Recapturing the horror that consumed and tormented a young girl’s life, and maintaining the suspense of whether or not she could overcome the evil spirit that has dictated her existence, is the driving point in the new horror thriller ‘The Last Exorcism Part II.’ After the box office success of its low-budget, independent predecessor, 2010’s ‘The Last Exorcism,’ as well as the addition of a new director in the series, Ed Gass-Donnelly, and a largely new cast, the sequel aims to continue the gripping story of lead character Nell Sweetzer. After finding out that she truly is possessed, after being deceived in the first film, Nell sets out to truly rid herself of her demons, once and for all.
Continuing where its predecessor left off, ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ follows Nell (played by Ashley Bell), as she’s found alone and terrified in the woods. When she returns to the safety of civilization, Nell realizes that she can’t remember entire portions of the previous months, but knows she’s the only surviving member of her family. As Nell begins the difficult process of starting a new life, the evil force that once possessed her is back with more horrific plans, which means her last exorcism was just the beginning.
Bell generously took the time recently to talk about reprising her role of Nell in the horror thriller sequel. Among other things, the actress discussed how she wanted to rebuild the character, as she was emotionally broken in the first film; how working with Gass-Donnelly helped her expand the role and influenced her to push herself while shooting her stunts; and how producer Eli Roth created captivating scares and another surprising twist ending.
Question (Q): You reprise your role as Nell in the upcoming horror thriller sequel ‘The Last Exorcism Part II.’ Why did you ultimately decide to return to the character and the series for the follow-up?
Ashley Bell (AB): I really loved playing Nell in the first film. It was my break-out role, and it was really dear to me. To play a character, you have to get behind their point-of-view and see where they’re coming from, and really feel something for them.
I got to play Nell and Abalam, the devil that possess her. So stepping into ‘Part II,’ I decided to rebuild this girl who was so broken from the first film.
Q: After the experiences Nell goes through in the first film, including undergoing several exorcisms and the occult sacrifice during the final scene, what was the process like for you to get into her mindset again for the sequel? How did the events of the original movie emotionally change her during the second film?
AB: Well, ‘Part II’ picks up right where ‘Part I’ leaves off, so Nell is completely broken as a character. In rebuilding the character, it’s almost like putting pieces back together. There was a lot missing, and that’s where the devil creeps in, and finds his way in. He teases and tricks and manipulates her.
A lot of it was also physically preparing. I did a lot of ballet to prepare for this role, just to get that gaunt look that Nell has. She’s kind of shell shocked by the events that happened to her. I did a lot of ballet to prepare myself for what would physically be demanded of the character.
Q: Like the first film, ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ was filmed in New Orleans and Louisiana. What was your experience filming there? Did the environment help you get into Nell’s mindset?
AB: Oh, absolutely. In going back to New Orleans for ‘Part II,’ after filming there for ‘Part I,’ there was no other place to consider to film in. A day that comes to mind was my first day back on set and getting back in character. Nell was taken off of this plantation, and she’s thrown into the big city and Mardi Gras, and all of the temptation and mayhem that environment throws at you.
On my first day back, we were working with a skeletal crew. We actually went into Mardi Gras, and were filming live. I was in character, catching beads that were being thrown from floats, and bumping into people in costumes, and touching things and smelling things, and feeling that mayhem of that world. As an actress, it was incredible
Q: Ed Gass-Donnelly both co-wrote the script for, and directed, ‘The Last Exorcism Part II.’ What was it like working with him while you were on the set, as both a writer and a director? Did you work with him to develop the emotions and reactions Nell would experience in the sequel?
AB: Yeah. A big part of the first film was that I did my own effects, and there weren’t any special effects used. I did all the physicality myself, so I wanted to push myself to do that again for this film. I wanted to one-up the back-bend in the exorcism scene.
Working with Ed, if you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a levitating back-bend. That was a huge day on set, because I was cleared to do that myself. There was a stunt team on set, and they said, “You only get her six times.” But we did it 20 times, and we kept building and building, and getting more intense and elaborate. There was a physical therapist to pop my shoulders out in between takes.
Ed was directing it almost like an orchestra, because the whole crew was involved in making this happen in real time. It was a fund day
Q: While Nell was a supporting character in ‘The Last Exorcism,’ you receive top billing as the main actress in the sequel. What was the process like carrying the second film? Did that influence the way you portrayed Nell in the sequel?
AB: No, not necessarily. When the sequel was being talked about, I was really looking forward to the continuation of Nell’s story. It was really exciting for me. But in terms of approaching the work, I approached it raw. You’re working as an actor at the end of the day. It’s all about focusing and staying true to the character and the moment and her perspective and the situation and the scene.
Fortunately, it was the people on top that set that tone. It was the same production company as the first film, Strike Entertainment, and Eli Roth returned as well. They created a very collaborative set. It was focused and creative, and allows you to do your job.
Q: Speaking of Eli Roth, who wrote, directed and produced some of the highest-grossing horror films of the past decade, including ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Hostel,’ produced ‘The Last Exorcism’ and the sequel. Where you able to closely work with him at all on either film?
AB: Oh, very much so. What’s so great about Eli is that he knows the horror genre so well, and knows how to break all the rules. He knows how to innovate and come up with stories that audiences haven’t seen before.
When people see the film for the first time, I think audiences will be shocked at the ending. It’s a twist that only Eli Roth could pull off. He’s a master of the genre, and knows how to turn scary into terrifying. I see it in the editing room; he’s brilliant at what he does.
Q: ‘The Last Exorcism’ made over $20 million during its theatrical opening weekend (August 27-29, 2010). What kind of feedback did you receive from audiences of the first film?
AB: The first film was shot on a really low budget. It hadn’t been picked up by a major studio, so to have it so well received, and then have it be nominated for a Spirit Award and MTV Award, was overwhelmingly exciting. When you do a film, your goal is to have it be seen. So many people went out to support it that opening weekend. All of us in the cast were texting and emailing and celebrating and freaking out. It was a lot of fun.
Q: While ‘The Last Exorcism’ was presented in the found footage genre, the sequel is being presented as a straight narrative. Do you think the different approaches benefited the story of each film?
AB: When I first read the script, and saw they were dumping styles like that, I thought it was brilliant of Eli and Strike and Ed, to jump out of the found footage. I think everyone expected ‘Part II’ to be found footage. So when the trailer came out, and people saw it was a straight narrative, they were shocked and excited. I think it set the tone for what audiences could come to expect.
This is a fun, scary movie. I saw it with a group that hadn’t read the script. Within the first 20 minutes, you’re jumping into each other’s arms. It’s PG-13, and it has the fun scares.
Q: Most of the cast in ‘The Last Exorcism Part II’ is is entirely different from the first film. What was it like working with an almost entirely new cast on the second film?
AB: The cast that Ed assembled was just phenomenal. Spencer Treat Clark is a brilliant actor. He plays Nell’s potential love interest.
Adverse to that, the devil also plays a love interest to Nell in this film, which is a completely different take on the genre and an exorcism movie. There’s a whole dance with the devil and temptation that happens. There’s an evil to trick and lure Nell.
Q: Since both films in the ‘Last Exorcism’ series are supernatural horror thrillers, are there any particular horror movies that you enjoyed before you signed on to play Nell? Do you like the horror genre overall?
AB: I do like the horror genre, yes. My summers were watching horror movies with my dad, and getting scared to death. I love everything from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Alien’ to ‘Pumpkinhead.’ All those movies are my favorites.
Q: Besides ‘The Last Exorcism’ series, you also starred in the 2011 sci-fi horror drama ‘The Day.’ What was it about that movie that you enjoyed so much? did filming that movie compare at all to shooting ‘The Last Exorcism’ movies?
AB: Oh, thanks for bringing that film up-that was one of my favorites. ‘The Day’ was so cool and apocalyptic. I approached to do ‘The Day’ because I did all my own physicality for ‘The Last Exorcism.’ For the day, they said it’s an action film, and it’s post-apocalyptic.
In my initial meeting, they tried to talk me out of doing it. They said it was going to be below freezing, and that I would have to be in a wet dress for the entire course of shooting. They also said I would have to do my own stunts and work with a shot gun and run out of burning buildings. (laughs) At the end of the list, I said “You haven’t given me a reason not to do this film.” It sounds like everything I’ve dreamed of in my life.
So the chance as a girl to go into action is really an honor. I grew up watching strong females in action movies. To get a shot at that myself is something I really hope to continue to do.
Q: Speaking of action, besides ‘The Last Exorcism Part 2,’ you’re also set to appear as Lilly in the film ‘The Marine: Homefront,’ which is set to debut on Blu-ray and DVD on March 5. What was it about the role of Lilly that convinced you to take on the role?
AB: With ‘The Marine,’ I play a hostage in the film. What was different about the role when I read it was that even though it’s a hostage character, she doesn’t collapse; she fights. I love that, and the inner strength that she has. She’s looking to get out and fight back. I hadn’t played a contemporary character like that, and it really attracted me to the script. It’s also more straight action, in terms of cars are exploding and I’m jumping through windows and running through this abandoned ship.
I also have a romantic comedy coming out called ‘The Bounceback,’ which will be premiering at SXSW. That’s another jump into a different genre that I’m really excited to be making.
I will also be stepping behind the camera. I spent January in Cambodia with a production company called Change For Balance. I was directing a documentary on abused elephants in Cambodia, and rescuing them from abuse, and transporting them to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. We just launched the website for the film, which is going to be called ‘Love and Bananas.’ The website is called loveandbananas.com.