Kay D'Arcy didn't expect what Hollywood had in store for her.
At an age when others have been relegated to playing invalids and dowagers, D'Arcy will appear as Agent 88, an assassin who keeps the deadly tools of her trade tucked into her hair bun. The octogenarian avenger dispenses evildoers with acrobatic moves that would impress Jackie Chan.
In the opening episode of the Web series "Agent 88," D'Arcy demonstrates her martial arts skills in an encounter with thugs surrounding the bloodied body of their victim.
"Get lost," one villain tells her, and knocks her to the ground.
"I really wish you hadn't done that," she says, and springs into action.
With lethal efficiency, she neutralizes them all — delivering round-house kicks that send one crashing to the ground, pulling daggers from her bun and hurling them at another assailant, and twirling Kali fighting sticks to batter two others.
"Kay couldn't think of harming a fly. She's never thought, in her whole life, about hitting someone with the intent of hurting them," said Digger T. Mesch, the creator of the series. "Somehow … she got on that set and she looked like a killer."
"Agent 88" is one of thousands of quirky creative projects to find life outside the conventional studio system. Mesch partially funded this genre-bending action series through Kickstarter, one of several fundraising platforms used to finance independent films, plays, music and video games. He raised a six-figure sum in a month, illustrating the power of crowd funding to help artists bypass traditional Hollywood gatekeepers.
The role gives D'Arcy, a retired nurse and midwife, the big break she has been working toward since leaving England for Los Angeles in 2002 — at the age of 69, and over the objections of her family.
D'Arcy, now 79, said she was intrigued by the strength and humanity of the character.
"She's this dippy, absent-minded woman who's really quite a child inside," said the actress with gray spiked hair and crystal blue eyes. "This little inoffensive woman, who's slightly lala, ends up becoming a formidable assassin."
Last April, Mesch saw a YouTube video of an elderly woman who foiled a jewelry store heist by beating a gang of robbers with her handbag. The 2011 true-crime video made the anonymous pensioner in Northampton, England, a local folk hero — and served as the inspiration for "Agent 88."
D'Arcy had been studying tai chi for years when her manager learned of a casting opportunity for a "fit" older actress. D'Arcy welcomed the departure from roles typically offered performers her age, such as her recent appearance on the CBS television series "Criminal Minds," in which she portrayed a "decrepit, haggard, dying old woman."
"I said, 'Oh, gosh, that sounds really interesting,' as I'm not dying in bed or having a stroke or being dressed for the mortuary," D'Arcy said.
She donned martial arts attire to meet with Mesch and series producer Jan Utstein-O'Neill. The actress nailed the audition when she rose fluidly from a sitting position and began demonstrating tai chi movements — and won the role without reading a single line of dialogue.
"What impressed us is she could go from being really frail, and looking like she could break, to a totally empowered woman," Utstein-O'Neill said. "She did it right in front of us and blew us away."
To prepare for her portrayal of Agent 88, D'Arcy studied Filipino stick fighting and hand-to-hand combat with Australian martial arts expert Nino Pilla. The training, and a daily regimen of martial arts exercises, enabled her to do many of her own stunts.
D'Arcy found that the physicality was not the role's greatest challenge.
"The hardest thing was to hit," D'Arcy said. "It's quite hard if you've been schooled all your life not to."
Despite its dramatic footage, "Agent 88" struggled to reach its fundraising goal.
"It looked pretty grim in the beginning and the middle — we had not raised nearly enough money," Mesch said.
To finance a project through Kickstarter, content creators like Mesch set a fundraising goal and deadline. It's an all-or-nothing proposition: If they fail to raise the desired sum by the appointed time, the project is not funded.
Donors, who may commit as little as $1 and as much as $10,000, are attracted by the quality of the project and by premium gifts, producer credits or tickets to private screenings. Those who donate to projects do not reap any monetary benefits. Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, more than $340 million has been pledged to fund about 31,000 projects.
A last-minute social media initiative led by one group of passionate fans — "Star Wars" devotees drawn in by former Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew's recurring role in "Agent 88" — helped the project exceed its $88,000 goal. Mesch raised $104,701 in pledges, ranking "Agent 88" among Kickstarter's top 10 most successful Web series. The show's pilot episode is scheduled to appear online in January, and the series should launch next spring or summer.
DC Comics writer Jimmy Palmiotti was among those who pledged to support "Agent 88," in part because he loved its "wonderfully ridiculous" premise and the title character, whom he compared to a distaff Clint Eastwood: "I think when Dirty Harry himself is in his 80s, it's good to have a grandma out there for Dirty Harry to play with."
Born in England in 1933 to an actress and a screenwriter, D'Arcy had a childhood she describes as prim and regimented, shaped by time in a boarding school and years under the supervision of the nuns at convent school.
She trained as a nurse — once caring for French singer Edith Piaf while working at the American Hospital in Paris — married in 1961 and raised a family. She dabbled in amateur stage productions and worked as a midwife.
"She always wanted to be an actress, but she wasn't allowed to be, so she ended up getting married and having lots and lots of children," said her daughter Philippa D'Arcy Francis, who recalled a childhood filled with dramatic performances staged in village halls. "I grew up seeing most of my house on the stage. Mommy would lend the tables, the chairs...."
The last of D'Arcy's five children left home in 1989, and her husband walked out shortly after. At 58, she decided, "This would be a good time to change horses."
She enrolled in a theater school in London's gritty East End and took up residence with seven other students in a dingy, rat-infested apartment, a significant step down from the big house with a garden and tennis court in rural Somerset that she left behind. D'Arcy lived frugally, "stewing up bones and scrag end," a British term for inexpensive cuts of meat, and earned extra money by working with children to act out nursery rhymes and fables.
For the next 10 years she took curtain calls in Hamburg, Germany, and Shanghai, but had to vie for choicer roles with more seasoned acting contemporaries like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
When the last of her 11 grandchildren reached 18 months of age and her sense of responsibility for helping to care for the little ones diminished, she left England and headed west.
"I suddenly thought, 'I'm going to make a break for it,'" D'Arcy said. "I intended to travel, to see the Grand Canyon. I had no thought of acting at the time. But fate is funny. For no reason I can think of, I stuck two or three head shots in the lining of my case, and two resumes."
In October 2002, within days of her arrival in Hollywood, D'Arcy had a chance encounter that would set her life on a different course: She stopped to ask a tall, gaunt man for directions to the nearest library.
"I think you're British. You probably act," said the man, who worked in the entertainment industry. He helped her get free tuition at a nearby film school and introduced her to a casting director.
D'Arcy attended film school, obtained a work permit and earned her AFTRA and SAG cards with small guest roles on a soap opera and on prime-time TV. She played opposite Annette Bening in the 2009 film "Mother and Child."
She auditions frequently — just last week she read for parts in the AMC series "Mad Men" and a new Fox comedy, "The Goodwin Games" — and baby-sits for friends between jobs. Last month, the staff of Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show contacted her to appear in an Emmy skit featuring Julianna Margulies. When not pursuing her next acting job, D'Arcy sings soprano with the Church of the Blessed Sacrament choir and volunteers with the church to provide free medical screenings to people without health insurance.
"You can't nurse for 40 years and not feel you have an obligation," D'Arcy said.
She discovered another of her life's passions in Los Angeles: tai chi. D'Arcy professes herself totally hooked, attending classes every day but Friday.
On a recent morning at the West Hollywood Comprehensive Service Center, as the instructor called out poses like "white crane spreads its wings" and "snake creeps through the grass," D'Arcy demonstrated the movements for about a dozen other seniors.
Should her affinity for martial arts bring stardom, D'Arcy hopes to accomplish another milestone: to receive a green card that would allow her to live permanently in the U.S. — with time out to see her family, who feel her absence.
"I miss my mother and I haven't had her here as much as I would want," daughter Philippa said. "But that's being selfish, because she's doing what she wants to do — and she's given herself to me for years."
D'Arcy has no desire to move back to England.
"Don't get me wrong. I do love my family," she said. "It's just that here, I'm liberated."