This week sees the DVD/BluRay debut of “The Last Exorcism” from Lionsgate films. To celebrate the launch of the film The Black Saint got to speak to one of the film’s stars (& Independent Spirit Award nominee for Beat Supporting Actress), Miss Ashley Bell. If you haven’t seen the film yet now is your chance to see a truly terrifying & riveting performance by Ashley as Nell Sweetzer. A young girl who may or may not be possessed by a demon & the skeptical exorcist who decides to help her…for a price, only to find out that he might be in way over his head once he meets her & her family. Ashley’s performance is terrific & she’s a pretty terrific person to speak with as well…
The Black Saint: Hi Ashley, how are you today?
Ashley Bell: I’m fine today. How are you?
TBS: I’m doing very well thank you. I’d like to take a moment to congratulate you on your Spirit award nomination. I don’t see how you can lose quite honestly. I’ve seen 4 of the 5 films nominated & besides Dale Dickey’s performance in “Winter’s Bone”, yours was the strongest.
AB: That’s one of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard! Thank you so much for saying that. I think I have all the competition in the world & I’m just gratified to know that I can be included with that group of women who are extraordinary actresses. I’m just so honored to have been included in that.
TBS: Now on to “The Last Exorcism”. Firstly I have to be honest with you and say that I saw the film at a screening last year a few weeks before it was officially released & besides your performance, I didn’t find the film to be all that great.
TBS: So when I found out that I would be talking to you I asked the studio if they could get a screener of the movie to me just to refresh my memory of it, and all of a sudden I’m terrified when it’s over! The DVD presentation is awesome! Have you seen the DVD presentation yet along with all of the extras?
AB: I have, yes.
TBS: One of the extras featured on the disc is called “Real Stories Of Exorcism” & before you can actually watch it there is a prayer that the producers suggest you repeat before watching that particular feature to protect yourself from possibly inviting the demon into your home! My wife walked into the bedroom to find me sitting up in bed with he covers up to my neck staring intently at the television, quietly reciting the prayer. I even recited it in Latin! I was just so freaked out after watching the movie.
AB: (Laughing) That’s amazing!
TBS: Then my wife rubbed it in by saying that I might be reciting something to actually invoke the demon since I don’t speak Latin. So now I’m completely disturbed by even having the DVD in my home…
AB: Well, there are rumors flying around that the DVD is haunted!
TBS: Don’t say that! Let’s just get to your performance now. When we first meet Nell, she’s so innocent but there was also a sensuality to her as well. A sort of repressed sexuality you could say. Was that something that was written into the script or did it that just evolve organically as filming commenced?
AB: Thank you so much for picking up on that, there actually is. In preparing for the role I read a lot of Henry Miller to kind of get the side of Nell that we can see is completely not her. So whatever kind of sexual awakening a demon could bring to her, if in fact she was possessed..I got a lot of that from reading Henry Miller. In addition, Daniel (Stamm, the director of the film) wanted me to research hysterias & post traumatic stress disorders and I wanted to play that up in the “mirror scene” that plays a little bit later down the line as well. Whether that’s real or not I did want to add that in.
TBS: It comes through in the character really clearly. Keeping to the topic of the research that you did for Nell, you mentioned in the “Making Of” section of the DVD that Daniel wanted you to watch as many Satanic possession movies as you could to help you with your performance. Were there any particular movies that you watched that influenced your performance? Besides “The Exorcist” of course.
AB: Daniel had wanted me to watch all those movies and then told me to “Not do that”. From the start they were aiming to make a completely different type of demonic possession film. And I think the way that the cinematographer, Zoltan Holti had shot it with that handheld feel shows how things begin to unravel into chaos. He captured that so beautifully & made our audience feel so vulnerable. But one book that I had read in particular was called “The Invention Of Hysteria” which was a sort of photo documentary of women going into hysterical fits. There were a lot of those images going through my head while filming certain scenes. But Daniel was really cool. He really gave the cast a lot of encouragement to do our own research to make the characters our own. Oh god, there were so many books & I got a chance to watch actual videos of group exorcisms. I was watching them summon the demon & watching the person when suddenly in the blink of an eye the’re a different person. It’s like they have something in them!I wish I wasn’t watching those at one in the morning! (Laughing).
TBS: Do you believe in God & Satan?
AB: Well it’s odd, the more I researched & the more I looked into it the more I have to question it. Recently I’ve had to wear 5 inch heels for events & I’ve come to the conclusion that real evil does exist in this world! (Laughing).
TBS: You mentioned all of the freedom Director Stamm had given the cast to make the characters their own. Did he give you total freedom or was there a limit?
AB: There was definitely a lot of collaboration on the set. He did about 20-30 takes a scene & he really encouraged the whole cast to find something new or find something different each and every time. To try to challenge each other or bring out something different from each other every take. It was actually the night before the second exorcism scene in the bed when he asked if I had any ideas & you just pray to get asked a question like that when you’re an actor & I told him I was working on a backbend & some other physical things and he said “Great, let’s put it in”!
TBS: That’s a great point you just brought up because I wanted to ask you about your contortions in the film. On the official IMDB page for the film it states that you did all of those contortions yourself. It says that you have something called “Hypermobility”. I’ve heard of contortionists & people who are double jointed but I never heard the term “Hypermobility” before…
AB: I love that word! It sound awesome!
TBS: But you’re not a contortionist are you?
AB: I’ve always been very athletic. I’ve done a lot of ballet and I’m double jointed.
TBS: So you’re saying that the backbend that you performed in the film was all you with out any special effects? Can you just do things like that at will? Does it hurt?
AB: That was all me & this might be a spoiler but I was totally willing to break my fingers as well because I’m a method actor! (Laughing). But I did do all of the backbend stuff and everything in the film.
TBS: You mentioned all of the takes Daniel had you do for every take. How many takes did you go through for the backbend scene?
AB: I think that scene was divided into 4 parts and each part took about 15 takes.
TBS: That’s brutal! I can’t imagine how much pain you must have been in afterwards.
AB: Actually, that was one of my favorite days. I feel like all of Louisiana came out to help on that day. There was a rain machine rigged & ready to go but then a raging storm hit us as we were doing it. It was really cool, And everyone brought me a huge bag of bath salts & Epsom salt afterwards so I was in good hands. It was great to be given that opportunity.
TBS: I noticed that a lot of the characters in the movie used their actual names for their characters names but you & Patrick didn’t. Any reason for that?
AB: I think Daniel wanted there to be a natural quality to the characters so that there would never be a jump between a character name & a person’s name. It would always just be straight out of real life so that there would always be that natural quality that a documentary would have. I was really happy that they kept my name Nell because I just loved it. It felt so right for her. I’m really happy that my character’s name didn’t change.
TBS: There is an innocence to that name.
AB: Yeah. It was actually really helpful when I read the casting. It has something in it, the name Nell. I think the film was originally going to be called “Cotton” so Patrick’s name was always going to be Cotton.
TBS: On IMDB there is a claim that the film was shipped to theaters under the code name “Scrutiny” did you know that?
AB: No I didn’t!
TBS: Yeah, I had heard about the possibility of calling it “Cotton” previously but I never heard about “Scrutiny”. But who knows how much is true on IMDB anyway?
TBS: I’d like to ask you about the boots you got as a gift from Iris when she first meets you..
AB: I love those boots!
TBS: Yeah you really came across as sincere when you got the boots but once you put them on I rarely saw you take them off afterwards. There were a few scenes but you basically had them on the whole time. They looked Red to me or Reddish brown. Were they intended to symbolize anything?
AB: I think they were used for a lot of practical purposes just because of all the running scenes. I’m running through a field in a lot of the film and I needed something to protect my feet. Although originally I was supposed to be barefoot. But I needed something to protect my feet from the massive bugs that reside in Louisiana! But I think for the character Nell they were big city boots & for her they represented something that she never had. They had been all over the world and that was so magical for her character to see something that had been to all of these places that she could have never gone to.
TBS: When the character got them she was so genuinely pleased to get them that I figured they might mean something later in the film. So I kept my eye on them throughout the film and I watched them get dirtier & dirtier. I kept looking for some sort of symbolism to them.
AB: They were also really helpful in the second exorcism scene because they were really heavy & they sort of acted as a counterweight when I was bending over backwards.
TBS: So they anchored you…
TBS: Were there any accidents during the filming?
AB: No. Not at all.
TBS: Really? That’s rare to hear nowadays..
AB: Actually during the last night in the big fire scene I was laying there in the middle of the night in Louisiana with 20-30 foot flames burning behind me and there were all of these bugs flying around and a flaming moth flew into my mouth! And by flaming I don’t mean gay!
TBS: A flaming moth? In your mouth? I would’ve probably swallowed it & died.
AB: It was a 4 inch moth. I don’t know what is under that Louisiana soil but all these bugs have something to protect under there. I don’t know what is going on out there.
TBS: You had never been to Louisiana before this?
AB: This was my first time. And I loved it. Everyone was so nice & so welcoming. Actually the house in the film was the way it was when we first got there. We didn’t change much of it at all. The bed that Nell slept in was there when we got there & to walk in & to have that whole “Southern Gothic” quality just surrounding you…the smell of the house, everything was completely polished but slightly warped because Katrina had just hit. It just had this beautiful eerie quality.
TBS: How long was the film in production for?
AB: I think it was a 21 day shoot.
TBS: Nell was sixteen in the movie. Now I know you’re a little bit older than sixteen..
AB: Why? Are you hinting at something?
TBS: (Laughing). No, I was just wondering. Since you look so much younger than you are, I’m guessing 5-8 years younger so I don’t get you mad at me, are you afraid of being typecast as characters younger than you really are?
AB: Not really. I actually love playing younger characters. I love still getting carded at “R” rated movies!
TBS: Does that still happen to you?
AB: It did last week actually! With no makeup on. But I actually just got back from Canada making a film called “The Day” & it’s a completely different character from Nell. I’m more of a badass in this film, she’s a real stoic survivor. It’s kind of an apocalyptic type of film. I got to learn how to shoot a stunt gun & roll cigarettes and work out & I had to lose weight for the film. To get a chance to to transform like that for a character like this is what I live for.
TBS: How much weight did you have to lose?
AB: About 5-10 lbs. But it was really exciting to make the sacrifice & learn some new skill sets at the same time. It was worth it.
TBS: Your parents have done a lot of voice acting over the years. They’ve had a lot of experiences, good & bad. Did they want you to become an actress?
AB: My dad has done a lot of voices over the years. He was “Duke” on G.I. Joe & he was in “The Transformers” & “The Smurfs”. My mom was a founding member of The Groundlings” sketch comedy group. I had the most exciting bedtime stories of all time! I used to go to commercial auditions with my mom & I remember going to an audition with her for a Beverly hills matron and there were all these pool boys around in bathing suits. I mean, literally Abercrombie & Fitch models and I remember telling her “I think I want to do this now”!
TBS: And they didn’t have any problems with you getting into it?
AB: I think there’s always a slight hesitation because of the fear of rejection is part of the business. But they never pushed me into it. It was my decision. In High School I started doing TV & some commercials. Then when I really decided to do it full time my parents told me that I needed to study the craft of acting. So I studied at NYU 7 Kathleen Turner was one of my mentors.
TBS: Really, Kathleen Turner?
AB: She mentored a class that was called “Practical Acting: Shut Up & Do It”! It was the best class I ever took.
TBS: She has the greatest voice.
AB: She has the best voice in the world! The class was like a jungle gym of all these different activities. Edward Albee visited us one day, surprises like that. One day Kathleen took us to the Nederlander theatre to do our monologues on a Broadway stage so we could experience what it felt like & when we got there she said “All right, scatter yourselves”. So we all took seats around the theatre. Then she called me onstage and told me to do my monologue. So I did it & afterwards she asked “How did it feel”? And I told her it was amazing. Then she looked at me & she said “Isn’t it a ride”?
TBS: (Laughing)That’s a great story! How long did you study with her?
AB: for about 6 months I believe.
TBS: Obviously it was well worth it. I have another question about Nell for you. There was a scene where Cotton & Iris hear you talking to someone in your room.
TBS: And when they open the door you’re just sitting on the edge of the bed…staring straight at them. Cotton asks “Who were you speaking with” & you reply “Nobody”. Then they slowly close the door as the camera is fixed on your face and then in the nanosecond before the door closes we see you smile just a bit. I didn’t notice it when I saw it on the big screen but I noticed it at home and it chilled me to the core. I thought it was amazing because the rest of your face remained stock still. Your eyes didn’t move at all. They just stared emptily into the lens of the camera & BOOM! there was the slightest grin just before the door closed. Was that something you improvised or was it in the script?
AB: Thank you for that. The first time I saw it with an audience at the Ford theater the whole audience just screamed when that moment came!
TBS: I missed it completely. It was so scary. At that point I was sure you were possessed. I had doubts before it but not afterwards.
AB: It was something that Daniel had worked out on set to time out perfectly like that. I think it took 27 takes to get it perfect.
TBS: That makes sense because it’s timed so perfectly. Cotton closes the door so slowly…..Now I’m really impressed with the entire production. To do it 27 times to get it right seems so extreme to me. I guess you have to love it.
AB: I truly do. I truly do. Especially getting the chance to film a scene like that and have the space to try things, it’s just the best possible world. I think the hardest part of being an actor is when you’re in between jobs. Because when you’re working you’re getting a chance to try something different every day. That’s the vacation, that’s the true fun in doing it.
TBS: That’s very refreshing to hear. Most actors would say the hardest part of being in between jobs is not getting a paycheck. I’ve spoken to a lot of actors 7 you’re the first one to tell me that.
TBS: Who was responsible for all of the artwork in Nell’s room?
AB: Oh, I had a field day with that art! One of the artists on set did them. She was working with props & she did them up and when I saw them I just thought “What a gift”! I had so much fun with those. There was also a whole diorama of the final scene that had a switch that started spinning it around and it was so cool but it was cut from the film.
TBS: In the scene where you first meet Cotton & you’re discussing your mother your eyes welled up with tears when you called her your “Best Friend”. Were you able to bring those up on cue or did you have to think of something from your past to bring them up?
AB: You know with scenes like that I have to give all credit to Daniel Stamm for creating a really safe set & to Patrick Fabian who’s a really incredible actor to work against. That scene went on for hours and to have someone so generous & so giving there & really listening was just a blessing to me. Daniel created a really safe environment to leave room for takes & for experimenting to try and find something new.
TBS: Was Eli Roth around a lot during production?
AB: I think he was promoting “Inglorious Basterds” during filming but he watched all the dailies & we would get notes from him. The first time I got to see him work with Daniel was during editing and how he manipulates the film by snipping a second here or adding a second there was incredible. He knows the genre & he can manipulate it so beautifully. He was the one who read the project initially and it was his sheer enthusiasm & conviction that got it rolling. He literally took the ball and ran with it all the way to the end of the project.
TBS: Well, I just want to say that I think your performance is worthy of academy award recognition at the very least. I’m pretty sure you’re going to win the Spirit award as it is.
AB: Thank you, I’m very flattered by your words..
TBS: As a matter of fact now that I think of it, you did all this without any special effect makeup on at all! That’s amazing!
AB: There were actually contacts made up for me but they were cut out of the script because they wanted there to be some doubt in the audiences minds as to whether she was psychologically disturbed or actually possessed.
TBS: You accomplished all of the facial contortions on your own and your face really looked different.
AB: The only thing I didn’t do was the finger breaking scene. That was a prop arm created by Greg Nicotero. I went to his studio & there were so many amazing things to see there. He is a true artist.
TBS: That he is.
At this point Ashley’s publicist had to end the interview…
TBS: Will you continue to make horror films in your future?
AB: I love the horror genre & what’s exciting about this film is that it sticks with so many people. It means the world to me that you’ve seen it so many times (earlier I told her I’ve seen it 4 times in the last week). I’m going to email Daniel he’ll be so excited to hear that! But I’m kind of hoping to do a comedy next…
TBS: Well, you all deserve all the acclaim you get. I just want to thank you for being so considerate to me & the readers of Horrornews.net in giving us a little bit of your time. It’s appreciated & good luck to you at the Spirit awards. You’re a lock to win!
AB: Oh my god! Thank you so much for saying that!
TBS: It’s been a pleasure speaking to you Ashley. Thank you.
AB: No, thank you, it means so much to me for you to say that. Stay warm out there!
TBS: I’ll do my best. Thanks.
As you guys can tell, Ashley bell is one classy dame. I loved talking to her & I might actually watch the movie again tonight because she’s so compelling in it. Go out & buy it now! You won’t regret it!