Newcomer Ashley Bell stunned horror fans last year with her performance in The Last Exorcism, and it wasn’t just because of that crazy backbend.
Directed by Daniel Stamm, Exorcism casts Bell as Nell Sweetzer, a home-schooled Louisiana teen who may or may not be possessed. Starring opposite Bell is Patrick Fabian (TV’s Big Love) as Rev. Cotton Marcus, a disillusioned preacher who invites a camera crew to document the way he fakes exorcisms to relieve the suffering of the afflicted faithful. Except Nell doesn’t respond to his ministrations and it soon becomes apparent that Marcus might actually be dealing with real evil for once.
Rue Morgue spoke to Bell shortly before Christmas about her research into real exorcisms, her love of horror and why wanted this role so badly.
What if any was your background as a horror fan prior to making The Last Exorcism?
I actually grew up watching horror films with my dad. I’m a huge horror film fan. Growing up my dad and I would watch Predator and Alien and Poltergeist and Pumpkinhead and all those films. I think that fostered an incredibly vivid and unhealthy imagination possibly!
But I love horror films so getting a chance to be part of The Last Exorcism, to work behind the scenes, was really exciting. Greg Nicotero did all the special effects, and they were fitting me for – not to spoil it for anyone – the fingers and everything, and I just geeked out completely when I went to their studio. All the prosthetic pieces and all of the masks, the concepts and everything… it was incredible.
Why did you want this role so badly?
It’s such a huge role. I feel like I almost got the chance to prepare for two different characters, both Nell when she’s Nell and then Nell when she’s either possessed or completely insane.
I love doing research as an actor. I got the chance to visit some more extremist churches, read every book I could find, listen to exorcism tapes and talk to people who had been around exorcisms, and that’s always fascinating for me to explore as an actor. And also get a chance to prepare physically for the role.
Daniel [Stamm] created such a safe atmosphere on set, and I was really encouraged. If we had any ideas, any of the cast, or wanted to try anything, and I showed him the backbend and several other physical things. So to have a playing ground to go that far and do all of that stuff and transform is what I love about acting.
You did a lot of research into exorcism before filming. What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found out?
I think the fact that the Vatican has actually opened up an exorcism school, and I was actually privy to listening to some of those lectures on tape, and hearing people go through being exorcised. You listen and you think it could be made up or you think, oh, that’s just screaming or they could alter it in some way. But then there comes this sound that is neither animal nor human. Just so foreign and ungodly. And you just think ‘what is that?’ and I wish I wasn’t doing my research at one in the morning!
How do you look at your character Nell now compared to when you first read the script? How did your perspective on her develop?
That’s an awesome question because actually when I saw the film for the first time at the LA Film Festival, Daniel wanted all of us to wait to see it with an audience, to have that group experience, to feel it all together. I watched it, and even people have said that ‘do you ever get a chance to see Nell as Nell? Is she possessed from the very second you see her?’ And I was like wow. That’s cool to even think of that, to think that that might be possible.
But going through it, Daniel was so interested in the character that he really encouraged everyone to stay very grounded in their characters and for me to preserve the hope that I wasn’t possessed, that it was a break. To constantly keep the audience wondering.
And even going back to the theatres a second time and trying to figure out what they saw, what they didn’t see, what the ending was. And I’ve heard people are really excited to get the DVD to still kind of crack it, to still kind of figure it out and have more conversation.
Your director did multiple takes in order to get raw emotions out of you. In which scene do you feel that approach worked the best?
Certainly in that first interview scene. I think with Patrick and I, seeing as Patrick is such a generous actor, it would be us and Daniel and [cinematographer] Zoltan Honti in a room together for hours.
But also I think it was the case in the second exorcism in the shed. It’s kind of divided into four parts, and we did each part about twelve, twenty times. And Daniel, I’d shown him the night before… ‘Do you have any ideas?’ And I said I’d been working on a backbend and several other physical things. ‘That’s great. Let’s put it in.’ And to be allowed that space to play and have all those takes trying things and be challenged and encouraged to constantly surprise each other was incredible.
When I spoke to the film’s producer, Eli Roth, this past August about the faith community’s reaction to The Last Exorcism, he said it was very positive because it reaffirmed notions of belief. What if any has your experience been of religious people who have seen this film?
For sure. I think Eli said it perfectly. And even in the film you have the man playing my father, Louis Herthum, convincing Patrick to do an exorcism. So there wasn’t really a backlash because I feel like both sides are equally represented.
The film played a number of genre film festivals prior to opening, like Toronto After Dark and Fantasia in Montreal. What was your most interesting or strangest reaction from a horror audience?
Well, I love being up in Toronto. That was actually my first time up there, and I think that was the second time I’d seen it with an audience, beside the LA Film Festival. And the way it was received it was just such an incredible audience to be a part of, and the feeling right before the festival… Everyone was lined up, kind of the buzz and anticipation, and the way they welcomed it – they welcomed Eli and everything – it was really wonderful and a really great atmosphere to be around. A lot of fun.
And I loved when people are laughing up until the midway mark and all of a sudden the room became vacuum-sealed. The way they manipulated, both Daniel and Eli, just kind of manipulated the audience until they’re just kind of into this spider’s den and in over their head in horror and chaos, it was a cool feeling.
The Last Exorcism is out on DVD and Blu-ray Jan. 4 through Alliance Home Entertainment.