It’s not often that the director of a blockbuster film decides to tackle women’s issues–and rarer still for a filmmaker to invite a feminist icon to the set. But that’s what George Miller did when he asked Vagina Monologues writer and activist Eve Ensler to consult on Mad Max: Fury Road. “It was as surprising to me as it is to you, which is why I decided to do it,” says Ensler. “I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”
In the latest entry in the Mad Max franchise, a dictator becomes enraged when he discovers that one of his warriors, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has helped his sex slaves escape. The fugitives meet Max (Tom Hardy) on the road, but it’s Furiosa who leads the charge to a matriarchal promised land. “George managed to weave the [women’s] story into a movie that will attract a lot of people for other reasons,” says Ensler.
The film’s issues have striking real-world resonance: 1 in 3 women worldwide will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, and around 600,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Ensler, who has worked for decades to end violence against women, fielded questions from the cast and crew about what it would be like to be a sex slave or to carry the baby of a rapist.
Though the women in the film have suffered, Ensler says she was impressed that in the action scenes, they are as capable as the men. “They’re tender and loving and still fierce. They get to be all those things,” she says. “It’s this powerful question: How do women survive in a patriarchal, violent culture?”
This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.