Celebrity News

Kiwi stunt star Zoë Bell talks brain injuries and break-ups

The Hollywood action hero and her ex reveal how they healed after a death-defying fall.

It’s gonna be a good 35th birthday,” Jacob Horn posted on Instagram on August 11, 2018. And it started out fabulously thanks to his then-girlfriend – Kiwi stuntwoman, actress and filmmaker Zoë Bell – organising a surprise breakfast party, where friends sported shirts with his music idol Jim Morrison on them.

Beach and family fun followed, but by nightfall, Zoë sat by Jacob’s hospital bed as his life hung in the balance after an accident that left him with brain damage and physical injuries.

While today, the 37-year-old filmmaker completes triathlons, practises Brazilian jujitsu and works building home theatres, his gruelling road to recovery saw the couple deal with dire lows, frustrations, upheaval and, eventually, the end of their almost five-year relationship.

“Coming out of something like this, you can either identify with the victimhood, carry it and have it bog you down,” says Zoë, 42, who has been a stunt double for Uma Thurman, Sharon Stone and Lucy Lawless, as well as acting alongside Drew Barrymore and Channing Tatum. “Or you go, ‘That was f***ed, but I’ve come out the other end knowing life can be over at any moment.’ Why not get back on that horse and ride it differently?”

Zoë and Jacob were working with Brad Pitt on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when the accident happened

The drama began on that milestone birthday, when Jacob was cruising home on his Onewheel, a kind of electric unicycle Zoë had gifted him that she now jokingly refers to as a “murder weapon”.

Feeling invincible after a few drinks, he made a rapid turn, spun out and was flung on to the street. The impact fractured his skull, severing an artery and causing blood to pump into his skull. As he slipped into a coma, the pressure on Jacob’s brain caused damage, which would have killed him if doctors hadn’t urgently operated.

“He woke three days later, but it took days to realise how un-Jacob he was because so little of him could come out,” explains Colorado-based Zoë, who director Quentin Tarantino has described as his muse. “He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t move.”

Zoë sprang into action, helping nurse Jacob back to health, while cast and crew of the Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which the pair were working on, fundraised to help.

Jacob’s birthday began on a high, but ended with him in a coma in hospital.

But while the smallest accomplishments, like feeding himself custard, brought immense joy, Zoë grappled with the dawning reality that her life partner was forever changed.

“His laugh was different; his voice was different,” Zoë tells Woman’s Day. “It was a scary, conflicting process to feel so excited, proud and supportive, while realising the biggest achievements still meant me spending my life with someone who wasn’t the man I’d been with before – and who might require me being a nurse forever.”

Jacob learned to walk and talk again through speech and physical therapy, a personal trainer and acupuncture, but most crucial was his fierce determination – he spent hours focusing intently on a table to improve his vision.

“I realised you can teach your brain to do anything,” he says. “Then I became this crazy person – sorry, Zoë! – obsessed with physical stuff, eating healthy, pushing myself… I believed I could turn superhuman.”

Zoë’ barely left Jacob’s side as he made a slow recovery.

Back home a month after the accident, Jacob continued to improve with the help of meditation, yoga and exercise. In what Zoë now sees as a “precious gift”, her late mum Tish and dad Andrew, both medical professionals, immediately put their lives on hold to fly to Los Angeles – not knowing this would be the final three months of Tish’s life.

Zoë’s devoted parents provided much-needed love, care and support through Jacob’s recovery, which was riddled with hurdles, including impulsive behaviour like walking into oncoming traffic.

Zoë tells, “It was like working with an adult child, saying, ‘Look left and right!’ He’d say, ‘I did!’ then we’d argue. He would also get rage-y and depressed about his eye not working.

“It was a weirdly beautiful journey watching him find pieces of himself, but equally heartbreaking when he couldn’t find those pieces. There was joy and fear with each step because he’d say, ‘I did it!’ then his face would drop and he’d go, ‘I’m excited that I peed standing up – how’s that something to be excited about?’ which would cause a bout of depression.”

Zoë’s parents rallied to the couple’s side, but then tragedy struck when mum Trish passed away.

As Jacob’s brain became more functional, he was overcome with anxiety and suffered all-day panic attacks, particularly after Tish succumbed to cancer in LA in December 2018 and the family returned to New Zealand for her Waiheke Island funeral.

Jacob now feels like “a big schmo” for adding to Zoë’s worries during a time of immense grief, but she’s quick to note that in addition to physical and mental functions, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) impact emotional capacity.

“Jacob and I went through this scary, frustrating, at-times-beautiful stage together, but my experience was its own kind of trauma. It was hard to put myself in his shoes because I was just trying to get through my days. Likewise, he couldn’t 100 percent be there for me at my darker times.”

Zoë at the SAG awards

Although Jacob continued making headway – completing a half-marathon, then a triathlon – the intense self-focus needed to rebuild his life took a toll on their relationship. He confesses, “I didn’t have time for others. I had to focus on myself. Zoë was sleeping next to me, yetI didn’t have time for her. It’s something I’ll never be ableto make up for.”

Zoë continues, “He said, ‘I have to put myself first,’ and I couldn’t argue with that. He wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t. But I also couldn’t get what I needed out of the relationship. I was slipping into a caretaker role and becoming co-dependent.”

Jacob adds, “Zoë would’ve stayed in the relationship to take care of me and never ended it. I recognised that and felt horrible I was bogging her down. We needed to step away from each other, but that somehow brought us closer. We’re family, we always talk and we love each other to death.”

Zoë on set with Brad Pitt

“Let’s not say death!” Zoë laughs, adding that by the time the two split last August, the dynamics of their relationship had transformed. “I watched him being a child. I was like his parent, changing his diapers. I was excited for him when he finally got a boner – which is sweet, but not sexual! How we related to each other changed.”

Zoë clarifies, “I don’t see him as a child any more – he’s even more of the man he was always capable of being.”

But she adds that the process of getting there was hindered by the struggle to find adequate support. “In LA, you can find a support group for people addicted to bananas, but no brain injury groups!”

Jacob has since found comfort in Facebook communities, but more than two years after the accident, he still forgets words, with Zoë completing his sentences as they joke throughout our two-hour chat.

Jacob has also lost his prided film trivia knowledge, can’t function without sufficient sleep and sees the “Grim Reaper hovering” if he spots a helmet-less Onewheel rider.

“Wear a f***ing helmet, everyone!” pleads Zoë.

The couple were madly in love before the accident.

The invisibility of brain injuries means people often misunderstand Jacob’s actions or feelings. He notes, “The number of people committing suicide because of TBIs is astronomical. It scared the s*** out of me because I thought, ‘Will that happen to me?’ There isn’t enough being done for people.”

Zoë and Jacob hope sharing their experiences will highlight the need for more awareness and help for the brain injury community. They also stress the importance of wearing helmets and the danger of getting behind any form of wheels after drinking.

While that 2018 day was scarring, Jacob’s now embracing his enhanced self. “In some ways, Jacob 2.0 is more intense, but in many ways, I’m better,” he insists.

Meanwhile, Zoë is slowly emerging from the roller-coaster of amazing career highs and personal lows. She says, “I spent a long time emotionally shut down because things got too hard. I’m coming out of that cocoon. I’m facing stuff I’d avoided and I’m in a good space. This pandemic means I don’t feel rushed. I’m not forcing things because life’s too short!”

Brain Box

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. To donate of for more information, go to go to neurological.org.nz or brain-injury.nz.

If you or someone you love is struggling with their mental health, visit mentalhealth.org.nz, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or text 4357 for free support from a trained counsellor.

In an emergency, dial 111.

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