Warning is now streaming on Netflix.