You can't mention Ashley Bell's name without immediately thinking about THE LAST EXORCISM. Having only done some bit TV work to that point on series like BOSTON PUBLIC and CSI, not to mention a recurring role on Showtime's now-defunct THE UNITED STATES OF TARA, it was her lead in THE LAST EXORCISM that put her on the map for good reason. Her breakthrough performance as Nell Sweetzer in her first major role landed her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress back in 2010.
She'll be back in her most notable role soon enough, but, in the meantime, Bell has taken on yet another strong female character as Mary in THE DAY, a post-apocalyptic film about a group of survivors forced to hold down their position in an isolated house against another group who has designs on what the location holds.
I had the chance to hop on the phone with Ashley last week to discuss her new film as well as hope to get some semblance of information about THE LAST EXORCISM II. Enjoy...
Ashley Bell: Hi, how are you?
The Infamous Billy The Kidd: Hi. How are you?
Ashley Bell: Good, thanks.
The Kidd: Busy day?
Ashley Bell: (Laughs) A really busy fun day, yeah.
The Kidd: Awesome. Okay, let’s just jump right into it. So right from the start we kind of learn how bad-ass Mary is in THE DAY. She knows how to handle a weapon, whether it’s a firearm or a machete. She’s the first one to head into a dark basement before the guys actually go and armed really with only a flashlight at that point and a knife. There’s kind of this female empowerment to her role in the overall grouping. Is that something that was inherent in the script that you took notice of and that kind of drew you into the role?
Ashley Bell: Oh, God, very much so, yeah. All of that was in the script and was what really excited me most about the character of Mary. In it the description is “this little girl clutching a life sized shotgun in a dress.” I read that and I was hooked from the moment on. I said, “I have to play this role.” When I met with Guy Danella and Doug Aarniokoski, the producer and director, they tried to convince me out of doing it actually and this is what they were saying with everybody that was coming in. They were like “You’re going to have to lose weight. You’re going to have to add muscle. You’re going to have to do your own stunts.” And I said, “Sign me up, that’s exactly what I want to do.” I love the female empowerment kind of wave that’s happening now. Look at the Olympics, all of the women just swept the U.S. gold and I love that strong female character. It comes along so rarely and when it was put in front of me to fight for, I fought hard for it. I really wanted to play her.
The Kidd: Well there does actually seem to be a bit of a shift now towards the stronger female roles and I don’t know if it’s something that’s just with society as a whole, but it used to kind of be that Hollywood was really only making these male-driven films and THE DAY kind of moves into that paradigm of having these strong female characters drive the action and drive the story. On top of that, with Mary there’s a fearlessness that kind of comes with her in this post-apocalyptic world or at least a fearlessness that she puts forth as opposed to what she is internally carrying. She’s not afraid of dying. She’s not afraid of these people coming to get her. Is that something that you think would naturally develop in a world like that, where every day seems to be worse than the last, but your survival instinct is what’s continuing to drive you?
Ashley Bell: I do. I think with the world of THE DAY what doesn’t kill you shapes you and Mary has been shaped very, very strongly by this world. I think while playing Mary there was a huge… She was at war with herself, because she had to shut down basic human emotions and empathy in order to survive. She wanted revenge for what had happened. It’s almost like you can’t get too attached. You can’t bend over too much to help somebody else, because you could die. Those were the everyday choices in this world and in this life and everything that these characters were going through. So I think there clearly is a very stoic nature to her, but as I was working on that and working on being in this world it was more like “What am I choosing not to say as a character?”
The Kidd: There’s also a danger that comes with having a character carry themselves in such a way where fear kind of heightens your senses and makes you more aware. It keeps you on your toes to what’s around. So is that a difficult balance to strike with the character? To have this fearlessness to her while also keeping the stakes on her that in this world at any moment somebody could still die?
Ashley Bell: Yes. Yes and no in that she doesn’t… It was an interesting balance, because what she seeks for is revenge, so she’s alert in order to find those that have done her wrong to get revenge and at that point her life matters not; she is living to get back for her family and for her name and for her beliefs and that’s what she lives for. She now no longer lives for herself, she lives to prove a point and she’s alert to find more of the other kind of human… kill them and get revenge. So in a sense she is living for her beliefs.
The Kidd: Well there’s definitely a moral dilemma to the circumstances of THE DAY and it really comes from Mary and her past. It really comes from this choice to live and this choice to do what’s right, which can often be at odds with each other. In your thoughts as far as the way this story plays out in the character and even if we were to find ourselves in such circumstances in real life, is there a place for ethics when food is scarce, when death is always right around the corner and when it kind of simply can come down to you or somebody else?
Ashley Bell: I do think yes, that’s what the course Mary’s character goes through over the course of the film, that she doesn’t get involved with these people emotionally besides traveling with the pack, but then there’s a moment where she says “Go, I’ll stay and fight,” so there is something that is… Her surface is cracked. It is her time to get her revenge and she will fight. I do think there is that moment in the film where she cracks. She shares her past and things like that, yeah.
The Kidd: At the same time it can also be very hard to demonize one side, because you may have people who can watch it who understand the other side of things.
Ashley Bell: Exactly and I thought that’s what was so cool from the initial script, it’s humans against humans and when you first see our pack of survivors we look very ragtag and just beat up and starving and then you see these apparently evil people and they look clean and healthy and (laughs) have a family life. It’s like “who is right and who is wrong? What side would you take?” I think that’s what so brilliant about Luke Passmore’s script, that it really places the audience right in what the cast was asking themselves when we were all filming it. When you’re watching it only a couple of details are released at a time, so it gets the audience involved. It gets them to say “What happened in this world? Who are these people?” And just as they are drawn in, the action starts and once it starts it goes hard and fast and it just doesn’t stop. That’s what is so cool about it, I think. It really viscerally involves the audience and it’s such a thrill.
The Kidd: On the flipside of the female empowerment aspect, there is some of that girl on girl crime in terms of the relationship between Mary and Shannon, because even at a time where your group mentality is surviving and trust is incredibly important, there’s still kind of this cattiness or this grudge harboring that seems to only exist within female relationships, whether it’s in real life or played out on the screen. Do you kind of think that women would still remain suspicious of each other when really it’s kind of down to the end, like when you’re facing having lives on the line?
Ashley Bell: Oh, goodness... well that’s also another part that was interesting in the script, you see this group of friends that all begin turning on each other when panic sets in. You begin to… “Who trusts who? Who is hiding something? Who is hiding ammunition? Who is hiding food? Who doesn’t trust Mary?” All of these questions come into play when you are in a panicked situation, so I think… It made sense for the character in that moment. That felt like a very true moment, because all that Mary is geared up for is this revenge mentality and she has somebody that’s falling apart. You have to survive. You have to continue to fight. You have to keep on going, that’s just the way the character is.
The Kidd: You are classically trained and as a result you really go through a lot of the physicality. I remember reading for THE LAST EXORCISIM that you kind of put yourself through a lot of what the role called for physically in order to be able to pull it off on screen. Did that kind of methodology also come into play for THE DAY and having this kind of character who’s kind of been through a lot in order to survive?
Ashley Bell: Oh very much so, yeah. I was able to work a lot from the outside in for this role. In the script, I read that they were traveling five or six miles a day and barely eating anything, so I thought to myself “What would that body that’s doing that look like and how can I get there?” So I was working out doing tons of cardio twice a day on a very, very lean diet. They had me lose weight, but add muscle, I guess lose inches, but add muscle for the role and I also privately worked with a stunt woman, because I would be doing all of my own stunts and I also took a lot of ballet training to maintain flexibility, so I wouldn’t hurt myself while doing any one of these stunts. In terms of researching how to survive in the landscape, I looked at survival techniques and things like people that are stuck or camping somewhere what they would do. “Are there tracks? Do you see smoke anywhere? Going to the house, how would they take down this house? Is there trip wire? Are there footprints? How long has the dust settled there for?” You know, things like that to make the world as real as possible and to keep Mary as alert as possible and questioning the world around her. So yeah, there was a lot to prepare for in that way and then of course the shotgun training which went on for quite a while.
The Kidd: I’m sure that’s when it starts to get more fun.
Ashley Bell: (Laughs) Then that became fun. Yeah, working with the shotgun became a lot of fun. I got a lot of bruises from that gun shooting 12 gauge buckshot.
The Kidd: So I have to ask you about THE LAST EXORCISM, because it really wasn’t “the” last exorcism and I know that you recently wrapped work on the sequel and everything’s been locked up tightly as far as the details are concerned, but what can you tell me about THE LAST EXORCISM II and where the direction of the story is going and how Nell fits into the next chapter?
Ashley Bell: Oh god, I can tell you that it is scarier than the first one. It is all the same minds in place. It’s Eli Roth and Strike Entertainment and Studio Canal. Ed Gass-Donnelly directed this one and he has a true vision for how he wants part 2 to play out and everything and other than that I am sworn to secrecy. (Laughs) I think Studio Canal has this phone tapped to make sure I don’t say anything about it.
The Kidd: Do they have a plan yet as far as when to expect it?
Ashley Bell: I haven’t heard anything as of yet, but then again I’m sworn to secrecy.
Ashley Bell: I’m very excited for audiences to see it. I think they definitely managed to outdo themselves for the first one and find scarier things and scarier things to happen and for Nell to do, so I can’t wait for audiences to see it.
The Kidd: Okay. All right, thank you very much.
Ashley Bell: Look for it! It’s coming!
The Kidd: All right, thank you.
Ashley Bell: Thank you so much. Take care.
THE DAY opens in theatres this Wednesday, August 29.
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