The Last Exorcism star Ashley Bell discusses her "flexible" nature in playing Nell Sweetzer, shooting in Louisiana and much more.
When The Last Exorcism arrived in theaters back in August, actress Ashley Bell had only a handful of TV guest spots and other minor roles to her credit. After the overwhelmingly positive response from the horror movie, it's quite clear we'll be hearing Ashley Bell's name more and more over the years. The Last Exorcism just arrived on Blu-ray and DVD on January 4 and I recently spoke with this talented young actress over the phone about this critically-acclaimed movie. Here's what she had to say:
I was rather amazed when I read that all the crazy contortionist stuff was actually you. When you were reading through the script, were you thinking that you could actually do these things for real?
Ashley Bell: When I was preparing for it, I didn't know what was going to be physically demanded of me on the set, so I just wanted to be prepared for whatever they were going to throw at me. When I was rehearsing and working out some things, I figured out I could do a back bend and they put it in. They really created a safe atmosphere for me to try and explore those kinds of things.
It's cool because people are so used to seeing CGI these days and they can sniff it out really well. Do you think that you being able to do these things added an aspect of realism to the movie?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, definitely. A big focus on set was maintaining that borderline debate: is she possessed or is she not? Is she having a psychological breakdown? They were really hesitant to... for instance, there were contacts that were ordered that were going to be in a scene. They were afraid it was going to tip it too much, that it was going to expose that I would be possessed, so maintaining that really fine line was something that everyone was very conscious of.
I also heard there was an actual exorcist on the set as a consultant. Can you talk about your work with him and how he helped you get in tune more with your character, Nell?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, there was, and it was so cool! It was someone's brother and it was just incredible, getting exposed to real stories. I got to watch this video of actual exorcisms and group exorcisms and they'll be screaming and you can see their face change into something else. It's so creepy. I wish I wasn't doing my research at 1 in the morning.
Yeah, you should do it a little earlier. Do it at high noon
Ashley Bell: I know! (Laughs)
How did that change your views on exorcisms, getting to see all these things while you were preparing for the part?
Ashley Bell: In certain books, there would be these priests logs, accounting these basic facts of what happened. In some parts, just where they would transcribe things that the possessed person had said, there would just be these monologues and you wonder where that could possibly come from. In junior high I had a perm and braces, so I definitely know real evil exists in the world.
One of my co-workers recently spoke with Patrick Fabian and they were talking about that, after the second or third viewing of the movie, you start to pick up on a lot of things that you don't catch the first time around. Did you have that same experience after the second time you saw it?
Ashley Bell: I did, I actually did. When it was in theaters, and audiences were seeing it, that was really exciting, especially with the ending. People were leaving and were getting into debates and going back to figure it out again and finding new things and talking about it. To have a film where people are leaving and still excited about it and stays with them, I'm so thrilled to be a part of a project like that. Now, with the DVD, they can take it home and watch it again and again. Daniel Stamm, the director, left all these tidbits in there, just waiting to be figured out.
Can you talk a bit about shooting in New Orleans and the culture that city has? I heard you were shooting in some really old houses.
Ashley Bell: Yeah, it was my first time in New Orleans and I just loved it. I really fell in love with the city. That house was the actual house when we got there. The bed that's in the bedroom was that actual bed.
Ashley Bell: Yeah. As an actress to get to play off all those things, it's such an incredible gift. You walk in and you can smell that Southern Gothic quality in that house. It just got completely redone after Katrina, so everything was was polished but warped slightly. The stairs would run crooked, things would slant and the whole house felt like it was weeping. It was really, really cool.
That must have added a really cool element, shooting in a house like that.
Ashley Bell: I know! There's no acting involved, it's all the house. No, but an alligator wandered onto the set one day, which was awesome.
Really? An alligator?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, an actual alligator. We were right on the Bayou, yeah.
Daniel Stamm really established himself and made his mark with this. What would you say sets him apart from the other directors you've worked with?
Ashley Bell: Oh Daniel is an incredible director. He does about 20 to 30 takes per scene and really gets into it. He asks everyone to really research and find things to make the characters our own. He gave everyone a tremendous amount of freedom and was constantly challenging us to surprise each other on the set. I think he's a really incredible director.
Was it like you would do the first few takes like it was written in the script and then he would let you explore even more after those takes?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, yeah, especially in the more physical, emotional scenes. He really gave a lot of space to try what I wanted to. Getting a chance to get asked if you want to try things, I mean, you pray for that would ever happen as an actor. He really welcomed any ideas, which was really cool.
I follow (producer) Eli Roth on Twitter and it was fun to see the build-up to the movie on there. The response was really overwhelmingly positive. For you, personally, were you getting noticed a lot in public as The Last Exorcism after it came out?
Ashley Bell: First of all, with Eli, he's incredible. He literally read the script, said it was the scariest script he had ever read, and ran with it. He wholeheartedly believed in it the entire way and watching him work and seeing his enthusiasm, was just incredible. He's such an inspiring person to have been around and he just carried this project. The whole Twitter campaign was awesome. But yeah, I would get recognized when I wasn't wearing any make-up, actually (Laughs). There was a big 'oh my God' moment. They flew me to London the Monday after the film was released, to go to the London premiere. When I got off the plane, there were paparazzi and I was like, 'Oh my God. I wonder who was on the plane?' They were for me, so that was the big 'Oh my God' moment. It was shot on a very low budget and it didn't have U.S. theatrical distribution in place. The fact that it was so well-received and so many people saw it and were talking about it, going back again, is just such a compliment. To do something that's seen that wide, is so incredible to be a part of and I'm really grateful to be a part of something like that.
There is a project called The Day that is in post-production right now. Is there anything you can say about that, or your role in it?
Ashley Bell: Yeah. I play a completely different character than Nell. She's, for the lack of a better word, a bad-ass (Laughs). I had to learn shotgun training and how to roll cigarettes and work out. Everyone had to lose weight for the film. It's an apocalyptic siege film and it follows this band of characters. It's really more of a character-driven action film. It's awesome. It's really cool.
Nice. Is that supposed to be released sometime later this year then?
Ashley Bell: I'm not sure. I know that it's editing now and I think it's going to hit the festival circuit.
Is there anything else that you have lined up or that you're looking to join, that you can talk about?
Ashley Bell: There are a couple of things pending right now. Unfortunately I can't say anything right now. I'm kind of hoping for a comedy next, actually. I go back to The Groundlings and study there all the time. If I could do physical comedy, in terms of falling over furniture next, that would be a big goal.
Is there a dream comedy co-star that you'd love to work with?
To wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see The Last Exorcism in theaters about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD?
Ashley Bell: Yeah, please grab the DVD and Blu-ray. It's cool because a lot of people were too scared to see it in theaters and now they can watch it with the lights on or pause it to take a deep breath, and to rewatch it to find everything they missed.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, Ashley. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck with anything else that comes down the road.
Ashley Bell: Thank you so much.