Exclusive Interview: The Last Exorcism’s Ashley Bell

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Helping root possession in reality

Possession films have a way of propelling actresses into the spotlight, Linda Blair (The Exorcist) and Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) being a pair of prime examples. Perhaps it’s the physical requirements asked of the actress to plausibly demonstrate a demonic presence. The transformation from an innocent into a swearing contortionist that speaks in tongues. The next to join the possessed ranks is Ashley Bell. And if The Last Exorcism scares audiences as much as Lionsgate hopes it does, actress Bell’s career might really take off. She’s already got two things going for her: Bell is excellent in the film and she’s incredibly pleasant, exuding a modest charm and an enthusiasm unfettered by Hollywood cynicism.

In the Daniel Stamm-directed, Eli Roth-produced Exorcism, Bell is Nell Sweetzer, a young woman who lives on a southern farm with her father and brother. Is she possessed? That’s what Reverend Marcus Cotton (Patrick Fabian) goes to find out, but what ails Nell might go beyond the supernatural. Shock spoke with Bell a few weeks after The Last Exorcism‘s L.A. Film Festival premiere.

Shock: Given the history of actresses who have played the possession bit in the past – and have done it quite well – were you at all hesitant about taking the role and what you could bring to the table?

Ashley Bell: No, not at all actually. When I saw the character breakdown for Nell, it just struck me and the chance to play such a huge role like this and such a complex character drew me to it immediately. I think the demand of it and the demands to research and the physicality of the character is actually what attracts me most to acting and what I love about acting as a whole.

Shock: How did you prepare for the physicality and demands of the part?

Bell: I have a tendency to get very obsessive about things, so I actually began researching during the audition process and I read every single book I could find. I listened to tapes. I listened to some of the Vatican tapes on their lectures on exorcism. I visited churches. The scene I auditioned with was actually getting exorcised in the room. So, there I was in the middle of a casting office in West Hollywood and this man was summoning this demon out of me and I was writhing around on the floor and a cameraman was standing over me. And I just said to myself, “My parents would be so proud right now.”

Shock: During that research, was there anything that surprised you? It’s a fascinating subject and there are so many sides to it.

Bell: It’s such a mysterious subject, and there seems to always be another turn, or another bend in it. I know when I was reading certain documents – just documenting facts and listening to the tapes – you hear things and you go, “Oh, I can hear that’s human,” or, “I can hear how that sound could be made.” And then there comes a cry that is neither female, nor male, nor human, nor animal. And you just think, “What is that?” And, you get chills. [laughs] You wish you weren’t listening to it at one o’clock in the morning. That’s when your imagination is at its peak. There’s always that, “Could that be real? Is that real?” The fact that exorcisms and exorcists still happen today more than ever in every single religion – you start wondering.

Shock: This was your first experience doing a film of this style, correct?

Bell: Yes, and it is a bit different, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The relationship on the farm with the Sweetzer family between me and my father and my brother was so enclosed, just even due to the location, it was such an isolated area. And, having those outsiders come in was very interesting to play – there was this outside world to relate to and not relate to. But, I think, most everything can be attributed to Daniel Stamm, the director. His style is shooting around 20 or 30 takes a scene and coming up with new things, new ideas, and letting us try so many different things. This is my first really big role, and to be allowed that freedom to try things and to have him asking me questions and have input, it’s so incredible. I never in a million years dreamed that that would be happening, especially at this point in my career. And Daniel made the set and the environment so safe and with all the other actor it was just us for hours on end, and being able to work day in, day out, and just try everything was a real gift. And, I think that’s what comes across when I saw the film.

Shock: Patrick, who plays Father Cotton, also does some terrific work.

Bell: He was incredible to work with. He was on set day in, day out. And a lot of our scenes were together and if there wasn’t that trust, and if we both weren’t there for each other, none of that could have happened. He’s an amazingly generous actor to work with, and it was really, really a privilege.

Shock: Through the process, were there any surprises that came about? Moments that you and the cast found that might not have been planned?

Bell: Oh god, yes, all of the time. [laughs] I think due to that style and atmosphere that Daniel had created, he really gave us the freedom to try what we wanted to try and demanded us to go as far as we could go. And I know that he tells this story, too – the night before filming, we were talking about the exorcism scene – the second exorcism – and I didn’t know what was going to be required of me physically, so I prepared for everything. And I was working on some backbends and some things. And I said, “Oh, can I show you this? I have a couple of ideas.” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” And I did it, and he went, “Do that. We’re putting that in.” And it was just so thrilling to have that happen there, or to be able to be on set and figure things out with everyone. It felt like such a collaborative process.

Shock: The film has a proud father in producer Eli Roth – how often was he on set?

Bell: He was traveling with Inglourious Basterds but we got notes from him every single day and I got a chance to work with him a lot in some of the post-production and the re-shoots. He was immensely integral to the film. I was talking to one of the people in post and she said she has never seen a producer that has been so hands on and has literally taken the project and run with it. I think that that is the heart of the film – that people were so passionate about it from the beginning. So many people have cared so much about it and that could be felt. And Eli is definitely one of the frontrunners. It was so cool watching him in part of the editing room with Daniel because I saw him almost build a scene and build the suspense. Hostel and Cabin Fever…you just trekked into that spider’s den through the humor and the manipulation, he just does that so beautifully and watching that happen was such a treat.

Shock: With a film like this, you want to root it in reality – what did you creatively want to try to avoid to avoid comparisons to previous possession films?

Bell: Well, Daniel, in preparing for the film had said, “Watch everything. Watch all the exorcist films and then don’t do that.” So, we were, from the start, trying to do something very different, and I think the styles are so cool. Daniel is so interested in the horror genre, but as well as in character and the relationship between the families, and then having Eli who is just so masterful at that genre, having that put together, I think makes the film so different and so smart and funny in the right places. That was kind of the heart of it, at least it felt like that to me from the beginning.

Shock: I was taken aback by the amount of humor. But it felt organic and it made the material human. Were you surprised by some of the laughs it gets?

Bell: I was, I was. And, I actually saw it for the first time that night at the L.A. Film Festival in it’s entirety. I think that was the first time anyone in the cast had seen it. And it’s got that humor in just the right places, and I thought it just worked masterfully. Like I said, it was just that perfect manipulation to trick you. [laughs] Before you know it, you’re just in the middle of chaos and horror.

Shock: I’m curious, the bloody drawings that were done in the film, are those your work? Or, did they wind up getting somebody to do that?

Bell: No, they were not mine personally. They did have someone do those. And I love those drawings. I had a field day with those drawings. I was like, “What is this gift? This is amazing!” [laughs]

Shock: You shot the film in the south. Did you find the locals to be a superstitious lot with plenty of urban legends to tell just like they were portrayed in the film?

Bell: Yeah, I think there naturally is a lot of lore and a lot of history in that area. It was in the middle of summer, the air was so thick. You can’t help but feel everything’s closing in on you out there. I didn’t get a chance to meet many people out there, but yeah, there were definitely stories, definitely urban legends out there. Personally I have a very active imagination, so if I stand out in a dark field for long enough, I will manage to terrify myself probably.

Shock: So are you a big genre fan?

Bell: I am a big genre fan actually, yeah. I grew up watching horror films with my dad. I think I saw The Exorcist when I was 10.

Shock: Excellent.

Bell: And Poltergeist and Alien. One of my earliest memories is House, that William Katt movie. I was petrified.

Shock: Are you looking forward to doing more genre stuff in the future?

Bell: Yeah, I would love to continue doing the genre. I would also love to jump into comedy as well. My mom’s one of the founding members of Groundlings and I go back there all the time to study and train and write and improvise. So, doing comedy is something I would love to do more.

Shock: Is the time right for an exorcism movie in today’s current film climate?

Bell: Yeah, absolutely. And I say that so truthfully because after seeing the film and seeing what they did with it, I was so surprised. It’s so different. I have grown up watching horror films, this is such a different breed of film. It’s smart, Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko have written so many twists and turns in it. And it’s so surprising. I really think it’s a new breed of horror film. And I went home and I scared myself. I went home to my parent’s house and slept in my old bedroom I got so scared. [laughs] So there.

The Last Exorcism opens on August 27.

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor