Ashely Bell talks about returning as the tormented Nell Sweetzer in The Last Exorcism Part II, in theaters March 1
When The Last Exorcism hit theaters back in the summer of 2010, no one expected it to have the run that it had. While it only took in $67 million worldwide, soft numbers by most summer movie standards, the low-budget indie only cost $1.8 million to make. Aside from the impressive box office numbers, the film showcased talented newcomer Ashley Bell, in her first major big screen role as the tormented Nell Sweetzer.
The actress returns for another slice of demonic mayhem in The Last Exorcism Part II, which starts off directly after the first film's ending. Unable to remember most of the incidents from the first film, Nell tries for a fresh start in New Orleans, but she soon learns that her nefarious demon isn't quite done with her yet.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ashley Bell over the phone about The Last Exorcism Part II, debuting in theaters nationwide March 1. Here's what she had to say.
When you shot the first one, I believe it was your feature debut. Was there ever any talk about a follow-up when you were in production on the first, or was that after it did well in theaters?
Ashley Bell: That came after it did well, yeah. It was so much fun filming in New Orleans, that everybody prayed that a sequel would happen, just because of how much we enjoyed the characters we were playing, and the atmosphere on set, and what was going on. The cast and crew hoped for a sequel, but it was only until it did so well at the box office. The Last Exorcism is an independent film. It only got bought by Lionsgate after the fact. So many people came out in droves to see it, and it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and an MTV Award, it was such an incredible feeling that this film was received well by so many people. It was more that anybody could have hoped for. After that, there were talks of a Part II, when the story was developed.
Were you more comfortable playing Nell in the second movie then? You obviously knew her a lot better than you did coming into the first one. Did you have a lot of conversations with (producer) Eli (Roth) about this character, and where she goes next?
Ashley Bell: Absolutely. There was a long period of time before a sequel got brought up, because we all wanted to make sure there was a strong story. When I learned it was going to be a continuation of the character Nell Sweetzer, it was really exciting to step back into those Doc Martins. I loved exploring Nell then building her, then building her polar opposite, Abalam. It was really important to warm up from the first film. Revisiting Nell this time around, you see her right where the first film leaves off. She's broken, she's vulnerable. It was almost like putting pieces back together of this cracked doll. There are pieces missing, and in those missing pieces, that's where the devil creeps in, and the manipulation, and the temptation. That's where things get really fun and scary.
I've been in New Orleans on a few different set visits. There is so much being shot there right now. It's funny that the devil comes back because it's a very fun town, but it's a very sinful town, in a good way.
Ashley Bell: Isn't it? I was just down there for Mardi Gras doing promotion, and I feel like New Orleans is Sin City, you know? That's what was so incredible of throwing Nell into the mix down there. It was a guerilla crew, me and Ed (Gass-Donnelly), the director, and the cinematographer and the first A.D. We filmed right in Mardi Gras, and that was my first day back filming. To get back into character, and get into wardrobe and lack of makeup (Laughs), and brave her through Mardi Gras, was just an incredible way to get back on set and get back in that character. She sees everything as if she's seeing it for the first time. Walking into Mardi Gras with those smells and those sounds and bands and beads flying through the air and the smoke coming through, it was paradise for an actress. You have the whole world to react off of. It was a great first day (Laughs).
I remember during the first one, reading that you did all these contortions yourself. It was really fascinating just knowing that it's you, seeing the posters and all that crazy footage. For this one, was it ramped up a bit more, as far as the limits your body could handle?
Ashley Bell: Well, it's so funny. People use the word "contortions" and everything. In doing the first one, I had no idea I could even do that. I'm a classically trained actress, but I just happen to be quite flexible (Laughs). In doing that research, I got so inspired to try it myself. I saw people get exorcised and I thought, 'Hm, how would that react in my body?' That's how I found that back bend, and I had no idea that would become the poster for both films, and such an iconic pose. In going to Part 2, it was really important to try and one-up that back bend, and challenge myself even more, physically. If you've seen the trailers, there's this levitating back bend, which was one of my favorite days on set, but also the most challenging. There were stunt guys, and they OK'd me to do it like eight times, and we did it 20 times. Each time, a new layer was added on, and the director was conducting everything between props, costumes, acting, and cameras, everything was involved. It was huge. It was really a fun day, and, yes, it's really all me. I have the stress fracture to prove it.
I loved that one of the posters is literally you becoming a number 2.
Ashley Bell: I know! (Laughs)
I looked at it, then I saw the shadow at the bottom and realized it was a number 2. That was amazing.
Ashley Bell: That's CBS Films. I was so touched when they called and said, 'Would you come shoot the poster?' It was such a big part of the film, that I did it myself. For me, to be authentic to Nell, I wanted to challenge myself that way. It meant a lot to me.
Coming from (The Last Exorcism director) Daniel Stamm on the first one and Ed Gass-Donnelly on the second one, what would you say are the biggest differences in style between the two, and how that benefited the sequel?
Ashley Bell: Stylistically, the film jumped from found footage to narrative. That's all (producer) Eli Roth and Strike Entertainment. That's all their minds. That's what I thought was so great, because I think everybody was expecting it to be another found footage movie. That really shocked people, and it set a precedent for what's to come. The ending of this film has such a turn. I think audiences will really be shocked by the twist it takes. Working with Ed, he creates such a totally different aesthetic. I'm a huge fan of his film Small Town Murder Songs, which is a beautiful, glossy, slow burn, character-driven movie. It's so well done. Going into this one, getting to work with Ed, who comes from such a strong theater background, it's just wonderful to play and collaborate with him.
Is there anything that you're currently working on right now that you can talk about?
Ashley Bell: I have a bunch of films coming out, which I'm really proud of. What was so great about The Last Exorcism is it broke me out, but gave me the opportunity to play such complex characters. There is The Marine 3: Homefront, which is an action film coming out March 5, and Sparks, which is a graphic comic, which is going to be premiering at the CineQuest Film Festival.
The Marine 3: Homefront is with Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, yes?
Ashley Bell: Yes, it is with The Miz (Laughs).
How crazy is that guy on the set?
Ashley Bell: You know what, he's totally unlike The Miz you see in the ring. He has that athlete's mentality, that drive and that focus to get it right, get it perfect. He trained with real Marine's on set, to make sure it was authentic to the character. I love these action movies. Because I did my own stuff for The Last Exorcism, it's allowed me to be in these physical action movies. We were filming on a cruise ship, which had been abandoned and half-sunken. We were shooting off about 10,000 rounds of live ammo a day. I got to get dragged out of windows and dragged through doors and chained up. Cars exploded, and we were running through this ship. It was just so much fun to work on. It was a great day on the job.
You play The Miz's sister, correct?
Ashley Bell: I do, yes. I play his delinquent younger sister, who gets taken hostage and he has to come and rescue me.
You talked to my co-worker earlier this year about the possibility of a sequel to The Day. Has there been any movement on that?
Ashley Bell: Oh gosh, I loved filming The Day. Thank you for bringing that up. A role like that was really exciting for me, because it required such a huge transformation. They almost tried to convince me not to do it, in the initial meetings. They're like, 'You're going to have to lose weight. You're going to have to do all your own stunts. It's going to be below freezing in Canada. You're going to be in a dress, you're going to have to use a shotgun. I said, 'Well, you haven't given me any reason to not do this film.' It was amazing. Getting a chance to play that strong female character, I've always been attracted to roles like that. I've always loved watching actresses play those roles, and to get the privilege to play a bad-ass like that, was really, really fun for me. I'd love to step into a role like that again, or an action film that's demanding like that again.
What would you like to say to fans of the first movie about why they should come back for Part II on March 1?
Ashley Bell: Well, I scared myself. When I was doing the ADR, I was jumping. I gave myself nightmares. It's a fun, scary movie. Growing up, for me, was watching horror movies with my dad throughout the summer, and there's nothing like sitting in a movie theater and getting scared, seeing the person next to you jumping. This film makes the audience feel vulnerable, this film makes the audience not know where the devil is going to come next.
That's about all I have. Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Ashley Bell: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you too. Take care.
You can watch Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer in the horror sequel The Last Exorcism Part II, in theaters March 1.