In her first major leading role, Jessica Rothe has a scene that every actress dreams of—a juicy, dramatic, over-the-top death scene. But she doesn’t have just one—no, in Happy Death Day, Rothe dies no less than a dozen times over the course of the hour-and-a-half film. ” It was really demanding, but I kind of loved it,” the 30-year-old actress said. Talk about earning your scream queen stripes.
In the film, which topped the box office on its first week of release and has now collected nearly $50 million on a reported budget of $4.8 million, Rothe plays Tree, a classically mean sorority girl who gets murdered on the way to a frat party—only to wake up and relive the day over and over again as she searches for her killer in a sort-of macabre Groundhog’s Day scenario. But don’t let the seemingly formulaic plot description fool you—in fact, Happy Death Day is anything but formulaic, ultimately playing out to be a totally fun joy-ride filled with laughs, plot twists, and, yes, plenty of scares. Altogether, it’s a package that makes an otherwise unassuming horror flick a must-see this Halloween season. “Isn’t it amazing that even though I die fourteen times it is so life-affirming?” said Rothe, who previously was seen as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in La La Land and will next be seen in the romantic comedy Forever My Girl. “It makes you want to go into the world and conquer your day.”
And it is the actress’s irresistible performance as Tree—a role that sees her in every single scene of the film, no less—that truly makes her a breakout, as she effortlessly transitions from a walking stereotype into a complex leading lady that armors the film with a subtle feminist undertone. Here, Rothe talks about the film, and what it means to be a scream queen in 2017.
How did you first get involved with the film?
I was working on another film, a romantic comedy called Forever My Girl, in Atlanta and I was sent the script. My team called me and said, “This is a horror movie, but we think there is something really unique about the project.” I started reading the script, and I was captivated right away. The blend of comedy and horror is so brilliant and perfectly balanced…I also really connect with and liked Tree’s progression, and how she starts off as this narcissistic victim and villain, and gets to transform into a total badass heroine, which is a progression that you don’t really see in many movies. You don’t often get to watch your hero be born, especially with women.
Had you done any horror projects before?
This was my first time. It was a really fun set, and it was exhausting. We shot it in five weeks, which is really fast for any movie, but especially when it is a horror, comedy, coming-of-age, thriller, rom-com. This film hits so many notes, and in order to ensure that we were doing justice to the script, it took a lot of focus and specificity. Christopher Landon, our director, was so brilliant at helping us etch out those moments; I took a lot of notes.
Where did you shoot the film?
We filmed in New Orleans. I have worked down there before, so I feel like a local. We actually arrived on Halloween last year and [co-star] Israel Broussard and I decided we wanted to go down to Bourbon Street, but we didn’t have costumes so we hodge-podged something together out of our combined luggages. I went as Rosie the Riveter because I had a denim jumpsuit and he went as Man in Poncho, because he had a poncho. It was a really good way to start the movie off.
You truly are in every scene, which I imagine must have been extremely demanding.
It was really demanding, but I kind of loved it. I’m a total perfectionist, and I had both a lot of control, but had to release a lot of control, because we had so much to get through that if I became obsessed with one specific moment, there was no way we would be able to get through everything we needed to.
Did you have any idea that the reaction to the film would be this overwhelmingly positive?
I knew I loved it, and I hate watching myself; it makes me so uncomfortable. But I actually really enjoyed watching the movie, which is saying a lot. I hoped it would, only in the sense that it has some really incredible messages, especially for young women. It’s a really fun roller coaster ride of a movie that has something to say, which is so rare. I’m really delighted and humbled that it has found its audience in the way that it has, and so glad that it has resonated with people because that is the reason I wanted to do the project. I saw the potential for saying to young women, “Live your best life, and let this movie make you think about who you want to be and how you want to be considered.”
Tree is also a truly independent character who doesn’t rely on anyone for help. Was that important to you when reading the script?
It really was. She really is the only person who can save herself. People have asked me, “What do you have in common with Tree?” And I think I have that determination, and I will not quit until I figure something out, sometimes to a fault. I love that at the end of the day she has to be her own hero, and has to become that person. That is not who she is initially. It’s not like she rolls out of bed and is some badass right away. She has to learn and grow. One thing I love about this movie is that in any other horror film, Tree would be the girl to die in the first ten minutes and no-one would care. But she is provided with the opportunity to become a better person and learn from her mistakes. She is more of a modern scream queen. She’s not running upstairs and screaming without a bra on.
In terms of horror films in general, are you a fan of the genre?
I am, but I get so scared. I watch them completely curled up in a fetal position with my hands covering my eyes and my ears, because the score often is the most terrifying part for me. I saw Get Out, and I loved that. I haven’t seen It yet. I haven’t worked up the courage. But I enjoy horror films. There’s something about that rush of adrenaline, especially watching it in a big theater with a lot of people. That communal experience of being terrified is really, really fun.
Did you watch any specific performances to help you prepare for this role?
Chris and I talked about classic scream queens a lot, and what it means to be a scream queen. There are a lot of nods to Chris’s favorite films within our movie. It was really fun figuring out how to do those moments in a fresh and new way. I loved Jamie Lee Curtis. I think she is brilliant. And I really loved going back and watching Drew Barrymore at the beginning of Scream. There is something so evocative about that kill and the way the poor thing is dragged out to the backyard. I didn’t want to watch too much because fear and horror is such a visceral reaction and it is not pretty. Anytime you try to craft it to be beautiful, it is instantly going to lose some of what makes it so great. So I also tried not to watch myself scream too many times because I didn’t want to become a perfected face.
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