Ashley Bell isn’t a household name just yet, but if there’s any justice in the world, that will all change after this weekend when Lionsgate releases Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism.
Bell stars in the upcoming thriller as Nell Sweetzer, an isolated teenage girl living in rural Louisiana with her overprotective father, Louis (Louis Herthum), and her prickly brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), who is visited by a local minister (Patrick Fabian) at the request of her father, who thinks she’s being possessed by a demon.
With The Last Exorcism (review here) set to hit theaters in just a few hours, Dread Central had the opportunity to catch up with the actress to talk about her performance in the film as well as her experiences while filming in rural Louisiana.
The first time audiences meet the Sweetzer family, it’s on the family plantation, set apart from the community around it. Bell said that location in particular was key in ensuring the film had an authentically creepy feeling.
Bell explained, “The plantation was the perfect location. We got there and there was a rusted machete stuck in the fence, and I knew we were home! All the furniture was already in the house, including my character’s bed, so it was huge gift as an actor to be able to play off a set piece like that. The house just smelled of heritage and had this authentic Southern Gothic feel to it. Being there together really gave us that isolated feeling we needed to make the story succeed. I think audiences will think we seem like family because we became a family on that set.”
Bell said she knew from the start there was something special about the character of Nell that would be the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I fought hard to play Nell because I wanted it so badly,” said Bell. “She is such a complex and physical character to play, and I fell in love with that challenge. Daniel [Stamm, the director,] had me exorcised during the audition process even, and as I was laying there on the carpet of this casting office while a guy is ‘exorcising’ me, all I could think was, ‘Boy, my parents are going to be so proud of me!'”
Bell is quick to credit her director as one of the catalysts in her performance of a character that at one moment is so sweet and filled with light and energy but then in the next hot second is staring down the camera with ferocious intensity. The actress relished the challenge of that duality and said Stamm was the perfect director to find those performances lurking inside her psyche.
“Daniel is an incredible director. Even starting back at the audition, he created such a safe environment for me to work in. We did like 20 to 30 takes for each scene because Daniel would always encourage us to try something new, to dig deeper to really find our characters. It was great to be able to work that way and have that freedom when performing. Daniel came into this project with such a strong vision, and he knew exactly where he wanted all of our performances to go throughout production,” Bell said.
The actress added, “I was at the hotel in New Orleans one day waiting at the front desk to pick something up. As I stood there quietly, the woman at the front desk came up to me and said, ‘You know, you’re really scary when you’re quiet’, and I think that’s when I realized I tapped into something special while down there. I had no idea I could be creepy. It’s kind of cool!”
With so much of Lionsgate’s marketing campaign aimed at featuring Bell in some of the most incredulous positions ever, I asked the actress just how much of her we see on screen when the character of Nell goes to some dark and twisted places during the second exorcism scene that elevates the film to an entirely new level of tension.
“Daniel gave me a lot of freedom to act however I wanted to during the second exorcism so I tried a lot of different movements, including this crazy backbend I had been working on,” explained Bell. “Daniel was so open to just letting me do my own thing that even though it was an intense scene to shoot, I still felt really safe being there and going to those places as a performer. Daniel worked hard to make sure everything you saw onscreen felt authentic so I knew I needed to do the same.”
“All of the physical stuff was me except for the broken fingers, but I am such a method actress, though, that I probably would have even broken my own fingers if Daniel had asked me. The really exciting parts of the shoot for me were the more physical stuff I had to do, especially those scenes in the barn. I had no idea what Daniel had in store for me when I signed up so I just did my best to prepare physically and mentally before the shoot,” Bell added.
Beyond the physical and mental aspects of her performance, Bell also did extensive research into exorcisms, and during the research process she ran across some very creepy stuff that definitely gave her a new perspective on the subject matter.
Bell said, “When I was talking to people that had actually been involved in exorcisms, they’d be nervous to tell me anything about their experiences. A lot of that came out of the fear that somehow what they experienced would be unleashed just by them talking about it. I couldn’t believe the fear in their eyes when I was talking to them – what they experienced was very real and I wasn’t expecting to see and hear that kind of fear.”
“I remember I was listening to a lot of audio tapes of exorcisms, and I heard all kinds of sounds that could be recreated, which was the skeptic in me rationalizing everything. But then all of a sudden, I could hear these really unnatural sounds that were nothing that could come from either a man or an animal, and that’s what would really freak me out. I’m glad we didn’t experience any of that on set. Despite the film’s subject matter, we actually had a total blast shooting,” Bell concluded.
Thanks to Ashley for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with us. Look for the film in theatres on August 27th. Check out the official The Last Exorcism Facebook page for more; then dig on the official The Last Exorcism website here.
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