Select Page

Exclusive Interview: “THE EXORCISM’s” Ryan Simpkins on relating to their role, auditioning for horror and more

Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Interviews


Ryan Simpkins has been an actor since they were a child, with genre credits ranging from Jennifer Lynch’s SURVEILLANCE (2009) to 2015’s underseen ANGUISH to 2021’s FEAR STREET trilogy. Now they’re on a horror movie set within a horror movie as a star of THE EXORCISM, coming to theaters this Friday from Vertical.

Filmed in 2019 as THE GEORGETOWN PROJECT, THE EXORCISM marks the feature directorial debut of Joshua John Miller, a former teen actor himself and son of Jason Miller, star of the original THE EXORCIST–and is about an actor with the same surname making something of a redux of the 1973 classic. Andrew Miller (Russell Crowe) lost his performing career to past addictions, and this project bids to be his comeback, but as filming begins, he becomes haunted by both his figurative demons and an apparent literal one. Simpkins plays Lee, his estranged daughter who reunites with him as the production begins, and who becomes romantically involved with his co-star Blake Holloway (Chloe Bailey). The film, scripted by Miller and M.A. Fortin (the duo previously wrote THE FINAL GIRLS) with Kevin Williamson as a producer, also stars Adam Goldberg as the movie’s manipulative director and David Hyde Pierce as a priest who becomes caught up in Miller’s possession.

It must be a relief that this film is finally getting out there, so long after you shot it.

Yeah, it’s great. Everyone worked so hard on it, from the cast to our fantastic crew in Wilmington, North Carolina. Obviously, Josh and Mark [Fortin] have been working on this for a while, so I’m glad that everyone’s hard work gets to finally be seen.

Do you have any insight into what was behind the delay?

I think COVID was part of that, and then you had the actors’ strike as well. It’s really hard to make any movie, and, you know, stuff happens–the world is falling apart. So I’m glad we’re here now.

You grew up on movie sets, so making THE EXORCISM, playing a young women growing up on her father’s set, must have been a meta experience for you.

Yeah, completely. I found this movie very relatable, and that was part of why I was like, “Oh, I absolutely have to do it.” Because I did grow up on sets, which are circumstances where you find yourself as a child being put into an adult position, which can be frustrating and unfair, but it’s also an incredible place to be. I’ve never been happier than when I’m on a film set, and all I want to do is be a part of film and make movies. So it was cool to make a movie about making a movie and to celebrate the joys of it, but also to deal with those frustrations and grievances.

What attracted you to the character of Lee?

I think she’s really cool. She’s passionate and headstrong, and not afraid to speak her mind or be herself, which I love to see and frankly, I relate to. There’s so much depth to her; she’s got this complicated, unfortunate past, in such a short life. Her mother has recently died, and her father was absent throughout her childhood, so they have this complex relationship where she comes from a place of betrayal, but is hoping against hope that things will work, that he’ll be there, even though time and time again he has failed her. She finds herself parenting the parent, which is such a tragic situation to be in. But it’s also exciting to play a young queer woman coming into her own and forging her own path, and finding herself the hero of the story.

How was it working with Russell Crowe?

He’s the best. I’ve known Russell for a long time, so we had a lot of natural chemistry we were able to bring to it, and it was great to finally work with him. He’s a very loyal and generous person, and he works like a machine. He wants to make the best movie possible, and he sees himself as part of that process: He wants to know the frame and the lens and the lighting so he can best serve that. We’re both Aries, so we’re both headstrong and passionate, and I feel like that passion we share came to life in the film.

How about Chloe Bailey?

She’s fantastic. She’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and she’s such a natural. She has a great charm to her; she’s so charismatic and magnetic. And it was nice to have someone my age to hang out with between the takes and the intensity of making this film. We would just hang out and gossip and go get drinks.

David Hyde Pierce is interesting casting as the priest.

Yeah, he was a great choice. Obviously he’s such a pro, and a legend, and he’s also such a sweet, sweet person. I always felt so comfortable with him around. He’s very grounded and excited and always looking to do something more, and he was collaborative while knowing exactly what he wanted. And in a movie about these young queer people, it was cool to have a character on the other end of it. You have these young women facing this opponent, and then you have someone who’s more experienced and older in their life who is also queer. It gives the characters someone to look at and go, “Look, you can make it, you can survive. There is a joyousness to this life.” That was great.

Were you familiar with THE FINAL GIRLS before you took this movie on?

I had heard of it, but I hadn’t seen it. I had seen Josh’s work as an actor, but I hadn’t seen anything he or Mark had written. But immediately upon reading the script, I was like, “I love these guys.” I loved their vision. They’re both horror nerds, and I’m a horror nerd, so we connected on that love of the genre.

Are you a particular fan of THE EXORCIST, or are there any similar films that are way up on your list?

I love THE EXORCIST. It’s such a classic. That is a great character study–all these different people coming from different places, with such incredible performances. THE EXORCIST III is also so cool. I also absolutely adore CARRIE. THE HOST by Bong Joon-ho is a hilarious horror movie, and it’s also so tragic. I really love international horror; A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is great. JENNIFER’S BODY is great. I could go on and on. It’s such an exciting, innovative genre.

It also seems to be a little more inclusive as far as queer characters are concerned.

It totally is, yeah. I think horror, more than other genres, really does represent the underrepresented. It focuses on the people on the fringes of society, and in early horror, those were maybe the monsters; you know, you’d see yourself represented in a Frankenstein monster, sort of this unnatural person. But I think as queer people were drawn to that, and as the genre has grown and evolved, we’re not just the monsters–which are, by the way, great parts to play. But now in this film, we’re the heroes. In horror, the movies can be about one thing, but they talk about something else pretty consistently. Not every movie does that, but horror has the best opportunity to, and it’s really fun to explore.

Without giving details away, can you talk about shooting the final sequence? That must have been pretty intense.

It was intense. We did that for a couple of days, and it was a practical set, where the floor would shake. We were on a balancing board, so the whole set was moving, and we had prosthetics and makeup going on. That was one of my audition scenes, so it was a long time coming, and it was one of the last things we did, so we felt very prepared to do it. And it was very intense, and I think we were all glad to get that behind us, and say, “Wow, we finally did it,” you know?

Auditioning with that scene must have been intense too. Do you often find, when reading for horror films, that they give you the harshest scenes?

You know, sometimes they do, and it can be very silly, because you have to do an audition where you see the big scary monster, but it’s not in front of you. While filming, at least you’re in your costume, you’re on set, maybe there’s a practical, maybe there’s not, but everything else in your reality is there. In an audition, you’re either on Zoom or in an office with white walls, you know? I was recently called for an audition where I had to play getting my arms cut off and then my head cut off, and it was like, “What are you talking about?” But doing THE EXORCISM was rooted in so much character background, and it came from such an internal place, that it was less about the horror of the scenes and more about the connection between me and my father. It was really scary and really difficult, but it was also a pleasure to do.

How did Miller take to his first time as a feature director? Was he kind of a natural at this point?

Yeah, he was. When you grow up around sets, it is easier, but he also had such a clear vision and such a unique story to tell. We were very concerned with the characters, and we wanted to make sure we were honest about them, that those relationships landed and that we had a grounded core to the movie, so that the horror played and was believable. And he assembled a fantastic cast, and our crew was also incredible; our DP, Simon Duggan, was great.

Was Kevin Williamson a presence on the set?

Yeah, Kevin was there the whole time, and he was fantastic. He obviously himself is such a legend in the horror space, and such an icon of queer horror, so it was great to have not only these young queer filmmakers, but also a more established guy sort of holding our hands throughout it and making sure we achieved what we wanted to do.

Jumping back a bit, can you talk about the experience of making the FEAR STREET films?

That was really fun. It was very different from THE EXORCISM, in that those movies are a little poppier. They felt almost like doing an Indiana Jones movie; we were crawling through cave systems and talking about haunted diaries and following maps. It felt more like fantasy, whereas this one was much more grounded. FEAR STREET was also exciting because I had never gotten to play a character like Alice up until that point. I always found myself in more timid roles, weaker roles, sort of victims often, even though I myself have always been a strong-willed person. And then Alice was such a jolt of energy, which was great. And since FEAR STREET, I’ve been given the opportunity to play a lot more out-there, rebellious characters, which is fun.

Did they shoot one film after the other, or did they alternate which of the trilogy they were shooting each day?

Well, they started those movies in March, and we wrapped in August, and they shot them back to back to back. But the second movie was the last one they shot, so they were doing reshoots for the other two while they were filming ours, and there was a lot of overlap, which was bizarre but also cool to see–to get a little window into the other films. And my character didn’t even exist in FEAR STREET: PART TWO until about a month before we shot it. There was a huge rewrite where they invented my part, so I auditioned and then two weeks later I was in Atlanta, and while we were filming PART TWO, they decided to put me in PART THREE. That was the gift of shooting that way, but it was probably pretty strenuous for a lot of the people involved.

Do you have any horror projects that you’re working on or that might be coming out soon?

As far as horror, not explicitly. I want to move more into the behind-the-scenes space. I’ve always written, and I’ve directed some, and I want to continue to do that. I have a film that’s in development now, and it’s been going very well. That is supposed to go probably in January, but that’s not horror at all. And then I have another script I’m working on that is more of a horror/comedy.

What about the audition where you had to pretend you were getting your arms and your head cut off? Did you get that part?

I didn’t even do that audition, honestly! I was like, simply, “No!”

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).