It was all worth it for Bell though after the Eli Roth-produced original "Last Exorcism" proved to be her breakout role, earning Bell praise for her natural acting as much as her unnatural contorting as the possessed 16-year-old Nell Sweetzer. And after an Independent Spirit Award nomination and an "Oscar-worthy" label bestowed by The New York Post, Ashley is back at it for "Part II," which picks up a few months after the first movie left off. Now broken and traumatized, Nell can't remember much of what happened to her as she attempts to put her life back together. But the evil that once possessed her isn't done with Nell just yet.
With "The Last Exorcism: Part II" hitting theaters Friday (and "The Marine 3: Homefront," also starring Bell, coming to DVD March 5th), Moviefone spoke to the up-and-coming actress about continuing Nell's story, what drives her to push her body to such extremes, and the possibility of a Part III.
Moviefone: After the first movie became such a fan favorite, have you been hearing a lot from fans about the sequel? Ashley Bell: People are really excited, yeah. There's been such a huge response to the trailer and the poster, because everybody thought it would be a found footage film. And the fact that it's gone from found footage to straight narrative is really getting people excited. It was something they didn't expect. And I think that's what audiences are going to see when they finally see the film. There are some twists and turns in it that people won't see coming.
At what point did you know you were going to make a second movie? I hoped to step back into my Doc Martens again. But it was a while before I got the phone call that there was a sequel in the works, because Eli Roth wanted to make sure there was a really strong story. And what's exciting about "Part II" is it's Nell's story. It's a continuation of the first film, and we see this girl that's just shell-shocked, she doesn't remember anything. And here she is, she's thrown into New Orleans, she's thrown into Mardi Gras, there's temptation everywhere. And she has to choose between good and evil.
How was it moving from a more supporting role to the lead? Oh, it was very exciting. It was a huge honor to get the call and to hear the script was the continuation of Nell's story. But then in going to do it, I really wanted to try to one-up myself from the first one, especially physically. You know, the back-bend was a huge part of the first film. And for "Part II," if you've seen the trailer, there's this levitating back-bend, which was just a huge day to film. It was a day where the whole crew was on set to make the rigging of it possible, and there was a stunt team on set, and I was only OKed to do it eight times and we did it about twenty times. And Ed [Gass-Donnelly], the director, conducted it almost like a piece of music, it was just this huge swell of a moment. It was very exciting to be in the center of it.
Did they give you any CGI help this time around to take some of that physical load off you? Everything that I do is me. That is all me. No CGI for me. [Laughs] I managed to pull it off myself.
How much of a toll does that take on you? Well, you know, it's funny. I actually have a stress fracture in my vertebrae. I went to my doctor and he's like, "Have you done any gymnastics or any contorting or hyperextending?" And I said, "Well, one thing comes to mind..." So I have the X-rays to prove it. That being said, it is a stress fracture, it's not a trauma fracture, so I can continue to do this intense physical work, I just need to be put back together again.
How much input do you have when it comes to those scenes? Do you develop them together with Ed in terms of figuring out what stunts you'll be doing? He was so interested in being true to the character of Nell, and would ask me if something didn't feel right or what would she maybe say instead. And then certainly for the backbend, there was a conversation about what things I could do, where do we wanna take it, how far do we wanna push things? And being a part of those conversations, it's always just such an honor as an actress, to be asked, "What do you think?" I never thought I would get asked that question. It surprises me every time somebody asks me my opinion, and to be able to collaborate like that is really a rarity.
Does actually doing the contortions and back-bends yourself help you get into a scene more? It does, very much. It's so funny that people use the word contorting, because I never even knew I could do any of this stuff. For the [original] callback, I got asked to be exorcised in the room, but in terms of physically doing things, I didn't know what was going to be required of me for the first film, so I just prepared for everything. And Daniel Stamm ["The Last Exorcism" director], the night before the exorcism scene asked if I had any ideas and I said, "Well, I can do this," and I did the back-bend. And he said, "Okay! I'm going to change some stuff." And I had no idea it would be this poster image for both films.
I'd imagine your co-stars must appreciate it as well, getting to play off that. Yeah, you know, it's funny. It took two days to film the main exorcism scene for this film. And everybody knew what was going to happen in the script. Everybody learned their lines, everybody was ready to go. But then in the room when it's all happening live, you get into the moment of imagining that the whole battle is going on inside you emotionally and spiritually and you're acting it out... [Laughs] It takes it to a whole new level! And everybody had something to play off of, yeah. I would start bringing it up, and then they would start screaming and trying to control the environment as their lines are coming out, they're trying harder and harder, which would only provoke me to go more and more. And it just keeps on building. So those scenes are really cool, they're exhilarating to be a part of.
How much does a role like this stick with you after you're done filming? As much method as I've studied, I'm not method in that sense. Otherwise I think they would have to hire a real exorcist to come on set, I would torture the crew. [Laughs] But this one did hang with me a little bit more. Physically, I guess I got that stress fracture, which I'm kind of proud of. I think of it as a war wound. [Laughs] And also, the demands of the character were different, because in this one Nell's going through so much shock, she's so broken. So I took a lot of ballet to prepare for the role, but also to get that very gaunt look that she has. She's had everything taken away from her and just she's riddled with anxiety, so I wanted to inhabit that look. And it was very physical. I could lose weight while filming and everything was due to the nature of the role, it was just very demanding. But you know, that's where things get fun. I always dread when they yell cut on the last scene. For me, working is fun. It's the times in between that are work.
Would you be up for doing a third movie if this one does well? Well, at the risk of giving a spoiler, I think there's always another dance to be had with the Devil.
I know that Eli Roth has said that they have an idea of what a third one could be. Has he discussed that with you at all? I'm so happy Eli said that. [Laughs] Yes, I do know what a third one could be. I think this one, the surprise at the end of this film, the twist that it takes, I don't think audiences will see coming. It's a turn that only Eli Roth could pull off, and I would be very excited to see what more trouble Nell could get into.
"The Last Exorcism, Part II" opens in theaters Friday, March 1.