Happy Death Day, the new horror comedy from director Christopher Landon and producer Jason Blum, has an unusual premise that’s been described as Groundhog Day meets Scream – and that’s pretty apt, though a touch of House on Sorority Row could be thrown in there as well. Rachel Matthews plays the typical Kappa brat who rules her roost of girls with a mixture of love and hate. Although her character, Danielle, doesn’t take part in the horror, Rachel still has a lot to say about the filming of Happy Death Day and offers some interesting insights.
Dread Central: The story has a lot of twists and turns. What were your thoughts when you first read it?
Rachel Matthews: When I read the script, I thought it was super interesting. I mean I know they’ve been doing a lot with the Groundhog Day type premise, but what I loved about this was that a lot of those films avoid the concept, like it’s an original, but this one hits it on head first and is aware of its everyday loop and cycle. It plays the comedy in that as well. What’s fun for me is, reading the script is kind of tough to see this all come into fruition and then when I got to see the film I totally forgot just how much this film has romance, it has the comedy, it has the horror and it was so exciting. It was brought to life.
DC: What was it about playing the so-called “bitchy girl” that appealed to you?
RM: Danielle, especially on paper, is the type of role I am so drawn to. I think those types of characters are so much fun. They’re heightened, they’re a little bit ridiculous, they also are very real. They’re the stereotypical sorority girl. So Danielle is the president of the Kappa, so she is the mean girl. But I think she genuinely thinks all of her offensive comments are coming from a good, genuine place. Like she is looking out for all her Kappa sisters. It just happens to come off super offensive. Which I think is a lot of the comedy in it. But she is Tree’s frenemy in a lot of ways. Danielle sees Tree as her best friend and she’s also extremely intimidated by Tree, as you will see in the film and there’s moments where Tree gets a lot more of the attention or she wins the boy over and you can see a vulnerable side to Danielle and she really is just a very insecure little girl at the end of the day. It’s very much a love/hate relationship between the two of them.
DC: You director is a male, and he’s not college-age, so… were you allowed input as to some of the things a young woman would say and do?
RM: What was great was, I was given a lot of freedom with this role. I thank Chris Landon for that. He really brought this character to life and he and I were able to come up with funny moments and one he got one piece that he liked, he’d be like ‘Okay Rachel, do what you want in this scene or improvise.’ There was a lot of improv for me and my character which was such a blessing. A lot of actors don’t get that privilege and especially with more of a comedic role, it’s so nice to have that confidence of a director on set to be able to improvise and collaborate. Also, he’s just the most relatable human being. He’s hilarious, he’s such a kid at heart, he’s is so young, so there isn’t really this feeling of a gap between adults and teens. Whatever you want to call it, we all feel kind of the same age just because of his liveliness, his ability to connect to everyone and it really was him that drove this project. And everyone on set was so excited to come to work every day and I think that is the always the director’s role, to set the tone. And I am so lucky for how he set his tone, we all are, we all talk about it all the time about how blessed we feel because he was so trusting, so fun, creative and he really set the tone for an open line of communication. Whether you wanted to try a new idea or he thought this moment could be fun or you had a problem. And I think with that he was really able to connect with each one of us and bring out the most genuine part of each character.
DC: IMDb lists Happy Death Day as your first and only role?
RM: Well, I’ve had some small parts. Everyone was so welcoming and taught me so much, and I really have to thank Jessica for that as well, she was definitely my go-to on set. She really helped me, which – you know it’s intimidating being in that type of a production for your first feature and she helped with everything. She really was such a rock.
DC: What made you want to pursue a career in acting?
RM: It started at a young age. I was doing community theatre, I was in New York, I was at NYU doing musical theatre and straight theatre. There’s something about acting for me, that makes me feel incredibly alive and I think you have a huge opportunity to just reflect society in a lot of ways. It’s like holding up a mirror to society and I think that’s so exciting and there’s nothing more powerful – and that right there is what makes me want to do this every single day, no matter the grind. And to be able to share other people’s stories. You know, I was never in a sorority, I’ve heard about the horrors from a lot of my friends at USC or other fun colleges, that have that [pecking order]. And so being able to play those types of characters or, you know, whether it’s the character of Tree and she is having to deal with facing her own reality of who she is as a person, now that she has every single day. What are the decisions she’s making? How she’s treating people. You really get to see who you are as a person. And so much as it is a horror story, it really shines a light on to – just a lot of reality – young girls and whatever they’re having to deal with relationships, with parents, with themselves. So I think when you look past all the other aspects, it really is powerful. There’s nothing more powerful than being able to tell stories – for me.
DC: What’s it like being in a horror movie, with no horror for your character?
RM: Yeah, it’s funny because for all my scenes I forget I was shooting a horror film for the most part. I felt like I was in a different genre. But when I was on set I was able to see some of the cool special effects or more of the action scenes – it was so exciting to watch. And I think my favourite thing, especially with any horror film, is watching something being shot without any of the music, without the editing – it really is so crazy to watch and what it turns into once production happens – it’s exciting watching the actors, they’re so talented – especially all the times Jess has to die. And the different ways she’s waking up. It’s really exciting to see when she’s working and just how dedicated you have to be to the reality that you’re living in. Whether that effect is in front of you or it happens in post, it’s tough, but she really did a great job.
DC: What’s the first horror movie you ever saw, or that affected you?
RM: That one’s super easy. It was The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock and I was eight years old, and horror’s been a big thing in my family since I was little – our favorite genre, we always watch horror movies – but that movie, I could not sleep, I was terrified and I would say for a good couple of years after that, that I could not have birds fly over me, I couldn’t be around birds. I genuinely thought that they were going to attack, that one had such an impact on me. But it’s such an amazing film – it just terrified me.
Happy Death Day is directed by Christopher Landon, who co-wrote the film with Scott Lobdell. Jessica Rothe headlines the film, which comes out Friday, October 13th.
A college student (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) relives the day of her murder with both its unexceptional details and terrifying end until she discovers her killer’s identity.